In Conversation

Megan Garber and Justin Peters talk about the news, the Internet, and the convergence of the two

To read Megan Garber’s “Common Knowledge,” click here. To read Justin Peters’s “Something to Talk About,” click here.

Justin Peters: You said that news is “a reflection of ourselves.” But aren’t lots of things reflections of ourselves? Art, fiction, and so on? How is news specifically different? I think you’re saying that news doesn’t just exist outside of its creators; that what we produce as news is a function of who we are as reporters, or something like that. Am I right?

Megan Garber: Yes, that’s basically what I’m saying. When I wrote that, I was actually thinking specifically of Marshall McLuhan—not so much his medium/message stuff, although that’s certainly part of it, but this idea he had that digital media (by which he meant, primarily, television ) mean that we ‘wear all mankind as our skin.’ There’s a porous element to the news, I guess, a kind of osmosis that takes place between news consumer and the news itself. Because, of course, news is much more than art, or fiction, as you say—which certainly share elements of cultural reflection, self-reflection, etc. News is different because—and this is an obvious point, I realize, but it’s also a crucial one—it traffics in reality. It’s not meant to inform the soul; it’s meant to inform the mind.

News is, I guess, self-reflection that is, ultimately, actionable: it isn’t meant to inform vague conceptions of ‘the human condition,’ or what have you; it’s meant instead to provide us with the daily information that will help us live our lives.

So, yes, to answer your news/reporters question: news is, I think, very much a function of who we are as reporters. It is a reflection of how reporters see the world, as individuals and as a collective body. And it is a reflection of the filters we establish—‘the media’—according to that vision. But, then, there’s also an element of news that transcends who we are as individuals—which, then, gets back to the ‘it’s about reality’ thing. Because news is, most of the time, about observable reality. So reality itself is what keeps reporters’ subjectivity in check—and what makes news a fundamentally collective enterprise.

JP: But there are innumerable different ways to interpret an event, right? Which I think gets to your points about niche news. If news is a reflection of ourselves, then what does it say about us that news is increasingly stratified and segmented—for better or for worse?

MG: First, I should just clarify that the “observable reality” I was talking about above isn’t entirely limited to “observable events.” Sure, that’s the case a lot of the time…but that’s certainly not all news is.

As to news’s stratification, segmentation, etc., and what it says about us: I actually think that’s quite a natural response to the empowering capabilities of the Web. Narrative—and, more precisely, being the one to tell the tale—is power. It’s human to want that kind of agency over the events we’ve observed…and as you put it in your essay, the human impulse will always win out.

My concerns, I guess, are on a macro level, and connected to the (otherwise empowering) new technologies of the Web. Because, when systematized—when, for example, consolidated into niche sites—narrative power can become rather insidious. Take the fact that, per a recent poll, nearly half of Americans believe Sarah Palin’s “death panel” inanities. Nearly half. It’s horrific. And, to me, it’s also an example of narrative power run amok—and of what can go wrong when we lose our baseline sense of reality. It’s a kind of cognitive free-for-all out there right now.

JP: One of the things I found interesting about your piece was the idea that niche news isn’t just fostering different worldviews, but different worlds. Maybe it’s just clarifying these worlds that have always existed, though. Is this really something new so much as a new way of observing something that was already there? People have always organized themselves into interest groups, or picked their friends based on common interests, or so on. Couldn’t you say that news’s presumption that “we’re all in this together” has always been, in some sense, an artificial one?

MG: It’s a great question. And, you’re right, people have always coalesced into interest groups, etc. If they hadn’t, we’d have, essentially, social anarchy. But the difference now comes down to information itself. The facts of the world. People who watch Fox aren’t just fed a different perspective on current events from people who watch MSNBC; they’re fed entirely different information. That’s its own kind of anarchy.

