The Death of Journalism? (or journalism in the era of open)

For those that missed them two of my favourite authors – Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson – posted brilliant pieces on the future of the news industry this week. I’ve pulled some of the best lines from both so you can glimpse at why these to writers are models for me. These relevant paragraphs also reveal a further analysis, one I think both authors stop shy of but that both pieces hint at: the Death of Journalism.

…in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. Local news may be the best example of this. When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage… I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life – out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house;

But of course, that’s what the web can do. That’s one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. [A veritable rain forest of information where there was once a desert]

- Steven B Johnson

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

- Clay Shirky

Both Shirky and Johnson’s pieces acknowledge that the trends hitting the news industry are hitting every part of society but – because they have written articles and not books – they deal with the changes to the news industry ecosystem in isolation. As a result, their analyses account for the death of the newspaper in its current form. However, both shy away from explicitly looking over that bigger cliff – are we seeing the death of Journalism? I for one, hope so, as it will mean a more profound change may be upon us.

Step back and look at the relationship between news gathering institutions and the organizations they report on. A large piece of “investigative news” has been about one set of opaque institutions – the news organization – covertly gathering information on another set of opaque institutions – government, corporations or non-profits – so as to shine a light on some malfeasance.

What if it isn’t just the business model newspapers and TV news that is faulty. What if it is the underlying structure and values are eroding not only among news institutions but also among the entities they normally cover? What if the belief in objectivity and trust in opaque structures are dying? This would mean that the public’s confidence in products, ideas, services, policies and news created behind a curtain – within any opaque institutions – is slowly crumble. In his Bertha Bassam lecture, this is precisely what David Weinberger brilliantly argues is already taking place:

“Wikipedia is far more credible because it shows us how the sausage is made makes Wikipedia far more credible. Yet this is exactly the stuff that the Britannica wont show us because they think it would make them look amateurish and take away from their credibility. But in fact transparency – which is what this is – is the new objectivity. We are not going to trust objectivity, we are not going to trust objectivity unless we can see the discussion that lead to it.”

Such a transformation, a reshaping of credibility from objectivity to transparency, would have profound implications for every organization – corporate, non-profit and governmental – in our society.

The trends Shirky and Johnson describe as killing newspapers – the fact there are more eyes, able to create more information, that is able to flow faster, and freer than ever before – may be making openness and transparency a strategically salient choice for an increasing number of organizations. Firstly, it is simply becoming harder and harder to keep secrets. More and more organizations may decide that, rather than devote energy to hiding secrets that will inevitable see the light of day, why not devote energy to solving the underlying problems that are creating them? More importantly, by being transparent allows these organizations to access the long tail of analyses an additional powerful incentive to being open. Those who share information and invite criticism and analysis may be better positioned to survive crises and challenges than those who don’t. Many eyes makes the bugs in any institution more likely to be shallow.

As a result we may see an organizational ecosystem emerging that strongly favours transparency. This is not to say that every organization will instantaneously become “open” overnight… but there would be increasing pressure, and more powerfully the adoption of the naked corporation as the default model in the new system.

Such a shift would forever change journalism. The first is that opaque news entities – those that don’t make clear the bargain with their readers, that fail to spell out their editorial decisions and philosophy and allow readers to hold them to account, will themselves be at risk. I suspect this will be true even if some magical financial solution (like the terrible idea of subsidizing news with an internet access tax) were to emerge. The problem would simply shift from being a financial crisis to a credibility crisis. If journalism prides itself on objectivity – then it had better find ways to be transparent. This means news sites had better engage with legitimate critics: and this means doing more than having columnists who ignore commenters that poke large holes in their arguments or electing to publish retractions on the bottom corner of page 8 or on some lost webpage.

More profound however may be that journalism in a transparent ecosystem could look very different than it does today. If investigative journalism has been about uncovering the dirty secrets within opaque institutions – what does it do if an increasing number of institutions have no secrets?

I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply  flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.

Interestingly this is precisely what many blogs – alone or as part of an emergent network – already do. They take large complex stories, break them down and, by linking back and forth to one another, create a collective analysis that slowly allows the mystery to be decoded. I hope this post is part of such a mystery solving exercise – I’m trying to build off of, and extend, the brilliant analyses of Johnson and Shirky.

Does this mean the death of journalism? Well, in a world where everybody can be a journalists… is anyone a journalist? I don’t know. I’m sure there will always be some professional journalists, but in a world where people distrust opaque institutions I’m not certain they will reside in organizations that look even remotely like the news institutions of today. Most importantly, in a world of mysteries perhaps citizen journalist and bloggers, and their role in the news ecoysystem, will be less frightening than the one most present day pundits (especially newspaper columnists) would have us believe.

