So what’s to be done? As the problem is cultural as much as it is journalistic, there’s certainly no easy solution. But here’s one thing that journalism, as a profession and, barring that, a culture, can do: recognize—and advertise—the fact that institutionalism itself is nothing to be ashamed of. And certainly nothing to be hidden from public view. Institutionalism—which is, at its core, infrastructuralized conversation, the Habermasian ideal of discourse ethics brought to life—is, instead, to be embraced. Sure, we Americans may harbor a kind of knee-jerk resentment of large institutions and bureaucracies—and, sure, that resentment, in journalism as in most other aspects of public life, is often eminently justified. But we’ve come to a point—in journalism, at any rate—in which the resentment has blinded us to the myriad benefits of institutionalism. Consider how many of the great achievements of journalism in the past century have been possible not only because of the tenacious work of committed individuals, but also because of the committed support of those individuals by their respective news organizations.
But as newsrooms disintegrate, and as technology enables increasingly individualistic content-distribution strategies, institutional journalism is becoming increasingly rare. Which means, I’d argue, that it’s also becoming increasingly valuable. And that is a point that news organizations need to embrace—and, significantly, publicize.
Instead, though, we’re seeing many news organizations taking the opposite tack: essentially, branding individual journalists by way of humanizing their facelessness. That approach may work on occasion—Nick Kristof at The New York Times, Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times, etc.—but by and large that individualized branding serves only to legitimize author fixations among audiences. It may help the bottom line in the short term; it may not serve journalism, however, in the long. It may serve, finally, only to further legitimize the cult of the author.
Better, I think, for news organizations to win (and deserve) trust by embracing the collective voice. That doesn’t mean the voiceless voice—objectivity’s “view from nowhere,” in Jay Rosen’s borrowed phrase—but rather the voice of many voices. The institutional voice. The discursive voice. Take Wikipedia, for example, which is authoritative particularly because it is authorless—or because, more precisely, its author function is so intersubjective, as Habermas might say, as to be effectively neutralized in its subjectivity. Indeed, “to understand something like a Wikipedia article,” Clay Shirky writes, “you can’t look for a representative contributor, because none exists. Instead, you have to change your focus, to concentrate not on the individual users but on the behavior of the collective.”
The same may be said of news organizations. Wikipedia, after all, is at its core simply a fully transparent version of what happens in newsrooms: the discussions and debates and yes, buts and have you considereds that result, finally, in a singular narrative. The difference has been the finality of print versus the permanent-beta of the Web post—and the author-suggestion of the byline versus the authorlessness-suggestion of the lack thereof. Wikipedia is so trusted as a source, indeed, that it may actually enjoy more trust than it deserves (cf. the many instances of errored-Wikipedia-entries-accepted-as-fact); the root of that trust, though, is the authority of the collective.
It is that authority that news organizations need to leverage; it is that authority that they need to embrace. Transparency may be the new objectivity; but we need to shift our definition of ‘transparency’: from ‘the revelation of potential biases,’ and toward ‘the revelation of the journalistic process.’ Transparency needs to be about fostering conversation rather than ending it, and about respecting the audience enough to take them into the process of news. To re-imagine news less as a commodity and more as a community.