A journalistic ethic for the 21st century

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to preserve the best features of traditional journalism as media continues to be transformed in the online era.  At its best, journalism is defined by the ethic of its practitioners, though defining that ethic can be difficult.  Some might say it’s about objectivity – or even impartiality.  It’s skeptical; it’s independent; it’s “just the facts”.

Whatever it is, there’s a good argument to be made that it’s badly in disrepair, or perhaps even fundamentally ill-suited to the web.  NYU Professor Jay Rosen, for one, has mounted a sophisticated critique against what he dubs “the quest for innocence”, described as “the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus ‘prove’ in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade.”

Yet even if the journalistic ethic is flawed, that doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects worth preserving.  But what are they?  And how might they differ from the basic requirements of what we might call “intellectual integrity” that one would expect from good non-journalistic writing like that of an academic blogger?

I’d puzzled over this question for a while and, despite lots of tentative thoughts, hadn’t really come up with a good model or set of guidelines.  And then Dave Weigel got fired from the Washington Post, setting off debate over the role of the blogger/reporter.  Via Harvard’s Nieman Lab I came across this post by Jim Henley outlining the blog-reporter ethos:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically magazine-reporter ethos, says Henley.

I submit that this is just magazine-journalism ethos with the addition of cat pictures. If you think about what good long and short-form journalism looks like at a decent magazine, it looks like the bullet-points above…

…What blogging does is enable the magazine-journalism ethos to meet a frequent publication schedule – even more frequent than the newspaper’s traditional daily schedule.

I’m not a journalist, but this strikes me as exactly right.  Good magazine journalism contains a healthy dose of journalistic ethic without the worst excesses of the quest for innocence.

I have seldom read Weigel, but my preferred example of this blog-reporter ethos is Andy Revkin, author of the blog Dot Earth and former New York Times science reporter.  Here’s how Revkin describes his blogging:

I’ve spent a quarter century doing “conventional” journalism, and sought to create Dot Earth as an unconventional blog. It is not a spigot for my opinion. It is instead a journey that you’re invited to take with me. It is certainly not conventional journalism. To my mind, for most of the issues that will shape this century most profoundly, the old model of journalism is no longer a good fit.


Lately, I’ve been describing the kind of inquiry I do on Dot Earth as providing a service akin to that of a mountain guide after an avalanche. Follow me and I can guarantee an honest search for a safe path. This is a big contrast from the dominant journalism paradigm of the last century, crystallized in Walter Cronkite’s “ That’s the way it is” signoff.

As a regular Dot Earth reader, I’d argue that Revkin’s blogging is consistent with Henley’s vision.  This vision of journalism outlined by Henley and – I believe – practiced by Revkin strikes me as the best of both worlds.

While Revkin states above that the blog is “not a spigot for my opinion” it is not voiceless and if it is opinionated, it isn’t in the same manner as an op-ed column.  Freed from some of journalism’s more damaging constraints, it brings to bear a perspective; but one tempered by a journalistic ethic fit for the 21st century.

The vanishing media middle class

Pew published a study a while back titled New Media, Old Media on the differences between new/social media and the traditional press.  There are a lot of interesting takeaways, among them:

The BBC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post accounted for fully 80% of all links [in the blogosphere].

The Myth of Digital DemocracyBut what about the long tail?  What about the internet fragmenting culture?  Does this data contradict those claims?  Not entirely.  The best framework I’m aware of for understanding this phenomenon comes from Matthew Hindman’s 2009 book The Myth of Digital Democracy (read Chapter 1 here).

Hindman, a political scientist at Arizona State University, writes about what he calls the “missing middle” which he describes as follows:

On the one hand, the news market in cyberspace seems even more concentrated on the top ten or twenty outlets than print media is.  On the other, the tiniest outlets have indeed earned a substantial portion of the total eyeballs…. It is the middle-class outlets that have seen relative decline in the online world.

The rich get richer; the poor get richer.  The middle class gets the squeeze.

The Pew study doesn’t necessarily confirm Hindman’s analysis – he has his own data – and I’m not in any position to judge his methods.  The point, however, is that the concentration of sources linked to in the blogosphere does not necessarily contradict claims of fragmentation or the long tail.  It merely complicates them.

Case Study: Why I don’t need to pay for news

I learned yesterday viaTwitter that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham would not be supporting the Kerry-Lieberman climate & energy bill that he helped to craft.  Grist reporter David Roberts tweeted:

Profile in Courage: Lindsey Graham now says he’ll vote against #climatebill. Not enough offshore drilling left. http://bit.ly/bHraHO

The link, to National Journal, requires a subscription and offers only a teaser. Annoying.  But I got the news and surely would hear more soon.

And I did, this morning, when I checked my email and opened up the day’s Wonkbook, Ezra Klein’s morning policy roundup.  Here’s what Wonkbook gave me:

Citing changes to the offshore drilling provisions, Lindsey Graham says he’ll vote against the climate bill he helped write: http://bit.ly/bj4U7J

Nothing I didn’t know.  And still the gated link.  So I headed to my RSS reader.  Sure enough, Brad Plumer had a nice post on the subject.  Of course, he’s got a National Journal subscription, so in the course of the post he gives me three paragraphs from the original article, while adding analysis of his own.  In case that wasn’t enough, the Washington Post’s post, links to the National Journal, and borrows a few quote from Graham.

