Dean Starkman and the FONers

Captain J fights the FON dragonBack when Dean Starkman first struck out at those who present a view of the future of news (FON) other than his, I wrote a scathing retort but never published it. Others were saying the same things, and besides, I went after him for lazy intellectualism, which is always hard to prove. So I stayed home and let the FONers speak for themselves.

But wait! I’m a FONer myself, and now Mr. Starkman has struck out again, this time choosing to “interact” with one of his chief targets, Clay Shirky. Shirky had responded to his rant, so Mr. Starkman chose to engage Shirky and clarify his disregard for the FON crowd. After conceding four points that Shirky made, Mr. Starkman boiled his concern down to one simple thought — the story.

But all of this misses the point; the talk here is all about process and structure. I’m talking about great stories. As I said in the piece, I care about institutions only to the extent that they can produce them.

…I do kind of believe that newspapers must find ways to blah blah and whatever, but in fact I care far less about that than that they produce agenda-setting stories.

And this leads me to what seems to be a gaping hole in FON theory, and that is this: It doesn’t have any great stories, and, worryingly, it doesn’t seem to have any way to produce them.

There are many ways to go in response to this thinking, but let me state just three.

  1. The problem with news in the future has nothing to do with content; it’s in how we get paid for making whatever content is required. News institutions aren’t really in the content business, they’re in the advertising business, so the argument about stories is irrelevant to the problem facing organizations that shoulder a free press responsibility.
  2. “The story” is a product of production processes and schedules. Many of us have written about this extensively, myself included (News is Not a Story). I think I know what Mr. Starkman means by “the story” in the above, and it’s more about the process than the product. He’s speaking of delving into some heretofore untold or hidden narrative and bringing it into the light of day through good old legwork and other journalistic practices. Clinging to this, however, as a justification to strike out at the FONers is problematic, because the very process that Mr. Starkman holds dear is being disrupted by the next factor.
  3. Communications is now horizontal and in real time. This completely destroys the top-down framework within which Mr. Starkman’s story paradigm works. He proposes that the world needs educated and experienced professionals to generate and follow-up on their leads, knowledge and suspicions, and to do it in such a way that follows the ethical and legal requirements of the profession. The results are then turned over to another even more educated and experienced group for vetting and final preparation before being dispatched to a large audience for maximum effect, thereby engaging with the issues of society. It’s neat. It’s ordered. It served us well for centuries. But the world itself has changed, and in a horizontal, real time communications paradigm, no feed is special.

Mr. Starkman is asking for a replacement for that concept within the new, and there isn’t any so far. I’m not sure there ever will be, due to factor number one. Moreover, I don’t think this is the only or even the preferred way for journalism to function by default, because it produces inertia and inefficiencies along with the occasional, “agenda-setting” story.

And if we’re really going to be honest, we must ask ourselves, too, if the hiding of the various facts that make up “the story” before it’s deemed ready to publish is really always necessary in a horizontal world. If the newsgathering process is made public, we can all participate, including those who can advance “the story” separate from the person or organization who first started the snowball on its downhill adventure. I realize this may not be applicable to every situation, and that there may be times when keeping quiet is necessary. In those cases, however, I believe the new culture will figure out ways to do it without breaking the bank.

Then there’s this: Mr. Starkman’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review — a highfaluting industry institution — is broken into two pages, presumably to play the old media game of page views. You won’t find anything similar among the FONers or their responses to Mr. Starkman. Not Mr. Shirky, not Jeff Jarvis, not Jay Rosen, not Mathew Ingram, not the host of others who fit the definition. This is itself a clue about tomorrow, for those who consume digital media are not unaware that the companies who practice such irritating tactics are merely raising the cost they have to pay for interaction. This won’t be tolerated forever. Scrolling is much more user-friendly than clicking.

The FONers know this. Mr. Starkman and those of his ilk either do not or don’t care.

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