Editor's note: In my final week at the local daily (I took the buyout on Aug. 22), the editor of the Faith & Values section asked me to write an essay about the values questions implicit in the changing face of mass media journalism. It was the final thing I wrote for the newspaper. This morning the editor who requested the piece wrote to say that senior editors had chosen not to run it and that it was mine to publish as I wished. Looking back at it again after this month's market meltdown, it's obvious that the media isn't the only sector in the midst of an epic interregnum...--dc
The Media Interregnum
Interregnum: The time during which a throne is vacant between two successive reigns or regimes.
“For our purposes, the notion of interregnum refers to those hinges in time when the old order is dead, but the new direction has not been determined. Quite often, the general populace and many of its leaders do not understand that the transition is taking place and so a great deal of tumult arises as the birth pangs of a new social and political order.”
— Jon Taplin, March 31, 2008
BY DAN CONOVER
What is "good?"
For student journalists at the University of North Carolina in the 1980s, that question came with a simple answer: Good was what our instructor Jim Shumaker said was good.
Shumaker, the real-life model for the comic-strip character Shu, was a walking indoctrination into a culture of journalism that once held sway in America: Confident, straight-talking, blue-collar, irreverent, abrasive — but also undeniably talented and privately idealistic. Attending his class was like receiving writing instruction from Rick Blaine, the hero of “Casablanca.” What he believed, I believed.
Shumaker died eight years ago, but I didn’t truly confront his ghost until 2004, the year many of us from the newspaper tribe first peered into a void at the heart of 21st century mass media and found ourselves staring back in quiet, desperate confusion. There were things we believed to be true about journalism and America and the world in those days, things so fundamental that we called them self-evident. But in 2004, and rather ominously, they just weren’t working.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and others began referring to those beliefs as “the religion of the newsroom,” and for a secular enterprise we were certainly awash in quasi-religious rhetoric: Journalists espoused an orthodoxy of non-orthodoxy, we preached a “view from nowhere” approach to objectivity as the highest, most reliable form of human observation, and we absolutely, positively believed that it was both our right and our duty to intermediate between “the public” and “the powerful.”
The Bible had Genesis and the New Testament. We had the First Amendment and Watergate.
Of course, several things were happening at once in 2004, and all of them flummoxed adherents to the Old Time Newsroom Religion: We had failed to properly report the facts leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq; swaths of the mass-mediated public were appalling misinformed about basic facts; our public credibility ratings had gone in the toilet; and new-media competitors — we called them “bloggers,” for lack of a better term — were eating our lunch.
Also alarming, though not yet screamingly apparent, were those rumors that the Internet might yet recover from its dot-com-bust hangover and once again pose a threat to the mass-media’s bottom line. The term “Web 2.0” was coined in 2004, but at newspapers across America, news websites remained little more than a digital version of the print edition.
Anyway, that was 2004. The Interregnum hadn’t arrived, and the old order — in politics and economics and culture and media — certainly looked more triumphant than shaky.
The ‘television-industrial complex’
Four years later there’s little doubt that the rules have changed profoundly. Novelist William Gibson described it this way in 2007: Mass-media, which once existed in the world, now comprises it. We are saturated by media, to the point that unwanted messages now wash off us like rainwater on mud.
This poses fundamental problems for traditional media companies, which are literally in the business of acquiring people’s attention and renting it to advertisers. As the media-saturated public began ignoring more and more unwanted sales pitches (think TiVo), the effectiveness of traditional advertising plummeted.
Marketing author Seth Godin described this as “the breaking of the television-industrial complex.” Restated: Companies could no longer build their business simply by renting the public’s attention at wholesale rates, reinvesting a portion of the profits in more advertising, thereby producing more profits, and so on.
Why does this matter to the question “What is good?” Because in America, as in much of the world, virtually all news media content — from vapid celebrity gossip to the most sterling investigative reporting — is subsidized entirely by advertising. You may think you’re paying for the news in your newspaper, but your subscription basically pays for two things: printing and delivery.
