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.
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.
Peer production is itself a subset of a larger body of thought about networks and society. It tends to view a wired society as a fundamentally different one—less hierarchical, more democratic, more collaborative, freer, even more authentic—from those that preceded it. Manuel Castells, an important network theorist, contends that technology will transform nothing less than “the process of formation and exercise of power relationships.” Or as Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it, the Internet is about to “flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people.”
If some aspects of peer-production theory and its FON offshoot sound familiar—anti-institutionalism; communitarianism laced with libertarianism; a millennial, Age-of-Aquarius vibe; a certain militancy—some scholars have traced its roots to 1960s counterculture. Fred Turner, a Stanford communications theorist and a cautionary voice on the potential of peer production, chronicled the development of a network of 1960s idealists surrounding Stewart Brand, the visionary founder of both the Whole Earth Catalog, the iconic communitarian manual, in 1968, and Wired, a New Economy-era magazine that is still the digital bible, in 1993. These “New Communards,” as Turner calls them, drew from California’s defense-centered research culture as well as the counterculture to become the vanguard of the digital revolution, helping transform the very idea of the computer from a symbol of bureaucracy and control to one of personal and social liberation.
Clearly, as I’ve written, there is a culture gap between the peer-production advocates and professional journalism, it seems safe to say. Where a professional journalist might think of the glories of “Watergate,” peer-production adherents would think “pre-Iraq War coverage.” Where establishment journalism might fondly recall elegant Wall Street Journal narratives and great regional exposés at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald, FON adherents think “pre-financial crisis Wall Street coverage” and “Gannett.” In this, they have a point. What’s more, peer-production advocates have had to face down some predictably defensive and mule-headed responses from segments of the old guard.
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?
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.
Vanderbilt English professor Cecelia Tichi wrote this: “Say the word ‘muckraker, and the listener’s mind shuts as quickly as it opens. For muckraking suffers from both too much and too little familiarity. The term floats freely in the popular culture, but the texts themselves lack literary prestige, no matter how skilled their practitioners .”
But there’s a reason why—despite our own ambivalence and their strangeness—the muckrakers are considered foundational figures in American journalism. In my book on the financial crisis and the financial press, called The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, I’m going to argue the muckrakers—at least in their earlier, purer incarnation around McClure’s, bestowed on us great gifts—qualities that still guide, and I have to say, challenge us, today. These are the values we have to hold onto and insist up on in the current debate. It’s the circus tent—in Roy Peter Clark’s wonderful phrase—we have to hold up in the windstorm.
The first is what I call a certain journalistic purity. They had clean hands. The muckrakers literally stumbled upon their subject—institutionalized corruption-while searching for great stories. It was not, as some would believe, the other way around.
Most muckrakers’ early careers were not political. Many weren’t even journalistic.
McClure’s first job was at a bicycling magazine, The Wheelman. He left to form a literary syndicate, signing up magazine editors and assembling a stable of writers to write fiction and poems for them. When he started McClure’s, in 1893, it was because he collected 2,000 unpublished manuscripts, mostly fiction, and figured he could sell the public on a new literary style, realism, while undercutting the likes of Harper’s and the Atlantic on price.
At its start, McClure’s would be filled with fiction writers. An early contributor (and investor) was Arthur Conan Doyle. Later, the magazine would attract Stephen Crane, Emile Zola, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, O. Henry, many of whom McClure knew personally. Willa Cather was a contributor and would help write McClure’s autobiography.
McClure described his plans for the magazine this way in a letter to a friend: “I will have History, Politics, Finance, Invention, Education, Health, Science, etc., etc., treated say one topic a month by great thinkers.” Its editorial direction was, as historian Harold S. Wilson puts it, “confused.”
As I noted, McClure considered himself a storyteller first. “The story is the thing,” he often repeated, almost as a mantra. As he wrote in 1906, after McClure’s had become a national sensation, “When Mr. Steffens, Mr. Baker, Miss Tarbell write, they must never be conscious of anything else while writing other than telling an absorbing story: the story is the thing.” Phillips, told Baker: “I take it you will make your articles compact with incident and fact. Your strong point is in making things alive, human, with stories of individuals.” McClure’s articles were closely edited and read as many as thirty times, sometimes by everyone on the staff.
