A Public Can Talk to Itself: Why The Future of Journalism is Actually Pretty Clear
Nothing will replace newspaper companies or what they do. For the past few months an un-holy alliance has consumed the media nerds on Twitter as two traditional foes have attempted to etch the above idea into stone. For those who make (or used to make) a living in the newspaper industry, the idea is at the crux of nearly every editorial and is used as an argument to support micro payments, government funding, an illegal form of price fixing, and, you know, vice. For those outside the industry, the biggest rallying cry came from NYU professor Clay Shirky. He calls it the ˜great unbundling’ and asserts that there will never be another competitor to The New York Times; its pieces will be atomized and continue to spin into products like 538 and Craigslist
Shirky provides an extensive historical analysis to support his claim and while I agree with most of it, I think he ultimately misses the conclusion. Not only will the original mission of newspapers like the NYT sustain itself online, it will be revived in a way their founders could have never imagined. What’s lost in most discussions about the future of news is just what that original idea for a newspaper like the NYT really was and how the internet is in a unique position to execute it for the first time.
A hundred and thirteen years ago a ˜Business Announcement’ ran in the back of The New York Times. Adolph Ochs, then 36 years old, had just purchased the paper and on his first day he ran the following:
It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier that it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartiality, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect. or interests involved; to make the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public-importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.
It’s easy to forget that in 1896 this kind of talk was bewildering. At the time, population in NYC was surging, and the media market was dominated by papers like The World and The New York Journal which had become profitable by bashing their readers’ heads with lurid scandals. Among publishers, Ochs was a kind of joke. Instead of training his staff to hunt for apocalyptic headlines he turned his staff into a kind of impartial machine. At a time when the most profitable newspapers were running stories like, Wife Uses a Whip, or A Fish that Plays the Piano, Ochs published reports on a local election so fair that the leaders of rival national committees wrote letters of thanks.
The work was utterly baffling to other newspapers because they failed to see how something so dull could capture anyones imagination or attention. The World and The New York Journal were in the business of producing vivid content; what they didn’t understand was that Ochs and the Times were in a different business entirely.
Ochs was selling a newspaper but what he was really selling was a belief that the pages of the Times reflected a kind of untampered public discourse. The ˜Business Announcement’ was more like a contract to prevent outside distortion. No organization could buy positive coverage from the Times and the paper itself would not add ˜pyrotechnics’ to its articles to sell more copies. Ochs was creating a major distinction; the ambition of the the Times was not to create news, but to be its definitive organizer.
How This Idea was Executed in 1896
It was a big and elegantly expressed promise but it was also one that was restrained by obvious technical limitations. Ochs had little more than a small office, a staff and a printing press. On a fundamental level his production method was no different than any content based news publication at the time. It was a reporting process and it looked like this:
Reporters enter a public, gather information, privately decides what parts of it are worthwhile, and then send that back out to the public as a representation of their dialogue.
All participation is controlled. If someone in that public wants to communicate to the public around them, they send a letter to the organization and if it fits their criteria, they send it back out.
In 1896 it was painfully easy to see how game-able the reporting process was. It put total power in the hands of a few and every stage of the process was vulnerable to chronic and untraceable distortion. This is perhaps why so many early newspaper publishers thought Ochs was naive and why some newspapers at the time were so open about their political leanings that they carried it in their title. Ochs knew this but he was also aware that there really was no getting out of it, these were technical limitations. He addressed the inherent problems of print through branding.
The logic, in letter form, for trustee media goes something like this:
We are here to represent you and your interests.
You’re not electing us, we are electing ourselves.
Ochs’s genius as a publisher was in creating an impression that the Times actually did stand for the public’s interests. Many newspapers at the time had vowed against ˜planted stories’ and political diatribes. The difference was the level to which Ochs showed his commitment. In his first year as publisher he turned down $33,600 in suspicious city advertising while nearly bankrupt, as he thought it squandered tax-payer money. He refused advertisements from over-promising tonics and degree programs and he published pages of reader letters. The writing was neutral, factual and without bylines. All of this added to the mystique of the Times brand.
Of course Ochs was aware that his contract was more an ideal than a reality and he chose his words carefully. This is why he never claimed to be impartial outright, it was always his ˜earnest aim.’ Even the slogan alluded to the Times’ epistemological bias. All The News That’s Fit to Print — meaning that there was other news out there, it just wasn’t important enough to merit circulation.
In many senses it worked. The Times came to be affectionately known as The Trust. A word that strikes at the faith required in their process, not its logic.
It took years but eventually The World and The New York Journal folded; The New York Times, and its ˜earnest aim’ to publish news impartially, set the model for the most profitable newspapers in the country. That is until now.
