Underestimating the Audience

June 12, 2009

The debate about how we, as a culture, are going to fund journalism in the future is lacking discussion about certain assumptions, core beliefs about journalism that simply must be challenged, if we are to truly find our footing in a networked and distributed media world. These assumptions are fundamental to the profession of journalism and form its grand narrative. In postmodern discussion, a grand narrative — or metanarrative — is an comprehensive explanation of the experience and knowledge of a particular abstract idea. Wikipedia calls a metanarrative "a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other 'little stories' within totalizing schemes.

Professional journalism's grand narrative is complex and multi-faceted, and it includes everything we take for granted about the business.

In his brilliant essay, Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press, Jay Rosen explains that, in the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate in the West, and that this is a key tenet of professional journalism's grand narrative. Rosen's central argument is that because the Web connects people horizontally, it undercuts the ability of the press to set the information agenda, and that this undermines its authority. This is the kind of assumption challenging that we all need.

In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected "up" to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the "sphere of legitimate debate" as defined by journalists doesn't match up with their own definition.

In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the "echo chamber," which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

But the Web is eating away at other "little stories" within the grand narrative that is professional journalism, all of which contribute to the issue of funding journalism tomorrow. Mass media is giving way to distributed media, and the Web is dramatically changing the make-up of the people formerly known as the audience.

The poor dunces need usFor example, professional media begins with the crucial assumption that the people it serves — the masses, the audience — are uninformed, uninterested, emotional, and lacking in the intellectual capacity to sort through the complex issues of the day with sufficient clarity to make their own decisions in life, much less actually govern themselves. As knowledge is released upon the masses and access to information becomes easier and more widespread, the public has ways to inform itself that it never had before. This is new, and the elitist view that the press has of its audience has to change, or we will find ourselves eliminated from the growing stream that is news in the new world.

It would be easy to suggest that the press believes its audience to be stupid, but that implies a level of arrogance that may not be deserved. It's simply a matter of fact that any "elite" believes its existence necessary, because those not so fortunate as to be a part of the elite need them. This is fundamental colonialism, and it is at the heart of today's "second Gutenberg moment," for the masses are storming the bastille of authority that is based on protected knowledge.

It would also be easy to suggest that television's form of journalism is the principal offender in this arena. The need to "manage audience flow" throughout prime time, for example, gave birth to the late news "tease," an insulting form of unwanted interlude designed to manipulate viewers from one time period to the next. "Forty dead in an accident on highway 20, the details at 11" turns out to be pigs killed in a truck crash. But TV only copies the newspaper model of burying two paragraphs of a page one story on an inside page in an effort to expose eyeballs to the ads on that page.

Audience manipulation is a con game, and the audience is tired of being conned. And television news audiences have been telling us this for years. One visit to Nielsen to peruse the dairies of local TV news viewer will reveal just how much people hate being "teased" during prime time and during newscasts, and yet we consider this to be "best practices" in the creation of television newscasts.

In a fascinating article in AdAge about the current economic disruption, Jonah Bloom suggests that "Before Marketers Ask for Trust, Perhaps They Should Apologize." His words are also good advice for the people known as the press, for while most journalists deny it, we've been insulting people far too long.

While the roots of the professional press run deep, its principal author, Walter Lippmann, was an elitist social engineer. His early 20th Century debates with John Dewey set the underlying tone for professional journalism, and his books are a manifesto for the modernist, colonialist press. He referred to the public as a "herd" and wrote that for democracy to flourish, the herd's myths and emotions had to be put in check. An educated elite — and in Lippmann's mind, this included the press — was needed to lead.

Lippmann's personal and professional crony was Edward Bernays, the father of professional public relations. Like Lippmann, Bernays was a social engineer. Working on behalf of the business community, Bernays' beliefs dovetailed with Lippmann's and produced the seminal books Propaganda and Manufacturing Consent. "The conscious and intelligent manipulation," he wrote, "of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society." Who is to do Bernays' manipulation, if not Lippmann's educated elite. Who is to be its mouthpiece, if not the professional press?

The "objective" press that Lippmann envisioned flows from the colonialist essence of elitism. The promise to be "objective" is, in part, due to the view that people are incapable of determining the artificial center point between opposing points of view.

The "wall of separation" between news and sales is also another artificial attribute that exists, in part, because the audience can apparently be easily fooled by unscrupulous snake oil salesmen posing as journalists. The recent hubbub over Starbucks sponsoring "Morning Joe" on MSNBC is illustrative of the belief that the audience is incapable of deciding bias on its own and needs the protection of a press that is above reproach when it comes to conflicts of interest. In this area, the press has stood firm, while the audience seems vastly more concerned about political or cultural biases.

This belief, this core principle that an ignorant public "needs" its intelligent and, of course, helpful press is always present in the analysis of disruptive influences within contemporary culture that are impacting the press. It's why the United States Senate took the time to discuss the future of newspapers and why most observers from within the professional press establishment view the potential loss of newspapers as a threat to democracy itself. Hubris is a fruit of those who believe the ignorant need them.

