The Hole In FON Theory

Continuing the discussion about the future of news with Clay Shirky

I thank Clay Shirky and other posters for their responses to “Confidence Game: the limited vision of the news gurus.” Since Clay and I are going to differ on a few things, I’ll start with a sentiment worthy of a faculty club cocktail hour, namely, that I’m pleased with how the debate has unfolded.

I appreciate Shirky’s straight-from-the-shoulder tone—it’s okay; no one’s going to break—and smiled at the lines about the difficulty of making a ham sandwich (rebuilding newspaper finances) without any bread, or ham, and about Ida Tarbell’s alarming lack of productivity lately. I also, seriously, appreciate that he took some time to respond, which, I would note for one and all, did not detract from its relevance and salience one iota.

Also on the sherry-drinking side of the ledger, I appreciate the link to Jonathan Stray and his vision of a digital ecosystem that connects and integrates into journalism talent from technical fields and academia, particularly the social sciences. As someone who straddles the journalism/academy divide, I’m excited at the prospect of linking up the two. There’s both a whole army of potential allies for journalism and a body of communications literature that all reporters should be acquainted with.

Finally, I’m glad that the debate has, in fact, sharpened a couple of important points.

In the spirit of our faculty club gathering, I’m going to violate Rule #1 of the Academic Debate Handbook (“never concede anything to anyone, ever”) several times over:

Shirky reiterates, and I concede, the undeniable point that newspapers are going to hell in a handbasket, having suffered 20 quarters of revenue decline. While it’s also true those declines have moderated lately, and that newspapers will be around for a long time, their ultimate future is far from assured. (Still, I hope we’ve heard the last of the anti-pay-wall certitudes for a while.)

But, let’s concede the general point: why rely on a flotilla of burning barges?

I’ll also concede, as I conceded in “Confidence Game,” that institutions are limiting and can be the death of as much journalism as they produce. Believe me, having worked in them, I know this all too well. In fact, it’s probably worse than FON thinkers think. There is a long tradition of journalists—George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh—needing to circumvent or overcome institutional journalism to be heard. Like I said, for people who believe as I do, it’s a problem.

Thirdly, I’ll stipulate that newspapers often produce lame things like horoscopes and dogs-chasing-Frisbee stories, and can be, in fact, generally lame. So can the Internet, but, as Shirky has pointed out, even Lolcats has a creative component to it. Newspapers have less of an excuse.

(Again, a caveat to my concession: Shirky suggests that because local newspapers can be lame, they must be lame. Why?)

Finally, Shirky says that no medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds. This sounds about right. Having no clue myself, I will concede that, too.

But all of this misses the point; the talk here is all about process and structure. I’m talking about great stories. As I said in the piece, I care about institutions only to the extent that they can produce them. If FON Theory or social production can do it, I will be first in line at the next 140 Characters Conference. In fact, I may go anyway.

Sam McClure (also dead, yet relevant) was right when he kept repeating, “The story is the thing.” It is the thing. It’s the main thing journalism does, isn’t it? Public-interest journalism is, for me anyway, its core, around which the rest of it is organized. It’s the rationale for all of it—the printing presses, the trucks, the ad departments, the journalism schools, etc. It doesn’t matter that McClure’s basically flamed out two years after Tarbell’s Standard Oil series. What matters is the kind of stories it pioneered are still being produced to this day, almost entirely, and probably not coincidentally, within institutional settings.

Shirky mistakenly (no big deal) attributes to me a 2009 CJR editorial saying that newspapers, “must find ways to preserve and transfer their most important attributes to a digital era, even as we push them to adapt to new financial, technological, and cultural realities.” He says, “I don’t believe we must do this, because I don’t believe we can do this. That, I think, is the core difference between our views.”

It’s true I do kind of believe that newspapers must find ways to blah blah and whatever, but in fact I care far less about that than that they produce agenda-setting stories.

And this leads me to what seems to be a gaping hole in FON theory, and that is this: It doesn’t have any great stories, and, worryingly, it doesn’t seem to have any way to produce them.

I don’t say this as in, nyah, nyah. I say it because it’s a critical problem.

Shirky says it’s not fair to compare the output of a century of industrial-era journalism with a few years of recent experiments. Fair enough.

But even so, Shirky’s Plan B, an alternative, non-institutional model for newsgathering, is still awfully vague, even allowing for the newness of it all:

Plan B follows Jonathan Stray’s observations about the digital public sphere: in a world where Wikipedia is a more popular source of information than any newspaper, maybe we won’t have a clear center anymore. Maybe we’ll just have lots of overlapping, partial, competitive, cooperative attempts to arm the public to deal with the world we live in.