What Happened to this Idea in 2009
To frame what’s happened in journalism this past year as a matter of economics is to miss the entire point. Sure, a print publication will make less online than in print and will soon have to fire most of its staff in order to avoid bankruptcy but forget about money. Imagine for a moment that some wealthy benefactor donated a billion dollars and endowed the reporting staff of the NYT for the foreseeable future. In theory this would quiet many of the concerns of the Times and media critics who have spread fear of a weakening national press, but in actuality it would be a drop in the bucket. Even if the Times doubled its entire reporting staff, it would continue its picture perfect swan dive into the second-tier.
Somewhere in the past 113 years, somewhere in erecting Journalism Schools and awarding Pulitzer Prizes, the trustee method of executing Ochs’s idea became confused with the idea itself.
Trustee Media Vs. Direct Media
Perhaps the biggest challenge in media criticism this year has been making discussions on ˜Future of News’ more than a debate between New and Old Media. Just because a news organization established itself and started publishing recently doesn’t mean that the way they are publishing is any different than in the past. Many of the biggest news organizations to spring up in the last few years that are largely considered to be ˜new media’ — The Huffington Post, Gawker, Politico, Tech Crunch — are fundamentally similar to the NYT. That is to say, they are trustee media, they stake a claim on a certain beat and a handful of editors ultimately control everything that is published. When a story breaks and a number of their readers are trying to contribute it still looks like this:
To say that these organizations are without value would make me a hypocrite. For the past year and half I have published NYU Local, a trustee style news org where we, as 15 students, elect ourselves to represent a school of about 40,000. To some degree it has been successful, we’ve quickly lapped the school newspaper in hits and earned some awards, but anytime a big story on our site breaks and we sift through our email deciding what not to publish, it becomes clear that we are missing the point.
The aim of NYU Local was never to bring a collection of smart blogger/reporters together and have them pump out content; the aim was to capture the discussion of our university. Since our inception, our execution of this aim, like any other trustee news org, has been aspirational and abstract; the challenge the web poses to us is that it no longer needs to be that way.
It’s terrifying for any publication with a full-time staff of reporters, but it’s a lesson that is becoming impossible to ignore everyday on Twitter. The more people in your beat publish independently, the less your claim to that beat appears valid.
Much of the confusion and strife among established news companies in 2009 has come from a feeling that there is nothing they can do about this. The potency of the ˜The Reporter’ and the idea that a public needs this kind of representative has solidified so concretely most projects that don’t involve them have been seen as non-competitors. There have been hybrids, CNN’s iReport, HuffPo’s Off the Bus, and recently Gawker’s new way of sharing tips, but the editor, in each of these situations, still takes tight control. Despite ample warnings, an entirely better way of organizing a news company formed with their backs turned away.
In many ways it’s understandable. The staff at Twitter is so incomparable to the staff at the Times that it’s easy to see how they don’t see themselves as rivals, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest they are. The same goes for Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and any of the thousands of web applications that enable users to share and organize their own content. It’s insignificant on a small scale, easy to write off as amateurish, but once you put it in the context of a public as a whole, it matters. What normally would have been a rejected editorial in a large circulation newspaper travels through a public like this:
Multiply that by a million and you have the raw kind of public discourse that now happens every day on the internet. A single person can now speak to millions of people without touching a reporter. In many cases, it’s thrilling, but for the most part the tools are primitive; we are at the utter beginning of what this means for news production.
How To Execute the Idea Online
Transitioning from a news ecosystem that is predominately trustee based to one that is predominately direct faces challenges on a number of fronts. Culturally, the idea of the established news organization is so pervasive that even those who are fully entrenched in direct media fail to see its extension. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently referred to saving newspapers as a ‘moral responsibility’ and inferred that democracy would be harmed should enough of them fail.
Schmidt’s principle arguments revolve around the ‘track record’ of a newspaper and the way it can be used as leverage. He’s right, insofar as an established newspaper has more leverage than an average blog, and, at least now, there is something to be said about how this enables certain types of journalism. What he fails to see is how leverage, among all other critical parts of the newspaper, not only can exist online, but be greatly strengthened. What’s often confused is that these critical parts can not simply be copied online, they have to be adapted.
Shifting from a trustee method of news organization to a direct method of news organization requires one particularly big and different way of thinking. Instead of telling a public what is news, the role of a direct news organization is to create a space where the people in that public can tell each other. There are many shifts required to design such a platform, but I think there are three major ones.
Institutional Brand Leverage toFluid Public Leverage
The reason a senator picks up a phone call from a newspaper reporter and takes a few questions isn’t because the senator likes talking to the reporter. The reason he takes the call is because he knows, that if he ignores enough calls, the widely circulated newspaper the reporter represents is going to trash him. The senator picks up the phone because he fears what the organization can do to him.
If someone signs up for a Twitter account and asks their senator a question the likelihood of getting an answer is near 0. This isn’t because online media is naturally ineffective it’s because the intern (or whoever runs the Senators twitter page) can take one look at this persons follow count and relax. They understand that they won’t pose a problem if they ignore the question.On the other hand, if this person had thousands of followers and the question was re-tweeted by hundreds, they’d feel a pressure to answer similar to the way they responded to the reporter. The difference is that it would be more direct.
