In October of last year, Brookings published an essay by Robert Kaiser entitled “The Bad News About The News,” which was probably well-intentioned, but was also — I’m sorry to say — hilariously bloviated, self-important, and wrongheaded. It did, however, accidentally raise a few quite interesting points.
Some selections from that piece, to give you a sense of it:
Accelerating technological transformation has undermined the business models that kept American news media afloat … the great institutions on which we have depended for news of the world around us may not survive … no one has found a way to make traditional news-gathering sufficiently profitable to assure its future survival … “By undermining the economic basis of professional reporting and by fragmenting the public, [the digital revolution] has weakened the ability of the press to act as an effective agent of public accountability … its institutional distress may weaken democracy itself.”
The usual lamentations of yesterday’s news. But I want to focus on its two most illustrative quotes. First:
The quantity of original reporting has surely declined as the importance of the Internet has grown.
That is, to put it mildly, ridiculous. Every first-person report of a nearby event, on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Blogger, is “original reporting.” It is not all good original reporting. It is not all accurate. But there is a colossal, and still growing, amount of it. Increasingly, a “reporter’s job” is to identify and highlight the good and accurate reporting which has already been done by other people, some of whom may–shock! horror!–not be professional journalists.
(It is worth noting that the “traditional journalism” deified by Kaiser is/was also often neither good nor accurate. Have you ever had first-person knowledge of, and then read traditional journalists’ coverage of, a situation or topic? Every time that’s happened to me, I have found myself thinking either “wait, that’s not quite right,” for non-tech stories, or “that is at best a massive oversimplification and at worst just flatly wrong,” for tech stories.)
It’s true that there may be fewer reporters investigating and writing first-person reports, because of the economic transformation of the news media. But it is sheer insanity to cling to that old model when, at the same time, that transformation has also brought us a gargantuan trove of Internet-published first-person reportage from ordinary people, along with enormous amounts of in-depth analysis from, and conversation among, brilliant experts. There is journalistic gold in them there posts, tweets, Vines, and threads. The modern reporter’s job is to find and sift that gold, as much as it is to mine and smelt her own.
On one level this leads to Buzzfeed (who, to give them credit, do a lot of interesting hard reporting these days) repurposing amusing Reddit threads as listicles. But on another you get riveting and insightful news coverage that is only possible because of the Internet. Don’t write off the latter as cotton-candy nonsense because of the former.
I remember breathlessly following a few Twitter feeds–in particular, that of unaffiliated freelance journalist Seth Mnookin–to get coverage of the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. And again during the early Ferguson protests, when the “traditional media” who Kaiser so inexplicably lauds were still days and miles behind. And think of
Last month, when protests raged in Berkeley, where I live, I followed the superb local coverage of Berkeleyside — one of the “new media” blogs disparaged by Kaiser and his ilk — who dispatched their own reporter to the protests, but also contributed enormously to their coverage by retweeting/citing tweets from many others on the scene.
I’ve lived in a dozen different cities, and Berkeleyside is, by far, the best local news organization I have ever seen, in considerable part because they don’t share the knee-jerk disdain for “aggregation” of information from people who don’t happen to be their reporters. They seem to have the strange belief that people who are actually on the scene, in the moment, are able to make valuable contributions to the coverage of an event, especially if they live nearby and understand the context, even if they are not professional journalists. This belief is apparently anathema to traditional news organizations.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves: not all such people can be trusted. Reporters and editors have to make judgement calls, and be quick to correct themselves when they’re shown to be wrong. And of course hoaxes and misrepresentations fly around the Internet on a daily basis. But solutions exist for these problems as well. In particular, I give you Emergent, a clearinghouse and antidote for online hoaxes, i.e. an ongoing snopes.com for the news.
(Disclaimer/disclosure: I know Emergent’s founder Craig Silverman socially, in that we used to attend the same Montreal boxing gym, though I don’t think we ever actually traded punches.)
I submit that the immense quantity of on-the-scene coverage from the public, coupled with the copious availability of online analysis and discussion from experts, can–in most cases–more than make up for the diminishing financial resources available to news organizations. This means less reporting and more aggregation and editing, to be sure. But think about it. Doesn’t that make sense — isn’t it obvious — in a world where, for the first time, every single person is now empowered to report?
Granted, “fewer reporters, supplemented by on-the-scene public coverage and armchair expert analysis” doesn’t work for all stories. You can’t have first-person investigative journalism. So I want to quote another line from Kaiser’s piece:
Repeatedly, journalists have broken significant news stories that government officials hoped would never be revealed … from accounts of the government’s eavesdropping programs to descriptions of its vast, post-9/11 intelligence apparatus.
Wait wait wait wait wait a minute. Journalists didn’t break those stories. Wikileaks did. Edward Snowden did. Journalists just packaged and promulgated those scoops, which came to them ready-made. That is not at all the same thing as the romantic Hollywood notion of Woodstein digging the dirt no matter where it leads.
Yes, tech-driven economic changes may mean there will be fewer investigative journalists — but technology also brings us far more sophisticated whistleblowers, with access to enormous amounts of information vital to the public interest. Are Kaiser and his ilk really so sure that the latter is so much worse, in terms of holding governmental feet to the proverbial fire of the public eye? I’m not.
It is true that the old, clubby, elitist-gatekeeper world of news and journalism, the world in which Kaiser lived and worked, is being forced by the relentless onslaught of smartphones and the Internet to reinvent itself entirely. If you ask me, though, this is no bad thing at all.