Journalism will be fine; newspapers, not so much

I’ve not waded into the current discussion over the future of newspapers that was prompted by Clay Shirky’s brilliant commentary, Newspapers: Thinking the Unthinkable, because I just haven’t had the time. But a column in the San Francisco Chronicle by Mark Morford is irresistible. Morford takes Shirky, Dave Winer and Steven Johnson to task in a snarky commentary that criticizes them for not offering workable solutions.

Shirky’s big conclusion? Nothing. He has no idea what will replace newspapers and professional journalism. “Decades of random experimentation, much of which will fail,” he opines. Great. Thanks, Clay…

I disagree with Winer in one huge way: When the professional news filters vanish, when you lose that vigorous center of storytelling expertise, you don’t necessarily get a rich ‘n’ wonderful mix of new choices. You get chaos. You get noise. Sure, it might be a boatload of fun to read, but it’s also maddening as hell…

But even his (Johnson”s) is another grand, decentralized vision of a media smörgåsbord that champions the same free-form notions as Shirky and Winer. Where is the credibility, the center? Nowhere, and everywhere. Maybe the center is exploding, shifting. Maybe the center is you. Oh, sh‑t.

Let me say up front that I don’t have any idea how to “save” newspapers, but the notion that it’s an institution worth saving is what I take issue with. Morford snarks at the credentials of people like Shirky, Winer and Johnson, suggesting that you can’t understand the value of newspaper newsrooms if you’ve never been in one. He wants the “credibility” saved somehow, but the only people assuming newspapers are credible are the people who work in them? One look at Gallup’s data, and it’s easy to see the audience — the people formerly known as the audience — don’t think they’re so credible. This is why the discussion about what’s to take contemporary journalism’s place MUST be outside the walls of the newsrooms, so I take issue with Morford’s assumptions about what’s really being lost here.

Journalism WILL survive the death of its institutions, and I think many, if not most, of tomorrow’s journalists will be independent contractors who work outside the walls of the newsroom. Morford is right in saying that fact-checking isn’t glamorous, but he’s wrong in assuming that it only takes place within the institutional press.

In the end, though, Morford’s concern, like most who write from his perspective, is that journalism needs somebody to pay for it. I don’t disagree, but these statements usually include the parenthetical “pay for the way we do it” concept, which I completely reject. Contemporary modernists are process-oriented people. Show them the process, and they’ll figure out ways to exploit it. In today’s world, however, we must be willing to face chaos and trust in tomorrow. This is very postmodern and right-brained, however, so institutions built on process get really uncomfortable with such ideas. We want the bullet points, man.

The problem is that we can’t have any bullet points, because they’re being created before our eyes. Some will see them; some won’t, and those most likely to see them aren’t inside the San Francisco Chronicle or any other newspaper.

It’s a great discussion, however.

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