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.
Not only does the FON consensus have little to say about public-service journalism, it is in many ways antithetical to it.
For one thing, its anti-institutionalism would disempower journalism. Jarvis and Shirky in particular have reveled in the role of intellectual undertakers/grief counselors to the newspaper industry, which, for all its many failings, has traditionally carried the public-service load (see Pulitzer.org for a laundry list of exposés—on tobacco-industry conspiracies; worker-safety atrocities; Lyndon Johnson’s wife’s dicey broadcasting empire; group-home abuses in New York; redlining in Atlanta; corruption in the St. Paul, Minnesota, fire department, the Rhode Island courts, the Chicago City Council, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball program, and on and on). But their vision for replacing it with a networked alternative, or something else, is hazy at best.
Meanwhile, FON’s practical prescriptions—what it calls engagement with readers—have in practice devolved into another excuse for news managers to ramp up productivity burdens, draining reporters of their most precious resource, the thing that makes them potent: time.
The journalism stakes, then, are large. Just as it was an open question a hundred years ago whether a man like Rockefeller was more powerful than the United States president, it was far from clear only a hundred days ago who was more powerful in the United Kingdom, Rupert Murdoch or the British prime minister. Today, it is clear, thanks largely to reporter Nick Davies and his editors at The Guardian and their long, lonely investigation into the crimes and cover-ups of Murdoch’s News Corp. While the FON consensus is essentially ahistorical—we’re in a revolution, and this is Year III or so—we know journalism is a continuum. What Tarbell did, Davies does, and all great reporters do, always in collaboration with the community. Who else?
Indeed, the News Corp. case offers some intriguing glimpses of a future of news that is an alternative to the FON consensus, about which a word below.
FON thinkers, who emerged only in the last few years, represent a new kind of public intellectual: journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship. Yet, the fact is they are filling a void left by an intellectually exhausted journalism establishment, and filling it with crisp, readable—and voluminous—prose that offers to connect journalism to the technocratic vanguard.
Jarvis is author of What Would Google Do? (2009), a networking manifesto and paean to the search company, and Public Parts (2011), on the virtues of “publicness.” Rosen, director of a graduate concentration in New York University’s journalism department (correction: a previous version said he is the department’s chairman; he’s a former chairman), blogger (PressThink), and Tweeter, was a leader of the civic journalism movement (sometimes called public journalism), which predates the mainstreaming of the Internet but shares many traits with the networked journalism school. (Rosen, while certainly in the FON consensus, is actually something of a different breed of cat, as we’ll see.) Likewise, Gillmor (We the Media, 2004; Mediactive, 2010) is an advocate of crowd-sourced, community-involved journalism. Paton, head of the Journal Register Company, a newspaper chain, is the FON practitioner, having implemented many of the social media strategies the thinkers advocate, and certainly adopted its vernacular.