Archive for December, 2011

Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis

December 2, 2011

Dean Starkman has written a lengthy piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, assessing the writings of a group of us he calls the “Future of News” movement. That essay, Confidence Game, focusses principally on Jay Rosen and me, both of NYU’s Carter Institute, and Jeff Jarvis of CUNY, though noting some similarity of vision with Emily Bell of Columbia, Dan Gillmor of Arizona, and John Paton, publisher of the Journal-Register Company. (Unmentioned fellow travelers include, mutatis mutandis, Steve Yelvington, Chris Anderson, Amanda Michel, Steve Buttry, Jonathan Stray, and Alan Mutter.)

Starkman doesn’t just criticize us (though he does that, at length.) He also puts forward a Burkean defense of institutional tradition as a store of embedded wisdom, arguing for the continued relevance of existing news organizations, especially newspapers, in something very close to their current form.

He jokingly calls his vision the “Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke Model.” His description of what’s needed, though — “rebuilding or shoring up institutions” — makes it clear he doesn’t need the “Neo-” bit. He is talking about somehow saving the familiar institutions, not inventing new ones, a strategy that has long passed for Plan A in the conversation about what the internet changes about the news business.

He’s not even wild about the familiar institutions altering themselves too radically to accomodate those changes. Paton, who is trying to save local news reporting, is derided for being a “FON practitioner” (shades of the 5th column), and The Guardian, a storied paper since back in the day, gets ten with the cane for going ‘digital first‘. When echt newspaper guys like Paton of the Journal-Register and Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian are seen as heretics, you know we’re talking about that old-time religion.

Rosen and Jarvis and Bell and I disagree plenty, but one belief we have in common is that the way newspapers used to be organized and funded is a bad fit for the current environment, and getting worse. More than any individual sentiment we may have expressed, our public loss of faith in the institutional logic of Plan A seems to be what has most aroused Starkman’s ire.

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Institutions reduce the choices available to their members. (This is Ronald Coase’s famous argument about transaction costs.) This reduction allows better focus on the remaining choices they face.

The editors meet every afternoon to discuss the front page. They have to decide whether to put the Mayor’s gaffe there or in Metro, whether to run the picture of the accused murderer or the kids running in the fountain, whether to put the Biker Grandma story above or below the fold. Here are some choices they don’t have to make at that meeting: Whether to have headlines. Whether to be a tabloid or a broadsheet. Whether to replace the entire front page with a single ad. Whether to drop the whole news-coverage thing and start selling ice cream.

Every such meeting, in other words, involves a thousand choices, but not a billion, because most of the big choices have already been made. These frozen choices are what gives institutions their vitality — they are in fact what make them institutions. Freed of the twin dangers of navel-gazing and random walks, an institution can concentrate its efforts on some persistent, medium-sized, and tractable problem, working at a scale and longevity unavailable to its individual participants.

Institutions also reduce the choices a society has to make. In the second half of the 20th century, “the news” was whatever was in the newspaper on the morning, or network TV at night. Advertisers knew where to reach shoppers. Politicians knew who to they had to talk to to get their message out (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.) Readers understood an Letters page as the obvious way of getting wider circulation for their views.

That dual reduction of choices masks an essential asymmetry, though. Institutions are designed to reduce they choices for their members, but they only happen to reduce the choices in society. A publisher may want reporters at their desks at 10 am, and to be the main source of breaking news for the paper’s readers. The former desire is under the publisher’s control; the latter not.

Now this seems easy enough to describe, but people inside institutions tend to confuse the two, to believe their institution is in control of both their daily routine and their destiny. And of course, the longer any given institution maintains a stable role, the less that role seems like an accident and the more it seems like a robust feature of reality.

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Starkman and I could, I think, agree on this story so far, and indeed, most of the time institutional vitality is a safe bet. The ability of institutions to adapt slowly while preserving continuity of mission and process is exactly what lets them last longer than a single leader or lifespan. When change in the outside world outstrips an institution’s adaptive capabilities, though, the ability to defend the internal organization from outside pressures can become a liability. Stability can tun into rigidity and even institutional blindness.

Newspapers were stable for a really long time. The 1830s saw the rise of the penny press, when advertisers generated enough subsidy for the cover price to be reduced from six cents to one, with an attendant explosion in readership. Improbably enough, that model survived for most of two centuries with little more than tweaks and updates, right up to the sudden increase in freedoms occasioned by the internet, freedoms enjoyed by both advertisers and readers. The erosion of geographic sinecure made every story available everywhere. Casual aggregation from multiple sources delighted readers but eroded loyalty. Competition turned paywalls into cul-de-sacs instead of toll roads. Upstart web services (Yahoo and iVillage, Slate and Salon) first set then compressed a market price for ads that the newspapers never had a chance to alter. Users forwarding stories to one another increased audience size, but destroyed scarcity.

