McClure’s had planned a three-part series, but, as copies flew off the newsstands, it soon became seven parts, then twelve, then a national sensation. New installments became news events in themselves, covered by other papers, including the fledgling Wall Street Journal. “The History of the Standard Oil Company” ended up as a nineteen-part series, quickly turned into a two-volume book. A cartoon in Puck would depict a pantheon of muckrakers with Tarbell as a Joan of Arc figure on horseback. Another contemporary magazine pronounced her “the most popular woman in America.”
No one reading this magazine needs to be told that we have crossed over into a new era. Industrial-age journalism has failed, we are told, and even if it hasn’t failed, it is over. Newspaper company stocks are trading for less than $1 a share. Great newsrooms have been cut down like so many sheaves of wheat. Where quasi-monopolies once reigned over whole metropolitan areas, we have conversation and communities, but also chaos and confusion.
A vanguard of journalism thinkers steps forward to explain things, and we should be grateful that they are here. If they weren’t, we’d have to invent them. Someone has to help us figure this out. Most prominent are Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen, whose ideas we’ll focus on here, along with Dan Gillmor, John Paton, and others. Together their ideas form what I will call the future-of-news (FON) consensus.
According to this consensus, the future points toward a network-driven system of journalism in which news organizations will play a decreasingly important role. News won’t be collected and delivered in the traditional sense. It will be assembled, shared, and to an increasing degree, even gathered, by a sophisticated readership, one that is so active that the word “readership” will no longer apply. Let’s call it a user-ship or, better, a community. This is an interconnected world in which boundaries between storyteller and audience dissolve into a conversation between equal parties, the implication being that the conversation between reporter and reader was a hierarchical relationship, as opposed to, say, a simple division of labor.
At its heart, the FON consensus is anti-institutional. It believes that old institutions must wither to make way for the networked future. “The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society,” Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, his 2008 popularization of network theory. “As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed.” If this vision of the future does not square with your particular news preferences, well, as they might say on Twitter, #youmaybeSOL.
And let’s face it, in the debate over journalism’s future, the FON crowd has had the upper hand. The establishment is gloomy and old; the FON consensus is hopeful and young (or purports to represent youth). The establishment has no plan. The FON consensus says no plan is the plan. The establishment drones on about rules and standards; the FON thinkers talk about freedom and informality. FON says “cheap” and “free”; the establishment asks for your credit card number. FON talks about “networks,” “communities,” and “love”; the establishment mutters about “institutions,” like The New York Times or mental hospitals.
The blossoming of new voices, the explosion of conversation, has in fact been breathtaking, a modern marvel. News outlets have been forced to step down from their pedestals, and that’s mostly a good thing. The idea of communities reporting on themselves, pooling knowledge in service of journalism, is indeed attractive.
But if the FON consensus is right, then the public has a problem. You can call it the Ida Tarbell problem, or you can call it the Nick Davies problem. The problem is that journalism’s true value-creating work, the keystone of American journalism, the principle around which it is organized, is public-interest reporting; the kind that is usually expensive, risky, stressful, and time-consuming. Public-interest reporting isn’t just another tab on the home page. It is a core value, the thing that builds trust, sets agendas, clarifies public understanding, challenges powerful institutions, and generates reform. It is, in the end, the point.