And in a society where advertisers — not consumers — pay for journalism, the answer to the question “what is good” is not necessarily one my mentor Jim Shumaker would have approved. What is good? What gets the most attention and moves the most product. Good for society? That’s another question.
Adherents of the newsroom religion actually had been struggling with this realization for years, but what really brought the issue to a head was a simple fact about the Web: Because it’s a competitive market with lower entry costs, Web-based advertising is significantly cheaper. And though the reach of newspapers (via print and Web) has increased since 2004, the rise in Web readership doesn’t account for the loss of more lucrative print readership.
Suddenly it wasn’t just a few breakaway heretics in the newsroom religion protesting that our definition of “good” had been devalued. And as journalists peered across the divide into the digital future, they found a new scapegoat for their anxiety: The Web, and “those people” on it.
Journalism, our high priests contended, was good when it applied our traditional values of sober evaluation, multi-layered editing, and fact-based, objective, original reporting. Our new-media competitors — bloggers, partisan hacks, radicals, “slacktivists,” and self-appointed pundits — were in our view nothing more than parasites, sucking the value out of our product while adding little or nothing.
The unfortunate truth, of course, was that these were but stereotypes, and the media-saturated public was beginning to grasp that the reality was more complex, more nuanced and far less black-and-white than the picture painted by the high priests of journalism.
Why haven’t more journalists grasped this concept? Perhaps because our belief in the newsroom religion so skews our perception. Perhaps because we’ve been attacked for so long by so many special interests that we’ve lumped all incoming threats into a general assault on our values and principles (which, though sometimes misguided, are often quite noble, regardless of the bleatings from certain websites, talk radio and Fox News Channel).
Low bandwidth v. High bandwidth
When I was a kid growing up in rural North Carolina, the sports coverage that interested me was often limited to nothing more than a paragraph and a box score. Today I can get the scores on my cell phone, access in-depth analysis and statistics with a click, and tend my reputational score (due to neglect, it’s dropped from “All-Pro” back to “All-Star,” in recent months) in an online forum of like-minded fans.
The past was low-bandwidth. It required intermediaries who decided what was best for the most people and then served it up to us. One size fit all.
The present is high-bandwidth, and expanding so rapidly that each year obsoletes the previous year’s technology. One size no longer fits all, and the notion that others can (or should) mediate what we have a right to know and discuss strikes us as anti-democratic.
This shift meant that our newsroom religion’s belief in the sanctity of its gatekeeper function fell instantly into question. More information was a good thing, but our inability to control and shape it struck us as a dangerous slide toward anarchy.
And the new ability of readers to voice their opinions in a digital public commons without our sanction? It represented, in the minds of critics such as Lee Siegel, a leveling of much that is good in our civilization. To many, the uncontrolled expansion of all this free speech is nothing more than the rise of The Electronic Mob.
So, again, what is good? And as we ask that question today, we do so in a room where everyone who chooses to speak has a voice (if not the rest of the room’s attention), where the podium has moved from a dais to the floor, where for better or for worse (and in many cases, for both) the audience now mediates its own experiences.
What we learn from asking that question, over and over, is that we’ve lost the One True Thread. Our belief in it was a legacy of the Old Order that has ended, that had to end, that we have no choice but to put away. So we can’t agree on what “good” is anymore, and predictably, many of us consider that to be bad.
Will we ever agree again? I suspect so. Cultures, like individuals, define their identities by what they deem to be good or bad, and as this global interregnum passes and a new, 21st century order takes shape, our ideas will likely grope toward values that we hold in common.
This transition will require that we consider not only our values but what makes them universal. It will require that we experiment courageously with how those values are best expressed and communicated in the new context of our politics, our economy, our rapidly morphing technologies.
None of this will be easy, and there are days when I grapple with the ghost of Jim Shumaker, as if he were my private, rumpled conscience. What would he think of all this? Would he approve of my thinking?
And in the end I realize: Beloved though they may be, it is no longer up to ghosts and priests to determine our future. The choices rest with us, and I suspect that little thought would make Shu grin, if ever so slightly.
(I'll update this with the appropriate hypertext later... it was written for print... dc)