Despite these challenges to newspapers, Starkman believes that we can and must “…find ways to preserve and transfer their most important attributes to a digital era, even as we push them to adapt to new financial, technological, and cultural realities.” I don’t believe we must do this, because I don’t believe we can do this. That, I think, is the core diference between our views.

There are thousands of papers in the US, all facing simultaneous pressures on their revenues, their organizational form, the loyalty of their readership, the ferocity of the competition, and even their sense of self. If, seeing those challenges, we FONeros still thought it was possible to preserve most papers in something like their current form, we’d adopt Plan A too. You’d only pursue something like Plan B if you’d given up on broad institutional preservation in the first place.

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To my eye, Starkman stacks the deck when comparing Plans A and B. He lists only three examples of successful “FON” journalism (US Attorney firings, “macacca,” and “bittergate“), but his recounting of the glories of print go back to Ida Tarbell. Tarbell was indeed a terrific reporter, but her byline has been somewhat scarce of late, given she’s been dead 70 years. Comparing a 5 year stretch of recent experiments with the greatest hits of newspapering since the McKinley administration may rally the home team, but it doesn’t make for a particularly informative comparison.

Like a Yeats of the newspaper world, Starkman yearns for the restoration of a culture considerably purer than the actual newspaper business has ever been. Reading Confidence Game, you’d never know that most papers are not like the NY Times, that most of what appears in their pages is syndicated, that sports is often better represented on the masthead than hard news. You’d never know that more American papers printed today will include a horoscope than international news. You’d never know that newspapers are institutions where grown men and women are assigned to write stories about dogs catching frisbees.

Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread. We need to support the people who cover hard news, but when you see a metro daily for a town of 100,000 that employs only six such reporters (just 10% of the masthead, much less total staff), saving the entire edifice just to support that handful looks a lot harder than just finding new ways to support them directly.

This view is, as Starkman says, anti-institutional, starting as it does from the premise that the outside world is changing faster than most newspapers’ adaptive capabilities. They have responded to 20 consecutive quarters ad revenue decline with the evisceration of international desks and newsroom staff. More is on the way. No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds.

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We have long since entered a period of hybridization — William Bastone quitting The Village Voice to found Smoking Gun and Nate Silver selling fivethirtyeight.com to the NY Times, Andy Carvin and Anjali Mullany pioneering new forms of live coverage from inside traditional organizations, Amanda Michel’s career implementing citizen journalism at Huffington Post, then at ProPublica, then at The Guardian, these are concrete demonstrations that the old dichotomies of traditional vs. new media, professionals vs. amateurs, incumbents vs. insurgents, have long since stopped being real, hard choices, and have instead become points on an increasingly traversable spectrum.

All of this seems to offer the grandmotherly option between Starkman and the FON crew — “You’re both right, dear. We need institutions and we need experiments.” Even given this hybridization, though, our views diverge: Plan A assumes that experiments should be spokes to the newspapers’ hub, their continued role as the clear center of public interest journalism assured, and on the terms previously negotiated.

Plan B follows Jonathan Stray’s observations about the digital public sphere: in a world where Wikipedia is a more popular source of information than any newspaper, maybe we won’t have a clear center anymore. Maybe we’ll just have lots of overlapping, partial, competitive, cooperative attempts to arm the public to deal with the world we live in.

Some of the experiments going on today, small and tentative as they are, will eventually harden into institutional form, and that development will be as surprising as the penny press subsidizing journalism for seven generations. The old landscape had institutions and so will the new one, but this doesn’t imply continuity. We still have companies called Western Union and ATT, but as the communications landscape changed, they have become almost unrecognizably different from their former selves. Likewise, as the presses fall silent over the next ten years, even papers that survive will see their internal organization and their place in the ecosystem altered beyond our ability to predict.

If you believed, as Starkman clearly does, that this view is not just incorrect but odious, that the current form of the newspaper remains a good general fit for public interest journalism, merely going through a rough patch, then you’d be eager to dial down the ‘try anything’ ethic in favor of the hard, grinding work of rebuilding and shoring up the institutions that have served us so well these last several decades.

But if you believe, as I do, that many of those institutions are so mismatched to the task at hand that most of them face a choice, at best, between radical restructure and outright collapse, well, in that case, you’d probably find the smartest 25 year olds you know, and try to convince them that now would be a pretty good time to start working on Plan B.