More than facts

David Weinberger does a far better job than I did trying to explore the notion that facts are a commodity — once they are known:

First, I think most of us agree that facts by themselves aren’t enough. Unless we’re looking things up in an almanac, we want facts assembled into stories. Now more than ever. I don’t know about you, but more and more, I read newspapers through weblogs….

Second, Jeff was speaking informally, I’m sure, when he said that “anyone” can get the facts. [Yes, thank you – ed] Obviously, some particular facts are hard to dig up. Some are a pain in the tuchus to unearth but you know exactly how to get them (digging up birth records), and some require months of foot-numbing research and Yoda-like intuition (“All the President’s Men”). Some are mired in Louisiana muck, emotion, and political ambition, like the facts in the Russert case that Jeff and I were originally commenting on. So to say facts are commodities (as I have said before) is not to say that they are all equally easy to come by. But once they’ve been disclosed, they become commodities in the sense that they are low-margin entities and I don’t much care where I get them. If I want to know who Bush has nominated for the Supreme Court or who won the Sox game, there are a gazillion places I can find out. And tomorrow there will be a gazillion + 100.

Well- said (as in, I wish I’d said it that way). We have to grapple with the notion that holding onto facts until we decide to tell the world is not going be sustainable. Facts fly.

This matters insofar as newspapers still consider their value to be the reporting of facts. I think some papers are being forced further into this belief because of the “onslaught” of bloggers. That seemed to me to be the position of John Lloyd of the Financial Times yesterday at the Accountability conference. He defended the news media’s traditional turf by talking about objectivity vs. opinions. I took him to be saying that opinions are easy but facts are hard, and newspapers do the hard and skilled work of fact-finding. Yes, they do. But having done that, the facts then become commodities. Our shared concern is who is going to do this if newspapers can no longer afford to pay reporters. (As far as opinions being easy goes: Yes, but interesting opinions are not commodities.)

Maybe enough citizen journalists will become skilled reporters that we don’t need professional newspaper reporters. But we shouldn’t let the promise of citizen journalism distract us from the evident fact that another key value of the news media has already devolved to the citizenry: We’re already providing the editorial judgment on which the media so pride themselves. I no longer look at the front page of the NY Times to tell me what’s important. I look at it to see what people like the editors of the NY Times think is important. I’m finding the news that matters through the Internet recommendation engine: Blogs, emails, mailing lists, my aggregator, websites that aggregate and comment on news, etc. With the growth of social filtering and whatever some genius in a garage is inventing, the Internet is only going to get better at this. While we wonder if and how citizens will replace reporters, citizens are rapidly replacing editors.