Also, though the Romantic Democratist in me loves the notion of a ‘we’re all in this together” attitude…I don’t mean to suggest that I think that’s been, to any real degree, the way of the world. There have always been divisions, as you say—just as there’s always been strife. (Colonial America, after all—that era that the Romantic Democratist in me holds in such high esteem—was a time of immense, and often quite vitriolic, partisanship. Newspaper editors, during the colonial period and in the early days of the Republic, often resolved political disagreements with brawls and even full-on duels.) What’s different now, though, again, is the information element: while maybe we never had a warm-and-fuzzy sense of “community,” what we did have was shared information that, implicitly, bound us together.

JP: So what does that mean for democracy? And what does this all have to do with the Web?

MG: Well, it means a lot. The problem isn’t just the present reality—although there are certainly many problems we can observe with the cognitive permissiveness of the niche right now—the bigger problem, really, is the trajectory we’re on.

One element of that trajectory: reality itself is taking on a moral sensibility—as if its discrete elements, the atomic units of reality formerly known as facts, were simply things that we have the luxury of choosing among. Hugely problematic, obviously, generally—but particularly so when it comes to democracy. Which is a system of government predicated on the notion of shared ideas and information. Citizens are presented with certain discrete elements of democracy: a slate of candidates, say—who, in turn, embody a whole tangle of positions and assumptions—or, in the case of referenda, a slate of facts themselves. They’re then expected to converse, and finally to vote, based on their appraisal of those elements. Opinions will vary, of course—that’s the whole point—but what shouldn’t vary, and indeed what can’t vary, is the core information itself. Without that, we lose our baseline of discussion. Not just our shared terms and definitions, but our sense of what the whole thing’s about in the first place.

JP: Let’s talk a little more about facts. It’s all a matter of perspective, and arguably what we think of as “facts” are really just dominant perspectives. The role of the newspaper, then (to bring this back to the point at hand) perhaps was to sort out all these competing perspectives and, for better or for worse, assert the dominant one; assert the “this is how it happened, and you can basically trust us on this, because we are professionals and we take our jobs seriously.”

But now, as that dissolves, maybe we’re reverting to a state where we’ve got all these competing perspectives, and no commonly accepted arbiter to sort them out. And so you can now pick and choose. And everybody believes what they want to believe; what is most convenient for them.

The question, then, is whether that’s bad or good for democracy. Obviously, you think that it’s bad. But I wonder if other people might disagree; if they might frame it another way. Internet enthusiasts, for example. “Look,” they might say. “The dominant perspective sucked. It excluded countless points of view. Now, everybody’s POV can be represented. Everybody is free to read the news that appeals to them; the news that they want to read. And the dominant sources can longer just pretend that these other perspectives don’t exist. Sure, it might get a bit cacophonous out there… but how, exactly, is that a bad thing for democracy?”

MG: I wish I had a less clichéd answer, but I think the difference comes down to the difference so many things come down to: ideal versus reality. Or, more specifically, theory versus practice. Sure, on the one hand: if we accept that ‘truth’—and even its constituents, facts—are, ultimately, communal and consensual and functions of mass mediation, etc.—then we must also accept that, the greater the number of voices involved in that mediation, the more ‘true’ the results will be. A Wikipedia entry written by 20 million people will be more reality-reflective than an entry written by twenty people.

So, if we follow that logic, then, yes: more participants in the fact-making process means more nuanced mediation means a more reflective, and thus accurate, mass reality. Which is, implicitly, a good thing: democratization has to be good for democracy, right?

But: all that is only logic and assumption. And logic and assumption, generally speaking, don’t account for the human element of the equation. The reality is that, on the Web, more voices don’t necessarily lead to a more rigorously tempered or more accurate sense of truth. Because those voices—and this is the key point—are rarely engaged in direct discourse. Increasingly, they’re not even talking about the same things. Increasingly, they’re operating completely independently of each other, without reference to each other…without, really, any kind of meaningful mutuality.