Following scholar Fred Turner et al., I have some qualms about social production—the participation of citizen-amateurs in previously professionalized activities—as an idea. I worry about its potential to collapse the division between work and private life; its potential for abuse by capital and its managers at the expense of the rank-and-file cultural-production workers; its substitution of bureaucracy with looser coalitions that tend to be dominated by charismatic leaders, among other things. But I’d be a fool to dismiss it and have no interest in doing so. It has had some impressive successes and will have many more, many even allied with news and news-gathering—just not great-story production.

Wikipedia is a great source of information. I use it every day. It’s just not a source of news, let alone public-interest journalism.

Meanwhile, news organizations keep cranking them out, despite dwindling supplies of ham and bread. The WaPo writes about the Air Force dumping troops’ remains in a Virginia landfill, the NYT about hockey brutality, the Center for Public Integrity about from-the-top corruption at Countrywide, Bloomberg about secretive Federal Reserve bailouts, the FT about unemployment, the Bergen Record about contaminated soil, the Concordia Sentinel about civil rights era murders, and so on.

To be clear, this discussion is not about institutions versus technology or institutions versus networks. It’s about, institutions for what? Technology for what? Neither is an end in itself.

To tweak Shirky’s metaphor, perhaps he would like to try to make ham sandwiches (great stories) a different way. Okay. But, the trouble is, the recipe he prefers—social production—appears to be for potato salad. Now, it may make delicious potato salad. And potato salad might be better for us than ham sandwiches, for all I know. But social production just doesn’t appear to be able to make a decent ham sandwich on a regular basis.

As Jay Rosen says, correctly, a journalist should be defined as whoever does the work, and, as he says elsewhere, FON methods, on investigative journalism, “agenda-setting,” and the things I’m talking about, so far gets an F. This, despite yeoman work over many years by him, Dan Gillmor (whose work, yes, goes far beyond the one phrase I singled out in my piece) and others in trying to forge the rules of the road.

Again, this is not in the spirit of, ha ha.

But at some point, it will be fair to ask, as Turner and his friends do, whether social production really is “equally suited to all domains of social activity,” and whether story-production is one where it isn’t.

I’d submit that social production, a centerless Plan B model for enterprise journalism, is having trouble producing great stories for the same reason that Here Comes Everybody wasn’t written by “everybody.” Important books, like great journalism require authorship, a power journalists require and deserve at least as much as FON thinkers. Can Plan B support authors? If so, great. But as Rosen asks, how exactly?

But, again, the story is the thing. However we get there, it’s all the same to me.
Somehow, I’m supposed to be against newspaper innovation, like that said to be going on at the Journal Register Company. Actually, I have no opinion on JRC’s innovations; those will be measured by the journalism they produce. You certainly won’t find me rooting against its new investigative team, for instance. But if the new I-team does produce great stories, will it be because of FON ideas or because an institution decided to form an investigative team? And if you’re wondering whether JRC is in fact an institution, a good rule of thumb is that anything owned by a secretive hedge fund run by a man who hasn’t granted an interview since the Reagan administration almost certainly is one.

The larger question looming behind this entire debate, though, is whether the FON consensus believes that the story really is the thing, that is, whether it believes in the centrality of the great story. I’m happy to have that debate, though the “anti” side would be a bold position for any journalism academic to take. Shirky, for one, has made it clear he knows the story is, if not the thing, is indeed a very big thing.

All of which makes me wonder whether I’m basically, well, right: that the Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke (Hubster) model is exactly where we’re heading, in fact, if not in theory. Mathew Ingram, for instance, didn’t like my piece at all and yet, like me, cites the Guardian as a model (when you’re going good, everybody loves you). Actually, though, sorry, the Guardian is on my side: It’s a journalism institution that happens to be making the most of new tools and benefiting from the amplifying, reverberating power of networks—the “neo” in my model.

Shirky might ask, yes, but how do you finance all this fabulous bureaucracy? I say, well, you might start with a freaking pay wall. But, really, I don’t pretend to know, and I have a lot of company since, as Shirky agrees, nobody does.

Still, we at least should figure out what we’re trying to produce before we try to figure out how to finance it. Us Hubsters already know: Great stories.

As this debate rolls forward, and thinkers such as Shirky, Rosen, and others forge their separate and important path, I would hope they help the FON school clarify and articulate its own aims. What, in the end, does it want?

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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. Tags: , , ,