Discerning Media

I spent part of yesterday and today in meetings at the Kettering Foundation thinking about media and democracy. These conversations still, to my chagrin, keep getting tangled up with the debate about old school journalism versus new media.  I’ve blogged about this debate before. But I keep coming back to these meetings because I think that something incredibly promising is happening in this new media environment.  But it won’t happen inevitably; it won’t happen because the new technology just makes it so; it won’t happen unless we discern and aim toward using these new media to create a better environment for democratic politics.

Here’s where I think we need to go next.

First we need to understand that publicly relevant journalism is not beholden to any particular medium — not print, radio, TV, or web.  Publicly relevant journalism is reportage that links information with value. By that I mean linking what the facts are on any given matter with what people’s and communities’ concerns and aspirations are.  Good journalism never just reported what happened.  It reported on how what happened matters to us.  Events matter to us because they impinge or constrain or open up possibilities for us achieving things we care for. This kind of journalism can happen in a newspaper as well as on a blog.

Second, we need to get over this distinction between professional journalism and citizen journalism. It was a twentieth century economic circumstance that gave rise to the penny press (see James Carey on this) and the very model of professional, disinterested journalism. In the last decade or so, two phenomena have converged: (1) the old business model for print journalism cratered and (2) digital media made analogue media obsolete.  Phenomenon 2 certainly exacerbated phenomenon 1.  But it didn’t cause it!  Well before web 1.0 or web 2.0, newspapers were in crisis.  Ten years ago we lamented that two newspaper towns were becoming one newspaper towns.  Now we lament that there are towns without any newspapers at all.  Old-school journalism wants to blame the web.  But the blame lies elsewhere.

Third, we need to understand what drives demand for good journalism.  In today’s meeting, Dan Gillmor made the good point that the old model of journalism was about manufacturing a product (a news article) and distributing it to the passive masses. The old model, which sent news out to people,  trained people to be passive consumers. Now with new media, Dan argues, we have plenty of content but poor demand for good quality since people are trained to wait and settle for whatever news comes at them.

That’s a good point.  But Rich Harwood and I countered that it is not a matter of ginning up demand for better news but creating conditions under which citizens can engage.  As I see it, people aren’t going to seek out good journalism unless they see their own connection to it.

The dominant political culture of the twentieth century trained citizens not to bother with matters of widespread, common concern.  Their officials would take care of it. If their officials didn’t, well then just bitch and moan until they did.  Nary was there a message that common problems call for common deliberation and action.  So we just started delegating it all to officialdom.  This is a recipe for apathy/outrage (two sides of one coin) not engagement.

In that kind of context, why should anyone bother reading the paper?  Why should I bother reading about matters of common concern when what I think about it doesn’t matter at all —  and when I have even less chance to make a difference?

Hence, fourth, and finally for this post, relevant journalism, whether it happens on the web or in print, needs to embedded in a culture — or help create a culture — that sees members of political communities as political agents.  One of or guests in today’s meeting, Jeremy Iggers, who helped found the Twin Cities Daily Planet, has been focused on creating a new platform with just this task. With him, we have to start treating people as actors rather than as consumers and audiences.  Good journalism calls for political transformation.  Not only that, sustainable journalism calls for this. Perhaps in another post I’ll document the places and cases in which media that actually connects with communities’ democratic capacities becomes economically sustainable. Folks will pay for news when it matters to them — and when the political culture considers that what they think does indeed matter.

In short, the future of journalism lies in creating conditions in which the people engage with the news because they think that it matters to them and because they think that their own take will matter back. Also, we need to realize that good journalism knows no particular medium, though I do think that digital media open up exponentially more opportunities and spaces than analogue media ever did.

Blogging and the End of Journalism

I’ve had a running debate with someone very close to me—I won’t say who, just that he is a journalist—about whether blogging has killed journalism.

It’s true that journalism as we have known it is dying an agonizing death.  Walk into the newsroom of any major newspaper, my journalist tells me, especially its Washington bureau, and it’s a ghost town.  The bodies that are there are those of the young.  The old, along with their relatively big salaries, have departed.

The once-mainstay source of income for newspapers, the classifieds, has migrated to the net.  The old business models have shattered. No one wants to pay for the news anymore.  The advertising and eyeballs model of web journalism can’t pay for good reporting. And in the wake of journalism come all these blogs that just comment upon what real journalists do. If it weren’t for REAL journalists, the bloggers would have nothing to comment on.  And increasingly bloggers come to be taken as journalists.  But what the hell do they know?  And so goes the rant.

My journalist isn’t the only one complaining.  In my work on media and democracy I’ve convened and attended lots of meetings of journalists as well as new media types.  Get the journalists in the room and they start kvetching and bitching and whining and looking for the nearest razor blades.  Journalism as they know it, journalism that lives on newsprint, is dead.  And so go their jobs.

Get a bunch of new media people in a room, and there’s glee mixed with trepidation.  The world is their oyster; there’s something new every five minutes; and everyone will be there twittering about it, or watching via twitter, and clicking on the latest tinyurl to come their way with news of the newest, latest thing.  There will be an obligatory session on “new business models,” as in, “how the hell are we going to get paid for this?” But there’s joy all the same.

What about journalism?  Has blogging become stand in and interpreter? Miscreant? Monster?

Let’s make one thing clear: what you are reading here is not journalism.  I am not pretending to dig up stories and give you the truth of the matter.  The blogosphere is more like the op-ed pages. I’m going to give you my perspective on things.  Of course the op-ed page can’t stand alone, it needs the news pages to comment on; but it is a vital place for making sense of the news, for thinking out loud about what it all means for us. The op-ed pages and the blogosphere are places for regular folks to think through and work through what kind of people and communities we want to be, what we stand for, what we think is vital and of value.

But to say that this isn’t journalism is not to say that I can just make things up.  This communication, like any communication, ought to live up to what Habermas calls valididty condidtions. You have every right, and I have every obligation, to be truthful, sincere, and appropriate.  These are obligations that journalism, blogging, and regular conversations all share.

So what about journalism? Definitely we need new models.  I like my morning newsprint newspaper; I hope it continues.  Yet clearly the main platform is becoming the web.  But whatever the medium, the messenger needs to make a living.  How are we going to support and sustain good old fashioned reporting, especially investigative reporting?  Maybe newspapers need to be endowed. See a New York Times, ahem, op-ed on the subject. That’s a decent idea.  There’s no easy answer to this, especially in the midst of an economic melt down.  But while we try to figure it out, please don’t shoot the likes of me.