What we need instead, at this point—as another pragmatist thinker had it—is a little less conversation, a little more action. The combination, in journalism’s current meta-conversation, of conditional theory (endowments for journalism!) and evidential paucity (we have no real proof, but they just might work!) fosters a discursive atmosphere in which, finally, there is no such thing as a bad idea. Or, worse, a good one. Rather, our fanciful notions (micropayments! maybe!), condensed into discrete arguments, tend to dissipate into a steam of mutualized mediocrity, warming us for a moment, perhaps, but then vaporizing into the thin air from whence they came.
Which is not only unhelpful to journalism’s meta-analysis; it is actively harmful. The net effect of articles that rely on creative conjecture, and little else, to propose solutions for journalism’s woes is to enforce a kind of preemptive defeatism about the possibility of solving those problems. Our fanciful flings with speculation belie the true gravity of journalism’s current crisis. Each verging-on-glib proposal—stimulus bailouts for newspapers! wheeee!—serves as a subtle sanction to glibness itself. The theoretical tendencies of these propositions suggest, overall, that we can still afford the luxury of ungrounded supposition. When, in fact, we can ill afford it.
The inference-thick and evidence-thin nature of the current Whither Journalism discussion comes down, as so many things do, to money. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. And journalistic Petri dishes, even the small ones, require a hefty injection of resources, financial and otherwise. In-the-field, on-the-ground experimentation with journalistic funding models and practices has become, ironically, and with very few exceptions, the profession’s Platonic form: ideal and, for that, often unattainable.
There are many experiments being undertaken with those models—and such ventures are, it should go without saying, admirable if for no other reason than their emphasis on experimentation itself—but they also tend to be small in scope. Even in those rare instances when journalistic practitioners are able to experiment with funding strategies and new reporting techniques and the like, there remains the problem of transference to larger (and therefore, generally, more impactive) news organizations. Broad, laudable initiatives like the Knight News Challenge—and specific experiments, like GlobalPost and Voice of San Diego and MinnPost and ProPublica and the St. Louis Beacon and (the Knight-funded) Spot.Us and their counterparts, throughout the country and the world—are certainly both useful and admirable. But the twin specters of scalability and replicablity—or, more to the point, their potential absence—hover over each emergent outlet.
GlobalPost, with its carefully balanced revenue equation, may indeed prove able to sustain itself; yet, given the particularities of its business model (its staff, its audience, and certainly the overall quality of the journalism it produces), it doesn’t follow that the particular triptych of the GlobalPost’s funding strategy—advertising, syndication, reader subscription—could hang as successfully upon the altar of another. The Economist and the Journal and their happy-few counterparts in profitability may have successfully monetized content; it doesn’t follow that their funding formulas are travel-ready. Even the most successful ventures may have little net effect when it comes to capturing the great white whale that is a replicable financial model.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t keep trying to capture it; the elegance of the scientific method, after all, rests in its enforcement of duplicative revelation. It is simply to say that we need to recognize the scope of the challenges stacked up before us—and to examine them without, you know, fear or favor—so that we can fully appreciate what will be required to overcome them. Let the struggle fit the trial.
But, then, clarity of vision, as we’ve seen, tends itself to be more easily achievable in theory than in practice. It is no little irony that our thinking about journalism and its future is often compromised by our own esteem for it—by transcendental thinking about journalism itself. By the general presumption that journalistic organizations are endowed, as it were, with certain inalienable rights—enshrined socially, politically, legally—and that Journalism in the Service of a Free Society is not merely a commodity, but rather, in fact, Something More. By the kind of thinking that led Henry Luce to declare, romantically, “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world”; and that led the Baltimore Sun to select as its motto “Light For All”; and that led the Indian journalist Rupashree Nanda to declare, in a speech last year, that “journalism is the most significant human achievement…not man’s landing on the moon, or the splitting of the atom, or the Vietnam War, or communism…, it is the very simple idea of news.”