Free Journalism Has its Costs

When I was in high school I had a bunch of money-earning jobs. I raked yards in the Fall (leaf bags galore!), shoveled driveways in the winter, and delivered newspapers year-round. (I really hated those thick Sunday papers back then.) This meant I had cash on hand to feed my record-buying habit and enough to spare for other typical American teenager indulgences. The important thing to keep in mind here is that people paid me to rake the leaves off their lawns, shovel snow from their driveways, and deliver their newspapers everyday.

I had one more gig as a 16-year old: I worked as a sportswriter for my town newspaper. You might be surprised to learn that I was also financially rewarded (per article) for this work. My first bylines were thrilling, but being edited and paid to cover high school sports made it feel like I had joined the ranks of professional journalism. Looking back, I’m sure I would have done it for nothing. I didn’t think the editor would hire me, much less pay me. But he did both. And in doing so, he served as my first mentor and instilled in me this crazy idea that writers get paid for their output. Those were the pre-internet days.

Today, things aren’t so cut and dry. Professional writers compete with hobbyists and experts from other fields in a digital media landscape that is flush with content. On the plus side, this has leveled the playing field and created opportunity for a multitude of voices to be heard. The downside is that this surplus quantity has diluted quality and created separate editorial standards for the print and online product at newspapers and magazines.

The problem with this is that most readers no longer distinguish between what is online and in print, or between an article that was professionally vetted and that which was thrown online with minimal scrutiny. Some publications, it seems, don’t bother to make these distinctions clear.

Consider, for example, The Atlantic, an influential thought leader and prestige publication in the United States. I challenge anyone to scroll around its website and be able to distinguish between the professionally vetted articles (those that were fact-checked and underwent numerous edits and revisions) and those that received glancing attention.

Why is this important? Look at the article The Atlantic published online earlier this week, which was widely read and shared. It also contained many significant errors, which the writer (to his credit) owned up to after knowledgeable critics tore it apart. (I have discussed the article here, here, and here.) If you look at the editor’s note at the article, acknowledging its inaccuracies, you’ll see the piece is now identified as the author’s  ”most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites.”  That would be a food column.

However, in the article’s initial incarnation, The Atlantic did not make this clear. It’s fair to assume that many readers thought the piece, because it was stamped with The Atlantic’s prestigious imprimatur, had passed the high editorial standards of the magazine. That gives the article a gravitas it didn’t deserve.

Now there’s a related, equally troublesome issue that I foreshadowed at the beginning of this post: the matter of financial compensation. It is not for me to say whether the author of that particular Atlantic article was paid or not by the magazine. That is his business, as he has made clear to me. But it is my impression that a good many of the online-only contributors do not get paid. I’m ready to stand corrected (in fact, I’d love it if I was). So if articles that cost nothing are routinely posted online by The Atlantic, how much time do you think editors are spending with the copy? Not much, I’m guessing.

The issue of writers giving away their copy for free is a sore subject for many of us who are accustomed to being paid for our writing. The Huffington post model has been widely (and rightfully) deplored, but it is also being increasingly emulated in many precincts. Personally, I’ve alway been paid for blog posts or online articles that have appeared elsewhere. Recently, I reached out to Barry Estabrook, a writer I used to work with (and pay) regularly when I was an editor at Audubon magazine in the 2000s, after I noticed that he contributed to various online venues, including The Atlantic. Last year, Estabrook published a book called Tomatoland. I asked him straight out if he was getting paid for his online pieces at The Atlantic and other sites. Via email, he responded:

I have a policy of not writing anything (other than direct promotion for Tomatoland) for free, a policy I would perhaps waive if the editors and executives at these websites were also working for free.
Like me, Estabrook suspects that many online writers, seduced by the prospect of a byline at a reputable publication (such as The Atlantic), do not have a similar policy.

The issue of science bloggers, I should hasten to add, is a different kettle of fish. I’m bothered by journalists and science writers who give away their talents at those network/group blog sites. That said, I’m aware that these outlets, with their free back-end support and brand name perches, offer intangibles that can’t be measured in a bi-weekly paycheck. Those who latch on to such places get a seat at the grown-ups table and can make themselves heard over the din. If they do it well enough, that might even translate into gainfully employed work from other grown-ups that are willing to pay. Additionally, if you have a book or some other pet project to hawk, then a bloghorn is virtually a must. So I get the value of free labor under those circumstances.

