The Future of Journalism

by Scott London

papers

THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM:
Or, How Americans Are Learning to Have More Interesting Conversations

A Talk at the Literary Society of Youngstown
November 14, 2008

 

Last week, America lost one of its most popular and controversial authors — Michael Crichton. He was best known for his suspenseful technological thrillers, like “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park.” But for me he’s best remembered as a media critic rather than a novelist. Fifteen years ago, I heard him give a talk at the National Press Club in Washington that I thought was almost as riveting as his “Jurassic Park” books. Speaking before the Washington press corps, he declared that the conventional mass media would be gone within ten years — “vanished without a trace,” as he put it. He likened the mass media to the dinosaurs he wrote about in his books and said that radio, television, and newspapers were “on the road to extinction.”

Michael Crichton was a bit theatrical by temperament and had a flair for making headlines. But what he told the press that day wasn’t idle media-bashing or doomsday forecasting. Most of us journalists recognized intuitively that he was correct. Or at least partially correct. His timeline was off, but not his diagnosis.

Here we are fifteen years later. The mass media are still around, but there’s no longer any doubt that the news industry is in deep trouble. I could talk at some length about the problems facing the profession, but I’ll name just a few. Take, for example, the fact that the number of corporations that control a majority of the media companies in the U.S. — and by that I mean newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, music, videos, wire services, and photo agencies — has shrunk over the past 25 years from fifty to just five: Robert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Walt Disney Company, Viacom, NBC Universal, and Time Warner.

In essence, big corporations have taken over what used to be small and independent news organizations. These conglomerates are run chiefly in the interests of profitability, not good journalism. There is nothing wrong with turning a profit, but over the past decade or two a bottom-line mentality has contaminated the industry and overwhelmed the logic of news reporting. The most obvious sign of this is that newsrooms have been forced to cut editorial staff at the same time as they’ve demanded increased output from reporters. Today the average reporter spends about one-third of the time on a story that he or she spent twenty years ago. Needless to say, if you take time away from reporters, you’re taking away their most important working asset. They simply can’t do their jobs properly.

In this commercialized world, journalists are no longer active gatherers of news, going out and finding stories, making contacts, and checking facts. Instead, they are processers of second-hand information, often the sort that comes over the wire from Reuters and the Associated Press — or, worse, from the PR industry. Increasingly, they churn out news without taking the time to check it and without asking themselves whether it’s even newsworthy in the first place. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the coverage of the entertainment world where courtesy photos and news releases are routinely dressed up and passed off as bona fide journalism.

Another problem that I’ve written about is a certain disdain for the public that has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Robert Darnton, a great and brilliant writer who used to work for the New York Times, has written wonderfully about how young reporters are socialized by the culture of the newsroom. He recalls how young reporters at the Times were urged to write their stories with an image in their mind of a twelve-year-old girl. That was the ideal “image person,” as communications theorists call it — the imaginary person for whom a story is pitched. Why a twelve-year-old girl? Because news should be presented and contexualized in a way that can be understood by even the most unsophisticated reader. But needless to say, when reporters imagine their readers as children their stories speak down to the reader. That’s what we see a lot of today: the news is not edifying us so much as dumbing us down.

This is also reflected in a subtle paternalism where journalists see themselves as “guardians” of the truth. They insist on protecting the public from what they consider dangerous or foolish ideas. They do this in very crafty ways. Sometimes it takes the form of a kind of chic cynicism. A story about an influential author or management consultant will carry the word “guru” in the headline, for example. What rational person would identify with a guru? Sometimes it takes the form of a point-counterpoint reportorial style where all views are immediately canceled out by competing views, leaving the reader unsure what to think. Another insidious approach is to describe a trend or idea, always and only, by its most kooky adherent or the most misguided experiments carried out in its name. A story about a popular author of self-help books, for example, will begin by describing all the groupies who show up at her talks, instead of attempting to represent her ideas in a coherent and meaningful way.

