To be a Found Media journalist or pundit, one need not be elite, expert, or trained; one must simply produce punchy intellectual property that is in conversation with groups of other citizens. Found Media-ites don’t tend to go to editors for approval, but rather to their readers and to their blog community. In many cases, they disdain the old models, particularly newspapers, which they see as having calcified over the decades, and, according to generally youthful Found Media logic, in deep need of a re-think, using all of youth’s advantages: time and the ability to instantly summon a crowd. For Found Media’s young journalists and bloggers, the attitude toward our craft tends not to be one of mourning for the ashram gone. Rather, it is of not needing a guru at all.
This year, the Nieman Conference tried to accommodate all this newness. There were seminars on homepages, blogging, nonlinear storyboarding, and the journalist-as-entrepreneur. The speaker on blogging, Joshua Benton, a reporter from The Dallas Morning News, tried to vault across the chasm between the narrative nonfiction the conference attendees loved and the RSS feeds all around them. Benton argued, quite compellingly, that narrative journalists and bloggers were both “subversive forces in the American newsroom.” He didn’t quite get at the fact that the former, professionals, were once remunerated, and the latter usually aren’t.
Most of the conference’s attendees were business-card-carrying members of Lost Media. This meant that despite their ashramic euphoria, attendees, when they left the seminars, often fell into disconsolate conversations about the fate of journalism. A former San Francisco Chronicle Magazine staff member shook her head and asked me rhetorically, “What will happen to us? None of the people I knew when I started is still at the Chronicle.” One conference speaker championed the need for us to become better reporters—to develop further what she called “the art of listening” to subjects—in a time when bloggers merely recycle the small scraps of original reporting from Lost Media, creating a landscape of “derivative information.” Over Thai food after one day of Nieman seminars, a group of nonfiction authors fretted about where, whether offline or online, they could now publish graceful long-form stories about serious things—stories that sometimes change the world—and actually get paid decent wages. Such work takes money and time and, yes, training in order to get the painstaking reporting right. What will happen to such work in the future?
There are people and institutions working to make the reporting of the past possible to locate within Found Media. Some of these efforts pick off a piece of what newspapers used to do but are beginning to drop. For example, some time early next year, Charles Sennott, a well-regarded former foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe (which no longer has a foreign staff), and Phil Balboni, founder of New England Cable News, are launching Global News Enterprises, a Web site dedicated to foreign news, using stringers. That effort is backed by Hearst and Comcast, but others are nonprofit models. The most famous of those so far is ProPublica, an independent newsroom funded by philanthropy that aspires to “produce investigative journalism in the public interest.” Its president and editor in chief is Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.
As Steiger sees it, the young journalists or commentators or information organizers of Found Media have helped create “an enormously robust opinion sphere” but have left “a growing gap between that and the actual accumulation of information, the sort of information you get and write about after you conceptualize and meditate.” As a corrective, ProPublica aims to synthesize new platforms and older methods with “enough funding to do digging,” as Steiger puts it. Hopefully, the outlet and others like it will inspire Lost Media management types to find more well-lit paths out of the chaos all around them, as they transition into the digital age.