The era of Lippmann and Bernays was the dawn of the industrial revolution. This can also be described as the age of the left brain in the human experience, for the process of manufacturing produced an economy based on mathematical margins and growth, one that rewarded the management of processes within the overall hegemony. If it existed, it could be measured, and if it could be measured, it could be managed. The worlds of Darwin, Freud and Jung fused with the worlds of Einstein, Edison and Ford, and science, logic and reason became the triumvirate gods of the culture.

If culture is to be "managed," somebody needs to do the managing, and this chore falls on the willing and self-serving shoulders of the cultural elite. Maintenance of such a status quo demands perpetuation of the ignorant class, for the health of the culture itself hinges on the authority of the managers, and that requires the obedient faith of the masses. Ignorance, therefore, is virtuous, for "they" are best kept in the dark on the deeper matters of the culture. This, too, is fundamental colonialism.

The bane of science is religion, with its ability to inflame emotions and inspire sacrifice. Early colonialists used religion to control the masses, but that began to change with the first Gutenberg moment. When the control mechanism of knowledge is placed in the hands of those being controlled, the result is very much counter culture. It's why John Wycliffe wrote, upon completion of the first common language English translation of the Bible, that "this book shall make possible government of the people, by the people and for the people," which Lincoln later lifted for his address at Gettysburg. The reformation was birthed from that paradigm shift, and from that burst forth the rise of the West. The willingness to risk in the name of knowledge grew from the faith of its practitioners, and what followed was an era of exploration and expansion that actually led to the industrial revolution and the rise of modernism in the first place. How ironic that, once empowered, a new elite, whose status is based upon (protected) knowledge, would wish to silence the very thing that helped put it in power in the first place.

It is through this veil — this colonialist grand narrative — that disruptive innovations brought about by technology and especially the Internet begin to make sense.

It's why professional journalism had to reject blogging. Here were everyday people in their pejorative pajamas writing about matters that — cough, cough — they were "untrained" to write about. The ignorant masses were raging against the institution. The rise of personal media and social media was originally the stuff of jokes and condescension, until they threatened to overtake the mainstream. None of the early bloggers had their sights set on taking over "the press," and yet that is how the threat was perceived. Why? Because the personal media revolution shattered the illusion of the ignorant mass.

It's why professional journalism rejects the current work of Gene Randall, for example, who is now doing corporate media as a way to support his family after CNN axed him several years ago. His report for Chevron (on YouTube) offset, from Chevron's perspective, a negative report on 60 Minutes earlier in the month. Randall has been vilified by former colleagues for "selling out," but his real sin is violating the grand narrative, because only the press can deliver the "real" story. The business community's relationship with the press is supposed to be symbiotic, but businesses are now a very real part of the personal media revolution, and Randall is seen as untrustworthy within the grand narrative.

JD LasicaWhen the fertile mind of J. D. Lasica first coined the phrase "personal media revolution" four years ago in his seminal work "Darknet, Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation," he was referencing a real revolt. Technology was enabling people to participate with media in a way that shifted the emphasis from a stage to a conversation. "We've entered an age," he told me, "where we continually shift between roles — as media makers, participants and producers, yes, but also as consumers and audience members."

Lasica first wrote of this shift 12 years ago in a cover story for the American Journalism Review. "Net Gain" spelled out the opportunities that news organizations had to reinvent journalism for the digital age.

Not only did news organizations fail to seize the historic moment, their very survival is now in question. Lots of factors contributed to the implosion: a disrespect for customers, as you say; the inability to reinvent newsroom culture, which rewards plodding, conservative approaches at the expense of risk taking and experimentation; the inability to embrace the values of participation, transparency and openness that are at the heart of this historic shift in citizens' expectations and behaviors.

And yet, some nuance is called for. There are long-term forces at play that militate against mass media and toward unbundled, micro-chunked, fragmented personal media, the vast majority of which never becomes viral or widely popular. Craig Newmark did not set out to decimate newspapers' classified revenues when he started running online ads for free; yet, if he hadn't done so, someone else would have, and there's little the news industry could have done to head that off. The founders of Google could not have envisioned that search, and not content, would take the overwhelming amount of online advertising revenues.

So, some of this is what happens when you play your hand against tectonic forces. The real question is whether news organizations will team up with those forces — which are now becoming blindingly obvious — instead of continuing to play the same losing hand.

When Dan Gillmor wrote in his groundbreaking book "We, The Media" that "my readers know more than I do," it was considered an affront to the mainstream. Gillmor, however, has been quick to point out that audiences have always been smarter than we give them credit for being and have always been more knowledgeable. What's different today is their ability to feed that knowledge to others through the software of the Web.

This new Gutenberg moment, however, is taking culture beyond even that, because knowledge that was once protected is now available to every day people. And so the grand narrative of the press that assumes an ignorant public runs smack into the horizontal connectivity of the World Wide Web and the explosion of heretofore protected knowledge that it contains.

Perhaps this ignorant mob isn't so ignorant after all, and that has staggering ramifications for the press of tomorrow. What would the press be like without this assumption? What would respect for the audience mean in terms of the "need" to provide balance? How would the "sphere of legitimate debate" to which Jay Rosen refers be defined in such a world? And, of course, who will fund journalism in a world where professionalism can no longer be used to define scarcity?

While no one can really answer those questions, it seems obvious that the values of honesty, transparency, and authenticity will be esteemed by all who participate in the craft of journalism in the years to come.