But let’s not kid ourselves, either. All told, the proliferation of content farms in media and the expectation that the content be cost-free, is not without its costs to the reputation of journalism and the livelihoods of its professionals.

UPDATE: Ed Yong, via twitter, says it’s “worth noting that all sci-blog networks assoc’d w/ media brands do pay. Some pittance, others well.”

Category: Journalism, media

Corrections Not Necessary in Botched Atlantic Story?

If the writer of a magazine story admits to significant errors in his piece, shouldn’t the publication then acknowledge this with an editor’s note, providing corrections?

I ask because there are new developments to the story about that botched article in The Atlantic, which, as I wrote here,

used this study as a springboard to raise concerns about GMO foods.

Before I delve into the new twists, here’s the backstory from Christie Wilcox at her Scientific American blog:

Recently, food columnist Ari Levaux wrote what can only be described as a completely unscientific article in The Atlantic claiming that microRNAs (miRNAs) are a “very real danger of GMOs.” I won’t go point by point through the horrendous inaccuracies in his piece, as Emily Willingham has more than hacked them to bits.

In the comments thread of Wilcox’s post, LeVaux defends himself while also admitting:

I acknowledge there were some significant scientific errors in my Atlantic piece, and my argument could have been stronger. With a lot of help from great thinkers, some of whom didn’t agree with me, my rewrite posted yesterday on Alternet.

Interestingly, the rewrite at Alternet does not mention that it’s been adapted from an error-riddled article at The Atlantic. Okay, maybe the Alternet editors don’t want to mention the part about the author’s original inaccuracies, but I’m surprised there is no acknowledgment of the piece being adapted from something LeVaux published earlier in the week at The Atlantic.

Meanwhile, if you revisit the original piece at The Atlantic, you’ll notice this below the subhead:

Update 1/12: AlterNet has posted Ari LeVaux’s expanded and updated version of this column.

That’s it! No acknowledgment that the Atlantic article contains “significant scientific errors,” as the author himself admits. The magazine’s editors, in whatever language they deem appropriate, should acknowledge in their update what the author himself acknowledges. The Atlantic story will have a long shelf life online and new readers coming to it in the future should be made aware of its errors.

Besides, isn’t this all part of the normal journalistic process when major mistakes are found in a newspaper or magazine story?

UPDATE: Several hours after publishing my post, The Atlantic did exactly what I suggested they should do: acknowledge the errors in the article. Here is the revised editors note:

Update 1/12: Thanks to science and biology bloggers, Christie Wilcox and Emily Willingham at the Scientific American blog network and The Biology Files, respectively, we’ve learned of the scientific errors made in Ari LeVaux’s most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites. This column has been expanded and updated, with LeVaux discussing specific changes in the comments. We regret the errors.

Category: Journalism

The Very Real Danger of Unvetted Journalism

Yesterday, I called attention to a deeply flawed article published online by The Atlantic, that used this study as a springboard to raise concerns about GMO foods. Biotechnology, like climate science, is prone to distortion by those who feel passionate about it. The debate on GMO’s and climate change is most heated and misrepresented on blogs where the hosts have staked out a strongly-held position. These sites are the intellectual equivalent of funhouse mirrors, where reality gets absurdly (and often comically) twisted. But when a highly reputable magazine like The Atlantic puts up a muddled piece headlined “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods,” you have to wonder if, as Charlie Petit puts it, the magazine is descending “into the hurry-up-and-shock-me world of online journalism.”

Fortunately, there is a countervailing force in the blogosphere, like Charlie’s perch at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and those of independent blogs, such as The Biology Files, where a detailed critique of the The Atlantic article was posted by Emily Willingham. That said, I agree with this commenter at the Atlantic site, who wrote:

If a journalist doesn’t have expertise in a subject they write about, it’s reasonable to expect that they, or their editor, will run the piece past someone who is knowledgeable about the field, especially when the article relates to human health.
Well, that’s now happening belatedly. Yesterday, the author of the article tweeted that he was “re-writing the piece with corrections.” As the old saying goes, better late than never.

Category: Journalism

The Atlantic Serves Up Alarmism & Jumbled Science

I’m making a decree: Food columnists should no longer be writing about anything other than recipes and restaurants. When they stray from their area of expertise, what results is too often ugly and harmful to the public interest.

