Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Tue 19 Jul 11 19:02
This week we welcome Victor Pickard to Inkwell.vue to discuss the new book that he co-edited with Robert McChesney: Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights (The New Press). Victor Pickard is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. In the Fall of 2011 he will join the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his doctorate from the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois. Previously he worked on media policy in Washington, D.C. as a Senior Research Fellow at the media reform organization Free Press and the public policy think tank the New America Foundation where he continues to advise their Open Technology and Media Policy Initiatives. He also taught media policy at the University of Virginia and served as a policy fellow for Congresswoman Diane Watson. His research explores the intersections of U.S. and global media activism and politics, media history, democratic theory, and communications policy. Currently he is finishing a book on the history and future of news media. Leading this interview will be Angie Coiro. Angie is a freelance interviewer and journalist living on the San Francisco peninsula. Her radio and television credits include Mother Jones Radio on Air America; Friday Forum on KQED in San Francisco; and Spotlight! on KCSM-TV. Angie's the recipient of numerous awards for her interviewing work, including public radio's national PRNDI award. She shares her 1923 cottage with three cats and countless scavenged artsy bits. Welcome Victor and Angie!
Sam Delson (samiam) Tue 19 Jul 11 20:01
Angie (coiro) Wed 20 Jul 11 23:22
Hello! Thanks so much for inviting me to conduct the interview for this one - a topic near, dear, and dangerous to my heart, for obvious reasons! Victor, wellcome; I'm glad you could make the time for us. "The Last Reporter" is a compendium of pieces from names familiar to anyone paying attention to the crisis in media today - to name a few: Todd Gitlin, Eric Alterman, Chris Hedges, Thomas Frank. It takes on an intimidating chore for a single volume, that of cataloging the multiple blows against established media as we'd known it for so many years; how our very definition of "news" has become so amorphous; the function of independent reporters in this uncertain and fluctuating environment; the proper relationship between government and media; and - if not a roadmap, at least elements of one - where we go from here. As we delve into the book, and into the stories around us today that reflect the themes of the book, I want to remind our readers who are not Well members that you, too, can participate. Send in your questions or comments to inkwell at well.com.
Angie (coiro) Wed 20 Jul 11 23:54
Victor, let's flesh out this concept of a "crisis" in journalism. I suspect each of us who cares deeply about the state of the business might have a slightly different take. There are so many elements; an awful lot of public play is given the role and impact of the internet, but less sexy bits - like the fact that young journalists have such a slim chance of finding a lasting, secure gig, or that older journalists are wandering a barren desert of no new jobs or a shrinking paycheck - may seem too "inside football" to matter to the consuming public. I thought it might be interesting to glom onto a prominent, real-life lab experiment: the events inside the Murdoch empire. Let's use that as our specimen to illuminate the crisis at hand. If there was indeed a heyday of journalism (and please do expound on your thoughts on that, and those of the book's contributors), how might this story have played out differently then? Could the alleged violations of trespassing and payoffs within a major press entity have even occurred on such a scale, given a healthy press here and abroad? How would the coverage - in this world of a robust press - look different than what we're seeing today? How does what we've lost manifest itself in what's reaching the news consumer about the scandal, the people behind it, and its implications?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Thu 21 Jul 11 08:47
Hi Everyone! I'm very honored to be a guest at The Well and I'm really looking forward to this important discussion. Angie has opened up with some excellent questions to get us started. I would break it down into two general areas (which we can expand on later): the nature of the journalism crisis and alternative models for news media. First, the crisis: The journalism crisis really should be viewed as a crisis for all of us, one that strikes at the potential for democratic society. Also, the journalism crisis is not just about newspapers, although since they remain as the primary news-gathering institution in the U.S., and since they are suffering the most, it makes sense to focus much of the discussion on the plight of newspapers. As Angie mentioned, journalism's woes are often treated as a by-product of the internet revolution. Increasingly people are getting their news--usually for free--online, and this has blown apart the advertising-dependent business model of the "dead tree" version of the press that has functioned for the last 125 years or so. It has also dramatically changed our relationship with news media (though not in the ways that we often assume - a point that I'm sure we'll expand on later). My aim is to reframe how we understand the journalism crisis, because differences in how we think of the crisis lead to differences in how we try to fix it. If we think of journalism as a business commodity then its profitability will dictate its existence (and we may look to online payment schemes like" paywalls" to prop up the commercial model of news). But if we think of it as a vital public service that democracy requires, then we understand that we as a society must ensure its existence, regardless of whether the market supports it. Here's another key point, one that serves as a bridge from considering the nature of the journalism crisis to considering alternatives. The commercial, advertising-dependent model of news was *always* structurally vulnerable to fluctuations in the market (the internet merely acted as a catalyst, but the model has been in decline for decades). Advertisers never really cared whether there was hard-hitting investigative reporting or whether