• Describe long-form writing as an affectation or even a form of oppression; that way no one will ever have time to lay out evidence gathered during extensive reporting. Great for crooks, too.

In “The Hamster Wheel” (CJR, September/October 2010) I wrote that in the late 1990s, the 300-odd members of The Wall Street Journal’s unionized editorial staff produced about 22,000 stories a year, while doing epic work and two full-length narratives a day. By 2008, a smaller staff was cranking out nearly twice that amount. Peer-production thinkers, whatever else they have accomplished, have not been able to crack journalism’s law of physics: to do their jobs properly, reporters need time and to think.

Now that we’re done panicking, it’s time for journalism thinkers to turn to the real task: how to re-empower reporters, the backbone of journalism, whoever they are, wherever they may work, in whatever medium, within institutions that can move the needle.

My model would take lessons from The Guardian/News Corp. case and would be institution-centered, network-powered. In that case, traditional investigative reporting broke the story, while social media propelled it to the stratosphere—heights the paper never could have achieved on its own. More than 150,000 people used social media, for instance, to register opposition to News Corp.’s takeover of bSkyb, which was soon scuttled. I don’t know how to secure The Guardian, which is on an ominous track financially, but we should agree, at least, that it must be secured. (Maybe it should take a page from the Times’s playbook, instead of going, as it has announced, “digital first.”) Since buzzwords are the coin of the FON realm, I’ll call it the Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke Model.

A fundamental tenet of my Neo-Institutional school is that it doesn’t care about the institution for its own sake, only for the kind of reporting it produces. I can’t say the same for peer-production theorists and their networks.

Rebuilding or shoring up institutions is going to take some new, new thinking, but it can be done. In the words of that original media guru, Marshall McLuhan: “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”

 

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.