For example, I’ve previously pointed out where some food writers go badly off the tracks. The latest example is this piece by Ari LeVaux published online by The Atlantic, titled:

The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods

That scare-mongering headline alone is inexcusable. (Atlantic editors, why?) But then what follows, as Emily Willingham amply shows in her blog, The Biology Files, “is a remarkably confusing article.” She thoroughly deconstructs the muddled mess that Levaux makes of this recent study. In fact, LeVaux makes such a car wreck of his article that you have to wonder how it happened (no fact-checking by The Atlantic for online pieces, I’m guessing), and why they would let a food columnist make mincemeat of science this way.

Willingham and LeVaux had an interesting exchange at The Atlantic site (in the comment thread of his article), where he dismissed her critique as “nitpicking” and she responded by saying:

Your presentation of the science leaves not only a lot of room for “nitpicking” but also about an office building’s worth of room for correction. If you are aware of your lack of knowledge, it would have been a good idea to have run your information by someone with greater insight and experience so that you could have avoided embarrassing yourself in this way.
I’d say The Atlantic should feel equally embarrassed, and might want to consider applying some of the print magazine’s quality control standards to its online content.
UPDATE: On Twitter,  LeVaux thanks Willingham and says he’s “re-writing the piece with corrections.”
UPDATE: Charlie Petit, writing at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, says The Atlantic story “has the smell of inflammatory nonsense.”

Category: GMOs, Journalism, science

The Huffington Post’s Frankenjournalism

Last week, the Huffington Post unveiled a new science section. Science bloggers and science writers aren’t sure what to make of it. Some, such as Mark Hoofnagle, are cautiously hopeful. As he notes, the Huffington Post has up to now been notorious (at least in the science blogosphere) as a ”clearinghouse” for “liberal crankery,” featuring things “like Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crankery, or Bill Maher’s anti-pharma paranoia.” Can the site turn a new leaf? “Time will tell,” he says.

Carl Zimmer, using more restrained language, also noted the Huffington Post’s reputation for “checkered coverage” of science. But he is willing to give the new section (called HuffPo Science) a chance to prove itself:

I for one am ready to give the Huffington Post another look. If they can bring real science to their huge readership, that will be a great thing.

Orac, unsurprisingly, is not taking such a charitable view. He remains skeptical and asks “scientists and science-based bloggers to think a bit before joining up (or even after having joined up)” as writers for the new section. This is why, he argues:

The quackery is all still there. So is the antivaccine propaganda. It hasn’t gone away. It’s just (mostly) not in the medicine section, Apparently the editors tried to keep things science-based in the beginning, but it’s infiltrated the section since then. At least, the soft woo has, such as supplements, diet woo, and acupuncture. The hardcore stuff like homeopathy, antivaccine pseudoscience, and the like is posted elsewhere on HuffPo. It’s still there, though, and it still taints the reputation of the entire enterprise.

This latest evolution of the Huffington Post, with its hydra-headed model-an (unpaid) assemblage of amateur and professional voices, combined with appropriated and original journalism-is quite the mishmash. Not too long ago,  journalistic ethics watchdogs fretted about the wall crumbling between editorial and advertising.

The success of the Huffington Post makes those worries seem quaint. For it has blurred the lines between what is fact-based and what is half-baked, between what is original and what is purloined.

On this note, an interesting comment at Orac’s site related to HuffPo’s new science section could also apply, in a larger sense, to the entire website:

If I have a bucket of icecream in 1 hand and a bucket of poop in the other and just the tiniest spec of poop gets in the icecream, the whole bucket is ruined.

Yet no matter how much icecream you put in the bucket of poop, its still just a bucket of poop.

To put it more delicately, is the Huffington Post’s journalistic product tainted by some of its unsavory associations and practices? In this anxious age of media upheaval, that doesn’t appear to be a question that many in the profession (including the high priests) are much interested in. (Where’s Jay Rosen when you need him? Oh, wait, here he is, talking about how HuffPo could be an ideological innovator in journalism.) Well, I don’t know about you, but when I scroll around the HuffPo site, I see a jumble of indistinguishable content. It’s all thrown together on one canvass, separated only by news and subject categories.

Maybe the new science section, in pursuit of of some journalistic cred, will  keep the New Age bloggers and assorted cranks off its main page. That would constitute a small achievement of sorts.

Headlines like this are problematic, though:

In Vitro Meat: Will ‘Frankenfood’ Save the Planet or Just Gross out Consumers?

The story itself is a straightforward, well-written summary of a notable scientific development and its implications. But it is not served well by the headline’s unfortunate use of a politically charged, biased term (frankenfood).