there was a news bureau in Baghdad. They simply wanted to deliver their ads to as many - or perhaps to the right kind of - eyeballs as possible. And they paid newspapers handsomely for this service... until it no longer made economic sense for them to do that (exhibit A: Craigslist). To show that the current system -- the one that is falling apart: advertising-dependent news -- was not the inevitable, natural or even best possible system we may look to historical and international alternatives (another point we can expand on later). The commercial profit-driven model of news gave us the Murdoch empire. The public service model of news has only barely been realized in models like the BBC and NPR. The current journalism crisis gives us a fleeting opportunity to abandon the former and bolster the latter. In other words, the overarching message in the book that Bob McChesney and I put together - though not all contributors would agree - is that now is the time for structural alternatives to the commercial model of the press. Now is the time to transform a dying advertising-dependent model of journalism into a true public service model that provides a forum for diverse voices, scrutinizes governments and corporations, and offers rich information from a wide variety of sources and viewpoints.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 21 Jul 11 09:10
Very exciting perspective! Welcome. Inside the members-only sector of The WELL in the <media.> conference you'll see quite a bit of informed cynicism. I like hearing a vision of transformation.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Thu 21 Jul 11 10:33
One of the things that have contributed to my personal diminishing reguard for the news media is lack of quality. Take science and medicine for one example. There have been endless breathless reports overhyping a finding and givig the impression that we now have the answer to something. Then, a bit later, there's another report overhyping that the first report was wrong. So I tend to distrust anything I read in the news. I'd therefore like to ask what you think of NewsTrust http://newstrust.net both in theory and in practice as well as asking you to speak more generally about how to improve the quality of science, religion and even political reporting.
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Thu 21 Jul 11 12:29
Thank you, Gail. With regard to today's news media, I'd place myself in the "informed cynics" camp as well, but I'd also like to focus on how we can make our media better, which goes to jmcarlin's question. I'm very intrigued by the newstrust model (of course, enough people would 1) need to know about its existence and 2) need to trust it for it to be effective). I think vibrant media criticism needs to play an important part in maintaining a healthy news media system (and other bodies of information like science and religion, as you mention). But - and you'll notice me harp on this theme a lot - I think we will need to see major structural change in our broader news media system (i.e., minimize market pressures and remove commercial values) for us to see a profound difference.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 21 Jul 11 19:28
Victor, thanks for being with us...what a fine book...can you speak a bit about the new models and multi-media platforms that are taking place, as well as citizen journalism...just a preview, as I imagine it will take up a lot of our conversation later?
Angie (coiro) Thu 21 Jul 11 20:09
Yes, please - and do let's hear your reflections on the Murdoch scandal, through the prism of your work on this book.
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Fri 22 Jul 11 10:47
Thanks, Ted. A number of essays in the book focus on new models of the press and citizen journalism. To mention a few: Yochai Benkler believes that the "networked public sphere" will - if given time - organically produce new forms of journalism. He cites ProPublica and Wikileaks as promising exemplars. Likewise, Jessica Clark's and Tracy Van Slyke's chapter in our book highlights the emergent potentials for progressive journalism within our shifting media landscape, including self-organized networks of media institutions. Finally, another contributor, Nikki Usher, urges a rethinking of journalism so that everyday average members of society see it as part of their civic duty to conduct citizen journalism. She generally sees the de-professionalization of journalism as not so much of a bad thing, and welcomes new ventures like Spot.us (where people can bid to fund journalists' pitches), Minnpost (a non-profit, investigative news outlet), and the SF Public Press (a noncommercial, community-supported, public interest newspaper). These are all exciting developments. But in the final analysis, I come down on the view that, taken together, these new models do not come close to replacing the journalism that is being lost among traditional outlets. These models generally produce a mere fraction of the journalism that the old dying newspapers are still providing, and it remains unclear how they will ever be financially sustainable. I think new models like news blogs are to be welcomed but we should be clear about their limitations (Talking Points Memo, a leading news blog, employs 17 full-time journalists. The New York Times employs around 1200). And certainly the breakdown in professional journalist norms like "objectivity" should be embraced (Chris Hedges savages the practice of objectivity in our book). But we also need to be sure that people are paid to go out on a daily basis and systematically gather information and disseminate it to broader publics. This is still an expensive process. Good journalism requires institutional and financial support. On a sidenote: I would feel more optimistic about these experiments if we as a society created permanent or at least semi-permanent revenue streams for them (e.g., R & D subsidies) so that they were not so dependent on volunteer labor and foundation support. I'm sure the question of whether we can take solace in new media models (and let the old models simply wither away) will be an ongoing debate - it's one of the more contentious points in "future of journalism" discussions - and we can continue to flesh out the particulars. In the next post I will briefly discuss the Murdoch scandal through the prism of our book.
