Professor Rosen gave me homework. He told me he wanted me to prepare a list like his, of the top problems he sees in journalism. I do not take an assignment from my academic mentor lightly and so it took me time to contemplate my greatest worries. When I did, I found links among them: Trump and all that comes with him, of course; race; the opportunity at last to listen to unheard voices; fear of criticism; fear of change — there’s a bit of all that in all of them. I second Jay’s current concerns and add my own:
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.
Coming to a university I learned the need to begin curriculum with outcomes: What should students learn? I wonder about outcomes-based journalism, which would begin by asking not just what the public needs to know (our supposed mission) but how we can improve the quality of the public conversation, how we can bring out voices rarely heard, how we can build bridges among communities in conflict, how we can appeal to the better nature of our citizens, how we can help build a better society.
If we did that, our metrics of success would be entirely different — not audience, attention, pageviews, clicks, even subscriptions. Thus our business models must change; more on that below. We cannot begin this process until we respect the public’s voices and build means to better listen to them. We also need research to understand communities’ needs and our impact on them. This is not nearly so practical a worry as Jay’s are, but it’s my biggest concern.
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:
Saying something like divisive or racially charged is so euphemistic. Our stylebook would never allow it in other circumstances. I am concerned that the Times is failing to rise to the challenge of a historical moment. What I have heard from top leadership is a conservative approach that I don’t think honors the Times’ powerful history of adversarial journalism. I think that the NYT’s leadership, perhaps in an effort to preserve the institution of the Times, is allowing itself to be boxed in and hamstrung. This obviously applies to the race coverage. The headline represented utter denial, unawareness of what we can all observe with our eyes and ears. It was pure face value. I think this actually ends up doing the opposite of what the leadership claims it does. A headline like that simply amplifies without critique the desired narrative of the most powerful figure in the country. If the Times’ mission is now to take at face value and simply repeat the claims of the powerful, that’s news to me. I’m not sure the Times’ leadership appreciates the damage it does to our reputation and standing when we fail to call things like they are.
I don’t mean to join the Times pile-on; like Jay, I remain a loyalist and a subscriber. I also don’t mean to make The Times emblematic of all journalism; it is the grand exception. I use this episode as one example of how we journalists who criticize anyone do not let just anyone criticize us. Here I argue we need to consider — as Facebook, of all institutions, is — a systematic means of oversight of the quality of journalism as a necessity to build (not rebuild) trust. Instead, we tend to codify the way we’ve always done things — and wonder at the daily miracle of a front page — as if the goal is to recapture some Golden Age that never was.
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.
Race is a big story in media now not because of Donald Trump and his white nationalists. That gets things in the wrong order and gives credit to the devil. First, race is the story now because people of color can be heard and that is what scares the old, white men in power so much that they would rather burn down our institutions than share them — which is what has finally grabbed the attention of old, white media, so race is now news.
But it is apparent that media do not know how to cover this story. I don’t know how to, either. I am grateful for the publication — as I write this — of The New York Times’ and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ profoundly important 1619 Project and its curriculum. That’s not a worry; that’s gratitude. Yet it comes even as The Times itself grapples (above) with how to cover race and how to hear new voices. This is that hard.
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.
Coverage of Section 230, the key 26 words in law that enable the conversation online and empower companies to improve it, has been abysmal. I hate to pick on The Times again, but its coverage has been among the worst, with the most humiliating correction I’ve seen in years. There’s a wonderful book about 230 by Jeffrey Kosseff, The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet, but it seems that reporters covering the story can’t be bothered to read even that. I am grateful that Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote this: “Liberals Beware: Repealing a Law That Protects Free Speech Online Will Only Help Trump.” Says Tims:
Those simple words are now being flagrantly misinterpreted across the political spectrum as a way to threaten companies like Facebook and Twitter. But make no mistake: if the law is repealed, the real casualties will not be the tech giants; it will the hundreds of millions of Americans who use the internet to communicate.
I have been worrying about moral panic over technology in media that is helping to fuel an exploitive and cynical moral panic among politicians, to damage the net and the new companies that challenge all of them and their power. My worries only worsen.
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.
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.
As I write this, I’m halfway through teaching our incoming class at the Newmark J-School about the context of their upcoming study and work: the history of media and journalism, the business and how we got here, and the new opportunities we have to reconsider journalism. I tell them it is their responsibility to reinvent journalism.
My favorite moments come when students challenge me. Friday one student did that, asking what I — and my generation in journalism — did wrong to get us in this fix. It was a good question and sadly I had many answers: about not listening to communities, about importing our flawed business model onto the net, about my overblown optimism for hyperlocal blogs as building blocks for new ecosystems. (I will try to post audio of the discussion soon.)
In that spirit, I should anticipate the question about my worries here: And what are you doing about them? These worries do inform my work. One thread you see in everything above is the need to listen to, respect, empathize with, and serve communities who for too long were not heard; this is what inspired the start of Social Journalism at my school. Now I am working on bringing other disciplines into a journalism school — anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, economics, philosophy, design—to consider how they would address society’s problems and the outcomes they would work toward. I am proud to work at a school where diversity is at the core of our strategy and we are starting new programs to address racial equity and inclusion in media leadership and ownership. Regarding moral panic in media coverage, I am working to organize training for reporters in coverage of major policy issues like Section 230. Regarding disinformation, I am working on projects to bring more attention and support to quality news. Whether any of those are the right paths, I will leave to others to judge.
Jay Rosen updates his list of concerns and problems and I will try to do the same as warranted. In the meantime, tell me: What problems worry you? What do you want to do about them?