30 thoughts on “The Death of Journalism? (or journalism in the era of open)

  1. Neil

    I think David Simon's piece is relevant here: http://kottke.org/09/03/david-simon-back-on-the…I guess I am not as optimistic that there will be a massive increase in data availability. Certainly the moves of the Bush administration (massive increase in documents classified top secret) or small items like the denial of funding the Parliamentary Budget Officer in Canada point otherwise.

  2. david_a_eaves

    Hi Neil – thank you for commenting. I think your skepticism is well placed and fair. The idea I'm talking about will be a longer term trend – but that we will get there nonetheless. As Shirky would say, this is one of the new systems that going to get built, but definitely not before the old system is broken.My sense is that the the government makes classified and hides the less confidence the public has in them. It is worth noting that one of Obama's earliest pledges was to make government data available and accessible. He also informed cabinet members that the default assumption is that information should not be classified. He identified these two items as being critical in renewing people's confidence in government…

  3. Jana Lynne White

    My take on bloggers, the writers you suggest may steward our news reporting future, is this. As an evolving and unified media culture, we need bloggers/reporters who can transcend the realm of technical and humanly learn the newspeak of 'mystery' solving. For me, new world reporters must have a bigger vision than just their own.Forceful language and sensationally entrenched positions, designed to serve a reporter's 'career' do nothing but obfuscate. In contrast, artful writing, backed up with fact-checking and well illustrated reason, uplifts, even if the news ain't great.I want to see everyone and everything without frosted glass.

  4. s mcintyre

    I appreciate your perspective on the changing landscape of how news information is qualified and shared. That we’re experiencing an exciting revolution of the media industries is not in question. However your very own posting makes an argument for the structure of formal journalism where there are Editors to monitor grammar, format and sentence structure, and maintain a quality of work deserving of publication. Trained Journalists know there are strict rules to abide before their words go out to a public readership. Blogging and personal posts have no screening mechanism to uphold quality of writing and organized presentation of thought. As a result, printed language and the writing professions are, sadly, being corroded.

  5. PRJack

    Well said.Even so, at least traditional 'journalists', replete with editors, tend to use correct spelling and grammar. This simple thing tends to be a hallmark of legitimacy in the written word. Bloggers hamstring themselves when they neglect to pay attention to this – even if it's just 'typos'. I stopped counting the mistakes in this piece for example. That doesn't eradicate the point the author is making, but is certainly makes it seem far more amateurish, and hence less credible.

  6. david_a_eaves

    PRJack, if you notice a typo please let me know. After reading a piece a few times they get hard to see.I also suspect that the technology for spotting typos and grammar problems is going to evolve significantly – especially as editors and proofers get rarer. If there is demand for cleaner writing, services will emerge. Indeed, I wonder, why hasn't someone written and WP press application that allows people to note when they seen typos – a mini comments field of sorts?

  7. david_a_eaves

    “deserving of publication?” I'm sure the same arguments were being made when the printing press emerged: “Look at all these terrible writers! They aren't even writing in Latin! They write in that vulgar French and English and Italian… they are not deserving of publication.”I think I'll allow readers to determine what is deserving… The simply fact is, more people read all the blogs in the world then read all the newspapers. Clearly, the readers feel, that for them, the piece they are reading is deserving of publication.

  8. Jana Lynne White

    PR JACK commented: ” Bloggers hamstring themselves when they neglect to pay attention to this – even if it's just 'typos'. I stopped counting the mistakes in this piece for example. That doesn't eradicate the point the author is making, but is certainly makes it seem far more amateurish, and hence less credible.” Your typo, PR JACK: “but IT certainly makes it seem far more amateurish, and hence less credible.” The human condition is so much fun!

  9. CharlesGYF

    I don't think what's killing journalism today is “lack of transparency.” The main challenge – for journalists as well as emerging bloggers – is how to monetize digital content, which wants to be free.The NYT can spend thousands of dollars investigating corruption but the minute the story goes to print, cable news picks it up, reads from the article and fills news shows with wall to wall chatter. Their ratings go up but 99% of the viewers will not go and buy the article to read in full.The days of EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it! is long gone.Bloggers will have the same problem. They can write and report all they want but how do they plan to sustain themselves? What we will still need in the future is Quality storytelling – transparent or not. I suspect that will be done by people who are part of a whole ecosystem of information and media (i.e., a YouTube like company that has a news division, a cable news channel, a “book” publishing house, etc.)