I think these approaches stem from a professional ethos — a largely unquestioned set of assumptions — that most journalists share. It’s typically passed down from teachers and mentors, and reinforced over coffee, at the water cooler, in meetings. The problem is that the reader, TV viewer, or radio listener has no real place in this worldview.

I remember a conversation with the editor of a major newspaper in the Midwest. He told me that in his conversations with editors and reporters, the average reader was often referred to, in his words, “as either a consumer whom we have to please in some way, or an idiot we can ignore.” What this tells us is that mainstream journalists aren’t really interested in engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the public. They prefer to simply fire salvos of information at people.

And not surprisingly, people are fed up. Opinion polls consistently show that reporters are held in very low esteem by ordinary Americans, somewhere just a notch or two above lawyers and used car salesmen. A poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that sixty percent of respondents thought that journalists had nothing in common with them. Only 26 percent said the press looks out for ordinary people. Journalism used to have a certain mystique. The trench-coated, hard-drinking reporter was at least a man of the people. But that era is gone.

When Michael Crichton predicted that the media would vanish without a trace, he wasn’t just talking about how news has become corporatized, or how reporters are engaging in “churnalism,” or how the public has come to distrust — and even hate — the media. What he was saying was that the mass media would disappear because they’re becoming irrelevant. And that’s what we’re seeing today.

A vivid description of just how bad things have become appeared in the New York Times this past week. In the words of reporter David Carr:

It’s been an especially rotten few days for people who type on deadline…. On Tuesday, the Christian Science Monitor announced that, after a century, it would cease publishing a weekday paper. Time Inc., the Olympian home of Time magazine, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, announced that it was cutting 600 jobs and reorganizing its staff. And Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, compounded the grimness by announcing it was laying off 10 percent of its work force — up to 3,000 people. Clearly, the sky is falling. The question now is how many people will be left to cover it. It goes on. The day before, the Tribune Company had declared that it would reduce the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times by 75 more people, leaving it approximately half the size it was just seven years ago. The Star-Ledger of Newark, the 15th-largest paper in the country, which was threatened with closing, will apparently survive, but only after it was announced that the editorial staff would be reduced by 40 percent. And two weeks ago, TV Guide, one of the famous brand names in magazines, was sold for one dollar, less than the price of a single copy.

Now I realize we’re in an economic crisis, one that’s affecting the news business every bit as much as the housing industry, the banking industry, and the auto industry. But what we’re seeing today isn’t a temporary ratings or circulation decline on account of the economy. It reflects a seismic shift that’s taking place in the media world — a fundamental reordering of the industry.

And it’s not pretty. Circulation figures are falling. Ad revenues are down. Magazines are folding. Newspapers are closing. Reporters are losing their jobs. And those who are managing to hold on are running faster and faster just to stay in the same place. So, for example, long-time reporters are retooling in order to compete with bloggers on the Internet who are half their age and willing to work for a quarter of the pay. They’re working longer hours with fewer resources and less support. So it’s a tough time.

But I’m hopeful, even in the face of somewhat grim statistics. For all the despair about the death of newspapers, the decline of radio, and the imminent death of local TV news, there is a transformation taking place. I see it as the rise of a new kind of journalism, one that will benefit us both as individuals and as a culture, at least in the long run. I don’t have a name for it. But I can tell you it revolves around something rather prosaic, namely conversation — the exchange of ideas, information, and personal stories that allow us to create shared meaning and common purpose. The next stage in the evolution of journalism, I believe, is one that revolves around the act of a conversation.

We’re rapidly moving into a time when the most interesting news comes to us not as reports or stories so much as dialogues, forums, and even threads. This isn’t just the result of new technologies which have pulled the rug out from under the news industry. It’s also the result of people wanting to participate in the making of meaning, of people wanting to weigh in and help shape the conversation. We’re no longer content to just take news sitting down, so to speak. We want to be a part of it. We want to respond, to engage, to act on what we’re hearing, seeing, and reading.

