Wednesday, August 30, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Defending "Old" Media

It's always been good American sport to bash the media, yet we keep coming back to journalists to let us know what is happening. How could we pontificate about the woeful media if we haven't first been educated by those we are so quick to attack?

I seem to have emerged as a lonely defender of today's media, arguing the accomplishments of today's reporters and editors far outweighs the occasional case of plagiarism or bias; recently I've made that case, fruitlessly, to diplomats and high school students.

Lately I've seen still more evidence that "old" media is on its way out. I'll admit, the newspaper industry needs to do a better job of focusing on new delivery methods for its content; The Economist has some good thoughts on that subject. But it's one thing to criticize a business model, quite another to criticize long-standing methods of gathering and reporting news. That's why these two examples of "new" media got under my skin.

The first is relatively harmless. Wired News, which is a fascinating read but has never exactly been known for journalistic objectivity (like Fox News, they preach to the converted), is experimenting with "wiki" journalism. They've posted a story written by a reporter and they are inviting anyone who wishes to edit it. (At least they ask that the quotes not be changed; how sad they even have to mention that!) Now I think this is relatively harmless, because it's bound to fail.

We've learned that Wikipedia has evolved a heirarchy of contributors and that structure provides at least the hope of semi-quality work; the Wired story will only be as good as its last editor, who could be a nutjob. As someone who was self-employed for six years as an editor, I can't imagine why somebody who is truly competent at that job -- and it is a skilled position -- would waste her talents doing for free what Wired pays others to do. The people who will volunteer will likely think they are far better editors than they really are, and I suspect Wired will pull the plug on this before whatever reputation they have is gone.

This other venture I suspect will also fail, but it offends me more because it shows such a disregard for journalistic principles and editorial standards. It also raises an important question: Does Craig Newmark's paperboy throw his newspapers into his koi pond? If there's a better explanation for his hostility to modern media I'd like to hear it.

Newmark has done more than perhaps any other individual to undermine the finances of the newspaper industry through his free online classifieds service, Craigslist. While bad for newspapers, Craigslist has been good for consumers. Now, however, Newmark is banking on an online venture that will have reporters investigate news only after volunteers have assigned the stories and put forward the funding. This won't be good for consumers. The only likely winners will be well-heeled Internet activists with axes to grind, and savvy public relations officials who bankroll flattering stories.

This "open source" model of journalism, called New Assignment, comes to us from New York University's Jay Rosen, whose reporting background is limited to a college internship. Rosen, with Newmark's money, is creating NewAssignment, where anyone can put forward a story suggestion. Any idea that receives sufficient donations is adopted. A freelance reporter is hired to write the piece, working closely with the web surfers who suggested and funded the story.

Rosen writes that NewAssignment will produce "stories the regular news media doesn't do, can't do, wouldn't do, or already screwed up." He says reporters will work hand-in-hand with online "smart mobs," performing "journalism without the media" but instead with "the people formerly known as the audience."

Let's not forget that the smart mobs Rosen refers to are in fact largely a reactive force. A careful reading of political blogs reveals that new lines of discussion frequently are prompted by a newspaper article. If what is on the mind of a smart mob member more often than not is triggered by the mainstream media, why would we count on them to come up with original story ideas?

Still, with the Internet Rosen has found the right place to enlist participants hostile to modern media. "The liberal media is out to destroy our president and our country!" "Our lazy media reprints lies fed it by the Establishment!" That is what members of the "smart mob" routinely post in the comment fields of political blogs.

I'd like to place a bet here - the first story that is pitched and funded at NewAssignment will be an expose on George W. Bush, with the imaginative premise that his ties to the oil industry led us into Iraq. That will trigger the pitching and funding of a second story, one that seeks to document Hillary Clinton as a politician to the left of Vladimir Lenin.

I wouldn't want to be the reporter working either of those assignments. Nor would I enjoy the repercussions if the story I produced didn't match the predetermined conclusions of the smart mob, my financiers.

Rosen says reporters don't listen to the average Joe. But no self-respecting reporter would overlook a source with information, whether that source is a high government official or simply someone who knows someone. The advantage of a newspaper reporter, however, is that she and her editor can sift through the sources and facts, make determinations on credibility, and move forward accordingly.

What is a NewAssignment reporter or editor to do when given questionable, possibly biased information by a source, and that source is also the assignment editor and the principal source of funding?

Perhaps Newmark is disillusioned by recent newspaper plagiarism scandals. Who isn't? Perhaps he feels reporters are too biased or too passive. Some likely are. But handing over control, from funding to assignment editing, to any individual so inclined to visit a web site does not seem to me a positive direction for journalism. It's a large leap from Newmark's current web site, which helps one find an inexpensive futon, to the one he's funding now, claiming to provide reliable, unbiased investigative journalism while handing power to the unaccountable.

Newspapers have a tough challenge ahead determining how to maintain a positive cash flow in a disaggregated digital economy. Changes will have to occur. But those of us who are consumers of news should want newspapers, and the journalists and editors they employ, to succeed. It does no good undermining traditional journalism by making grandiose claims about "smart mobs" and "journalism without media." And the 21st century business model for journalism should not include forcing editors and reporters to solicit financial support, while empowering those supporters to provide editorial input from story assignment to final publication.

posted by Patrick Ross @ 12:23 PM | Commons , Mass Media