Reports of My Death… Well, You Know the Rest

Watching the second presidential debate last night, I was struck by two quotes from one of this week’s readings: “[L]arge news media companies are being scooped by their own sources—even by their own reporters on Twitter!” And, ““[it] remains unclear if emerging, upstart news organizations empowered by radical connectivity can ensure the kind of accountability Big Media did in its heyday.” (Both are from Nicco Mele’s new book, The End of Bigpre-order today!)

Twitter and the blogosphere were alive last night—a cacophony of opinion and ideas. But the bulk of the fact-checking was coming from the pros: CNN, the Times, even Fox. Most bloggers don’t have the knowledge management that real-time accountability requires. So is professional journalism really on its death bed, or even on the ropes?

Clay Shirky, in one of our first readings, and in his blog, has written memorably about “mass amateurization.” One of his primary questions is whether news is “what is newsworthy,” or “what is covered by the press.” It used to be that journalists weren’t journalists unless they were employed by publishers, and there weren’t many of those. And it used to be that publishers weren’t publishers unless they possessed the means of production, and that was prohibitively expensive. But from Microsoft Publisher to $80 inkjets, the prohibition is gone. You don’t have to be a Sulzberger or a Chandler or a Graham—anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a journalist. Production-wise, re-creative tools like WordPress and Flickr make every desktop as sophisticated a press shop as any national paper that existed in the 1980s. (Content-wise, that’s less clear, which is part of the point of this blog entry.)

Papers have done their best to stay ahead of the game, and some of them—the New York Times, especially [edited 10-18-12 to include this perfect example of what the Times does better than anyone else:] —have excelled at leveraging their size (and money and technology) to create graphics and interactive tools that exceed the capabilities of bloggers. But whatever gap the major outlets have maintained isn’t widening, and the upstarts are nipping at the establishment’s heels. As Shirky notes in a more recent blog, “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

But does comparable production mean comparable quality? I’m reminded of some received knowledge a literary agent once told me: “Everyone has a book inside them, and most of them should stay there.” There are some great blogs, no doubt—writers who have burnished expertise and manage to create worthwhile material on a regular basis (for two I like, see here and here). And a good friend of mine was the first accredited blogger at the White House.

But there’s also a long tail of others, shouting into the wilderness (and I include this experiment in that group). The Daou Report points out that there’s no metric to assess the impact of blogs, but also that assessment may be moot, because of the disproportionate influence blogs can exert. Perception may be everything—if people believe blogs are influential, they are.

And there are certainly many who believe them influential. The so-called future-of-news consensus, as Dean Starkman terms it, is an enthusiastic embrace of the blogging/Google/social-network paradigm. But Starkman questions the consensus: “I’m going to make a bold leap and predict—eenie meenie chili beanie—that for a long time the Future of News is going to look unnervingly like the Present of News: hobbled news organizations, limping along, supplemented by swarms of new media outlets doing their best. It’s not sexy, but that’s journalism for you.”

I’m leery of accepting the premise that professional news media is on the way out. The physical paper may indeed be, and there may be headcount diminishment for the industry. But there are still services that only bankrolled entities can provide. The amount of time, effort, and access that an investigative coup like Dana Priest’s multi-part expose on the waste and overlap of the intelligence sector requires is only possible with an expense account. Americans still want and need the fourth estate to fill this role, and as the economics midterm I took this morning asserts, where there’s demand there will be supply.

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