Required reading from Steve ButtryRequired reading from Steve Buttry in response to a traditionalist writing in CJR (my categorization). Key summary:
“I bow to no one in my love for the good old days of journalism. But everyone trying to take journalism back to the good old days should understand some basic truths:
–You won’t find the future by retreating to the past.
–Whatever comes next in journalism can’t and shouldn’t be built to replace either the best or worst of current or historic journalism. You build the future on the technology and opportunities of the future in the context of the future.
–Watchdog reporting performed by professional journalists is absolutely part of journalism’s future, and I don’t know anyone discussing the future of journalism who doesn’t plan and hope for a successful future for professional watchdog reporting.
–Journalism of the past doesn’t look as strong on closer examination as it does through your nostalgic filter.”
I won’t rehash the details of Steve’s rebuttal, but as I plowed through the CJR article, “Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus,” I was struck that much of the article seemed based on misunderstandings or semantics. Perhaps the points made over the years by the “future of news” (abbreviated as FON) “gurus” are a Rorschach test and I also am seeing in them what I want to see.
Where writer Dean Starkman sees the FON arguing that news inherently has no value, I have been reading “news is a commodity” as an argument that much of the daily stuff we fill the paper with needs to be rethought – not the investigative journalism that Starkman rightly praises but the long, formulaic, blow-by-blow accounts of city council meetings and court hearings that few people read. In coaching writers all over the Southeast, I have found that the 25-inch process story containing six inches of news is far too common, and there are similar examples of little-noticed copy coming from throughout many newsrooms. It’s not that ALL news has no value, but how much of what you are producing is the kind of thing people actually will subscribe for? Are you the only one covering this story or just one of at least a handful writing essentially the same story? Evaluate it.
Where Starkman sees a push for “reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way,” that favors spontaneity over “traditional methods of story organization, fact-checking, and copyediting” and “formal style and narrative forms,” I see a call for simply being less hidebound, trying to see whether a traditional news story actually is the best form for conveying the information you have gathered.
The comparison of the “gurus” to hippies just leaves me a bit floored, but it does illustrate that on this point, at least, he is correct: There is a culture gap.
But the real kicker is that the conclusion of Starkman’s piece indicates to me at least that while he disagrees mightily with all the things he imagines the FON crowd is saying – and if they were really saying those things, in many specifics I’d have to agree with him – he basically agrees with the practical thrust of what I think they actually have been saying. (It’s a long article, so after you start reading and get the flavor of it if you get to where you think you just can’t click through all nine pages, just click 8 and read from there.)
I’ll end on Starkman’s optimistic ending:
“Rebuilding or shoring up institutions is going to take some new, new thinking, but it can be done. In the words of that original media guru, Marshall McLuhan: ‘There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.’”
12/5/11 UPDATE: Clay Shirky himself has weighed in:
“Like a Yeats of the newspaper world, Starkman yearns for the restoration of a culture considerably purer than the actual newspaper business has ever been. Reading Confidence Game, you’d never know that most papers are not like the NY Times, that most of what appears in their pages is syndicated, that sports is often better represented on the masthead than hard news. You’d never know that more American papers printed today will include a horoscope than international news. You’d never know that newspapers are institutions where grown men and women are assigned to write stories about dogs catching frisbees.
“Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread. We need to support the people who cover hard news, but when you see a metro daily for a town of 100,000 that employs only six such reporters (just 10% of the masthead, much less total staff), saving the entire edifice just to support that handful looks a lot harder than just finding new ways to support them directly.”
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