In the old days, news used to be in the business of delivering information to people. That was its primary function — and a very important one. But today, information is all around us. The Internet, satellites, cell phones, and other technologies have transformed our relationship to it. In a matter of seconds, you can find out just about anything you want, no matter where you happen to be on the planet. What this means is that news-as-information is no longer adequate. Today we require something more of journalists.

Most people in the news business understand this. They recognize that their most important function is no longer just to deliver information but to organize and make sense of it. In recent years, the news media have come to focus increasingly on analysis and commentary as a way of offering context and making news useful to people. But here’s the problem: ultimately, information is only useful to people to the extent that they themselves are engaged in making sense of it.

Good teachers know this well. When they stand in front of the classroom and lecture at their students, retention tends to be fairly low. But when they engage their students in dialogue and group inquiry, they tend to stay focused and actively involved. There is a term for this approach to teaching: the Socratic method, or Socratic dialogue. It traces back 2,500 years to the philosophers of ancient Greece. The Greeks may not have invented dialogue, but they introduced the idea that individuals couldn’t be intelligent on their own, that it was only by reasoning with others that they could uncover the truth for themselves. The Greeks understood that if two or more people were unsure about a question, they could accomplish something together they couldn’t do on their own. By questioning and probing each other, carefully dissecting and analyzing ideas, finding the inconsistencies, never attacking or insulting but always searching for what they could accept between them, they could gradually attain deeper level of understanding and insight.

This idea has powerful implications, especially for journalists today struggling to make news relevant, interesting, and, ultimately, meaningful to people. What it suggests is that they need to engage people in a conversation — that news has limited value if it’s presented to people ready-made. It must be participatory to be meaningful.

E.B. White famously said: “Democracy is a letter to the editor.” Well, today it’s never been easier to to talk back to the media. Practically every news story on the Internet now carries, in addition to a byline, an e-mail address to the writer of the story. But that’s just the beginning. We’re now seeing the emergence of a new media ecosystem, where online communities can discuss — and extend — the stories created by mainstream media. The Internet has changed the entire landscape. Ordinary people can now engage in participatory journalism, grassroots reporting, annotative reporting, commentary, and fact-checking — all of which the mainstream media then feed upon — developing them as a pool of tips, sources and story ideas.

Now that anyone can be a reporter or commentator on the Internet we’re seeing the emergence of a two-way exchange. People are no longer relegated to being passive recipients of stories and information, but can engage with it and making it work for them and their communities. The journalist now becomes a “forum leader,” or a mediator rather than a gatekeeper or interpreter. 

The rise of this kind of journalism on the Internet is a fascinating development because it resembles conversation again, much like the original journalism that took place in public squares and coffee houses a century ago. The underlying principles of the new journalism remain the same as they were then, but the technology is different.

Speaking of the public square, the mass media have been the one of the main culprits in the breakdown of the American community. We’ve become isolated from one another, from our neighbors, and from our communities. Instead of engaging with people in authentic face-to-face conversations, we sit around and watch TV. We watch pundits sparring on TV shows that claim to be news programs but are in fact little more than entertainment dressed up as serious journalism.

I believe, with a qualified optimism, that these same media can play a critical role in the restoration of community. I see a time in the not too distant future when the media will be imbued with goals and values that can reweave the strands of our social fabric. And, when that day comes, the content of news will look very different. There will be less sex and violence and more inspiring and positive examples. There will be less observation and entertainment, more interaction and participation. Less hand-wringing and blaming and more shouldering of responsibility. Fewer false choices and more true alternatives. More discussion and debate. More context, more spirit, more wisdom. But in order to fulfill this promise, the media need to learn to bring us together. They have to become the matchmakers, the conveners, and the community salon-keepers.

I’m hopeful. I’m already seeing the early signs of such a shift. And if the conventional media don’t survive — as Michael Crichton predicted back in 1993 — it’s not the end of the world. We’ll have a lot more peace of mind, for one thing. And for another, we’ll have to learn how to talk to people face-to-face again. That’s becoming a lost art, but one that’s sorely needed today.

Thank you very much.