I wrote previously about how hard it is for paywalls to compete with free content.  As long as this sort of quoting is legal, there’s just no need for me to pay for hard news.  Not only can other reporters cover the same story once it’s been broken, but bloggers can quote paragraphs at a time.  So if you want me to support your journalism you’re better off asking nicely.

The future of paying attention

Nicholas Carr has a short piece in The Wall Street Journal reiterating his argument that the web is “turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.”  (More Carr here and here.)  Is the web uniquely full of “constant distractions and interruptions”?  Carr drives home his point with a comparison to another medium:

It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness.

Sure enough, one of the attributes of the book, as a technology, that I’ve lately come to appreciate is the focus it lends.  Being offline, and thus comparatively free of distraction, can be a technological benefit.

But in a companion WSJ piece, Clay Shirky takes issue with the comparison:

In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

The key, Shirky argues, is that we, as a society, learn how to make good use of new mediums.

The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.

This is probably not enough to satisfy Carr, who fears that we’ll trade in a superior set of habits and structures for an inferior one.  From the Carr piece:

[Developmental psychologist Patricia] Greenfield concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.

Carr’s prescription is less time online.  But I’m personally much more intrigued by the project of designing the habits, norms, technologies and social structures that allow us to maximize the benefits of the web.

This is what author and academic Howard Rheingold calls “infotention.” As he puts it:

Infotention is a word I came up with to describe the psycho-social-techno skill/tools we all need to find our way online today, a mind-machine combination of brain-powered attention skills with computer-powered information filters… Knowing what to pay attention to is a cognitive skill that steers and focuses the technical knowledge of how to find information worth your attention. More and more, knowing where to direct your attention involves a third element, together with your own attentional discipline and use of online power tools – other people.

Cognitive discipline + technology + a good network = the future of paying attention.  No one knows how well it will work, but few can deny the potential offered by the web.  Learning how to use it well is one of the greatest challenges we now face.

Framing your friendships

Two things are indisputably true of Tyler Cowen: he has an interesting mind, and he has an economist’s mind.

This struck me as I was reading Chapter 4 of Create Your Own Economy, titled ‘IM, Cell Phones, and Facebook’.  It’s a quirky (and occasionally funny) chapter about how our choice of communication platform impacts our communications.

On one level it’s the “medium is the message” thesis.  But, since he’s a behavioral economist, Cowen frames his argument as competition between competing frames of reference.

We choose to send or receive messages in particular ways, in part, to determine which kinds of framing effects will influence our thoughts and emotions.  The greater the number of media we have to choose from, the more likely this process will suit our tastes.

Though economists often discuss framing effects in the context of bias or irrationality, Cowen focuses on the potential benefits of competition between mediums.  “Facebook,” he writes, “has made me friendlier… It is a framing effect that I have chosen to keep, and to my advantage.”

Framing effects may not be the simplest lense through which to view his basic point: greater choice in our communications is a good thing.  But it’s an interesting lense.  And an economist’s lense.

Tyler Cowen on cultural literacy

I’m reading Tyler Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy and I’ll be posting thoughts and snippets as I go.  Here’s Cowen on the new cultural literacy:

What cultural literacy means today is not whether you can “read” all the symbols in a Rubens painting but whether you can operate an iPhone and other web-related technologies.  The iPhone, if used properly, can get you to website on Rubens as well.  The question is not whether you know the classics but whether you are capable of assembling your own blend of cultural bits.  When viewed in this light, today’s young people are very culturally literate and in fact they are very often the cultural leaders and creators. (pg. 59)

I’m only a few chapters in, but I’m greatly enjoying the book.  And, of course, I can’t recommend Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, highly enough.

Google’s optimism

There’s plenty to discuss in James Fallows’ excellent Atlantic piece on how Google plans to save the news industry.  It has some good background on what’s hurting the industry, notes that hard news never made money, touches on un-bundling and re-bundling (aggregating), and plenty more.

I want to briefly highlight two points.  First, Google is supposedly agnostic about paywalls:

…people inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news. “We have no horse in that race or particular model in mind,” Krishna Bharat, one of the executives most deeply involved in Google’s journalistic efforts, told me, in a typical comment. His team was already working with some newspapers planning to put their content behind paywalls, others planning to remain free and hoping to become more popular with readers annoyed when paywalls crop up elsewhere, and still others planning a range of free and paid offerings. For Bharat and his colleagues, free-versus-paid is an empirical rather than theological matter. They’ll see what works.

[Emphasis mine.]  Read that bolded line again.  Of course people will pay for news?  Really?  If it doesn’t seem all that obvious to you, you’re in good company.

But I’d offer a couple thoughts to put Google’s position in context:

1) Google has pissed off enough newspaper editors already (as Fallows discusses); why piss them off even more by pointing out that paywalls are unlikely to work?

