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.