Editor’s note: CJR’s Dean Starkman was invited to give the opening keynote speech at this year’s Narrative Arc Conference, at Boston University. The three-day conference at the end of March gathered some of the best nonfiction writers in America to talk about the craft. Starkman edits The Audit, CJR’s business desk, and is our Kingsford Capital Fellow. In the speech, he took off from his seminal piece in our 50th anniversary issue—“Confidence Game: the limited vision of the news gurus”—and discussed how powerful reporting and agenda-setting narrative writing need to fight their way back into the center of the discussion about the future of news. The following is a written version of his speech:
It goes without saying that I’m honored to be speaking to this particular group about this particular subject.
I’m going to open with a quote from the great Bostonian and important American historical figure, Ram Dass, who often says: I’m not here to tell you anything new. I’m here to remind you of things you already know. He would probably add, “Om.”
The reason I’m here, I believe, is that I’m perceived to have been engaged in the battle over the future of news with the technological vanguard and am now asked for a report from the front, to find out how it’s going. What are the prospects for our side?
Last fall, I wrote an essay called “Confidence Game: the limited vision of the news gurus,” about the ideas of leading journalism academics, concentrating on the work of Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen, touching on that of a few others. I identified what I called the future of news, or FON, consensus, and argued mostly against it.
The genesis of the article, the reason it came about, is that, like you, no doubt, I was unnerved by the collapse of the financial models that had supported long form investigative and narrative journalism. Like you I was spooked by the array of new technologies and communications tools that were replacing old distribution methods, and I was a bit intimidated by the sweeping pronouncements from new journalism theorists who seemed connected to a technological culture with which I was quite unfamiliar.
Like you I listened to a discourse that seemed to consign old journalism forms and methods, and even old journalism values, to the dustbin of history. And did so with a certitude and certain relish that I didn’t fully understand.
As Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, his 2008 popularization of network theory:
The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed.
Or as Jarvis wrote in a 2009 blog post which was an imaginary address to a gathering of news executives:
You blew it. So now, for many of you, there isn’t time. It’s simply too late. The best thing some of you can do is get out of the way and make room for the next generation of net natives who understand this new economy and society and care about news and will reinvent it, building what comes after you from the ground up. There’s huge opportunity there—for them.
And I thought, well, we certainly did fuck some things up, God knows.
And I have to say, I listened to the discourse that was going on about journalism by these new entrants, and I learned a lot. I learned about the value of networks, the potential of something called peer production for journalism, about free content, and sharing, about branding and entrepreneurism, about journalism as conversation, about horizontal communication, , about “iterative” journalism—reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way—about the value of informality and spontaneity over hidebound formal style and narrative forms.
And I thought, well, who can object to sharing? Freedom and things for free? Isn’t horizontal better than top-down? One sounds democratic. The other like a form of oppression. More on this later.
I kept listening and was a bit suspicious of all the buzzwords and catchphrases I came across. Google juice, Generation G. “Small is the new big. The mass market is dead, replaced by the mass of niches.” I couldn’t help but notice the names of the new media startups all had the same kind of flavor. Here for instance are some panelists at a new media conference at the Paley Center this very week. “newsIT.” “Contently.” “Engagio.”
You can’t make this up.
We laugh, but there IS an element of marketing and management consultancy mixed in with the news media thinking that bears keeping in mind and watching out for.