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?
More importantly from my point of view was this: Will it be able to produce great stories? That’s what journalism does, isn’t it? And it seems to be a hole—and not a small one—in a peer-produced model of news. It doesn’t really have any great stories, and, worryingly, it doesn’t seem to have any way to produce them.
I don’t say this as in, haha. I say it because it’s a critical problem.
I’ve written that a centerless model for enterprise journalism, is having trouble producing great stories for the same reason that Here Comes Everybody wasn’t written by “everybody.” Important books, like great journalism, require authorship, a power journalists require and deserve at least as much as academics. Can Plan B support authors? If so, great. But as I’ve asked, how exactly?
The larger question looming behind this entire debate, though, is whether the FON consensus believes that the story really is the thing, that is, whether it believes in the centrality of the great story. I’m happy to have that debate. But, as I’ve said, relegating the story to the margins of journalism would be a bold position for a journalism academic to take.
And, you know, it was never Bill Keller’s lawn. It’s the public’s lawn, so it was time to bring some seriousness of purposes to the discussion.
And this brings us to McClure.
Okay, this was a very peculiar man. Considered by many to be a genius, he was also just an impossible boss—a font of enthusiasms, you might say. He was forever steaming in from Europe, throwing the office into turmoil with new schemes, ideas, and editorial changes. “I can’t sit still,” he once said to Lincoln Steffens. “That’s your job and I don’t see how you can do it!” Staffers would literally rent hotel rooms so they could hide and finish their stories, but apparently McClure would always find them.
The son of an Irish shipyard worker and his wife, Samuel Sidney McClure was brought to the U.S. as a child after his father was killed in a work accident. He was raised amid severe privation in rural Indiana, moving among relatives, and grew into a high-strung, impulsive boy. He ran away “dozens and dozens” of times, his biographer notes. He worked his way through Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, founded by abolitionists and a center for social reformers and as a collegiate orator, once made this declaration about the abolitionist movement, so revealing of his character: “It was when they believed in what seemed impossible that the abolitionists did the most good, that they created the sentiment that finally did accomplish the impossible.”
Modern journalists have an ambivalent relationship toward muckrakers, I would suggest. And it’s understandable. They were moralistic. They were deeply religious, part of the religious left you might say. They wrote in such high-flown language, in such high dudgeon. We remember them, inaccurately, I should add, as intemperate hotheads.