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Fri 22 Jul 11 11:16
The recent News of the World phone hacking scandal that has embroiled Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation serves as a convenient case study for what an over-commercialized media system looks like. This system, best exemplified by Murdoch's media empire, is governed first and foremost by profit imperatives. The public service ideal that a news media system should strive to inform the public is often at odds with NewsCorp.'s commercial logic. Characteristics that we typically associate with the bad old early days of the U.S. commercial press - sensationalism, trivialization, and fear-mongering - define much of this media. This kind of media system, with its concentrated ownership and political power, could only flourish in the absence of government regulation, both at the levels of structure (anti-trust laws and media ownership restrictions) and content (Fairness Doctrine and public interest obligations). It is telling that this scandal is beginning to encourage closer scrutiny of Murdoch's media holdings and practices in the U.S., and some are calling for the FCC and congress to intervene. Regardless, it would make sense - and we argue this position in our book - that we might aim to lessen commercial pressures on news organizations so that these kinds of tendencies in our media system were discouraged. In this context, we might see a reinvigorated public media system -- that is, publicly-subsidized media like NPR and the BBC, as well as many other variations -- as a potential antidote to the commercial excesses of much of our mainstream news media. I will end on that note for now to see if anyone wants to push on this thread.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Fri 22 Jul 11 11:52
I agree but there are right-wing pressures to dismantle NPR and presumably the BBC as well.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Fri 22 Jul 11 12:25
A followup question: with what is going on in Oslo, I went to my #1 source, twitter, and found a recommendation to go to a curated list of source sponsored by the Washington Post https://twitter.com/#!/washingtonpost/oslo/ This seems like a wonderful idea where a news organization provides a filter to the twitter flood and helps people keep track of fast moving stories without having to subject themselves to an unfiltered twitter feed. Does this make sense to you as well?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Fri 22 Jul 11 12:57
Following up on your response in #10: <These are all exciting developments. But in the final analysis, I come down on the view that, taken together, these new models do not come close to replacing the journalism that is being lost among traditional outlets.> What do you think about journalists using these multi-networked platforms as sources? And how is fact-checking handled in these new models?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Fri 22 Jul 11 13:01
And a completely different question: As an editor and compiler did you have any outstanding take-aways from your book? I mean, were there some things that particularly struck you after you were both done? You can answer that with respect to both the process of putting this type of book together as well as the individual contents.
. (wickett) Sat 23 Jul 11 07:29
From what I read in Anders Behring Breivik's Facebook feed, he has strong feelings about paying reporters for stories. Have you reviewed any of his writings about the media? Thoughts?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Sat 23 Jul 11 08:48
jmcarlin, you're absolutely right that public broadcasting, especially in the U.S. (where we remain a global outlier among democracies for how little public money we put toward our public media), but also in Britain, is under frequent right-wing attack. But if anything, that should mean that we redouble our efforts to emphasize the importance of public media as a structural alternative--and, I would argue, journalism's last, best hope--to the commercial model. As for news orgs that aim to help make sense of a fast moving topic (as in the WashPo twitter filter) or even to just vet a day's news (as your earlier example of NewsTrust), I think they are helpful tools. Again, though, it also serves as a kind of gatekeeping function that we need to critically examine.