  10. steveinfos

    I think the crisis in journalism has o do with transparency than it does with financing and the political economy of media. Big Media executives try to claim journalism's woes are caused by the slumping economy or the displacement of audiences to new online media. While these are factors, the primary cause is the highly concentrated media ownership in Canada combined with the deepening bottom-line mentality of big media corporations. See more here:http://thetyee.ca/Mediacheck/2009/03/11/MediaFa…Although there is certainly a relationship between political economy, institutional configurations, and openness. But while the relationship is bi-directional, I'm inclined to think the former two more forcefully shape the later. If we want to save, or re-imagine what journalism is, we'll need to think about how it's financed. By us as citizens, or by unaccountable private entities. Openness is key, but some institutional configurations are more conducive to openness than others. There's also broader political/economic forces that are more or less conducive to openness than others, which should be considered. A city that has a strong “social economy” will likely have an easier time opening government than one with a weak social economy. But I digress…

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  12. Maurice Cardinal

    Brilliant David. Jay Rosen just sent me your way through Twitter.Here's what I wrote in June of 2006 about this topic, well before it was fashionable to criticize.”The irony regarding LaPointe's [managing editor Vancouver Sun] missive to his staff is that NO WON REELY CAIRS THAT MUCH ABOUT SPELING AND GRAMER ANYMOR. R U 4 real krc? WEE DONT KARE. WE DO HOWEVER CARE ABOUT THE CONTENT. GET THE CONTENT RIGHT AND WE WILL LET EVERYTHING ELSE SLIDE. Spell it any way you want. We'll figure it out. Complaining about spelling at The Sun is like sanding rust off the hull of the Queen of the North [sunk earlier in the year]. The ship doesn't need a paint job. It needs to be raised from the deep. In this era of text messaging and SMS, spell it as you see it, but make sure the message is right and that the information you share is complete. While you're at it, could you also beef up the Monday paper and add a Sunday edition?One of the great things about the internet is that it makes it easy to keep an eye on mainstream media. In 2003, we kept track of errors we saw in the Sun. It started as a lark, but eventually we did it for a couple of business reasons. We did it partially as a legal strategy to demonstrate professionalism and accuracy on a national level (you never know when someone will want to launch a class action suit in 2011). The second reason was to demonstrate to SMBs today that what they read in mainstream media should not be trusted. Needless to say, after a short period it became apparent that minor spell check stuff was immaterial, so we focused solely on content. All you have to do is click through the links below to see some of the observations we've made over the last year or so.”You can read more here . . .http://www.olyblog.com/f/06/BickeringF06052006….

  13. jrab

    Thank you for the informative article. I got here from Jay Rosen's twitter feed as well.The idea that the daily newspaper, as a product either ethereal or tangible, could just disappear without any particular replacement having been summoned to relieve it, is a profoundly unsettling one, as you can see from reading some of the previous comments. The Shirky article really hammers down on the repercussions of that likely event.I like your article because it brings into focus what journalism would be without newspapers. I think that there's an ideal, where a story can be broken by a cellphone photo being posted on a twitter feed. Folks are looking for follow-up, however, which has often been the niche of the journalist: to follow up on stories. As long as people are out there following up, I think that might be able to substitute for journalism.

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  17. Ben Atlas

    Most of what is patently in front of our eyes is not seen by us. The mystery of seeing suddenly and discovering the obvious is the deepest mystery of all.And than – “The King is Naked!” – it took a child to notice.This is an intriguing premise but it is more in the realm of philosophy and and religion becoming the new journalism.

  18. Stephane Dubord

    That's a red herring though. One of the reasons I've dropped reading the dailies is that their stories are just as poorly written (and edited) as any blog I've seen. There are still typos and horrendous structure in those “professional” pieces. And most are written for an audience assumed to be barely literate. It was enough to turn me off them entirely. With blogs, I expect some typos here and there. Knowing it's just one person typing it out, I tend to forgive those much more. When they appear in “mainstream print”, with it's levels of review, I have a much harder time.

  19. MickW

    Wonderful article. Makes me keep turning several things over in my mind.1. Ted Rall and his insistence that online news degenerates if it doesn't have a firm way to make readers pay for good journalism. He is usually talking about the coming failure of large news organizations, which he links to his own survival. Are journalists going to have to survive on their own in the future? Should we be keeping large news authority websites alive? 2. There are many good online vehicles for various uses, such as Escrow.com as a financial instrument for sales of items between strangers, Paypal, and — had the U.S. not decided to hammer it out of existence here — Neteller. Each one acquired a reputation without a preexisting brand. If the financial instruments are evolving online, news organizations should have to do the same. If the NYT or LATimes can't make their readers pay, or fail because their news is being lifted and used for free, then we have the opportunity to get brand new ones. I find that encouraging. The internet is slowly working over the news and it's beating it to a pulp. The average internet user is an idiot who receives chain mail and internet legend stories and believes them. These bits of trash compete with and often win over facts, and particularly during election years contribute to “The Big Sort” because they tend to be polarizing. (I found your blog because it was posted on Slashdot.)I disagree with Maurice Cardinal about errors. They can distract a reader from your overall excellence. But I definitely won't stop reading.

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