2) If you include advertising as a way “people will pay in some form” then the statement is actually pretty reasonable.

Which brings me to the second point worth calling out.  Google is bullish on the potential of web ads to bring in big revenue:

Newspaper and magazine publishers have felt trapped by the death of print, says [Neal Mohan, VP of Product Dev.], because display ads in print have been such a crucial cash cow. The switch to online display ads has not offset the losses in print, since the “per eyeball” revenue from online display ads has been so much lower…Online display ads may not be so valuable now, he said, but that is because we’re still in the drawn-out “transition” period. Sooner or later—maybe in two years, certainly in 10—display ads will, per eyeball, be worth more online than they were in print.

I know very little about the economics of web ads so I’m in no position to comment here, but I certainly hope he’s right.

In any case, it’s a characteristically terrific piece by Fallows.  I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Sachs on our policy discourse

Economist Jeffrey Sachs has a column in Scientific American complaining about the dismal state of policy discourse in the U.S.

In general, our political system regularly puts around the table people who are not the best equipped to find deep solutions to our problems. Certainly it has also done so on climate change, with the nation’s expert community kept at arms length from the legislative drafting process. As with health care, the outcome has been House and Senate draft legislation that lacks public support. The same has been true on Afghanistan: the “war cabinet” has lacked real expertise on that country’s culture, economy and development challenges, and the U.S. public has remained uninformed of true options.

As a start toward better policy making, the administration should put forward a detailed analysis justifying each major proposed policy change. That white paper could form the basis for coherent public debate and reflection, along with Web sites where outside experts would be invited to share opinions accessible to the public. The public, too, would be invited to blog about that position paper. A version of the draft legislation understandable to lay readers would also be posted (alongside the more technical and inevitable legalese) and opened to online commentaries by experts and the public. The administration and Congress would rely more heavily on external advisory panels to tap into the nation’s wealth of expertise and to draw on the views of business, academia and other sectors of society.

In our governance systems today, the intrinsic complexity of the challenges easily outpaces the gut instincts and amateurism of the existing government machinery. I would not presume or recommend that decisions be left to the purported experts, who often represent special interests or have their own biases or narrow views. Still, a systematic vetting of policy options, with recognized experts and the public commenting and debating, will vastly improve on our current policy performance, in which we often fly blind or hand the controls over to narrow interests and viewpoints.

I agree that this is a problem, and that we could do better.  But count me unconvinced that an administration white paper will make much of a difference.

Civics vs. culture

A friend objected to my post Subsidizing the Style section on the grounds that I was discounting the social value of newspapers’ cultural content.  Fair enough.  The Times, and newspapers more generally, obviously contribute to our cultural conversation and that’s important.

But if tomorrow newspapers disappeared entirely which would suffer more: our civic discourse or our cultural discourse?

To me the answer is clear.  Newspapers are much more central to civic life than to cultural life, though their role in the latter is not to be discounted.

Consideration of that hypothetical has to include consideration of which types of content would be easily replaced by other sources.  I think in the case of culture-oriented feature content the web would likely provide ample replacement for the loss of newspapers.  In the case of beat reporting, investigative reporting, war reporting, etc. I’m not convinced.  Hence my focus on subsidizing those areas.

Subsidizing the Style section

Last post I wrote about my hesitancy to pay for The New York Times, despite being a loyal, regular reader.  I’d rather be asked to donate to keep quality journalism publicly available than forced to pay to privately consume it.

NYT Style 08

In this post I want to touch on another reason why I’m hesitant to pay for the Times.  Even if I decided to mentally justify the purchase of an annual NYT subscription as a charitable donation to support quality journalism (assuming a model in which this paid for some/most of the paper to be freely available) I’d still have serious reservations.

Much of the Times’ work fits my definition of core civic journalism, the often expensive reporting that is essential to a democracy.  But much of the its work does not.

In addition to its terrific international and political reporting, for instance, the Times has a Style section, a Travel section, a Food section, and plenty of other less essential feature-oriented segments.

Even if I approached a Times subscription as a charitable donation I’d be hard-pressed to justify that “donation”, knowing that some portion of my contribution would pay for those non-essential segments.*

Think of it this way: the disappearance of the Times would be a huge civic loss.  The disappearance of the Style section would be no loss at all.

Unless there were some way to feel confident that my dollars were directly subsidizing essential, socially important journalism, I’d be hard-pressed to subscribe out of the goodness of my heart.

*Traditionally the Style section – and the advertising it draws – has subsidized foreign bureaus, investigative reporting, etc.  That model worked well for a time.  Some might even argue that since these feature segments are popular, I need not worry that they require any subsidy; more likely, one might counter, they’re still subsidizing the quality journalism I’m worried about.  Possibly.  But I worry that as the current advertising-driven model continues to erode, that arrangement will end.  And all the incumbents who work for those socially unimportant portions of the paper will fight tooth-and-nail to secure an equal share of whatever revenue the Times can find, my subscription included.