Marshall Law

Notes from Josh Marshall's speech at Columbia

There was no mention of MoDowd. Instead, Josh Marshall, speaking at Columbia’s Journalism Day ceremony this morning, exhorted journalists entering and re-entering the field to consider not only what they can do to shape journalism in the future—but also to re-imagine it entirely. “It’s one thing to write a great novel,” Marshall said. “But it’s even better to invent the novel.”

Despite the financial and, perhaps, existential crisis journalism is facing (“you don’t have to look very hard for Cassandras saying it’s a dying business,” Marshall noted)—and also because of those crises—“there’s no time…that I would rather enter the profession than right now,” Marshall said. “It’s the people entering the profession now who are going to create the publishing models, the business models, that are going to shape journalism in the 21st century.”

Marshall, whose Talking Points Memo revolutionized the concept of online reporting, devoted much of his talk to extolling the creative potential of critical thinking. We “need to pay critical attention to everything,” he said—to question assumptions about journalism, and to consider, in particular, what is a core necessity of journalism, and what about journalistic practice is contingent. “So many things that we do,” he said, we do out of mere habit—because we’ve systematized accidents of history.

We need to bring a critical sensibility not only to our thinking about the journalism, Marshall suggested, but to journalism itself. We need to foster forms of journalism—and build publishing models—that, in turn, foster the “constant process of re-examination that is absolutely critical to our own work.”

We also need to embrace, rather than question, the notion of audience engagement. “In this period of not only rebuilding the practice of journalism, but what sustains it, our compass really has to be what can find an audience,” Marshall said. Just as journalists have had a tendency, he noted, “to measure our seriousness as journalists by our indifference to the publishing and business side of the operations that sustain what we do,” we’ve also adopted a kind of principled indifference to the audience itself. Yet people “who are so focused on their journalism—so focused on their stories,” Marshall said, deprive themselves and their audiences of the engagement that is, and must be recognized as being, the core of the journalistic mission.

“Building audience, and engaging readers, is the fundamental test of what you do” as journalists, Marshall said. News stories—and journalism more generally—must reflect that dynamic relationship. “This isn’t writing the definitive Hittite dictionary that can sit on its own in the library,” he said, to the audience’s laughter. Discrete news stories, rather, are organic entities—and the publishing and business models that will emerge to sustain them need to reflect that.

Marshall singled out for criticism the kind of ‘he said/she said’ journalism that, no matter how often it’s decried by media critics and the general public, is still alive and well in reporting. “One of the great failings of journalism has been the tendency to emphasize balance over accuracy,” Marshall said. Reporters’ “excessive regard for balance” positions journalism not with, but against, “the core of what sustains it: a fundamental honesty with readers.”

The good news is that “the more balkanized and diverse period that we’re going into,” Marshall said, fosters that honesty. While media consolidation encouraged the notion of balance—large news organizations, he noted, “had to be appealing to everybody, all the time”—the Web’s toppling of barriers means that “you can have a much more healthy ecosystem of different news organizations.” And those organizations, in turn, can feel liberated to turn the equation around: to emphasize accuracy—which is to say, honesty—over balance.

But that liberation will require journalistic institutions to engage in the hard work of self-reinvention—so that, first and foremost, they can live long enough to enjoy the freedom. “He not busy being born,” Marshall concluded, quoting Bob Dylan, “is busy dying.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.