We’re all shilling for something

Here is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

We’re All Shilling for Something

This will probably be received as the most controversial essay of the whole series, because I’m proposing that we re-examine the absolute negative assumption of the concept of shilling. My conclusion is that a hierarchical culture — where knowledge exists at the top — demands the policing of claims of truth, but in a horizontal culture — where knowledge is spread sideways — it’s up to the individual to police themselves. This assumes a weakening of the power to manipulate from the top, but that’s a subject for another day.

Andrew Sullivan’s paywall isn’t

RSS symbolAndrew Sullivan shocked observers yesterday by announcing that he was leaving The Daily Beast to go out on his own, charging a nominal $20 annual fee for access to his Daily Dish blog. This is both affordable for readers and so far quite profitable for Sully ($333k in first day). There are many excellent observations out there on this (Dean Starkman, Mathew Ingram, and others), so I won’t bore you with repetition. I simply want to point out a couple of things about this.

A whole lot of people are trying to call this a paywall or a “meter” similar to those of the newspaper industry. While it may appear that way on the surface, Sully is also providing — at no charge — a full RSS feed of everything that he writes. You may have to pay some small sum for reading the Daily Dish at the Daily Dish, but if you subscribe to his RSS feed, it’s free-of-charge. This demonstrates an understanding of the Web that few in legacy media would or even could bring themselves to repeat, but it guarantees that Andrew Sullivan will always be part of the conversation, which is every bit as important for a journalist as paying the water bill.

On that matter, Sullivan is employing the laws of 1,000 true fans to support himself and his six employees, and I certainly wish him well. It wouldn’t work for me, however; Andrew Sullivan is an anomaly as a blogger.

Post-Industrial Journalism

The only thing anybody really knows about the future of journalism is that there will be one. As Lisa Williams famously noted a few years ago, “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” But when experts try to go beyond that, sacred cows tend to get in the way. The best anyone can really do is follow a few of the larger cultural trends — those that we know will shape the future. To hone in on specifics is to turn our ship broadside to the waves of disruptive innovations instead of steering our ship in the direction of the sea. Sorry, but that’s the simple truth.

Three of the best minds among the world’s future-of-news thinkers — City University of New York’s C.W. Anderson, Columbia University’s Emily Bell, and New York University’s Clay Shirky — got together this year on behalf of the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and created “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” a massive, lengthy and wandering thought-journey through the past and the present in order to get to tomorrow. The document gets my strong recommendation, because it is deep, thought-provoking and echoes many of the themes covered here over the last ten years.

It’s hard to summarize a document of this scope. Besides, Emily Bell has done a fine job herself for the Columbia Journalism Review. I do want to touch on a few things that I hope will influence the next group of intellectuals who attempt such a monstrous undertaking, for there are things about the report that I would’ve done differently.

  • Postmodern vs. Post-Industrial — The report’s major weakness is that it studies the institutions and the industry rather than the culture into which it is heading. I don’t think you can get very far in a thesis on the future of journalism unless the study includes a detailed view of tomorrow’s culture. Calling the report “post-industrial” teases its identity, but the report itself left me challenging assumptions throughout.

    My essay this summer The Postmodern Journalist is an example of what I’m talking about. It offers 11 sure bets about tomorrow’s journalists based on the culture in which they’ll be living. As good as the Anderson/Bell/Shirky report is, it could have been so much better if these three thinkers had spent more time exploring the culture instead of the industry or institution.

  • Don’t be naïve — I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life studying people and the business models of news organizations, and no attempt to predict the future of the industry can produce usable fruit unless it takes a serious look at media’s business model. The business of media is audience, and that’s exactly the problem. The advertising availabilities (avails) that media sells are illusionary, because what’s really being sold is the audience. That’s because media is a stage, a sterile one at that, in an age when nobody has time for the theater. This points out, once again, that the post-industrial culture is more important for the study of journalism’s future than the practice of journalism itself. If you’d like to explore more on this subject, check out my essays Working Without a Stage, The Emerging Impotence of Mass Marketing and The Hidden Disruption.

