Mathew Ingram asks “Why does the future of news have to be us versus them?” in his post on the topic for GigaOM. Ingram writes that Starkman “sets up a false dichotomy” with his piece, with subheds that read, “For Starkman, institutions are all that matters,” and “It doesn’t have to be a binary question.”
Is there no middle ground?
I think there is. Smart institutions like The Guardian are making use of digital tools to open up their journalism, in an attempt to create what editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger calls a “mutualised newspaper.” They are thinking of themselves as a platform for others to build on, not an institution that delivers the news ready-made to a willing audience. And new institutions like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune are showing other ways of delivering hard-hitting and worthwhile public journalism.
Ingram raised a complaint shared by others: that Starkman doesn’t offer any solutions, but rather just criticizes the solutions proposed by others. In the comments section of Ingram’s post, Evgeny Morozov writes, “To fault Starkman for not have ‘solutions’ to some ‘problem’ is to miss the point of his essay, which is precisely to argue that so many people don’t see the FON forest for the FON trees.”
Emily Bell, a former online editor for the Guardian, published a rebuttal to Starkman’s piece here on CJR, which Starkman responded to, and the debate continues on the comment boards of those pages. Bell also mentions some of the same organizations that Ingram did as counter-points to Dean’s argument. C.W. Anderson addressed Starkman’s piece at Nieman Lab with a post entitled “The Jekyll and Hyde Problem: What are journalists and their institutions for?” He specifically addresses the mention of the examples that Bell raises, disagreeing that they run counter to Starkman’s point:
Notice, too, the organizations that Emily Bell praises in her response to Starkman: The Guardian, The New York Times, Andy Carvin at NPR, Ushahidi, Global Voices, and ProPublica. What all of these organizations have in common is that most of them are insulated, to some degree or another, from the ravages of the market.
Anderson writes that he’s “happy Starkman picked this particular fight” because “fighting about ideas is important.” He writes about a “Jekyll and Hyde problem”:
This is what I would call the dark, or Mr. Hyde, side of institutions — their conservatism that verges on an inability to change, and the fact that by seeming to act rationally (based on the “old way” of doing things) they ultimately end up producing deeply irrational outcomes.
There is, however, a Dr. Jekyll side to institutions and professions, and I think it is this side that Starkman is mourning in his piece. In the web era, we have usually told a particular story about institutions and the professions they house, one summed up nicely in Clay Shirky’s discussion, in Here Comes Everybody, of the monk Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim. To oversimplify and therefore make a long story short: Professions are monopolistic guilds designed to raise barriers to entry in order to maintain professional privilege at the expense of the public good.
This story isn’t untrue. It is a story I’ve told myself. But it’s not the only side to the tale.
The other side to institutions and professions, a side long recognized by even the harshest critics of professional power, is that they create non-material cultures that insulate workers from the ravages of the free market. (emphasis his)
John McQuaid wrote in a piece for Forbes, “Dangers Lurking for the Future of News,” that he has “great sympathy” for the core of Starkman’s argument that “journalism institutions and professionalism matter, and should be preserved if journalism is to have an impact on society.” But he objects to the piece’s “conception of accountability journalism,” which he writes “seems frozen in time.”
And as technology and connectedness increase, simply preserving journalism institutions and their values, or even creating new institutions to do long-form investigations, isn’t going to be enough. When John Paton says the market value of much journalism is “about zero,” he’s simply stating a fact: that I can call up several gigabytes of reporting on my smartphone in an instant.
But what about responses from the people specifically singled out in Starkman’s piece? So far, there hasn’t been much. John Paton had the most substantial response so far, written in the comments section of Starkman’s piece:
The argument is not particularly new. It goes something like - ok, you have a new biz model but how does the quality of the journalism stack up? The argument is coupled with the usual broadsides aimed at pro vs am journalism and that those who argue for the new biz models never understood journalism or journalists.