Deconstructing the "real journalism" argument

This subject keeps popping up from time-to-time, and I wish it would just go away, because we’d get a lot further in the reinvention of professional journalism if we could get away from the belief that its an entitlement, one that’s necessary for the survival of the species. In another conference yesterday on the future of journalism, Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark asked, “Who will pay for good journalism, enterprising journalism, in the future?” The New York Times‘ Bill Keller told NPR yesterday that “there’s a real shortage of the kind of information that I would call quality journalism.”

But the topper is Peter Osnos’ latest at The Century Foundation, Beyond the Great Press Crash of 2008. In the most absurd argument of all, Osnos blames the Internet for stealing the copyrighted material of “the press” and making money off of it.

What has happened with the Internet so far is that the suppliers of hardware, software, and transmission (search engines and aggregators) have built business models that effectively shut out revenue streams for the creators of the information that is being delivered. What has become absolutely clear in 2008 is that this new model for delivering information is a debilitating blow to the creation of quality news content. The companies making money from the internet—Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, and so on—are entitled to the riches they’ve amassed from their ingenuity and entrepreneurial skill. But as a society, we’ve got to figure out how news gathering and information distribution will be paid for from now on.

He then goes on to offer what he calls “three avenues to innovation:”

1. Reestablish the principle that news has to be paid for by someone: the consumer, the advertiser, or the distributor. (See the Platform for November 3, 2008: “Make Google Pay.”)

2. Private equity investment in new brands or renewed confidence in such stalwarts as the New York Times and the Washington Post, which are hurting badly but would revive if they can make money from others (for example, search engines) through fees for their content.

3. Accept the role of news as a public service to be supported by the community through public funds, membership, and sponsorship of various kinds. This is, of course, the model that has been in place for decades at public radio and PBS.

Osnos equates aggregators of news and information with Napster, who got sued for making copyrighted music free, and YouTube, who got sued for making copyrighted videos free. These are specious and ridiculous comparisons, for the vast majority of online news aggregators only publish what’s in RSS feeds or enough information to tease users to click on a link back to the source of the news and information — in other words, helping the business model of the creators. The Napster and YouTube comparisons are demagoguery personified, for to even come close, Google or any other aggregator would have to lift entire stories for republishing. Nobody’s been sued for that, because it isn’t happening.

This business of a public subsidy is folly and, as a guy who has been around PBS for a long time, please explain the sudden love for its business model? Who do we think we are? Surely our hubris has blinded us, for professional journalism never was God’s gift to culture.

Chris Satullo, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote a poignant farewell column this weekend. He’s leaving the paper to work for the public station, WHYY.

I leave a business that seems to have lost both the will and the way to support the craft of journalism it once burnished to a fine sheen.

It’s a business that, in its pig-headed insularity, authored some of its own woes – but now is being swept helplessly along by the cascading changes of a Gutenberg moment. The Internet is changing our world as definitively as the printing press changed Europe – and more rapidly.

In my time, newspapers – and the journalists who worked for them – have made some mistakes. We embraced a priestly elitism, failing to explain ourselves clearly to readers or to confess frankly our mistakes of judgment. We were slow to respond when people, money and power flowed to the suburbs, slow to grasp the game-changing implications of the Web (though catching up now).

We screwed up plenty. At the same time, though, we did some splendid, useful things for the Republic.

That’s the pesky paradox of it: While we could at times be as arrogant as our critics claimed, we were more ethical and adept than they would ever admit.

I really appreciate people like Chris Satullo, and I think he’s right on the money. We have done some good things, but our arrogance was our undoing. That arrogance is behind the notions that “real journalism” can’t be practiced outside the paradigm of contemporary professional news.

I have great faith in the future of journalism, although I don’t think it will ever again be supported by static ad models that produce enormous profits for publishers or broadcasters. And I have great faith that the Fourth Estate will rise again. It’s been in a coma for a long time, having been lulled to sleep by oxygen deprivation from atop the pedestals of those who’ve pretended to carry its flame while living the high life of those it was supposed to keep in check.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. All is vanity.

Comments

  1. Terry you wrote:
    I have great faith that the Fourth Estate will rise again.

    So you have poked holes in other people’s ideas; we need more than great faith, we need ideas. What’s yours?

  2. Leonard,
    Thanks for the note. My ideas can be found in the essays listed on the right column of the home page, in my book Reinventing Local Media and throughout the pages of this blog.
    Terry

  3. Thank you and exactly! Pride is the original sin. John Milton got it right!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Deconstructing the “real journalism” argument Terry Heaton takes a shot at the unending “woe, the internetz!” cries of mainstream media. “we’d get a lot further in the reinvention of professional journalism if we could get away from the belief that its an entitlement, one that’s necessary for the survival of the species […] “Who do we think we are? Surely our hubris has blinded us, for professional journalism never was God’s gift to culture […] We have done some good things, but our arrogance was our undoing. That arrogance is behind the notions that ‘real journalism’ can’t be practiced outside the paradigm of contemporary professional news.” (tags: online mediaindustry journalism media) […]

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