Anyway, I kept waiting to hear about things that I cared about: What about public service reporting? What about long-form, investigative narrative, which is expensive, time-consuming, risky, stressful, but is also the thing that exposes wrongdoing, clarifies public understanding, sets agendas, holds powerful institutions to account, and generates reform? What about that? Where does that fit into this new world? Never mind how to pay for it—that’s another question—but just, what about it? Isn’t that important, too? For some of us, it’s not just important. It’s the core, the key value around which healthy news cultures are built. It’s the point.
So I started to read the future of news literature, and read and read and read and read—these folks write a lot—and well, I couldn’t find much about it. I think I know why, and I’ll try to explain later. But that thing—the long-form narrative, the exposé, the investigation, the things we do—didn’t fit into what new media adherents call “the conversation.”
What I also noticed in my reading was that, while we were given to understand that the old order was not only failing but discredited—in fact failing because it was discredited—the outlines of the new order were still rather hazy. As Shirky wrote in an essay now three years old: “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments ”
As I mentioned in my essay, most of the most influential works in future of new theory—Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, and cognitive surplus, and Jarvis’s What Would Google Do?—dated to 2008-2010, which as you’ll no doubt recall was a time of maximum panic in the newspaper business and in the media business generally. People think of the media’s great reordering/meltdown as starting first with the tech wreck of 2000 and the subsequent ad recession, and the rise of Google and Craigslist soon after, and to some degree that’s true. But as John Morton, the leading newspaper analyst, ran the numbers and demonstrates, the most shocking plunge in values came surprisingly late, around mid-2007. That’s when revenues, which had been edging down, really fell off a cliff and stock market values of news organizations plunged. For instance, the market capitalization of the Journal Register Company, publisher of the New Haven Register and hundreds of smaller papers, fell more than 99 percent from the start of 2007 to 2009, when it finally filed for bankruptcy and was reorganized. It was during this period that what I called the future of news consensus took hold and gathered force and when what I guess I’ll have to call traditional news values and forms were in full retreat.
So the financial rout was accompanied by what can only be called an ideological ass-whipping.
Now, of course, I believe the triumphalism was premature—not to mention not always very nice—but also in a couple of key ways, it was misguided. It was misguided in that it sought to throw out not just the bad things, but everything. Not just monolithic news organizations, not just Murdoch and Gannett, not just he-said/she said journalism, and horse-race journalism, and bureaucratized, play it down the middle journalism, not quasi-monopolistic business practices, and gouging rates for classified and display ads, and people who didn’t pick up the phone when you called the newsroom, and letters to the editor that went into a black hole, and all that. But everything—Ida Tarbell and Sam McClure and Walter Lippmann, and the great Wall Street Journal editor Barney Kilgore, the Journal leders and A-heds, Bob Greene’s investigations at Newsday and the investigative reporting renaissance that he led, the long-form narrative movement that folks like Roy Peter Clark and Mark Kramer taught and preached.
Now, I don’t think the new vanguard meant to throw all this out. But there was just a lot they didn’t know, a line of tradition that someone needed to trace and to explain. So, we’re supposed to be storytellers. Let’s construct some narratives:
FON thinking has roots in the non-journalism academy, particularly in the notion of so-called peer production, the participation of citizen-amateurs in professionalized activities. Based on ideas promulgated by prominent legal theorist Yochai Benkler, media scholar Henry Jenkins, and Shirky himself, peer-production theory holds that dramatically lowered costs of organizing, communicating, and sharing will upend many sectors of modern life, journalism very much included. Advocates of peer production (also known as social production) often point to such successful open-source collaborations as the Linux operating system and Wikipedia as harbingers of the networked future.