Imagine a world, one easily conceivable today, where governments, businesses, lobbyists, candidates, and social movements deliver information directly to citizens on home computers. Journalism is momentarily abolished. Citizens tap into whatever information source they want on computer networks. They also send their own information and their own commentary. They are as easily disseminators as recipients of the news. The Audubon Society, the Ku Klux Klan, criminals in prison, children at summer camp, elderly people, etc. Each of us our own journalist.

What would happen? At first, I expect citizens would tend to rely on the most legitimate public officials for news, trusting especially what the White House sent their way. The President, as the single most symbolically potent, and legitimate source of authority, would gain even greater power… Other sources would be too difficult to evaluate. Congress for instance, would be more cacophonous than ever. Lines of authority that today give Congressional leaders more of a place in the public eye.

At that point, even social critics who now long for more public dialogue, more democratic discourse, more voices in the public sphere, would have had enough. People would want to sort through the endless information available. What is most important?…Demand would arise not only for indexers and abstracters, but for interpreters, reporters, and editors. Some people would seek partisan abstracts and analysis, but others, less confident in that existing parties, cults or sects represent their own views, would want independent observers—people wise to the ways of politics, but without strong commitments to either party, people able to read politicians well, to know them intimately, to see them and see through them.

Journalism, of some sort, would be reinvented. A professional press corps would reappear.
So how is the post-parenthesis so different?

Pettitt: It still won’t be deciding. He’ll be a navigator rather than a gatekeeper. This new journalist, this post-parenthetical journalist, who would emerge after the period of chaos, he’ll be a different kind, with a different function. It’ll be a navigation function. He’ll help people to find their way through the network, rather than saying, “this is news and this isn’t, I’m going to let you read this, I’m not going to let you read this.”

Sauerberg: A blog is a good example. It’s endless and beginning-less. It’s endless flow. It’s a process. To put it another way, before, in the old days, you had very few able to read and write. They were seen as wise, most of them. Everybody else had to rely on their words, their interpretation of what was written.

DS: And what of the navigators in the new era?

Pettitt: Their authority will be on the basis of their track record, I think. In the world of rumor, you believe the people who were right last time.

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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.