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The Jekyll and Hyde Problem: What Are Journalists, and Their Institutions, For?

Behind Dean Starkman’s “future of news” consensus lurk unanswered questions.
November 11, 2011 |
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Jay Rosen, in his 1999 book What Are Journalists For?, shares a story which I think is of vital importance for those trying to understand the debate about “news gurus” kicked off this week by Dean Starkman in the Columbia Journalism Review. In his book discussing the long, strange career of an idea — the idea of “public journalism,” the notion journalism was better when it remembered its primary professional obligation was to public life — Rosen recounts the moment when the idea became (momentarily) corporate stunt.

In 1995 the Gannett Company, then as now the largest US newspaper company as measured by circulation, took out a front page ad in Editor & Publisher, writing: “WE BELIEVE IN PUBLIC JOURNALISM — AND HAVE DONE IT FOR YEARS.” The ad went on to simultaneously praise and domesticate the public journalism movement, attempting to borrow, as Rosen puts it, the movement’s upstart legitimacy in service of some dubious corporate aims. It was kind of like a 60s rock musician licensing his music of youthful rebellion for use in a TV ad.

Coming from the leading advocate of public journalism — which was under fire at the time from various corners of the traditional journalism establishment — the pages in which Rosen discusses his complex reaction to the Gannett ad are worth a read. Not only did Gannett get the idea itself partially wrong, Rosen argues, but the company at the time had a well-earned reputation “as one of the homes of market-driven journalism, a corporate ethic ready to dispense with public values for the quickest return on investment.” Quoting Gannett critic Richard McCord, Rosen discusses how Gannett “‘touted traditional virtues in public while dismantling them in private,’” and concludes that “having the Gannett logo attached to public journalism was bad for the idea.” Nevertheless, Rosen concludes with an argument that exiling Gannett from the public journalism club was never really an option, insofar as his argument was aimed at the company’s reporters and editors, not its CEOs.

So I tell this story, not to glibly rehash the past, but because I think it contains some wisdom. And that wisdom might be useful when thinking about the role ideas play in shaping the larger structures of journalistic production. The story can also help us understand the good things institutions do, as well as the many bad things.

What do ideas do?

One of the surprisingly pleasant things about Starkman’s piece is that it brings questions about what “journalism is for” back into a debate that often stops at the bleak shores of basic economics. To quote no one in particular but many people in toto, “changes in journalism are really about advertising; they are not about what journalism ‘should be’” — and, therefore, “the key is to find a business model” and “the rest will work itself out” and “we can’t really control what is happening anyway so we might as well not try.” Tow Center director Emily Bell’s own response to Starkman actually shows the simplicity of this materialistic hopelessness, and does a good job providing an initial answer to the question of what ideas actually do when they become embedded in messy materiality:

All of the pariahs of the Future of News consensus met with or visited The Guardian frequently and I for one was deeply grateful that they did. None of them are “anti-institutional” in quite the way the piece would have you believe. When faced with the decline of print sales (inexorable) and the disruption of your industry, you cannot always stand back and wait to see who wins an intellectual argument. You have to make decisions, organize newsrooms, and build technology. Having external voices and intellects that point you to rethink what you do, even if you don’t agree on every point, is important.

Ideas, in short, have consequences, and fighting about ideas is important. Which is why I’m so happy Starkman picked this particular fight.

Starkman’s basic argument is simple: The ideas promoted by what he calls the “Future of News” consensus have been pernicious for journalism insofar as they:

  • focus too much energy and attention on networks rather than on institutions, and
  • encourage the “hamster-wheelization” of journalistic work.

It’s easy to find areas of consensus around which both sides of the debate can agree. First, that large institutions are, of course, necessary components of any journalistic future; and second, that institutions and networks of journalism will obviously exist together in some form of symbiosis. I want to push past these areas of basic disagreement, though, to talk about what I call the Jekyll and Hyde problem of news institutions. (I should also note that I’m writing this simultaneously along with the conclusion to my forthcoming book Networking the News, which will be published by Temple University Press next year. Expect to see some of these thoughts worked through there, as well.)

In her response to Starkman, Emily Bell argues that there is nothing about “the web” as a set of technologies that automatically lead to hamsterization:

To say that individual journalists are disempowered by a medium that allows for so much more individual reporting and publishing freedom is baffling. If this case is made in the newsroom context of reporters having too much to do, then maybe this is an institutional fault in misunderstanding the requirements of producing effective digital journalism. Unlike the pages and pages of newsprint and rolling twenty-four-hour news, there is no white space, no dead airtime to fill on the Internet. It responds to 140 characters as well as to five thousand words.

