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My Mother, the Future of Journalism

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They've got high hopes for journalism, high apple pie in the sky hopes. Well not exactly an apple cobbler, but a "new news pie," in the words of industry Pangloss, Jeff Jarvis. Because denial's neither just a river in Egypt nor a shabby URL, it's the lofty rhetoric, unbridled optimism and wishful thinking that transmogrifies journalism into an "ecosystem." Denial is the belief that journalism will save itself.

Reading as Jarvis waxes poetic on the future of this profession, one can't help but remember that great scene in 2004's In Good Company, in which industry titan Teddy K. asks: "Synergy. What does it mean? Why does a business swim with it and sink without it, in this new ocean of megabytes, streaming video and satellites?" Clasping his hands together like a yin yang, he says, "This is unbreakable. This is inevitable." Yet where some see a digital utopia at the end of technology's inexorable march, others see a cesspool.

Jarvis's piece comes on the heels of an announcement by the Huffington Post that it will start a $1.75 million fund for investigative journalism. In his estimation, the future of journalism "is not about some single new-fangled product and company taking over the old-fangled and monopolistic predecessor. News comes from a broad ecosystem with many players adding in under many models for many reasons."

In this "new ecosystem," news organizations will be responsible for "aggregating, curating, organizing." Revenue, Jarvis says, will come from a hodgepodge of advertising, contributions from foundations, individual donations, and volunteerism. Journalism's salvation, in short, lies in synergy.

Synergy is a fancy way of saying, The sum of the parts is greater than the whole. So let's look at the different pieces of Jarvis's pie.

News Outlets as Curators

It's interesting that "curator" is the role we imagine for online news outlets. Curators are custodians, experts entrusted by the public to watch over our treasure troves. Hence Walter Cronkite was the "most trusted man in America." Jennings, Brokaw and Rather--the "Big Three"--were called "voice of God" anchors. And those paladins of journalism, Woodward and Bernstein, unmasked corruption for the public good.

These were all "establishment" figures. Woodward and Bernstein worked at The Washington Post under the close scrutiny of editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Kay Graham. They embodied the "old-fangled and monopolistic" organizations that Jarvis today decries.

But it's precisely because traditional outlets were monolithic that they avoided the pitfalls of online journalism. Even if the Times was vaguely liberal and the Journal vaguely conservative, there was never a face or a name to put to those biases. Today, Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge are right there on the banners.

As Nick Kristof writes of journalism today, "When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about." This phenomenon--what Kristof calls the "Daily Me"--is felt more acutely when the provider of news is not a faceless bureaucracy, but an online personality with unabashed political leanings. Reading the narratives crafted by HuffPo and Drudge each day, one comes to realize Kristof's fear: "we'll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often."

Putting the revenue question aside for a second, there are legitimate concerns with how ably an online outlet can serve the public. So far, no blog site appears ready to accept the newspapers' mantle.

Advertising Revenues

Craig Moffett, an analyst at Bernstein Research, has been cited several times for his take on ad revenues: "The notion that the enormous cost of real news-gathering might be supported by the ad load of display advertising down the side of the page, or by the revenue share from having a Google search box in the corner of the page, or even by a 15-second teaser from Geico prior to a news clip, is idiotic on its face."

If newspapers have learned anything this year, it's that advertising is not a reliable source of income in this digital age. The Times has learned the hard way what another report concluded: "The Internet has taken away far more advertising than it has given."

Philanthropic Contributions

David Swensen, Yale's in-house investment guru, championed "News You Can Endow" as a solution for journalism. (Since then, it's worth noting, he's been discredited as the "man who gutted the Ivy League.") But the recession has been a bad time for billionaires, and private foundations are not what they once were. HuffPo's new endowment, as laudable as it may be, amounts to only one-tenth of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's news budget.

Beyond the bottom line, as Jack Shafer notes in Slate, "there's also something disconcerting about wanting to divorce the newspaper from market pressures." Among Shafer's many concerns are that newspapers would become beholden to wealthy philanthropists, that foundation-run organizations are typically more concerned with "social justice" than journalism, and that the introduction of an affluent deus ex machina ignores the fundamental problem of journalism today--namely, that it's not sellable.

Individual Donations

Spot.Us has the idea of individuals paying directly for stories. Readers can commission a "quick hit" story for between $150-350, while an investigative story will run you $1,000.

"Traditionally, .001 percent of the population gets to set the news agenda, and they were called editors," said Spot.Us founder David Cohn. "What I'm trying to do is increase the number of people who set the editorial agenda."

Besides the glaring problem with this approach--the ethical quandary of turning journalists into mercenaries--one wonders, If everyone's an editor, is no one an editor? Kristof's Daily Me is ultimately a descent into anomie, where professional and ethical standards fall by the wayside.

A more innocuous version of Spot.Us imagines newspapers as mega-churches, where newsreaders become charitable parishioners. But the reason we're in this problem in the first place is that newsreaders feel entitled to free content. If we wanted to pay up, we'd be buying subscriptions.

Volunteerism

"Some people will volunteer," Jarvis says, "podcasting their school-board meetings, just because they care." These people are my mother, who in January launched Scarsdale10583.com, a community news blog.

While she's many things--a voracious reader, an MBA, and a former copywriter--my mother will be the first to admit that she's not a journalist. In fact, she doesn't see herself as competition to our local paper, The Scarsdale Inquirer, which she thinks is "one of the best community newspapers around."

"They have a staff to cover everything that's happening in the Village, while I'm dependent on certain sources and my own capacity--which is one person," she says. In the same way that Web-MD turned every hypochondriac into a doctor, Blogspot validates anyone with a camera phone as a journalist.

Taken one by one, the pieces of this pie aren't always palatable (and in fact, many are unsavory). The real problem, however, is that the synergy is not there: The parts are far weaker than the aspirational whole. Handouts, hobbyists and hired guns can fill short-term voids, but the dilemma of modern journalism, in the long run, remains.