Part of Jarvis’s stock-in-trade is to throw bombs and then claim he was mischaracterized by critics, who, having been duly provoked, often do get a bit hot under the collar. After a thinking-out-loud post titled, “The Article as Luxury or Byproduct,” drew criticism, he later protested, in another post:
First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No.
But wait. Jarvis denigrates news as supremely abundant, storytelling as an affectation or, worse, a form of oppression, and professional journalists as hacks; he consigns news organizations to the humble role of curators for people like Jarvis, if they aren’t swept away all together. Then, he tells us he is the article’s greatest friend.
Don’t believe it.
As it happens, opposition to the “article” and to “storytelling” has a long, not-very-distinguished pedigree on the corporatist side of the journalism debate, from bean counters, news bureaucrats, and hacks. Most consequentially, Rupert Murdoch has long derided long-form (that is, in-depth) journalism as an affectation, journalists-writing-for-other-journalists, or, as his biographer Michael Wolff put it, the very idea of journalism as “a higher calling, of blah blah responsibility, of reverential bullshit.” His acquisition of The Wall Street Journal’s parent resulted in a gutting of the paper’s copydesk and page-one storytelling operation, and a rapid increase in news productivity requirements, a victory for “iterative” journalism, and little else.
But Murdoch knows what he’s doing. As journalists from Tarbell to those at the paper Murdoch now owns have demonstrated, the long-form narrative is journalism at its most subversive. One of the most devastating WSJ page-one “leders” of 2000, for instance, chronicled the unlikely rise from obscurity to position of influence at News Corp. of one Wendi Deng, Murdoch’s wife. As it happens, leders are now an endangered species at News Corp.’s WSJ. It figures.
Certainly, FON thinkers express fealty to public-interest reporting, the apple pie of journalism debates. Shirky more than once cites The Boston Globe’s world-changing work over the years on the sexual predations and cover-ups in the Catholic Church as a reminder of the stakes. He frames the debate as between those who believe resources are best expended shoring up existing institutions versus those who believe, like him, that:
. . . the current shock in the media environment is so inimical to the 20th-century model of news production that time spent trying to replace newspapers is misspent effort because we should really be transferring our concern to the production of lots and lots of smaller, overlapping models of accountability journalism, knowing that we won’t get it right in the beginning and not knowing which experiments are going to pan out.
But while Shirky and other FON thinkers argue that upending current structures and institutions is inevitable, I would note that there’s a point at which predicting institutional decline blurs into rooting for it, and then morphs into hastening it along, as the anti-pay wall debate shows. Arguing in favor of experimentation, is, as Shirky might put it, well-meaning, just not very helpful. If this argument is really about public-interest journalism, the only question is, what helps it, and what doesn’t—now, not five hundred years from now.
“We need the new news environment to be chaotic” to facilitate experimentation, Shirky writes. In fact, though, only consultants “need” the news environment to be chaotic. The public, not so much. And who speaks for the public? Jarvis, Shirky & Co., say they do, but as Internet doubter Nicholas Carr and others have noticed, the FON vision of news’s future looks very much like FON thinkers and their acolytes themselves: not just online, but thoroughly plugged-in, following the news with an obsessiveness that would make a wire editor proud, and in jobs that allow, if not encourage, media-centric work lives and even personal lives. This is all to say that no one should kid himself that when old elites fall, new ones won’t take their place.