Of “real reporting,” parasites and infrastructure

Here we have a fascinating interview from Reason Online (Free Minds and Free Markets) with Jonathan Rauch that’s worth a read. Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal magazine in Washington, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and the author of several books, including Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (2004), Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government (1994), and Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993).

The interview is worth a read for a couple of reasons. One, the guy makes some interesting and provocative statements about the current state of journalism, and, two, for all his arguments in favor of free minds, he’s generally reflective of the prototypical Big J journalist. I find this fascinating.

reason: What do you think about the state of political reporting these days?

Rauch: It depends on what you mean by “political reporting.” If you mean people who are actually spending their lives going out and gathering political news, following politicians around, manning the stakeouts, trying to understand what’s going on in the capitols, then the situation is very good.

There’s a very talented, hard-working press corps and, of course, it represents only a small fraction of the people who are doing [journalism]. I think all the major newspapers are doing it well. Not a single one is doing it badly, the ones that are committing resources to it. The larger fraction are the parasites, the bloggers, commentators, opinionizers — I don’t exempt myself — who are feeding off of the real news that the press is providing. That larger sort of commentariat is not doing a very good job.

reason: What about media more generally? Do you worry about consolidation of ownership?

Rauch: It’s in an intellectually healthy situation and a fiscally not-so-healthy situation, and that’s what I’m worried about. I’m not one of those who yearns for the days when we had three networks doing half-hour newscasts telling us all that they thought we should know. I’m not nostalgic for the days when we covered political conventions for two days straight live on national TV. I’m much happier in a world with multiple sources and more individual ability to pick and choose.

What I worry about is what everyone in my business worries about : Who’s going to fund the real reporting? The magazine and newspaper business was a cross-subsidy. You had the advertising, particularly classified, and you had a local market, which subsidized the gathering of news. That model is breaking down because the bundle is breaking into pieces and it’s hard to see in the long run who funds the kind of large-scale news reporting operations that the major papers have run if the advertising is all going online and if people can all get the news for free at Yahoo.

I’m guessing that 30 years from now, we’ll get to something that’s economically sustainable. I hope that’s the case, but I’m not liking the way the transition is looking. I’m not liking the fact that foreign bureaus are being closed left and right and I’m also not particularly liking the fact that it seems to be that that for a lot of young journalists the model is to get past reporting and into commentary as fast as your feet will take you.

There are a couple of things that require comment: one, the notion of “real reporting” and, two, this idea of journalistic parasites.

There’s something truly, well, special about the phrase “real reporting,” and while I understand what Rauch is talking about, it still has that institutional ring that shouts of elitism and entitlement. This idea — this paradigm of separation — is what’s being challenged by the personal media revolution, and the thought that these two can co-exist is quite problematic. One is top-down; the other is bottom-up, and while their goals may be different, they both provide material for a public that has limited time.

As I’ve written before, the best the institutional press can hope for in the new world is that of conversation starter, a role for which they are ideally suited. This is a lot different than the current definition, because it begins with the assumption that the conversation will continue.

Hence, the “parasites” to which Rauch refers are actually partners in the on-going development of the story. This may not make the pros feel and warm and fuzzy, but it’s a role they’d do well to consider.

Jeff Jarvis has a fascinating post today (The Unbearable Weight of Insfrastructure) that looks back on his few days at the NAB and concludes that the infrastucture of the news business is its Achilles’ Heel. This, too, is part of the evolving professional news hegemony, and I hope we have the brains to pay attention.

If you get rid of the presses and the trucks and the broadcast towers and the headquarters buildings and the fancy equipment and the old-time stars, if you kill the infrastructure, you are left with more resources for journalism — and savings in the face of reduced revenue in a suddenly competitive marketplace — and the bottom line is a and more efficient and sustainable business.

Infrastructure is the enemy of journalism.

Ah, but you say, what about editors and correspondents? If they’re vital, they’re not infrastructure. If they are not vital, then they are merely expenses and you must get rid of them.

Infrastructure is the enemy.

I realize that these are not the types of things that — as we used to say in evangelical circles — “sell a lot of tapes.” However, this is exactly the kind of medicine we need to take in order to find our place in the new world. What’s real and what isn’t? Who’s a parasite and who’s not?

It isn’t all or nothing, and it isn’t us versus them.

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