I’ll go further and posit as axiomatic that journalism needs its own institutions for the simple reason that it reports on institutions much larger than itself. It was The New York Times and Gretchen Morgenson, followed quickly by Bloomberg’s late Mark Pittman, who first pried loose the truth about the bailout of American International Group: namely, that it was all about Wall Street, led by Goldman Sachs. Those tooth-and-nail battles were far from fair fights—Goldman’s stock-market capitalization is about fifty (that’s “five-oh”) times that of the Times’s parent. Whether it be called The New York Times or the Digital Beagle, we must have organizations with talent, traditions, culture, bureaucrats, geniuses, monomaniacs, lawyers, health plans, marketing divisions, and ad salespeople—and they must have the clout to take on the likes of Goldman Sachs, the White House, and local political bosses.
The public needs them, and it will have them. As Michael Schudson wisely wrote back in 1995, “Imagine a world, one easily conceivable today, where governments, businesses, lobbyists, candidates, churches, and social movements deliver information directly to citizens on home computers. Journalism is momentarily abolished.” After initial euphoria, confusion and power-shifting, someone credible would have to sort through the news and put it in some understandable form: “Journalism—of some sort—would be reinvented. A professional press corps would reappear. . . .”
It pays to remember that the most triumphalist FON works were written in 2008 and 2009, during journalism’s time of maximum panic. But now, panic time is over. It’s this non-apocalyptic moment that makes Rosen an interesting, non-millennial thinker. There is probably no more fervent believer in the potential of community involvement in journalism than Rosen, a longtime leader of the public journalism movement, which has long envisioned a much more intimate, porous, and, in Rosen’s view, equal relationship between journalism and the public. His What Are Journalists For? (1999) explored well-intentioned, and in many ways successful, mid-1990s public journalism experiments in which newspapers actively participated in trying to solve local problems (e.g., the Dayton Daily News in 1994 led a search for redevelopment solutions after a big defense plant closed).
Similarly, few academics are more withering, and in my view, trenchant, in their critiques of mainstream media and its multiple, florid failings. In writings over the years, he has likened American press culture to a church, and a bureaucratized one, that equates mechanically playing it down the middle with finding truth, and one that takes refuge in platitudes (“if both sides are criticizing us, we must be right”). He has called the press out on its “quest for innocence,” the idea —that it just reports facts and has no stake in them, is not responsible for rendering judgment, and can’t be held responsible, in any way, for outcomes. He has examined how mainstream news cultures tend to marginalize ideas outside certain intellectual boundaries that, when examined, prove not only to be arbitrary, but conveniently allow newsrooms to avoid hard subjects.
While hacks fight geeks over who gets to be called a “journalist,” Rosen has it exactly right when he says the answer is: whoever does the work. “In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. ‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.’ ”
The value of Rosen’s critique is that it engages news organizations, prods them to be better, rather than dismisses them or sheds crocodile tears about their inevitable-but-oh-so-regrettable demise.
Rosen, to his credit, has also asked hard questions about his own movement. In a post before a blogger conference in 2006, he wrote that it was a “put up or shut up” moment for what he called the users-know-more-than-we-do school. As he wrote, it’s not that the idea isn’t desirable (all agree, it is) or even possible (or, why, he writes “did god give us the Internet”): “But how? I mean exactly how?” He was probably wrong about 2006 being a put-up-or-shut-up moment (after all, peer-production advocates tend to think in five-hundred-year chunks). But it is fair to point out that five years later, the “how” is far from clear. Indeed, in reading FON literature, it is telling that the same anecdotal FON success stories— Talking Points Memo’s US Attorney coverage, “macacca,” “bittergate”— keep reappearing. While Shirky says “nothing will work,” the fact is that it’s peer production that isn’t really working for news, while institutions still do.