In other words, if news organizations have responded to the web by creating moronic hamster wheel scenarios, then this is the fault of the institutions themselves rather than underlying technologies. The institutions have misunderstood the nature of the digital marketplace and have responded with a series of blunt-force production techniques designed to maximize journalistic output in the service of web traffic. In addition, many of them have also simultaneously clung to outdated production routines that themselves increase journalistic workload (“write the same story three times rather than save time by linking to something else” is just one example). This is what I would call the dark, or Mr. Hyde, side of institutions — their conservatism that verges on an inability to change, and the fact that by seeming to act rationally (based on the “old way” of doing things) they ultimately end up producing deeply irrational outcomes.

There is, however, a Dr. Jekyll side to institutions and professions, and I think it is this side that Starkman is mourning in his piece. In the web era, we have usually told a particular story about institutions and the professions they house, one summed up nicely in Clay Shirky’s discussion, in Here Comes Everybody, of the monk Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim. To oversimplify and therefore make a long story short: Professions are monopolistic guilds designed to raise barriers to entry in order to maintain professional privilege at the expense of the public good.

This story isn’t untrue. It is a story I’ve told myself. But it’s not the only side to the tale.

The other side to institutions and professions, a side long recognized by even the harshest critics of professional power, is that they create non-material cultures that insulate workers from the ravages of the free market. Professions create an alternative reward system in which status and pay are determined not simply though the workings of the market, but through alternate hierarchies of worth. And it is the dismantling of these alternate hierarchies that I think Starkman is really angry about in his piece. Notice, too, the organizations that Emily Bell praises in her response to Starkman: The Guardian, The New York Times, Andy Carvin at NPR, Ushahidi, Global Voices, and ProPublica. What all of these organizations have in common is that most of them are insulated, to some degree or another, from the ravages of the market. Even those openly market-oriented news organizations like The New York Times have powerful, mitigating professional cultures that, however obnoxious they might occasionally be, protect their workers from feeling like timecard-punching drones.

(This, as an aside, is what makes the appearance of the final name on Bell’s list — the Journal Register Co. — so intriguing and important. The question of whether the model for the reinvention of Journal Register is ProPublica or Gannett, or whether it can somehow manage to be both, is the most important single real-life experiment in the future of news debate.)

The problem, in short, may not be institutions, networks, or the Internet. The problem might be capitalism — or, if that sounds too radical, then perhaps the problem is the libertarian ethos that is also embedded in the Silicon Valley roots of the future of news consensus, an ethos which often renders it incapable of seeing any value to institutions at all. If the problem with journalism, in addition to its hidebound structures of power and its arrogant professionals, is that it has been a free-rider on a non-functional informational marketplace, then the collapse of structures designed to insulate it from the market is an unalloyed good. This is what I think many of those working on the edges of the future of news space seem to believe.

If, on the other hand, you think that the free market (historically, and also in its most brutal current form) has been a problem for journalism rather than a boon, then you might wince in horror to see one of the last barriers to that market collapse in a cloud of digital dust.

Which brings us back to the role of ideas, and of the part played by “future of news thinkers” in general. To my mind, the job of anyone seriously thinking about the future of journalism in 2011 is not simply to ponder workable business models. It is not simply to help reporters figure out how to become better “innovators.” The task, rather, is to further explore the question asked by Rosen more than a decade ago: What are journalists for? Because by asking what journalism is for, you’re helping to rebuild a sense of what it might do that isn’t simple enslavement to market demand.

In fulfilling the obligation to think about the purpose of journalism, one task might be to work with journalists in rethinking notions of “the public” and “reporting” and “politics” and “democracy” in order to rebuild the institutional, professional culture journalism needs to act as a strong counterweight to entrenched systems of power. Another task might be to critically interrogate many of the operating assumptions of the Silicon Valley consensus, not in a cheap way, but in a manner informed by nuance, history, philosophy, and ethnographic work. A third task is simply to ask our students what they think about when they think about these questions, and to dialogue with them about potential solutions.

The problem, of course, is that this kind of intellectual work does not translate well to the consulting circuit. It does not usually provide help for industries desperate for a quick fix. Rather, it can usually be found in the classroom, or in talking with students, or in the bookstore, or when blogging, or in those increasingly rare moments when people actually find the time and space to quietly and slowly reflect upon the world.

Reporters, after all, are not the only workers who wake up every day facing a looming hamster wheel, one that seems far larger and oppressive than it did even a decade ago. To some degree, we all are facing that wheel. Whether the cause is technology, institutions, politics, capitalism, culture, or something else, the cycle of endless production for less money, less security, and less reward seems to be a general feature of our troubled times. To grapple with that reality, the notion that journalists work for something more than money might be perhaps the only true solace future of news thinkers can offer to practitioners of the journalistic craft.