If that last bit sounds a bit pat, another aspect of the FON debate is that ideas—even a lack of certainty—are expressed with absolute certitude. In 2010, Shirky discussed the confidence factor in a post mulling whether women “have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.” He recalls a turning point in his own youth when he bluffed about his drafting skills to the head of a graduate design program he was applying to: “That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face.”

Of course we know what he means, and it’s not about lying. But in FON debates, a little confidence goes a long way.

Which brings us to Jarvis. The head of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, Jarvis leads by example. Like other FON thinkers, he lives the contradiction of extolling peer production and volunteerism from the security of an institution. It is doubly jarring in Jarvis’s case; an opponent of publicly funded journalism, his journalistic entrepreneurialism is, in fact, publicly subsidized. The “C” in CUNY stands for “City.”


Entrepreneurialism, certainly, is manifest in his many consulting gigs (The Guardian Media Group, The New York Times Company), speaking engagements (Edelman, Hearst, Hill & Knowlton), and self-promotional flair. He is a master of the buzzword—“googlejuice,” “generation G”—and the catchphrase—“customers are now in charge . . . the mass market is dead, replaced by the mass of niches . . . we have shifted from an economy based on scarcity to one based on abundance… small is the new big.”

Indeed, Jarvis presents himself as a walking experiment in social media, from his copious and profane tweets (“Asshole behind me on the Acela is using her phone as a speaker phone. A new frontier of train phone rudeness”[June 9, 2011]; “Hey, T-mobile, fuck your courtesy calls. Give me courtesy service” [February 19]) to providing public updates about his treatment for prostate cancer (“I’m about to see a Sloan-Kettering doctor about my dick; That makes this the most humble day of my life” [July 29, in a joking reference to Rupert Murdoch’s testimony before Parliament]). Jarvis created a spasm of buzz during this summer’s debt ceiling debate when he launched a Twitter protest campaign under the hash tag #fuckyouwashington.

His What Would Google Do? is almost a caricature of network theory, hailing the search company and Internet culture as ushering in new forms of capitalism and society (emphasis mine):

We no longer need companies, institutions, or government to organize us. We now have the tools to organize ourselves. We can find each other and coalesce around political causes or bad companies or talent or business or ideas. We can share and sort our knowledge and behavior. We can communicate and come together in an instant. We also have new ethics and attitudes that spring from this new organization and change society in ways we cannot yet see, with openness, generosity, collaboration, efficiency. We are using the internet’s connective tissue to leap over borders—whether they surround countries or companies or demographics. We are reorganizing society. This is Google’s—and Facebook’s and Craigslist’s—new world order.

This kind of rhetoric reminds us that, when it comes to the future of news, we’re dealing with an issue that is defined by its uncertainty and does not—to say the least—lend itself to empirical analysis. Journalists like facts, data. Here, there aren’t any. We’re in the realm of beliefs (see confidence factor, above).

While much of Jarvis’s journalism advice is less messianic and can be frequently commonsensical (“do what you do best, link to the rest,” etc.), he is, if anything, even more emphatic than Shirky that the old must make way for the new. What the new is is not yet clear, but it will involve technology, networks, entrepreneurialism, iterative journalism, conversations between users, and new forms of disseminating information. In this view, going “digital first,” a phrase gaining currency across journalism, means a radical revision of what news organizations do (my emphasis):

Digital first resets the journalistic relationship with the community, making the news organization less a producer and more an open platform for the public to share what it knows. It is to that process that the journalist adds value. She may do so in many forms—reporting, curating people and their information, providing applications and tools, gathering data, organizing effort, educating participants . . . and writing articles.

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.