Now, more than ever, the news consumer doesn’t have to let a newspaper set the boundaries of discourse, or settle for a source that doesn’t reflect his or her attitudes. No longer do single sources monopolize the dominant mind. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is still around—but there are also sources like the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and the St. Louis Beacon, the Saint Louis Front Page, and the STL Syndicate. As Syracuse professor R. David Lankes writes, “There are simply more choices in whom to trust, and market forces have not come into play to limit choices. While this is true for virtually all media venues to some degree, the scale of choice on the internet make the internet particularly affected by shifts in authority.”

In his paper “Credibility on the internet: shifting from authority to reliability,” Lankes draws a distinction between authoritarianism and authoritativeness. Broadly, an authoritative source, when making a point, will say, “This is how it is—but don’t take my word for it, ask all these other sources who will confirm what I’m saying.” An authoritarian source, when making a point, will say, “This is how it is—because I say so.”

But in a communicative environment like the Internet, says Lankes, authoritarianism doesn’t work, because it implies that readers don’t have any other choice, or are unable to do their own research to come to their own conclusions on a subject. Online, it is harder to assert unilaterally the parameters of a dominant mind—to define a community and its (best) interests—because the community itself expects to play a substantial role in the defining. Online, it is insufficient to explain a controversial editorial decision with a casual “this is how it is, and this is what we did, and we’re not responsible to anyone else out there—what’re you gonna do about it?”

Well, there’s a lot that readers can do about it. They can go elsewhere for their news—or, for that matter, their conversation. (“This has to be one of the most unified, overwhelmingly negative response[s] to a story I’ve seen on this site, and perhaps anywhere, and it you just shrug it off [sic]. P.S. This is my last post on this site, and when I can get local news from the globe-democrat, I’m gone for good.”) They can register their discontent across the Internet. (“USPS will be sending Mr Kurt Pussy Greenbaum 12500 USPS boxes and 2400 priority mail envelopes within 5-7 days with love from reddit.com and the internet. Also, he is scheduled to have daily package pickups for the next 3 months for with international shipping.. I’m sure he has caught the attention of some government agency by now. Signed, Boxman”) They can create their own sources that compete with the incomplete perspective that a news outlet provides. (“Welcome to www.KurtGreenbaumIsAPussy.com, where we chronicle how an intolerant St. Louis douchebag pissed off the entire fucking Internet.”)

Greenbaum’s phone call was a violation of trust, and would have been a violation in any era. But the ferocity of the response—the utter rejection of the Post-Dispatch’s authority to do what it did—was an entirely modern thing, and it’s a direct consequence of newspapers’ outdated and medium-inappropriate reliance on the authoritarian credibility model.

As one commenter wrote: “What would a real blogger…a *real* “social media expert” do in a situation like yours? Would they have gone off on their own personal witch-hunt? Or, might they have taken some time to address the issue in myriad *different* ways? Perhaps a post about the tendency of modern colloquial language to be more profanity-laced than in days gone by? I think you’d have garnered a great deal of support for bemoaning that issue, and at the very least, you could have used the situation to do what you claim to understand about the “social media” - started a real conversation about the issue.”


Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.