Debating Starkman’s “Confidence Game”

Rounding up responses

Dean Starkman’s critique of future-of-news gurus Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen, among others, made a bit of splash, as these things go.

C.W. Anderson, an assistant professor of media culture at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, tweeted this shortly after the publication:

@Chanders: In honesty: actually curious to see if @deanstarkman’s piece can lead to a real debate or just online snarkitude. Hoping for the former.

So were we. Thankfully, the story did inspire plenty of discussion, including a piece a few days later by Anderson himself. Starkman’s thesis, that the “future-of-news (FON) consensus,” is leading to the disempowerment of reporters, sparked some passionate responses. For some, Starkman’s piece was longing and antiquated:

“Starkman seems to just want to return to some mythical golden age when institutions ruled the industry and readers knew their place.” —Mathew Ingram, on GigaOM

“Most proponent of good ‘ol journalism defend it by setting up a strawman, not of their opponents’ position but of their own, which they sell thusly: vintage journalism, made from one hundred percent pure investigative reporting.” — Stijn Debrouwere, on his blog,

“Nostalgia is fun and it’s warm, and for journalists today, it’s seductive and dangerous.” —Steve Buttry, on his blog The Buttry Diary

Buttry’s response in particular was referred to as “required reading” by a blogger and recommended in some tweets. He points to some specifics he feels Starkman omitted: the investigative newsrooms that have emerged that are doing great work; examples where community engagement and crowdsourcing have been powerful tools; and the stories that big media has missed over the years. For Starkman’s praise of the Boston Globe’s explosive story of rampant sexual abuse by priests in Boston, Buttry writes “he doesn’t note that the abuse and cover up went on for decades without being uncovered by journalists.”

Buttry writes that while he normally ignores “nostalgic rants” about journalism’s golden history, as they are “too plentiful and pitiful to waste time with,” he decided to respond to Starkman’s piece for “two reasons.”:

He smeared my friends in the piece. The five people Starkman cited as contributing to the “future-of-news (FON) consensus” include John Paton (my boss as CEO of Journal Register Co. and Digital First Media), Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis (members of the JRC and DFM advisory boards) and Dan Gillmor (who was a reporter working for me at the Kansas City Times in the 1980s and remains a friend). I have not met Clay Shirky, the fifth person Starkman cited, but I admire him and have praised him on this blog.

For reasons that escape me, the Columbia Journalism Review published the Starkman rant. I don’t know many people who still read CJR, but it has a respected name in journalism. I’m sorry to see that CJR published such a misguided diatribe weak, wandering blast from the past, but I am moved to respond.

But he did strikethrough the misguided diatribe part after a programming blogger named Stijn Debrouwere tweeted at Buttry:

@Stdbruw: @stevebuttry: Parts of Starkman’s piece are mean-spirited, but I feel it’s sincere enough not to call it a diatribe — my humble opinion.

Debrouwere wrote his own response on his blog. He’s in agreement with Starkman’s assertion that the growing list of responsibilities can pose a problem:

Most importantly, I feel very strongly that we’re asking journalists to churn out too much content at too fast a pace, and, what’s more, that the pseudo-journalism a lot of reporters are asked to produce is an insult to their professional honor.

But for the most part he didn’t think Starkman’s argument made it across the finish line:

It’s just that I have no idea how any of that implies that journalists should go easy on social media (time better spent reporting, apparently), that good pro/am collaborations are and will always be the Pegasi of news, that personal branding is silly, that free can never be the basis of a business model, that lots of text is always the best way to report on current events, that reporters can only waste time talking to their readers and that news has value even if people won’t pay and won’t read.

The first set of facts has absolutely no relationship to the second. That’s ultimately why I feel Dean Starkman’s exposition holds no water: as much as I appreciate some kickback to opinions perhaps too forcefully held, his arguments don’t say what he wants them to say.

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.

Paton goes on to list the many positions he has held throughout his 35 year career in newsrooms, stating:

Now, you might have learned some or all of the above, weighed it and included it or discarded it. But to do that you would have had to interview me before you questioned either my business sense or commitment to journalism.

Jeff Jarvis retweeted some of the blog posts I mention above. Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen have tweeted links to Starkman’s piece, Emily Bell’s response, and others. The only comment Rosen seems to have made is on Twitter shortly after the piece was published where he tweeted: “I have no idea what the future of news will be. Far as I know, I have never made a prediction about it. If you know different, post a link.” Dan Gillmor, who is quoted in the piece tweeted: “as often happens, it suggests that one quote covers everything I believe. the piece is provocative and interesting nonetheless” followed up by “I have a lot of respect for Dean Starkman’s work in general…”

Putting aside some of the more extensive rebuttals, much of the Twitter chatter was quite positive: Oliver Burkeman, a writer for the Guardian, called it a “tremendously important/insightful article”; Nick Confessore, a political reporter for the New York Times wrote that Starkman’s piece was a “wise, withering, important CJR essay”; Carl V. Lewis, a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism wrote, “No matter where you fall in the great media debate, @deanstarkman’s piece in @CJR captures the anxiety of our age.”

We hope the hike through the future-of-news forest will continue.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , , ,