But the more I read the more I came to understand some of the euphoria we heard in some circles at the collapse of old media, a circumstance most of us here viewed as a disaster. I came across some media criticism and journalism scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s, and, it pays to remember a lot of the concerns were about monolithic media concentration, the idea that the power of the press - this cornerstone of democracy—had been consolidated into a few hands, and not always particularly public-spirited hands either. Ben Bagdikian wrote The Media Monopoly in 1983, and in 1989, I noticed, he updated it with a piece called “the Lords of the Global Village,” asserting things had only gotten worse—his targets were Gannett, Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, Time Inc., Bertelsmann, and the like. James Carey, a Columbia journalism professor and wonderful cultural critic who died in 2006 and wrote mostly before the mainstreaming of the Internet, argued for what he called a journalism of conversation as a sort of connective tissue of democracy. He bridled at a press that he perceived talked at its readers rather than with them. In a 1991 essay, he wrote:
Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can only be generated by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it A press that encourages conversation of its culture is the equivalent of an extended town meeting. However, if the press sees its role as limited to informing whoever happens to turn up at the end of the communication channel, it explicitly abandons its role as an agency of carrying on the conversation of the culture.
He goes on to say such a press treats readers as objects rather than subjects of democracy. You see a lot of Carey in future of news discourse. Some of us were actually working inside the monolith and so it’s harder for us to know what it felt like to be on the outside.
Reading these critics I got this image in my head. It reminded me of a time when I was home from college one summer. I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and one night some friends and I noticed that the lights were on at Dyche Stadium, the Big Ten field where Northwestern plays football, and we snuck in to play Frisbee. And there was nothing more exhilarating than running around on this big professional-type field throwing a Frisbee—front of 50,000 seats and just fling the thing 30 or 40 yards, not having to look down and worry about potholes or uneven ground. I thought that must have been what it felt like when old media collapsed—all these fences had come down and everybody gets to play and run around on the field. In fact, in an e-mail exchange with a new-media thinker he made a joke that he and his cohort were the guys cutting across Bill Keller’s lawn. And I understood where he was coming from.
But my sense was that, certainly when I was writing the piece last summer, that the debate had sort of gotten stuck at that phase—the fences had come down sometime around 2007, and here we were four years later, and everyone was still running around the field celebrating, maybe still tearing up the divots. And not enough intellectual work—certainly in what I had read—had been to advance the discussion.
Okay, let’s say we didn’t like the old system and that we want to replace institutional journalism with a networked model. What will this networked system look like, and while peer production has had notable successes in some fields of cultural production—Wikipedia and the Linux operating system are the most often cited examples—does it work for journalism? Will it cover the Providence Police Department?