The Blessings of Networks

Emily Bell takes on Dean Starkman’s “news gurus” argument

Dean Starkman’s long read on ‘the news gurus’ in the Columbia Journalism Review starts out with the story of the remarkable Ida Tarbell, a template for the modern investigative reporter, whose work in 1904 took on Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. He tells us about Tarbell to remind us how different journalism has become—and inevitably so. While acknowledging that those days have past, the piece draws a line between institutional support and individual journalistic power which, argues Starkman, has been recently undermined by a school of thought—he calls it the Future of News consensus, or FON—which elevates and promotes the idea of networks ahead of professional journalists and institutions.

The piece sets out to argue that the people at the center of the consensus, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky, and Dan Gillmor, have been misguided in promoting the idea of networks ahead of institutions and reporters as the right model for sustaining journalism in the digital age. I don’t need to defend any of the individuals critiqued by Dean Starkman, as they are all eloquent in their own defense. However, using Starkman’s article as a starting point, I will argue that this thinking is on the wrong path, and does not stand up to close examination.

Although not explicitly identified as part of the Future of News consensus except in passing, I feel part of it. This is not just because, as Starkman points out, I inhabit the same classrooms and conference platforms as Shirky, Jarvis, et al, but because for a decade of my professional life as an online editor at The Guardian I was part of a team that was heavily and openly influenced by this school of thought.

Our strategy at The Guardian was to gain scale and influence through embracing the form of the open web, and to develop journalism that was more adaptive to both the technology and behavior of news audiences in a networked world. All of the pariahs of the Future of News consensus met with or visited The Guardian frequently and I for one was deeply grateful that they did. None of them are “anti-institutional” in quite the way the piece would have you believe.

When faced with the decline of print sales (inexorable) and the disruption of your industry, you cannot always stand back and wait to see who wins an intellectual argument. You have to make decisions, organize newsrooms, and build technology. Having external voices and intellects that point you to rethink what you do, even if you don’t agree on every point, is important. This is particularly true in a world where the change to the delivery platforms is so profound not enough institutional expertise exists internally to make sense of it. The path of networked thinking, the power of open source, and the rise of participatory culture lies well west of the classrooms of New York’s j-schools and is deeply rooted in the engineering culture of Silicon Valley. The voices that Starkman is so skeptical of served as warning sirens, urging us to look in directions most of the news industry routinely ignored.

At The Guardian we pushed ahead, introducing more equality with readers through open talkboards, the early introduction of comment threads on articles, and experimentation with user-generated content, data collection, and networked thinking across our journalism. The controversial but invigorating launch of reader-generated Comment is Free; the introduction of live blogging, which moved from sports and entertainment into the heart of our political coverage; a recent analysis of social media use during the London riots—are all examples of melding the network with the journalism. Progress was underpinned by very bold thinking from The Guardian’s development strategists and team, which pushed into building APIs, structuring a more open technical environment. None of this was seamless, or without a messy hinterland of failed implementations, internal tensions, and false starts. But it was effective in one respect: it propelled The Guardian into a digital world where more of its journalism could be followed, accessed, shared, and discussed, well beyond its borders.

All this did not preclude or undermine the work of The Guardian’s brilliant investigative team. The Guardian is also proof that this is not an either/or equation, that the future of news lies in hybrid techniques and that both networks and institutions that recognize their power represent a powerful ideal. I don’t believe we would have made such progress were it not for the stimulation of new ideas, some of which came from the “FON” consensus and the leadership of editor in chief Alan Rusbridger.

In seeking to explain to students at Columbia how understanding networked approaches to journalism work, I assign Rusbridger’s Cudlipp Lecture as a starting point for students to understand the possibilities of this in their own work. In a similar vein, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger recently spoke of the power of a networked and web-centric approach to Times journalism, spotlighting the new techniques reporters are using to widen their audience and bring relevance to their reporting.
 There are many examples too that lie outside The Guardian and The New York TimesAndy Carvin at NPR, the Ushahidi work in the Kenyan elections, the contribution of the Global Voices blog network, ProPublica, dozens of local efforts, including the Journal Register titles (now Digital First media) for which as Starkman points out, a number of we FON folk consult. All in some way conform to a template that has its roots in the Future of News consensus, each of which has modified it to produce powerful journalism and information for communities.

Dean Starkman’s analysis of the situation is selective, but as this an essay about ideas, that is permissible. His conclusion, though, contains assertions that cannot really be allowed to pass unchallenged. He says:

‘The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things, than under the previous monopolistic regime.”

The suggestion that the Internet has “disempowered” journalists is just not true. In a global context it is willfully wrong. But even in the narrow context of journalism in the US, to say that individual journalists are disempowered by a medium that allows for so much more individual reporting and publishing freedom is baffling. If this case is made in the newsroom context of reporters having too much to do, then maybe this is an institutional fault in misunderstanding the requirements of producing effective digital journalism. Unlike the pages and pages of newsprint and rolling twenty-four-hour news, there is no white space, no dead airtime to fill on the Internet. It responds to 140 characters as well as to five thousand words.

The prejudice at the heart of the piece is best summed up in one line about how FON ideas have undermined reporters in their work by requiring them to perform a series of tasks, including to “keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.” There it is: “instead of reporting and writing.” The opening of electronic ears and eyes is not a replacement for reporting. It should be at the heart of it. And if it is not, then the institutions that Starkman laments might be to blame.

We started with the story of Ida Tarbell, so it seems fitting to finish with an anecdote that casts a different light on the consensus and its contribution to journalism. In class on Monday I had set students a task of defining a goal around finding an audience or making connections with available digital tools. In reporting back, one student described her exercise to rapt colleagues. In seeking to follow a serious investigative story in a chaotic regime outside the US, she had focused on tweeting links and finding sources on social networks that were of relevance to that country and story. One link led to another and another. Her diligence and work were rewarded with a random contact through Twitter, which in turn led to chance meeting in New York (yes, real shoe leather was expended), and her obtaining a number of key contacts and numbers in the administration she was reporting, new leads in a story that is neither trivial nor easy.

In her words: “It is really incredible, to be able to get this access, this quickly, is really something I would never have imagine was possible.” This winter break she will follow the story, honoring the Tarbell tradition, using the methods of the networked way.

Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, and Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media 2015-16 at the The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. Tags: , , , ,