These Economist debates seem to unspool in slo-mo. They’re a sin against realtime. But the third and final round of my debate with Jay Rosen on whether the net is making journalism better is now up.
Here’s my closing statement:
Like many who celebrate the net’s informational bounties, my opponent in this debate is a member of the online elite. He is a fixture on Twitter, having written, at last count, 16,963 tweets and garnered 61,765 followers. He is a prolific and popular blogger. He broadcasts his thoughts to the world through a FriendFeed account, a Facebook account, a Posterous account, a Tumblr account, a Storify account, a YouTube account and a Google+ account. And he has a weekly podcast. Jay Rosen is very much of the net.
I do not intend that as a criticism. Mr Rosen is plying his trade, and he is doing a fine job of it. On the internet, hyperactivity is no sin. But even though he has devoted so much time and energy to the online world, he has not been able to back up his defence of the net’s effects on journalism with facts. Instead, he continues to give us sunny platitudes and questionable generalisations. In his latest statement, he declares that “more people are consuming more [good journalism] than ever before”. That is a remarkably sweeping claim. What evidence does he supply to back it up? None.
I sense that Mr Rosen’s opinions about the state of journalism reflect the internet hothouse in which he spends his days. He sees a smattering of experiments in online reporting, few of which reach the masses, and he senses a renaissance in journalism. He sees a few dozen comments appended to an article, and he declares we are in the midst of a populist media revolution. He sees some nascent attempts to figure out how to pay for long-form journalism, and he senses an imminent widening of the national attention span. He calls journalism a “democratic beast”, but his “democracy” seems awfully narrow and awfully privileged.
Outside the new-media hothouse, people do not have the luxury of spending their waking hours tweeting, blogging, commenting, or cobbling together a Daily Me from a welter of sites and feeds. They are holding down jobs (or trying to find jobs). They have kids to raise, parents to care for, friends to keep up with, homes to clean. When they have spare time to catch up on the news, they often confront a wasteland. Their local paper has closed or atrophied. The newscasts on their local TV stations seem mainly concerned with murders, traffic jams and thunderstorms. Cable news shows present endless processions of blowhards. America’s once-mighty news magazines are out of business or spectres of their former selves.
In this light, Mr Rosen’s suggestion that “journalism, to be useful, needs not only to reach us with information, but to engage us in public argument” seems facile. Most people today would be happy with the information. And has the “public argument” really improved since the web’s arrival? It was loud and polarised before, and now it is louder and more polarised. The web rewards, with links and traffic, fervid expressions of ideological purity. We can see the result in Washington, where politicians preach, and tweet, to the converted, and the spirit of compromise, of appreciating an opponent’s point of view, is all but gone. We have no shortage of argument today. What we have is a shortage of good, unbiased reporting.
The drift towards our current state of affairs began long ago. But the web has accelerated the trend by making it much more difficult to keep a robust, even-handed news organisation in operation. Mr Rosen may be loath to admit it, but professional reporters are and will remain the main source of news. “In any community, journalists are the primary intermediaries for news,” wrote the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. “They ask tough questions. They chase obscure leads and confidential sources. They translate technical matters into clear prose. Where professionals are on the job, the public watchdog is well fed. Part-time, episodic or unco-ordinated public vigilance is not the same.” It is fine to talk about “news as a conversation”, but in the end what matters is how well journalism keeps the broad public informed and maintains a watchful eye on the powerful. By weakening those roles, the net has done great damage.
I understand how a member of the plugged-in elite would assume the internet has improved journalism. If you spend hours a day consuming news and producing opinions, the net provides you with endless choices, diversions and opportunities for self-expression. For the news junkie, the net is a crack house that dispenses its wares for free. But if you look beyond the elite, you see a citizenry starved of hard, objective reporting. For the typical person, the net’s disruptions have meant not a widening of options but a narrowing of them.
Mr Rosen is a skilled advocate for the net’s benefits. But praise of the gains needs to be tempered by an understanding of how the net has eroded journalism’s foundations. The damage is not over yet. Just last month, the Gannett chain announced the firing of 700 more employees at 80 community newspapers. If we are going to secure a better future for journalism, online and off, we need to be honest with ourselves about its present condition. We can begin by rejecting the motion before us.