Corey Pein seems to think that digitally savvy journalists have a collective case of Stockholm syndrome. “In their long and seemingly hopeless search for answers, journalists have internalized the abusive rhetoric of the ‘disruption’ brigade,” he writes in The Baffler this week, in a piece that writes off most new-media journalistic efforts as doomed to fail, and to compromise Fourth Estate values in the process. He writes that “journalists facing the collapse of their industry are turning in desperation to faith healers, quacks, and hucksters of all sorts,” though he focuses on one sort: the startup-culture “innovator” who seeks to drum up a lot of attention, sell out, and cash in—with little concern for the survival of American journalism.
I’ve chronicled many “journopreneurial” solutions proposed by the people Pein thinks are destroying the profession: explainer-oriented startups, personal branding, crowdfunding, freelance collectives, aggregation; the list goes on. Some of these things are leading to better journalism and more stable environments in which to produce it. Some aren’t. A few will be relevant in five or 10 years. Most won’t. And I agree that it’s right to be skeptical of the motives of self-proclaimed disruptive innovators in any field. But to accuse anyone trying to find new ways to make great journalism in a very tough climate of actively working against the profession doesn’t strike me as much of a solution, either. If the all of the old models are failing, and all of the people trying new things can’t be trusted, what’s left? Little more, it seems, than frustrated thinkpieces about the death of journalism.
As I’ve confessed before, I enjoy being a journalist in this particular moment in history. But I’m not a cheerleader for every new business model and publishing method, or a champion of all new-media gurus. I know firsthand how difficult it can be to produce good journalism from within a culture where bosses who consider themselves “disruptors” are destroying the thing they claim to be saving. Trying to convince startup-style bosses that reporting is more valuable than aggregation is almost as frustrating as trying to convince old-school editors of the value of social media. But I know of many news organizations that fall between these two extreme frustrations. For me to get out of bed every morning and keep working as a journalist, I have to believe that there are even more out there.
Pein appears to have missed such digital-first achievements as Talking Points Memo’s Polk award for investigative reporting, The Huffington Post’s Pulitzer, and BuzzFeed’s reports on campus sexual assault and black-market arms dealing. “The digital-first propaganda obfuscates the qualitative inferiority of the new media order,” Pein writes. I’m not sure how you’d even begin to make a qualitative comparison between the current state of media and the pre-internet days of conglomerate-owned, mass-market newspaper chains, TV stations, and magazines, punctuated with a few hard-to-find indie alternatives. He continues, undeterred, “But the rising tech monopolies are ruthless capitalist enterprises that are plainly not interested in journalism as that term has been understood by generations of Americans. Their agenda is automation, standardization and de-professionalization; let the robots do it all, and whatever the robots can’t handle, leave to the Redditors.”
Even the most wide-eyed media entrepreneur can agree that Google doesn’t care about protecting the Fourth Estate, and Facebook isn’t concerned about bringing more attention to hard-hitting investigative reporting. But the fact is that people find news using search engines and through social media networks. Again, it’s fair to be aware of these tech monopolies’ and platforms’ effect on what news gets reported and shared, but I don’t see how it serves news organizations (both new and established) or consumers to create business models that don’t account for them.
“‘Innovation,’” Pein continues, “is the new code word for ‘looming layoff massacre designed to accelerate the upward transfer of wealth.’” Sometimes it can be really difficult to tell the difference between the disruptors and the disrupted. But I think many entrepreneurial journalists do care about traditional journalistic values like informing the public and exposing injustice. They’re just pragmatic about how to get things done in the digital era, and they’re interested in the new opportunities it offers. Why wouldn’t we try to find a way to produce the best journalism we can under modern circumstances? When your bosses refuse to evolve, what choice is there but going it on your own?
Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, for example, weren’t fed up with the ethical constraints of newspapers—their disclosure policy at startup site Re/code is more stringent than the standard at most traditional outlets. They started their earlier tech blog, AllThingsD, because they wanted to be more adventurous in their reporting and writing than their previous bosses at the staid Wall Street Journal would allow. When they split from Dow Jones to start Re/code last year, it was because they were sick of going through so many layers of management to make every decision related to the business of running their site and related conference. And no, I don’t think that paying attention to revenue is a corrupting force. Reporters are smart, curious people who are naturally smart and curious about where their paychecks come from. The options Pein seems to offer them are to stand by and watch their large, slow-moving employers fail to adapt, or to sell out their profession by striking out to do something different that has a high probability of failure, too.
I reject those options. I believe most entrepreneurial journalists when they say they’re sincerely interested in both preserving the traditional values of this profession and acknowledging the new ways people find and consume news. I have to, because there’s no going back.