Monday, May 5, 2008

Fall in Spring, part II

"TTPB" is honored to have received a post from Jay Rosen, the father of Civic Journalism. If you missed it in the comments, it's here.

Professor Rosen takes me (and others) to task, and indeed does show what happens when one overly conflates one's train of thought. For example, he rightly notes that it is wrong-headed to criticize Civic Journalism as not being a business model, because it never offered itself as one. I do stand somewhat embarrassed.

So this time let me try to get from A to D by going through B and C, and not tar Civic Journalism for the circulation problems of the industry or anything else, because I find a great deal to admire in Civic Journalism. The basic philosophy as I have long understood it (having heard Rosen speak to editors at my paper about it a decade ago, when it was still aborning) is to find out what the readers, and thus starting from there the community, are interested in happen, would like leaders to address, instead of simply quoting and speaking to power elites; and to use the power of the press to initiate methods of bringing people together for discourse, discussion, possible problem-solving, idea generation, instead of waiting to simply quote those who speak out on their own. And then to present those ideas to a candid public (and to those political, civic, national leaders) and not simply reflect the ideas of vested stakeholders, and from this all work together to try to overcome the detachment and alientation people often feel from civic issues. Hope that's close enough and I'm sure it misses nuance but I hope it does not overstate.

Listening to the readers is a good thing. Finding out what they think even if they're not telling you is a good thing. Promoting civic engagement is a good thing. Civic Journalism and its backers are not responsible for people linking it to things that it is not, or misusing its tenets. "Crowdsourcing" is not Civic Journalism (thank heavens I didn't say that, at least). And Civic Journalism never said it was going to solve the financial problems of the newspaper industry or provide any sort of a financial model.

That was where I went from A to D. As Rosen notes, Civic Journalism is something that appeals to Good Government types (I hate the phrase Goo Goos, but he used it, albeit pejoratively, so onward...) My point was not in the end with Civic Journalism is not with it as a philosophy or practice, but with how it by appealing to and supporting the nascent utopianism inside journalism it has, without meaning to, provided an underpinning to other trends that are more pernicious.

Civic Journalism says that one of the highest and best things a newspaper can do is to engage its readership in civic issues. (The root of the original idea, if I remember, was just to get more people to vote.) Well, who could argue? To do this it in part needs to abet, encourage, and provide forums for that readership to engage. Or, creating a conversation. To Civic Journalism's great credit, it said that creating a conversation on civic issues and not just quoting official sources was a legitimate thing for a newspaper to do. There was much debate about this at the time -- that this was breaking down the fourth wall, that it was involving ourselves as partisans, that our job was just to reflect what was being said and not encourage its saying. There still is debate.

But creating and engaging in a "conversation" (as opposed to simply allowing a forum for debate, such as the Letters page) thus became a legitimized thing for a newspaper to do at the moment that technology was allowing anyone to have a much louder voice, through postings, blogs, listservs, whatever. And the "conversation," whatever it was, became an end in itself -- as shown by the virtual incoherence of newspapers that vigorously edit whatever appears in print, allow nearly anything (no matter how erroneous, defamatory, racist or whatever) to be posted on the Web site, and say that this makes no difference in the perception of the newspaper, its brand, what it stands for, in the community. Why? Because to do so is perceived as elitist. (Bob Costas' reaction, which I have been searching for but can't find, to the Buzz Bissinger imbroglio was essentially to say, that anyone who objects to the uncivil, if not savage, tone of comments online is accused of ignoring the voice of the people and thus is dismissed ipso facto.) This goes back to Jefferson and Hamilton, but it puts newspapers in a bind.

If our role is simply to provide a forum for the conversation to happen, and the conversation involves the community, then by definition whatever the conversation is is a legitimate conversation, and far be it from us to say, no, a newspaper is not the place for this. We end up being even more passive than before. So poor struggling Newsweek sees its role as "making itself indispensible to the conversation." But exactly what conversation can Newsweek possibly be indispensible to? The conversation of political elites? The conversation of movie fans? The conversation of airline travelers?

TechDirt's comment on this story noted that "sites will be more successful covering a few topics really well (and attracting a lot of links from other sites for their best coverage) than they will trying to cover every topic and often producing superficial, mediocre coverage. It also means that it's not reasonable to expect that most of a site's traffic will come from people who visit their home page on a daily basis. Rather, traffic is driven by being a part of the online conversation and getting other sites to link to and comment on your work. That's going to be a culture shock for a news organization that is used to having a more or less captive audience of several million subscribers who gets its magazine each and every week."

In fact, Newsweek cannot survive in that environment unless it ceases to be Newsweek. (Link in original, and it's telling, in that it to some degree calls the Wall Street Journal irrevelant and the Christian Science Monitor a vital player.) So for Newsweek to seek its future in the maelstrom of the conversation is, to me, a business model with one outcome, the end of Newsweek. The "conversation" is one of individuals, not of organizations. That has a certain utopian appeal, but in the end is anyone in the conversation disinterested in the way a newspaper or news magazine is supposed to be? I'm probably there because I have an axe to grind. Heck, that's why I'm here.
Professor Rosen is right to point out that none of this inevitably proceeds from Civic Journalism, and I admit my error. (Also, the opinions were sinply mine, so I did not source them.) What I meant to say was that CJ legitimized the concept of journalism's creating and enabling civic conversations to the mainstream media, and that while enabling conversations appeals to the disinterested Goo Goo side of journalists, it is not a business model to pay for creating journalism, and journalists who think it is one simply help create more unemployed journalists. If you think the MSM and journalism is a pack of hooey anyway, unemployed journalists do not bother you at all. But they do bother journalists in the MSM.

I have no idea why Blogger lets me have this space to comment, except that it effectively costs them nothing and I, or you, may follow some link, and clink on something, and some money will be made somehow. As long as Blogger lets me post free, why not? Let someone else worry about the money. But in newsrooms we no longer have that luxury. As my friend Doug Fisher puts it, we can't think we can write our way out of this one. Assembling the community in a virtual agora won't do it either.

1 comment:

MaryAnn Chick Whiteside said...

I don't choose to spend my time reading everyone's opinions and reports of actions. I can choose to pay someone to pay attention and sum up what's happening. That should keep the smart journalists who work for thinking organizations employed (I hope)