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Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, July 19, 1879, in my collection

Worries

Jeff Jarvis
Aug 18, 2019 · 9 min read

The need to study our impact and consider our outcomes

Oh, I hear a lot of talk about impact in journalism but it is reliably egocentric: ‘What did my story accomplish?’ Impact starts with journalists, not the public. And it’s always positive in discussion. I rarely hear talk of our negative impact, how we in media polarize, fabricating and pitting sides against each other, exploiting attention with appeals to base instincts.

The need for self-criticism in journalism

What troubled me most about New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet’s round of interviews after the Unity vs. Racism headline debacle is an apparent unwillingness to hear outside critics, even while arguing that the paper doesn’t need an ombudsman because it has outside critics. Baquet dismissed politicians — Beto, AOC, Castro — who had legitimate criticism of the paper, saying: “I don’t need the entire political field to tell me we wrote a bad headline.” When told that Twitterati were criticizing the headline, Bacquet told his staff: “My reaction was to essentially say, ‘Fuck ’em, we’re already working on it.’” (Dismissing what citizens have to say on Twitter is a Times sport.) More worrisome to me from Slate’s transcript of the newsroom meeting was the evidence (as I said in a comment on Jay’s post) that Timespeople are scared of talking with each other. So one wonders how this family will ever work it all out. The most eloquent statement in the meeting came from a journalist who chose to remain anonymous in his own newsroom. Though I want to keep this short, I will quote it in full:

Race

Race is not the story of the moment. It is the story of the age that is finally in the moment in media. As a child of white privilege who grew up being taught the mythical ideal of the melting pot, I unlearn those lessons and learn more about racism in America every day. I learn mostly from the voices who were not heard in mass, mainstream media. I hear them now because they have a path around media (and then sometimes into media) thanks in considerable measure to the internet.

Moral panic

Because I treasure those new voices I can now hear, because I value the expression the net brings to so many more communities, I want to protect the net and its freedoms. I see attacks on those freedoms from the right — from authoritarians abroad and right-wing white nationalists here. I also see attacks on the net and its freedoms from media (who never acknowledge their conflict of interest and jealousy over lost attention and revenue) and the left (who are attacking big corporations). I complained about the quality of tech-policy coverage here.

Trump’s chumps

Here I lump together my fears about the state of political journalism, campaign coverage, disinformation, and manipulation. As Jay has been arguing and strenuously, the press has no strategy for covering the intentional aberration that is Donald Trump or the racism he exploits and propels. The press continues to insist on covering his “base,” a minority, rather than his opponents, a majority, which only gives more attention to the angry white man and less to voices still ignored. As many of us have been arguing, predictions do nothing to inform the electorate, but predicting is what pundits do (usually incorrectly). As James Carey argued, the polls upon which the pundits hang their predictions are anathema to democracy, for they preempt the public conversation they are meant to measure. Trump, the Russians, right-wing trolls, and too many others to imagine are taking the press as chumps, exploiting their weaknesses (“we just report, we don’t decide”) to turn news organizations into amplifiers for their dangerous ideas. (See the Times discussion face value above.) I see nothing to say that the political press has learned a single lesson. I’m plenty worried about that.

Business

Of course, no list of worries about journalism is complete without existential fretting over business and the lack of any clear path to sustainability. There likely is no path to profitability for journalism as it was. The only way we are going to save journalism is to fundamentally reconsider it: to recognize at last all the new opportunities technology brings us to do more than produce a product we call content but instead to provide a service to the public; to build the means to listen to voices not heard before and, as I said above, to build bridges among communities; to bring value to people’s lives and communities and find value ourselves in that, basing our metrics of success there. The business of journalism is what I worry and write about more than anything else, so I won’t go on at length here. I join with Jay’s concern. I worry that newspapers continue to believe they can new find ways to sell their old ways; see Josh Benton’s frightening and insightful analysis of news on the L.A. Times’ subscriptions. I fear that Gannett and Gatehouse have no strategy and neither do most newspaper companies. I even worry that Google, Facebook, and the rest of the net are still built on mass media’s faulty, volume-based business model. I worry a lot. Then I remind myself that it’s still early days.


Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in…

Jeff Jarvis

Written by

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism

Jeff Jarvis

Written by

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism

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