So it’d be one thing, to return to the Wikipedia example, if those voices were collaborating on a single entry; if that were the case, then we’d end up with a fairly meticulous—which is to say, valid—example of communal information. What’s happening now, though, is that those voices are writing multiple entries for the same topic. Which is—for people trying to learn from those entries, trying to get an accurate picture of the world—a huge problem. One that doesn’t involve mere cognitive dissonance; it involves, rather, cognitive anarchy. Because if you’re presented with differing versions of, ostensibly, the same reality…then how are you supposed to know what to believe? And how are you supposed to have meaningful conversations with other people—with, from the democracy angle, other citizens?

Again, to be clear, none of this is meant as an argument against multiple voices, or against the democratization of information, etc. The new capabilities we have to contribute and, more to the point, to share information with one another make for a shift that is, overall, largely to the good. But: the end goal of all the shifting, ultimately, needs to be discourse. So that we can learn from each other, and—to return to the epistemological aspect of all this for just a sec—so that we can, together, determine a more nuanced and reflective and thus accurate version of our mass-mediated reality. You really can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen on this one.

What I am arguing against, ultimately, is the ghettoization of information. I worry that niche news, to return to the topic at hand, broadly and systematically divides people—rather than bringing them, broadly and systematically, together. I worry that, in some sense, we’re using our tantalizingly democratic new technologies in fundamentally undemocratic ways.

JP: Part of me thinks that the traditional version of “the news” will never completely work online. And that outlets just shouldn’t bother trying to make it work. But, instead, should be trying to come up with something entirely different.

MG: I’m wondering, really, about resources. Because, ultimately, if you’re talking about a news organization, whatever you’re talking about within it—its Web site, its reporters, its payroll administrators, whatever—are all using the same basic resources. Financial, logistical, etc. So isn’t news, in that sense, a zero-sum game? And, by that logic, wouldn’t news-outlet-as-platform-provider take away from news-outlet-as-content-provider?

I’m not talking about the financial-model details, really. But just sort of philosophically, where’s the line between content and carrier?

JP: A couple of thoughts. First, I don’t think it takes all that many extra resources for news organizations to just start thinking differently. To re-envision their online strategies based on the realistic application of common principles.

MG: Of course not. But it does take extra resources to start acting differently. I mean, 99 percent of the time.

JP: Maybe. Or maybe it just takes a better apportioning of the resources that you’ve already got. See, you could argue (not saying I agree with this) that a newspaper doesn’t need a Web site at all. What good does it do for it at this point? It’s not bringing in any money, or subscribers. Nobody’s really relying on it for news. It’s hard to make money off of it.

But that’s not realistic. Most papers are going to want to have Web sites. So, OK, you’re going to have a Web site. And you’ve already got Web people on staff. Well, who says that your site has to look anything like your newspaper?

Why not take your Web staff and tell them: “We’re starting over. What we’ve got ain’t working. Give me something else. Come up with something that feels like it’s meant for the Internet; something that redefines the idea of a city newspaper in the digital age.”

MG: By “Web staff,” who do you mean? Designers? Online editors?

JP: Designers, programmers, Web producers.

MG: Okay. Would editorial people have a say in the decisions they make/discussions they have?

JP: Maybe. Maybe not.

MG: Well, it matters, though.

JP: Well, I think it’s a mistake for news orgs to assume that the primary goal of their Web sites should be to report and spread the news. Online readers, I think, don’t particularly care where their news comes from. They don’t care if they get it from the Boston Globe’s Web site or from the Times’s Web site. The news is fungible. Content alone won’t give you a successful site. (In general, I mean. I’m talking about newspaper-style news.)

MG: Well, can I add one caveat to that, though? When you say “newspaper-style news,” you mean news that is, generally, nonpartisan, straightforward, non-niche, etc., right? But we shouldn’t forget the extent to which many people don’t see those sources as nonpartisan or straightforward at all—which is to say, the extent to which they don’t ultimately trust those sources. ‘The NYT is nothing but a liberal mouthpiece,’ ‘The Journal is a lackey of corporate interests,’ etc., etc. And even people who don’t have as vociferous or specifically articulated a distrust of the MSM have been conditioned, over the years, to mistrust and otherwise question even the most straightforward of its messages. The counterpoint to branding, I guess.

