Friday, May 4, 2012

The emperors of FON


There is a clique of gurus who have been saying for some time that not only is old-style journalism dead, but that they have all the answers when it comes to what to do about it.

At long last, two things are happening: 1) At least some of those geniuses are admitting they haven’t a clue what the future holds. 2) People writing about this genius clique are starting to openly wonder if the FON (future of news) crowd has been wrong all along.

“You ask what the future of news is? I have no friggin’ idea. No one does.”

The speaker was Jeff Jarvis at a recent FON forum. Jarvis is one of the self-proclaimed FON gurus who has been telling us for years how backward and wrong newspaper managers are and how the future is all about aggregation through networks of what he calls the “commodity” of news. His admission that he has “no friggin’ idea” what the future holds is the first truly honest thing he’s said on the topic in a long time.

Perhaps more encouraging, the informal but tightly held prohibition against openly questioning the FON crowd is, if not crumbling, at least showing small signs of wear and tear. A recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review featured a story by Dean Starkman headlined, “Confidence game: The limited vision of the new gurus.”

In particular, he took on the notion that news has become a near-valueless commodity. He repeats a now-famous comment by digital-first “guru” John Paton: “As career journalists and managers we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace, and that value is about zero.”

But Starkman comes back with this: “Seeing news as a commodity, and a near valueless one (Paton above says its value is “about zero”), is a fundamental conceptual error, and a revealing one. A commodity is the same in Anniston, Alabama, as it is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Whatever local news is, it’s not that.”
He goes farther:
“But we can see now that the news-as-cheap-commodity argument was all along an ideological one couched in economic terms. The idea that “information wants to be free” (a partial quote of Stewart Brand, who well understood information’s value) was a catechism, a rallying cry, voiced by a certain segment of the digital vanguard. Subscription services, “walls,” don’t fit into a networked vision. It’s worth pointing out that the commodity idea gained traction only because of the generalized collapse of news-business advertising models, a collapse that had nothing to do with editorial models. This isn’t to say that the content was good or not good, only that the collapsing ad model had nothing to do with it. The problem with conceiving of news as a commodity is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what you think of it, that is surely what it will become. It may be okay for academics to sell this thesis, but shame on journalism executives for buying it.”
Starkman suggests the future of news probably looks a lot like its current iteration: “In that spirit, I’m going to make a bold leap and predict—eenie meenie chili beanie—that for a long time the Future of News is going to look unnervingly like the Present of News: hobbled news organizations, limping along, 
supplemented by swarms of new media outlets doing their best. It’s not sexy, but that’s journalism for you.”

Those who view news as a commodity are spending too much time on web sites like Huffington Post and the Drudge Report, which largely consist of links to reporting originating elsewhere. They are not paying enough attention to the 1,400 daily newspapers still putting out local news only they can provide -- unique content, in the modern parlance. As Starkman notes, even FON guru Jay Rosen recognizes this:
“In journalism,” Rosen writes on his blog, "Press Think," “real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. ‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it. ’”

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