As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, I would hope that we all recognize that the people we like and the people we dislike in public life are capable of spin and shading the truth and exploiting statistics, and engaging in argument rather than explanation of things.
One thing you offered in the book was the origin of the phrase, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I thought it was one of these things people just repeated without ever knowing its source. But you folks identify the source as being a news organization in Chicago.
Yeah, the Chicago News Service [sic], which was a place where a variety of prominent folks trained. One of the things that’s interesting is that kind of classic and very formalized apprenticeship system has broken down. CNS was, in the mid-twentieth-century, a place where kids could get entry level jobs and be taught by the iconic scary city news editor who would terrify them into learning the discipline of verification, not that anybody used such polysyllabic words to describe it (Editor’s note, 10/11/11: The organization was actually called the City News Bureau.)
The point you mention about the erosion of the apprenticeship is interesting. On the one hand, internships at big magazines often go to people who are well connected or from wealthy families because they are unpaid, and it therefore creates a specific class of person who is able to do these internships. On the other hand, when we had these larger systems where you would pass through—for example, if you wanted to be a newspaper reporter you would start at a community weekly and move up and up—with the erosion of those systems there are definitely some drawbacks; but now there is also room for different kinds of thinking because not everyone passes through the same system. Is there that other side of it?
Like any phenomenon that we encounter it has its wonderfully, powerfully positive aspects and its drawbacks. One thing is that a new, better journalism will be invented because there are so many more tools for conveying information on a digital platform. If you had people who had only been classically trained in the old narratives, there would be a tilt more towards old narratives, old voices, old storytelling types like inverted pyramid …
The new storytelling techniques that may be graphical and not even text will come from people who understand the way the next generation processes information. You also have the advantage of many more editors; if news is a colloquy between the newsgatherers and the audience, and if the press is engaged with its audience and listening to its audience, the knowledge about what things mean should advance more quickly.
Conventional journalism, we know from two generations of research, is too focused on the horserace, on inside baseball and power politics, and loses sight of what will this actually mean to citizens, what will this cost, is it working in the real world?
At least at the moment in the year 2010, the new ecosystem for news hasn’t come close to making up for what’s been lost in these traditional newsrooms. We can point hopefully to a neighborhood blog here or a small website that’s developing in this community, or to that community website, and that’s wonderful; but in volume we’ve lost more than we’ve regained.
Is there a necessity to lose in order to move on? Is there a relationship between those two things?
There probably is. We’ll probably move on faster because of the destruction. People who are going to invent the new way of doing something aren’t stuck with the old techniques. We don’t simply want, I don’t think, the people who create community websites to be only people who took buyouts in old newsrooms because they’re going to do things fairly conventionally
Some of these skills about how to verify and gather news, how to get things right, how to triple check, how you get spun—some of the knowhow, some of the tradecraft of verification that exists in these old newsrooms has real value. Until you’ve been lied to by a truly skilful liar, you can’t quite know what it’s like. There are lots of people in old newsrooms who have gone through that.
I suppose some would say the average person has gone through that as well, because it’s been disseminated by us when we don’t practice that tradecraft.
Absolutely. And I think that’s the germ of where things begin to be really exciting. If you think about it, how did Google get started? It got started by consumers—two students—saying, “Gee regular search engines are flawed; we think we can do better”