Harold Wilson said: “The McClure articles imitated the short story with quickly initiated action and a climax. But the most weighty criterion with McClure was that the story be readable, that it be as interesting and exciting on its second or third reading as on the first. But more, like all great Victorian literature, the article needed a moral, but the ‘ethical element’ was present ‘unconsciously.’ ”
What these writers understood quite consciously was that the story was an effective—perhaps the most effective—way to explain complex problems to a mass audience. Rather than being top-down communication, it was a means of democratizing information, a tool of empowerment.
Perhaps many in this room would disagree with me, but the fact that they had no political ax to grind—that they saw themselves as journalists, not activists—not only gave them credibility but allowed them to speak not in the name of a partisan interest but the public interest.
A second quality they brought was a fidelity to facts and fact-gathering. The muckrakers were hardly the first to practice the “journalism of exposure,” but McClure and Tarbell brought qualities that particularly matched the sensibilities of their well-educated, middle-class, Midwestern audience. It was deeply religious, but also influenced by the new social sciences, particularly sociology, then coming of age. It demanded not polemic but facts.
And McClure was known for his fidelity to facts. As historians Arthur and Lida Weinberg wrote: “Where Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst went in for sensationalism and scandal mongering, McClure wanted to analyze complex issues and explore them with scientific precision.
Indeed, one of the main reasons Tarbell and McClure picked Standard as a target was the mass of documentation on the company accumulated over the years by various investigations: government reports, court records, and transcript testimony, including from Rockefeller himself. And “History of Standard Oil” just bludgeons you with facts—charts, graphs, court records, tables, you name it.
Third was their towering journalistic ambition. The muckrakers steered directly toward the biggest, hardest problems (e.g. political corruption, industrial consolidation) and the most powerful institutions (Standard Oil) and the most powerful people (Rockefeller).
Fourth, and aligned with the third, the muckrakers recognized the importance of agency. Moralists that they were, they understood that great economic events, like great financial events, are not natural phenomena, something that just happens, but instead are the result of the decisions made by individuals, people, and that powerful individuals had more influence than those with less power. Muckraking at its best was an early (and effective) attempt to hold powerful people and institutions to account.
The epigraph to Tarbell’s History is a quote from Emerson: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
Finally, McClure and the muckrakers, after a fashion and without intending to, crafted what can be called a journalism ideology of sorts, an ideology of anti-corruption, a keystone value of American journalism to this day. McClure might call it, anti-“lawlessness.”
The January 1903 issue of McClure’s is considered a landmark because it has three classic muckraking articles by Tarbell, Baker, and Steffens. McClure himself realized only at the last minute what he had in the issue, and hurriedly wrote an editorial to explain what it all meant.
“We did not plan it so,” he wrote. “[I]t is a coincidence that the January McClure’s is such an arraignment of American character as should make everyone one of us stop and think,” he wrote. “Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens all breaking the law or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it?”
In an appeal to what was then a developing idea of a public interest, he answered his own question: “There is no one left. None but all of us.”
It is worth noting that Tarbell never condemned Standard for its size, only for lawless acts—chiefly colluding with railroads to drive competitors out of business. She had no trouble acknowledging the genuine achievements of Rockefeller and his cohorts and devoted an article to “The Legitimate Greatness of the Standard Oil Company.”
It was the very fact that it could have succeeded without resorting to illegal acts that so exasperated Tarbell. As she says in her memoir, “I never had an animus against their size and wealth, never objected to their corporate form. I was willing that they should combine and grow as big and rich as they could, but only by legitimate means. But they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me.”
The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a memorable passage explaining the muckrakers’ immense popularity. It was their willingness “not merely to name the malpractices in American business and politics but to name the malpractitioners and their specific misdeeds and to proclaim them to the entire country.” Because of the muckrakers, “It now became possible for any literate citizen to know what barkeepers, district attorneys, ward-heelers, prostitutes, police court magistrates, reporters and corporate lawyers had always come to know in the course of their business.”
In my book, I’m going to discuss how muckraking qualities and values were incorporated into mainstream media, including, by the way, business news, after WWII via the work people of like Clark Mollenhoff, who investigated Teamster corruption in the 50s and 60s, Bob Greene, and the rise of a period of neo-muckraking in the 1970s and the spread of what can be called the investigative reporting movement. In the mid-70s muckrakers even got their own trade group, Investigative Reporters and Editors. I’ll argue that the muckraker’s principles, for various reasons, were abandoned during the mortgage era.