    One day, you will know the truth of a Bob Papper quote that I’ve rewritten: The Internet didn’t hurt news organizations by taking away its readers; it hurt news organizations by taking away its money.

  • Managers and leaders are different — The assumption inferred in the report’s “Institutions” section is that the search for new processes is the quest in the creation of new institutions. This misses a broad cultural understanding that I believe is critical to reinvention in a time of change/chaos. Processes are what managers manage, and it takes a different kind of person at the helm to implement transformative change. A discussion of processes is a necessary step only after a vision has been set, not before. Tomorrow’s news consumer simply doesn’t have to care about the institution’s wants and needs, including production deadlines and other contemporary processes, so why even include them in the discussion at this point?

    It’s done to satisfy the status quo by suggesting that they will be an important part of whatever comes next, whether that’s true or not. This is the Achilles’ Heel of all industry-led attempts at understanding and reinvention.

    If you’re interested in more on this subject, read the first chapter of AR&D’s book, Live. Local. BROKEN News, which I wrote in 2008, or peruse my essay Overcoming Formula Addiction.

  • Institutions serve themselves — Institutions within a hierarchical culture are problematic in the Great Horizontal, which is another reason I believe so strongly that understanding the coming culture is more important than anything else in trying to figure out journalism’s future basics. Many institutions begin as social movements, which are built on the energy of those movements. All designed originally to serve the common good, they evolve over time to hierarchical bureaucracies that (mostly) serve only themselves. Survival, after all, is the basest of human instincts.

    What does a postmodern — or post-industrial — institution look like? How does one manage others in a culture based on a level playing field? Will there be new hierarchies? How will they function? Viewing tomorrow through today’s lens, which the title of the Columbia Journalism School project suggests (“Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present”), can be a frustrating set of handcuffs, especially with minds of those such as Shirky, Bell and Anderson.

Again, I strongly recommend reading the entire report for those interested in where everything is heading. Here it is (thanks to All Things D).

Post-Industrial Journalism: Adding to the Present

Gallup: Lack of trust in press hits record high

The folks at Gallup today released their annual survey about trust in the press, and it’s bad news. Six of ten Americans now say they have little or no trust in the news media. Here’s the chart published along with the release:

Gallup Trust in media displayed in annual increments since 2001

While this may be depressing, it pales in comparison to the chart I’ve been creating ever since Gallup switched to annual data in 2001. Prior to that date, they only asked the question every three years. I think the story is more precisely told by looking at the data in 3-year increments going back to 1973:

Gallup media trust data in 3-year increments

Either way, this is an incredibly dangerous sign for the press, the elements of which are fighting for their own survival. Here’s the way Gallup summarizes the problem:

On a broad level, Americans’ high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry. Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other. At the same time, there is an opportunity for others outside the “mass media” to serve as information sources that Americans do trust.

The bottom line is this (and it’s been this way for many years): When your newsroom employees hit the door to do their jobs, they do so without the public trust. The only way we’re going to get any of that back is to be trustworthy.

Newspapers: Defending the indefensible

Newspapers and the postal service are in a tug-of-war over couponsWhat happens when one industry in disruption runs into a business conflict with another industry in disruption? Think of two huge carnivores fighting over a third helpless beast at the tar pits of LeBrea.

An editorial in the Madison Eagle newspaper of Bernardsville, NJ last week caught my attention, because it provides a new enemy for newspapers — the United States Postal Service (USPS) — and proposes the same tired refrain of a threat to freedom, if something isn’t done about it. Last month, the Postal RegulatoryCommission approved a three-year discount deal to boost use of the mail system by Valassis Communications, which sends mass coupon mailings to homes under its RedPlum brand. Newspapers opposed the deal, because it cuts into “their” value proposition on delivering coupons via the Sunday paper.