JP: Yeah, good point. Even so, I think you could argue that most people aren’t like that. That when you open up Google News, one headline is as good as another.

MG: Okay, sure. In terms of aggregations, that’s right. And, actually, I think it’s more true among younger people—who are conditioned, via the realities of the digital world, to assume a kind of wisdom-of-crowds sensibility when it comes to online content. ‘If it’s on Google News, it has been collectively sanctioned.’ Etc.

So, yes: agreed. In that case, though: what else can news orgs provide?

JP: That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t rightly know. But there’s got to be something. A sense of community? Of interpersonal connection? Imagine a New York Times Online that doesn’t define itself by creating and posting articles of news.

MG: I’m having trouble doing that, though. What would it contain—and what would it define itself by?

JP: Maybe the community creates content. Maybe it’s not a newspaper so much as a convener. Maybe it’s just a space where people can come to yell. I don’t know. I don’t even necessarily think this is a good idea. But I think some interesting experimentation could be done in that space.

The thing is, you shouldn’t be making your plans for the future solely based on what you’ve got right now. Because then you’ll never get anywhere. This is a paradigmatic change here. Robert Altman, the director, once said something like “Nobody has ever made a good movie. Someday, somebody might make half of one.” And I think that’s apt to the subject at hand. Nobody has really made a great newspaper Web site yet.

MG: And that’s largely because we don’t yet know what makes a Web site great.

JP: Well, it’s because we haven’t been trying to make a great Web site. We’ve been trying to make a Web site that looks like print, that fits the existing ethos. I think a great Web site will be wholly invested in its medium.

MG: Okay. How does that translate, though?

JP: I would like to see a regional newspaper do something like this. I would like to hear them say “Look. For the past 100 years, we have tried to serve our community. We have tried to serve our neighbors by bringing them news. Local news, news of the wider world, and so on. We have done this, and we have prospered, because we were the only ones bringing this news. And the community has prospered, too—they have been better informed and more empathetic because of our efforts.”

“But we are no longer unique in this regard. The community no longer relies upon us as their sole source for information. And we are gradually losing our mandate. We are losing sight of our very reason for existence. We have always connected the community by spreading its news. But now this news gets around regardless of our presence. And it might not be as good as the way we do it, but nobody else seems to mind the slight degradation of quality that ensues. We need to re-imagine our role in this community.

“We’ve got a Web site, but nobody visits it. Because, after all, our Web site is much the same as any other Web site. And, while the community still knows our name, there are other names that it now knows, also. So, the question becomes: How do we continue to serve our community? And how can we best utilize the Internet to do so? Because, after all, that’s the main point. The news articles have never been ends in themselves. They have just been the most efficient means of informing and serving the community in which we live.

“Today, in the year 2009…” [drumroll please] “What is the best way of serving this community? Of connecting them to each other and to the world? Of advancing democratic ideals?”

And if the answer to that is “keep on reporting the news,” then OK. If it’s something else, OK. Maybe it’s providing some sort of umbrella organization for 1000 individual bloggers in the paper’s area. Maybe it’s building the site into a robust town-hall style discussion center. Whatever it is, OK.

But news outlets had better be asking themselves those questions. And not just doing things the same way as always because “that’s what we do. We’re a newspaper.” It’s not necessarily about the news. It’s about the people you’re trying to reach.

Now, I’m not sure that I believe all of that, to be sure. But I’d like to see some places just think clearly and systematically about where they’re at, where they’re going, why they’re going there, and what’s the best route.

MG: I agree wholeheartedly with all of that. Here’s what I’m wondering, though: what happens to reporting?

