Indeed. If nobody really expected that, you know, copies of the Plain Dealer would be there at the End of Days among all the cockroaches and Styrofoam packing peanuts, many of us—including, surely, newspaper executives themselves—assumed that the institution of newspaper journalism would survive the extinction of both its platform and its business model. If we’d taken it for granted that US Weekly and its ilk would survive unto the breach, ad infinitum if ad nauseam (“Cockroaches: They’re Just Like Us!”), we had also largely assumed that the civically important journalism we’ve come to rely on—in ways large and small, direct and indirect, and so myriad that we tend, as Paul Starr pointed out, to take them entirely for granted—would survive, as well. Such journalism is the good guy, after all; and the good guy can’t just die.
It can’t, at any rate, per a conception of journalism itself as something essential to civic life. “If we take seriously the notion of newspapers as a fourth estate or a fourth branch of government,” Starr noted, then “the end of the age of newspapers implies a change in our political system itself.” In this way, the public service journalism that newspapers represent, like public education, adopts the aegis of moral entitlement. Such journalism isn’t merely a commodity, the rhetoric goes; it is a public trust that, while it need not be sheltered entirely from the market’s invisible hand, should be protected, at the very least, from its middle finger.
Would that it could be. But, then, thinking that articulates itself in the subjunctive, not to mention the subjective, is rarely of much use when applied to vernacular realities. (“Since when is a business plan built on ‘should?’” Jeff Jarvis asked, quite reasonably, last week.) A moralistic mindset—when it comes to journalism’s business end, at least—hurts the discussion more than it helps it. Journalism is, after all, an industry; even at their most high-minded, newspapers are still Of The People, and all that. “You’ll miss us when we’re gone,” Clay Shirky wrote, may not be much of a business model; but neither, I’d add, is inarticulate indignation.
We need, above all, to shed our lingering romanticism when it comes to what newspapers actually mean—and what newspapers actually do. Even at their best, they aren’t transcendent. But at their best, they are something else altogether: vital. And their More-ness, such as it is, stems from their very entrenchment in our civic culture. The business models that we build to sustain the best journalism—and build them we will, I’m confident, because build them we must—have, in turn, to be divorced from our Platonic conceptions of that journalism. And from the moralistic assumptions they foster. As Robert Niles wrote in an Online Journalism Review post last week, reacting to Singleton’s intellectual-property throwdown, “News companies’ sense of entitlement regarding the news that they report is preventing them from developing the new business practices that they need to profit in an increasingly competitive information market.”
It’s fine—and laudable, and necessary—to hope for inspiration when we think about journalism’s future. But: we can’t rely on inspiration, or allow ourselves to believe that salvation, as it were, will come by faith alone. It will come, in this case, by good works: ideas borne out by action. Conceptual tenets must be a point of departure, rather than arrival. We must follow them up—test them, toy with them, tweak them, prove them, learn from them—through experimentation. Adam Reilly’s experiment-with-the-Globe proposal is a start, but we need to absorb its ethos into the news-innovation mindset itself.
It is often said that the roots of contemporary journalism lie in the Progressive era, the time in the early twentieth century when reporters shed their partisan past and adopted the professional standards that drive us, and bind us, today. But what characterized the Progressive period more than anything else—indeed, what enabled the explosion of innovation that gave it its name—was an ethos of exploit. Teddy Roosevelt, the consummate man of action, put it this way: The credit, he said,
belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.
We would do well, at this point, to put that idea, once again, to the test.