I get that this is yet another rug being pulled out from under the newspaper business, but I object to the industry’s defense, as spelled out beautifully in the Eagleeditorial:

To newspapers that count on advertising to pay its reporters and cover the news, this USPS plan is beyond alarming – it’s a threat to journalism and an informed public. Many think it will push some newspapers in America already struggling with a fragile economy and Internet competition over the edge.

If that or anything like it happens, communities across our country will suffer the most long-term harm.

…We don’t fear the Internet; we are using it, and it is vastly expanding our ability to inform the public up-to-the-minute.

But, two things to keep in mind: The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers. Anything that weakens those newspapers will have a negative ripple effect on access to solid, accurate news on the Web.

And two: This is a media age not only in revolution, but in transition, to a future no one can fully describe. There are still many readers who aren’t satisfied that the news has really been reported and disseminated “until it’s in print.”

I’m especially struck anytime I read such hubris as: “The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers.” Let’s ask the Pulitzer Prize winning Huffington Post about that.

Do newspapers truly believe stuff like this, that they are so important to freedom in the U.S. that their loss would be a threat to an informed public? In a capitalist economy, the powers that be simply say, “Cry me a river,” for only fit businesses are allowed to thrive. Fifteen years ago, newspapers had a virtual monopoly on classifieds, display advertising, and coupons. As each one has been stripped away, the industry has chosen not to compete with the disruptors, but instead do nothing except cry “foul” and offer a threat to freedom as the consequences of their doom.

As Lisa Williams famously wrote in 2008: “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” Do I really need to go into the ways it’s already happening?

Carl Bernstein: Citizens are the scourge of the era

Carl Bernstein

Carl Bernstein

I just watched a rather remarkable Guardian video with Watergate superstar reporter Carl Bernstein in which he puts on his best Jimmy Carter mask and blames the people for the problems he helped create.

Here’s my transcription of the audio:

The question is how would that information (investigative reporting) be received today by citizens. The more time I spend thinking about this question, the more dangerous factor, I think, is a citizenry that has become inured to truth, that has become so politicized that it is unwilling, or unthinking in terms of desiring truth, but rather believes it already knows the truth.

The American system worked in the case of Nixon, because a consensus was formed around Richard Nixon, partly based on our reporting, that Nixon had to go, because he was a criminal President. In our history in this country, there usually has been a consensus about what basic facts are, from which we can have a public debate, going back to the debate over what the Constitution of the United States would be when we were a new nation.

There’s no longer a basic consensus about the facts. You can’t get a consensus about what the basic demographics of the country are even, because people are ill-informed and too many people don’t have a desire to be well-informed; they would rather have more ammunition for what they already believe. So I think that that is the scourge of our era, much more than what, I think, conventional wisdom has become, which is just the decline of investigative reporting, again in quotes, or of newspapers. I don’t think that. I think it’s the decline of a willing citizenry.

Upon completion of the above, the star-struck reporter arises, only to have Bernstein beam with pride and inject: “A little different answer than you usually get, I think.” That’s right, Carl. Most thinking people know better than to blame the audience for problems the press has created by itself and for itself.

So let’s see if I’ve got this right. There’s no consensus today, because we all think that spin is truth. We’re ill-informed, because we don’t have a desire to be informed, which certainly suggests to me that Bernstein thinks “citizens” are stupid, and worse, that it’s our own fault. I mean, it’s one thing to be called stupid, but quite another to suggest that it is so because we’re unwilling to be taught.

Or could it be that — among many other factors — the press has brought this spin-is-truth idea on itself through its insistence that there is no truth, only “sides” in a barrage of what Jay Rosen calls “he said/she said” reporting? I mean, how can there be consensus in a world where there’s only “sides?”

This whole business of the decline and reinvention of journalism is complex and multi-faceted. Journalism will survive, but such disdain for the people formerly known as the audience will not and cannot be a part of it. “Citizens” who are trying to figure things out for themselves are in such a position, precisely because the press doesn’t have the cojones to work on their behalf.

Talk about stupid!