At the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, Andrew Sullivan said, “Journalism has become too much about journalists.”
True. It’s not just that newspapers are covering their own demise as thoroughly as Michael Jackson’s. This is about the mythology that news needs newspapers – that without them, it’s not news.
In an offhand reference about the economics of news, Dave Winer wrote, “When you think of news as a business, except in very unusual circumstances, the sources never got paid. So the news was always free, it was the reporting of it that cost…. The new world pays the source, indirectly, and obviates the middleman.” This raises two questions: both whether news needs newsmen and whether journalists and news organizations deserve to be paid.
I tweeted Winer’s line and Howard Weaver then started a discussion with this tweet: “Is it news if it’s not reported? I don’t think so.” I don’t think he’s saying that the reporting needs to be done by a professional, but he is saying that reporting is what makes news news. Does news need the middleman?
Steve Yelvington just tweeted that “The Washington Post ’salon’ debacle is a clash between myth and reality on so many levels: ‘the select few who will actually get it done.’” Being needed.
The realization of that myth – the myth of necessity – hit me head-on when I read an unselfconsciously narcissistic feature in The New York Times this week about the room where the 4 p.m. news meeting is held. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has likened that meeting to a “religious ceremony.” The Times feature certainly acted as if it were taking us inside the Pope’s chapel: “The table was formidable: oval and elegant, with curves of gleaming wood. The editors no less so: 11 men and 7 women with the power to decide what was important in the world.”
Behold the hubris of that: They decide what is important. Because we can’t. That’s what it says. That’s what they believe.
I was trained to accept that myth: that journalists decide what’s important, that it’s a skill with which they are imbued: news judgment. I worked hard to gain and exercise that judgment. The myth further holds that no judgment of importance is more important than The Times’; that’s why, every night, it sends out to the rest of newspaperdom its choices. News isn’t news until it’s reported and it’s not important until The Times says so.
But why do we need anyone to tell us what’s important? We decide that. What’s important to you isn’t important to me. Why must we all share the same importance? Because we all shared the same newspaper. There is the wellspring of the myth: the press.
I am trying to cut through these many myths about newsso I can reexamine them. In something I’m writing now for another project, I say: “To start, it is critical that we understand and question every assumption that emerged from old realities – for example, that news should be a once-a-day, one-for-all, one-way experience just because that’s what the means of production and distribution of the newspaper and the TV broadcast necessitated.” And: “Owning the printing press or broadcast tower used to define advantage: I own and control the means of production and distribution and you and don’t, which enables me to decide what gets distributed and forces you to come to me if you want to reach the public through news or through advertising, whose price I alone set with little or no concern for competition.”
No more. The press has become journalism’s curse, not only because it now brings a crushing cost burden but also because it led to all these myths: that we journalists own the news, that we’re necessary to it, that we decide what’s reported and what’s important, that we can package the world for you every day in a box with a bow on it, that what we do is perfect (with rare, we think, exceptions), that the world should come to us to be informed, that we deserve to be paid for this service, that the world needs us.
The journalistic narcissism that extrudes from the press extends to so much of the journalist’s relationship with her public. Jay Rosen just tweeted his headline for Plain Dealer Connie Schultz’ return of spitball (below): “A blogger was mean to me so that means I’m right.” John McQuaid tweeted that he feared I was “only abetting Connie Schultz’s effort to turn a real debate into a bloggers vs. MSM culture war.” He’s right. Schultz didn’t address the substantive objections to her hare-brained and dangerous scheme; she made it about her.
Oh, I know, this is all a big set-up for your punchline: A blogger is talking about narcissism? Heh. Isn’t blogging the ultimate narcissism? But who called it that, who made that judgment? Journalists, as far as I’ve seen. When they talk, it’s important. When we talk, it’s narcissism. What we say can’t be important – can it? – because we’re not paid and printed. But I don’t want to replay the blog culture war, which I keep hoping is over. I want to question assumptions, to find the cause and effect of myths.
And that’s what Winer is trying to do when he reminds us that the important people in news are the sources and witnesses, who can now publish and broadcast what they know. The question journalists must ask, again, is how they add value to that. Of course, journalists can add much: reporting, curating, vetting, correcting, illustrating, giving context, writing narrative. And, of course, I’m all in favor of having journalists; I’m teaching them. But what’s hard to face is that the news can go on without them. They’re the ones who need to figure out how to make themselves needed. They can and they will but they can no longer simply rest on the press and its myths.