A journalism revolution? We’ve been here before

Posted on December 06, 2011 by Janet Coats

There’s been a lot of reaction in journalism circles to an article written by Dean Starkman in the Columbia Journalism Review called “Confidence Game: The Limited Vision of the News Gurus.’’

In his piece, Starkman takes on what he calls the Future of News Crowd – he names Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky as the leaders of this group. Starkman outlines their position as being an anti-institutional one, promoting the idea that journalism’s old institutions must fall away to make way for a future that is built around networked world.

That networked world worries Starkman; he sees little emphasis on the tough (and traditionally expensive) public service journalism that serves democracy. In a world where the boundaries of audience and journalist fall away, who will do the tough stories that require persistence, expertise and money.

Most of Starkman’s article is a lengthy critique of the Future of News Crowd and their views. At the end, he offers his own buzzword to label his thinking that about a journalism future that remains institution-centered, with networking components. He calls it, tongue at least partly in cheek, the “Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke Model.’’

After spending so much ink critiquing the Future of News folks, we don’t get a lot of detail about Starkman’s Neo-Traditional model. I suppose that is for another day.

But this piece has prompted a series of responses from the Future of Newsers, all generally arguing that Starkman just doesn’t get what is happening in the digital world that has redefined all of our lives. Clay Shirky’s post has gotten wide distribution. The kicker quote about the value of the old institutions has been pushed around social networks frequented by those who are invested in journalism’s future:

“But if you believe, as I do, that many of those institutions are so mismatched to the task at hand that most of them face a choice, at best, between radical restructure and outright collapse, well, in that case, you’d probably find the smartest 25 year olds you know, and try to convince them that now would be a pretty good time to start working on Plan B.’’

There’s a lot to think about in all of these pieces, and as someone who is currently studying networks as part of a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, I’m eagerly drinking all this in.

But as someone who has always been more pragmatist than theorist, the piece that has resonated most with me is the one by Howard Owens.

Howard is the publisher of The Batavian, an independent community news site in Batavia, N.Y. While many of the rest of us have been debating journalism’s future, and whether local independent news is a sustainable model, Howard has been out there building that future and proving that model.

Howard’s piece takes the temperature down a few notches in this discussion and gives us a bit of a history lesson. There’s no question the change journalism is moving through is a monumental one, but Howard posits that it is still more evolution than revolution.

Journalism has been going through upheavals in its model since the days of the penny press, he rightly points out.

“Each step of the way, the old school reacted with fear and loathing,’’ he writes. “But somehow, each step of the way, new and better forms of journalism emerged.’’

Like Howard, I remain confident that will happen – is happening – this time.

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