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.