Twitter provides a crude way of displaying public leverage but it’s a start and, in many senses, it gives the web a significant advantage over the brand leverage from a newspaper. Unlike a trustee news organization that would have to spend years developing an audience and placating politicians for access; online leverage is fluid. A single person who usually abstains from politics can ask a smart question and have a virtual crowd of supporters appear around him in real time. A future platform could make this intuitive and display leverage in a way that’s much more nuanced and piercing.
Impartial Articles to Impartial Architecture
One of the most common criticisms of blogging is that it’s awash in opinion but little journalistic value. It is certainly true that most individual blogs are opinion centric but it’s hard to see why this is a genuine criticism in the context of journalism.
Lets imagine an ideal health care article and break it down. If the reporter did his job and acted impartially, he would have talked to a number of sources about the issue, some liberal some conservative, fact-checked their claims, and organized the article by what he saw as the most important.
Because most bloggers are acting as representatives for themselves and blogging independently, criticizing them for pumping out their opinion would be like criticizing the conservative source of the health care article for having a bias. Of course he does, that’s the point.
Something doesn’t become impartial because it’s written in a neutral sounding rhetorical style, something becomes impartial because it’s fair. The most effective way to do that in a newspaper is to simply write an article about the issue where the reporter acts as an intermediary between opposing viewpoints and facts. Online the most effective way to create this intermediary is through an actual interface where the ‘sources’ to an issue can interact directly.
A good example of an interface that already exists that fosters impartiality is Wikipedia. Through the interface, user culture, and the general architecture of the site, Jimmy Wales created a battleground for millions of politically charged groups and individuals to collaborate and come to points of pragmatic consensus. The result is an encyclopedia with a depth and range their trustee counterpart would have never been able to produce.
It will take a different type of impartial architecture to accomplish this for news but the potential is evident.
Citizen Journalists to People
There is a reason I’ve heard the word ‘Citizen Journalism’ tossed out hundreds of times in debates, conferences, and panels related to media but I have never once heard a single person identify themselves as a ‘Citizen Journalist’. It’s therapy. In a few years we will look back at ‘Citizen Journalism’ as one of those funny things an established profession created to cope with what was obviously putting it out of business. It’s the equivalent, as USC professor Henry Jenkins points out, to someone calling a Ford a ‘Horseless Carriage’ around the turn of the 19th century.
This is largely because the meaning of ‘citizen journalism’ has little to do with its literal interpretation. By definition, any paid journalist with a passport is a citizen journalist. For most, ‘citizen journalism’ is used as a euphemism for media that has good intentions but isn’t to be trusted outright. What most trustee news organizations don’t understand when they make this distinction is that this type of critical analysis should always be applied to all media. News should never be consumed from a trough. The problem is this is exactly what the trustee method of delivery supports, The Washington Posts’ logo is designed to be a sedative.
A good way to understand what will happen to citizen journalism is to use yet another automative metaphor, this time from Clay Shirky.
A hundred years ago, back when cars were first being sold, you didn’t just buy one and drive it off the lot, the car itself was so complicated and difficult to manage that you hired a professional chauffeur who also served as a kind of mechanic. But car designs improved, a few daring souls fired their drivers, took the wheel as amateurs, and here we are. 99.9% of all drivers are now ‘amateurs’. But of course we don’t call them that anymore, no one considers themselves to be a ‘citizen chauffeur’. They are just people going from A to B. The same thing is happening to news media.
A Public Can Talk to Itself
It’s easy to look at mass layoffs at some of the most important news institutions we’ve ever had and make a point that our culture no longer values the production of news, but, when we have 120,000 new blogs created each day, I think the point is precisely the opposite. News is important. It’s so important that leaving it to a group of people in an office downtown is and has always been irresponsible.
In many ways Adolph Ochs’s ideal for a great news organization has not changed in the past hundred years. We want news, all the news, we want to get it faster than any medium, we want it to be fair, and we want it to bring all questions of public-importance to light for discussion. What has changed in the past few years is that we now have the technology to make this ideal more than a faith based abstraction.
In some sense saying ‘a public can talk to itself’ is unnecessary. Like it or not it’s happening and will only continue to boom; Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Posterous, Twitter, and countless others have all helped facilitate. When I say ‘a public can talk to itself’ I mean that a public can be counted on to share and disseminate its own news. Online, what a public needs, far more than reporters or endowed professional newsrooms, is a way for everyone to do this more effectively.
At the moment, we are bootstrapping. Whenever big news breaks on Twitter and thousands start commenting and adding details/screed/spam to a story we get a sense of both how exciting it is to collaborate directly in news online and how challenging it is to design a platform that handles it properly.
If you are working on addressing these challenges or have an interest in doing so, I’d like to talk to you.
Today I am announcing Kommons.com