Friday New Tools Feature: Will Journalism Find Itself in the Obituaries?

There have been a plethora of pieces written this year about the impending death of journalism as we know it. Most of us are familiar with the general story-line - newspaper subscriptions are in decline, reporters are being laid off in droves, and nobody can figure out how to make money in online journalism. The Daily Show recently ran an amazing bit where Jason Jones asked a New York Times editor, "What's black and white and red all over?" The answer to the riddle, according to Jones? "Your balance sheets." 

But if journalism as we know it really is dying, what will come next? It's a question that no one has really figured out how to answer. At a panel at this year's Personal Democracy Forum Conference, Frank Rich and others discussed the future of journalism; Rich, one of my favorite MSM columnists, reiterated points from an article he wrote in May:

...News gathering is not to be confused with opinion writing or bloviating — including that practiced here. Opinions can be stimulating and, for the audiences at Fox News and MSNBC, cathartic. We can spend hours surfing the posts of bloggers we like or despise, some of them gems, even as we might be moved to write our own blogs about local restaurants or the government documents we obsessively study online.

But opinions, however insightful or provocative and whether expressed online or in print or in prime time, are cheap. Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it — monitoring the local school board, say — can and is being done by voluntary “citizen journalists” with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some new bottom-up news organism we can’t yet imagine.

...It’s all a matter of priorities. Not long ago, we laughed at the idea of pay TV. Free television was considered an inalienable American right (as long as it was paid for by advertisers). Then cable and satellite became the national standard.

By all means let’s mock the old mainstream media as they preen and party on in a Washington ballroom. Let’s deplore the tabloid journalism that, like the cockroach, will always be with us. But if a comprehensive array of real news is to be part of the picture as well, the time will soon arrive for us to put up or shut up. Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for.

I think that in most respects, Rich is basically correct, but on this issue he didn't nail it as well as he normally does - the picture he paints is really only part of the story. At PDF, Rich tried to illustrate this point by referencing his colleague, Roger Cohen, who was reporting from Iran. In a column, Cohen himself echoed Rich's earlier argument, explaining that

To bear witness means being there -- and that's not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.

No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

Yet by far the most compelling, accurate, and up-to-date account of the Iranian uprising came not from Cohen, but from the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, assisted by citizen journalists using Twitter, YouTube, and email (see our video of Nico speaking to these issues from this Wednesday). Arianna Huffington herself took on Cohen's assertions:

How bizarre is it that Cohen chooses to attack the tools of new-media-fueled reporting by citing the very event that highlights the power of those tools -- and the weakness of his argument?

Indeed, search engines, news aggregation, live-blogging, and "miracles of technology" such as Twitter, Facebook, and real-time video delivered via camera phones, played an indispensable part in allowing millions of people around the world to "bear witness" to what was happening in Iran.

The truth is, you don't have to "be there" to bear witness. And you can be there and fail to bear witness.

Both Rich and Huffington are correct in their own way; professional investigative journalism is vital to a functioning democracy, and the lack of good journalism can have disastrous consequences (see the Iraq war). However, the news-industrial complex already does a pretty dismal job of actually informing us about the world around us, and has for a long time (to see just how bad things have been for a long time in the corporate-run media universe, read Chomsky's classic "Manufacturing Consent" or watch the documentary). Citizen journalism has the potential to be a powerful corrective to corporate censorship and its feigned objectivity - a potential it began to realize in the 2008 elections and now in Iran.

It's true that the investigative journalism of the future will have to be paid for somehow, and aggregation is not the same thing as creation. But to survive and thrive in this new age, journalists will have to embrace the decentralization and dehierarchicalization of the internet age - and that's a good thing.