JP: Look, I’m not suggesting that newspapers should rush to abandon reporting. And I definitely don’t think that news outlets should wholly conform to the ethos of the Web. I just think that every news outlet needs to stop and think. And that sounds glib. Of course they’re thinking.

MG: I know what you mean, though: it’s not just thinking, it’s getting out of old mindsets. Kind of—sorry, to mention Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman for just a sec—to try to shed the metaphors of the past.

JP: Yeah. Because we’re building a whole new vocabulary. Not just thinking about the best way to translate what we’re doing onto the Web, but thinking about their role in their communities. Whatever size those communities might be. And acknowledging the fact that the way that communities connect, cohere, and communicate is different now than ever before.

MG: Right. Definitely.

But let’s move on for a sec—because I want to make sure I’m understanding what you’re thinking about when you talk about “new strategies.” Though I know you’re proposing a change in mindset, rather than a specific strategy—still just want to make sure I’m clear on it.

JP: You asked before if I thought that newspapers and such should start thinking of themselves as online innovators. And I know there are staffing and financial constraints at work here. But if The New York Times had invented something like Twitter, we wouldn’t be talking about that paper’s financial crisis. People would be fighting to invest in the Times.

So maybe, in the future, papers with the means to do so should start thinking of themselves as communications innovators. Should have teams that are building and testing new applications and such. Why shouldn’t news outlets be the ones coming up with these ideas? I can’t think of many better ways for them to remain relevant in affecting the ways that communities connect and communicate with each other.

So I guess that’s my larger point. I don’t want news outlets just to come up with better ways to use existing technologies. That’s important, sure. But maybe it’d be better for them to be the ones coming up with this stuff in the first place. However logistically unfeasible that might be.

MG: I think that’s right—in theory. And quite possibly (hey, quite probably) it’s right in practice, too. But journalism’s problem in so much of its painful transition to the digital age has been that it hasn’t been practical. It’s stuck to assumptions and ideals and conventional wisdom—often at the expense of pragmatism. I worry that, if news orgs spread themselves too thin, resource-wise, in their bid to engage readers, they could end up alienating them. If they’re not providing news, what are they good for?

JP: Well, every paper’s organizational structure and finances are different. I find it hard to believe, though, that some of the bigger ones couldn’t find the staffing space or the cash to form and fund a research and development lab of some sort. The only reason that the ARPANET got started is because the Department of Defense was willing to fund research that did not have immediately obvious applications; to spend the time supporting projects that might—or might not—pay off somewhere down the line.

Now, the projects themselves might not have seemed immediately practical. But the idea behind funding them was intensely so. It is very, very hard to solve a jigsaw puzzle if you don’t take the time to step back and look at the picture on the box. Big problems don’t get solved—big ideas don’t get formed—without sufficient time to reflect and space to experiment.

MG: Those are great points—and I very much agree re: the experimentation stuff, etc. Though I am concerned about what happens to systematic reporting in all this. I’m just wondering how you see reporting, experimentation, and community playing out, existing in relation to each other, and to other news outlets—local, regional, national, etc. (Perhaps it’s an obvious question, but I just want to make sure I’m imagining the right scenario.)

JP: Well, perhaps it goes back to some of the points your essay makes about dominant perspectives. I don’t have your essay in front of me, so sorry if I’m butchering it. But I think you talked about how the traditional role of an omnibus newspaper was to sort out the various community voices and assert one dominant perspective as the most accurate representation of “the way it is.”

Whereas, these days, we’ve got a million voices on an equal plane. Each its own separate nation-state. And you, as a reader, can choose your citizenship. Well, maybe the Tribune is the United Nations, then. Maybe its reporters and editors bring all of these voices together and try to make sense of what they’re saying. So maybe the Tribune’s role is to facilitate interaction, to spark discussion, and to come up with a “resolution” at the end of the day that ties it all together.

I think there will be some of that, but I also think that traditional reporting will continue to exist and thrive. For readers who prefer their news that way. Maybe that’s layered on to the plethora of voices. If you register, or log in, or pay or something. You can also get the Tribune’s take on the news. Honestly, I think people are always going to want that.