In “Confidence Game” I asserted that, as journalists from Tarbell to the people in this room have demonstrated, the long-form narrative is journalism at its most subversive. I think most of the people in this room know what I mean when I say that. But as a reminder, I’ll read the five opening paragraphs from one of my favorite newspaper stories:
OAKLAND, Calif. — On the eve of the 1986 leveraged buy-out of Safeway Stores Inc., the board of directors sat down to a last supper. Peter Magowan, the boyish-looking chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest supermarket chain, rose to offer a toast to the deal that had fended off a hostile takeover by the corporate raiders Herbert and Robert Haft.
“Through your efforts, a true disaster was averted,” the 44-year-old Mr. Magowan told the other directors. By selling the publicly held company to a group headed by buy-out specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and members of Safeway management, “you have saved literally thousands of jobs in our work force,” Mr. Magowan said. “All of us-employees, customers, shareholders-have a great deal to be thankful for.”
Nearly four years later, Mr. Magowan and the KKR group can indeed count their blessings. While they borrowed heavily to buy Safeway from the shareholders, last month they sold 10% of the company (but none of their own shares) back to the public-at a price that values their own collective stake at more than $800 million, more than four times their cash investment.
Employees, on the other hand, have considerably less reason to celebrate. Mr. Magowan’s toast notwithstanding, 63,000 managers and workers were cut loose from Safeway, through store sales or layoffs. While the majority were re-employed by their new store owners, this was largely at lower wages, and many thousands of Safeway people wound up either unemployed or forced into the part-time work force. A survey of former Safeway employees in Dallas found that nearly 60% still hadn’t found full-time employment more than a year after the layoff.
James White, a Safeway trucker for nearly 30 years in Dallas, was among the 60%. In 1988, he marked the one-year anniversary of his last shift at Safeway this way: First he told his wife he loved her, then he locked the bathroom door, loaded his .22-caliber hunting rifle and blew his brains out.
The date was May 16, 1990. The publication was the WSJ. The reporter on the story, it may surprise you to learn, was Susan Faludi.
This is an example of explaining a complex subject—the leveraged buyout—to a mass audience. And that story only gained power as you read its 7,700 words.
Similarly, if you wanted to learn about the true nature of Citigroup in 2003, the fact that it was built on a subprime-foundation, you could read Mike Hudson’s 10,000-word epic “Banking on Misery,” which ran in tiny Southern Exposure magazine and won a Polk Award in 2004. Unfortunately, only a small number of readers saw that piece.
Everyone here could name their own stories, and then multiply them by 1,000.
In his description of this conference, Mark Kramer wrote that its purpose is to “recognize the civic, ethical, political and literary achievements of the finest storytelling journalism
This conference is about our new genre, still in progress, about understanding its heritage, integrity, power, and the craft skills that make it work.”
My purpose, as I said at the beginning, is to report back from the future, the future of news, or the debate about it anyway, and to tell that it will be okay. And maybe better than okay.
The first phase of the debate—the triumphalist phase—I sense is coming to a close. People aren’t running around the field so much anymore. On the other side, panic time is over.
We still have a few issues to work out.
One is which model of journalism is really the more democratic: Is it professional reporting on behalf of the many (and, I should add, benefiting from all the new connections), or networked citizens providing information to each other? I’d say the latter is more democratic within the network but the former, mine, is, by definition, intended for the broader audience. If you think of my model as top-down communication, it’s elitist. But if you think of it as a division of labor, then it’s not.
Another issue to be worked out is the degree to which activism and journalism can be blended. Networks are built for mobilization, for instance, and some folks from technology backgrounds have interesting and very valid ideas about combined exposure and reform.
As an e-mail correspondent wrote me recently: “I do think it’s important not to confuse means and ends when we discuss the core of the subject. Holding-power-to-account is a means, not an end.”
I’d just observe that I recognize there’s a not-small element of a status struggle in all this. I’m pushing models and forms that place professional journalists at the center. That’s me and that’s what I do. New entrants, I’d gently suggest, are pushing for one in which technically grounded folks act as nodes for a new type of communication, and that’s what they’re good at.
It’s time for people who believe in the power of the narrative to respectfully but firmly insist on its place in the new digital landscape. I’d put it at the center.
But the fact is, the more you learn about the new technologies, the more you come to understand what a promising time this is. The struggle for primacy between technologists and professional writers is normal and even good. But eventually it’s got to come to an end, and—sorry to end on an ecumenical note—the two cultures have got to come together.
There’s too much important work to be done and, really, amazing potential for journalism now with the longform narrative playing an indispensible, central role.
Thanks for your attention.Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: Confidence Game, Dean Starkman, Ida Tarbell, McClure's, Narrative Arc Conference, speeches