Those awful news gurus

Not that they need my defending, but I’m a little irked today about some whining thoughts expressed about a couple of my friends and colleagues by Dean Starkman in The Columbia Journalism Review. Starkman’s meandering screed (Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus) is about the institution of journalism fighting against a group of new thinkers that he calls “the future-of-news (FON) consensus” — “known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship.” Nice.

Most prominent are Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen, whose ideas we’ll focus on here, along with Dan Gillmor, John Paton, and others.

The FON consensus, courtesy Columbia Journalism Review

The News Gurus — Sketches by John Hendrix

…in the debate over journalism’s future, the FON crowd has had the upper hand. The establishment is gloomy and old; the FON consensus is hopeful and young (or purports to represent youth). The establishment has no plan. The FON consensus says no plan is the plan. The establishment drones on about rules and standards; the FON thinkers talk about freedom and informality. FON says “cheap” and “free”; the establishment asks for your credit card number. FON talks about “networks,” “communities,” and “love”; the establishment mutters about “institutions,” like The New York Times or mental hospitals.

…If some aspects of peer-production theory and its FON offshoot sound familiar—anti-institutionalism; communitarianism laced with libertarianism; a millennial, Age-of-Aquarius vibe; a certain militancy—some scholars have traced its roots to 1960s counterculture.

Mr. Starkman mocks the work of Jarvis, Rosen and Shirky and others to reach a conclusion that we need the institutional press more than the ideas of this FON consensus. The enemy, he says, is time, time to investigate and to understand the narrative behind the story. That which the FON preaches, he notes, is discouraging to the people who are trying to do the work of — are you ready for it? — real journalism.

Whether it be called The New York Times or the Digital Beagle, we must have organizations with talent, traditions, culture, bureaucrats, geniuses, monomaniacs, lawyers, health plans, marketing divisions, and ad salespeople—and they must have the clout to take on the likes of Goldman Sachs, the White House, and local political bosses. The public needs them, and it will have them.

This kind of all-or-nothing, us-versus-them thinking is not only old, it’s boring and irrelevant. He speaks of a “debate” over journalism’s future, and then misrepresents the views of his foils, because they don’t agree with his definition of journalism. He acknowledges that traditional journalism is hosed by cultural shifts, but he offers nothing in the way of a solution other than the tried and true. This makes no sense.

And it’s completely irrelevant anyway, because it isn’t the reinvention of journalism, per se, that’s the real problem for the institution; it’s the revolution underway in advertising that’s crushing the hopes of the status quo. It has nothing to do with the journalism. I mean, of course it has some relevance, but the future of the First Amendment isn’t in the health of institutions; it’s in who’s going to pay for it.

So bickering about what works or doesn’t work regarding journalism solves nothing in terms of the only question that really matters, and this is why I find this particular article so distasteful. Mr. Starkman is playing defense. The others are playing offense in trying to move a big rock that needs moving.

And it’s not institutions that represent the evils of the participatory culture; it’s hierarchical institutions. Why? Because every one of them is in it for themselves, not the people they were intended to serve. I agree with Mr. Starkman’s conclusion that we’ll one day have new institutions, but I think they will be vastly different than what we have today.

I’m sure he’d ask me to explain how they’d be different, but that’s the problem with trying to think ahead of others. The answer is that I don’t know, only that they’ll be different.

Ironically, this article appeared at the same time as another article, this one by the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard about retiring newspaper editor John Robinson. The interview with Robinson (disclosure: he’s a friend of mine) includes the advice to “find thinkers that will challenge you” and includes the same names that Starkman chose to challenge. Dean, meet John, an old school guy but with a mind in the 21st Century.

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