MG: That’s really interesting. I like it. But—another obvious question, perhaps, but I have to ask—how is all that normatively different from what, say, the HuffPo does on the national level? A combo of original reporting, aggregated reporting, blogging, commentary, etc.?

JP: It doesn’t sound very different, does it? I don’t know. We just need to open our minds to the potential of the Internet. People like to communicate. OK, so let’s give them opportunities to do so. And let’s think about ways that we can still serve our informational/news goals by doing so. People like to look at pictures online. Well, what can we do with that?

How about something like this: You provide an interactive map of Chicago, and encourage people to upload interesting pictures about their neighborhoods, streets, lives, etc. People tag those pictures however they want. And then reporters use those photos as reporting tips. Maybe they go out and write a story about something depicted in a photo. Maybe they generate more local reporting. A picture of a boarded-up storefront… well, shit, let’s go out and look at it in person. Maybe there’s a story about local businesses. Maybe there’s something there on insurance fraud. Maybe there’s a guy who was in this space for fifty years and is being forced out.

MG: I like all that. But I think those examples undersell your point a bit. Because you’re talking about stuff that, though perhaps in a fairly inchoate, or scattered, way, already exists. You’re talking, basically, about crowdsourcing in a distilled form. Or, more particularly, about pro-am journalism: citizens or amateur journos or whatever providing something, and professional journos converting that something into ‘journalism.’ I know that’s a tad reductive—what you’re talking about would be more systemic, I know—but that’s the gist of it, right? One problem with it, though, is—sorry to be a broken record, but—logistics. Given the alarmingly few reportorial resources most news orgs—in this case, the Trib—have right now, I’d think it’d be pretty inefficient to follow every lead generated the kind of system you’re talking about. In an ideal world, sure, reporters could follow up on every tip, and edit every submission they receive from an amateur journo, etc. I just don’t know if it’s feasible. Right now, anyway.

JP: Sure, that photo thing was just an of-the-moment idea. But I’ll defend it briefly. I see something like that as a way of systemically engaging readers in a manner that serves both their priorities as community members and your priorities as a news organization. First, it gives them a reason to come back to your site, and it positions your organization as something that is quite directly interested in the specifics of the community that it serves. And in using technology to serve it and connect with it better.

MG: Sure. Investment, in every sense.

JP: Reporting, at its base, is pretty much about documenting things that happen. Something like this photo thing helps advance that principle. If I upload a photo of construction at my building, I’m documenting something that is important to me, and perhaps only to me. But the fact that I can contextualize it in some wider matrix of stuff that’s going on elsewhere—under the ChiTrib imprimatur—I think is sort of exciting. It makes me feel like I’m part of something. Part of an effort to capture how my neighborhood and my city really are.

Now, you’re right, logistically it’s stupid to think that reporters would go out and write about every single photograph. But, shit, might this not be an interesting way to rethink the Metro beat? To connect your reporting quite directly—and quite visibly—with your community and your readership?

MG: So, really, what you’re imagining is more like a living database, sourced and manipulated—in the best sense—by the community.

JP: Yes. Exactly. And, again, this is something I just thought up right now. So it’s probably got a hundred problems. But this is completely doable.

MG: So you’re making the Trib into its own sort of—to use the cliche of the moment—media ecosystem. What I’m imagining is almost a Wikipedia of current events in a community: crowdsourced, but moderated.

JP: Yeah, exactly. That’s a decent way to think about it.

Say that I post that photo of my building, and I include some basic information about who lives there, the construction company, etc. I will be elated if someone who is actually good at reporting and writing goes out and writes an article about this—or takes more photos, or investigates, or something like that.

I will print that article out and put it on my refrigerator. I will feel invested in the health of this ecosystem.

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Megan Garber and Justin Peters are the writers of CJR's series on news innovation, entitled Press Forward: Dialogues on the Future of News.