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Sat 23 Jul 11 09:27
To address Ted's excellent questions -- I think those are great examples of how new digital media, particularly social media, *can* lower costs/improve the quality of journalism. Journalists can "crowd source" massive documents, analyze databases, and subject their work to more public scrutiny and fact-checking in ways that were unimaginable pre-internet. And especially for fast-moving events--like the aforementioned tragedy in Norway or the recent uprisings in the Middle East--twitter can be an invaluable source for on-the-ground information. But fact-checking remains a challenge, especially as traditional news orgs cut labor costs on fact-checking and editing (fact-based reporting is an example of a professional journalistic norm that I think we should hold on to). And, of course, none of these new technological capabilities obviates the need for actual reporters on regular beats. As for your second question, the best part about editing "The Last Reporter" was being in conversation with all of these thinkers from different perspectives--journalists, publishers, scholars, activists, policymakers--who converged on a single vexing problem: the future of journalism and why it matters. Nearly all contributors agreed that journalism is facing an existential crisis. There were differences about what was causing it, its significance, and what should be done about it. I also took away from the book an affirmation that history matters. A number of contributions to the book (including my own) focused on nearly-forgotten American traditions of alternative media and media criticism. Others focused on the antecedents leading up to our current journalism crisis. If we understand that this crisis was decades in the making, we realize that it wasn't simply caused by the internet or other technological changes. History also helps us understand that there is no easy technological fix for solving the journalism crisis. This crisis is first and foremost a social and political problem.
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Sat 23 Jul 11 09:33
In response to Wickett's point: I have not read or heard anything about any of Anders Behring Breivik's (the suspected perpetrator in the recent Norwegian terrorist attacks) views on the media.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sat 23 Jul 11 12:16
<And, of course, none of these new technological capabilities obviates the need for actual reporters on regular beats.> There's the rub, huh? Where is the job security for a journalist/reporter now? And is it a sustainable vocation? Along with that there is the pressure of those moving out on their own as freelancers, and bloggers trying to break into the digital platforms. Here, there must be great tension between getting a story out, winning an audience and gaining the 'jump on the pack' and some social cred on the Net vs. fact checking and steady income. A nasty mix.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 23 Jul 11 12:36
I dunno. That's what I do for a living. I edit four hours a day for CMSwire, and yes, there's some pressure to be first and so on, as well as accurate. And then I write two blog posts a week and some one-off articles. They're not expected to be First; I add nuance or some value add with the blog posts, and the articles are like any feature article, just online.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sat 23 Jul 11 15:51
That's encouraging Sharon.
Angie (coiro) Sun 24 Jul 11 22:36
Victor, so far we've been using the term "journalist" as though there's one universally-accepted definition of the term. But one of the elements of change "The Last Reporter" goes into - with passion, at times - is that the very meaning of the word is changing. Bloggers aren't dismissed out of hand as basement-dwelling, pajama-wearing cranks anymore - well, less so, anyway. But they and other independents aren't necessarily fully accepted as journalists by mainstream institutions. Nor by the courts, as we've seen in legal cases seeking to establish the cred of "citizen journalists". What IS a journalist nowadays? What will it be, when it all shakes out? And what's at stake as the term is redefined?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Mon 25 Jul 11 07:30
Great questions, Angie. Very true that our conception of a journalist is changing -- both in who a journalist is and what journalism looks like. And in many ways this is a good thing as more people are able to get involved in the journalistic process. Even old-school news orgs increasingly are making space for blogs and social media. Many of the essays in our book describe these shifts, but there is nuance in how these changes are understood. No one wants to go back to the days when there were three major tv networks and mainstream media institutions were the only gatekeepers in town. But obviously there are also grounds for concern when we look at the quality of information being produced by these much-celebrated new forms of journalism. If current trends continue - to speak in very general terms - we will be left with cable television commentators, talk radio personalities, and bloggers, with a dwindling number of paid professionals whose job it is to generate new information. What's more, as the latter group diminishes, the richness of the discourse emanating from the commentariat will also suffer. So this gets at your last question: what is at stake with redefining the term journalist. At first glance, it may seem trivial (I'm not attached to the term - in some ways "public information" would work better than "journalism"). But if we do not have a vocabulary for distinguishing between these different sets of practices and, more important, the kind of content that is produced by these practices, then we can't see what we are losing and what we need for democratic society. And we still haven't figured out how these new forms of journalism (blogging, tweeting, citizen journalism, etc.) will be financially sustainable - not in terms of turning a profit, but of simply supporting enough folks who can dedicate themselves to gathering information on important policy debates, watch-dogging those in power, etc.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Mon 25 Jul 11 07:57
Victor, is it your impression that we've spent lots of time on the delivery devices (newspapers versus whatever) and maybe not enough time on how to build strong news organizations? As the book makes clear, we need outfits that can weather legal challenges from corporations, the government, etc. BTW, I agree that stronger public broadcasting is a no-brainer at this point. But as in health care, we evidently have to let the markets fail spectacularly before we realize that political journalism--which is the only kind the founding fathers cared about--is a public good that has always been subsidized in this country. I've been surprised by how many journalists resist the public-subsidy approach. Evidently, corporate subsidies (and ownership) don't register as threats to strong journalism.
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