It is too soon to judge the worthiness of the Huffington Post’s new science section, but based on the website’s ill-fitting and unsightly Frankenjournalism model, we have a pretty good idea of what it is going to end up looking like.

Category: Journalism, media

Gimme Some Lovin’

I started Collide-a-Scape in January 2009, when I was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism ( CEJ). Initially, I envisioned blogging about the Southwest. It was to be a continuation of the energy, ecology, and archaeology stories I had already been writing during the 2000s, for various publications and for Audubon magazine when I was an editor there.

I remember Tom Yulsman, CEJ’s co-director, laughing when I described the Southwestern focus of the blog. Who are you kidding, he said. You’re not going to want to limit yourself.

Heh. I think it took about a week for him to be proved right.

It also didn’t take long for me to embrace the blog and find readers (or them to find me). A few dust-ups soon followed, as I started watchdogging some of the self-appointed watchdogs in the climate community. That morphed into a closer and more sustained examination of the raging climate controversies that still tend to dominate the public discourse.

Over time, I have found these excursions to be the least personally satisfying but the highest traffic-generating posts. That’s problematic. I want to be relevant. I like being part of the daily conversation. That’s a big reason why I’ve continued to blog nearly every day. But if the public conversation on climate change is not advancing to a higher level, then what’s the point? Well, an underlying motivation for me (in terms of climate change) is to probe or point to areas and issues that are not so much discussed. And to do it in as fair a manner as possible.

My approach was first recognized by Michael Lemonick in his 2010 Scientific American profile of Judith Curry, in which he referred to my blog as “militantly evenhanded.” By this, I think he meant that I don’t play favorites. Sure, I have my biases and my appetite for blog warfare sometimes gets the better of me, but in general, I will poke and prod just about anyone, including those in my own fraternity, as I did here last year, when I was dismayed by an unusual arrangement between a non-profit advocacy organization and a publication I have long admired.

Some may give me points for my militant evenhandedness, but not much more than that. In an article for the Fall issue of the Society of Environmental  Journalists newsletter, Bud Ward (a co-founder of the organization and the editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, where I now write a weekly column) surveyed the fast changing journalistic landscape. He discussed some of the new models, partnerships, and individual initiatives that have sprung up in recent years, and mentioned my “self-made brand of independent journalism/blogging” at Collide-a-Scape, and wondered if it was sustainable. Ward captured my situation perfectly:

Without any financing and conducted more or less from his abiding commitment to journalism and science, he [Kloor] recently found himself asked by a prominent national magazine editor if he couldn’t simply continue his site as a “public service.” The implication: Why a need for money in return for his labors.

The comment Ward refers to was made to me in passing at last year’s AAAS conference in Washington, D.C. Some context: This particular editor happened to mention, unsolicited, that he was a fan of my blog. I was flattered but responded, jokingly, that my wife would prefer if such appreciation was rewarded financially. That’s when he laughed and said that what I did was a public service. I know he meant no offense, but I was offended, nonetheless.

Now before going any further, let me acknowledge that many science writers blog for free (or pennies) at various blogging networks. I’m opposed to that on principle. It cheapens the value of professional science writers/journalists and reinforces the expectation that little to no money should be paid for their work-if it appears on a blog. A year ago (at that same AAAS conference), I said this much to a friend/colleague who had just joined one of these blogging networks. Her response to me: Nobody is paying you to blog at your site. Ouch.

At the time, I glossed over this inconvenient fact by saying that at least I wasn’t adding value to another site by providing it with free content. My friend wasn’t impressed with that counter-argument and truth be told, neither was I.

Still, I continued to blog dutifully, as more of my peers (privately) cheered me on. Their plaudits, combined with the satisfaction I derived from blogging, blunted my mounting resentment at the expectation that I soldier on for the public good. (In fairness, let me be the first to admit that I have plenty of detractors who do not share this view.) But by the end of last year, I had resolved to reconcile these conflicting emotions.

Hence the new “donate” button on the right sidebar. I would never expect to make a living off this blog. Far from it. But I also want my endeavors to be acknowledged by more than expressions of appreciation. So thank you for whatever support you may be inclined to give this blog. It will go straight to my new Harley Davidson motorcycle fund.

Seriously, your support will help sustain the upkeep of the blog and my wife’s acceptance of it. Most important of all, I will truly feel your undying love and devotion.

Category: bloggers, Journalism

The Big Climate Stories from 2011

In a new post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I write:

In 2011, there were numerous themes that ran through climate change media coverage: 1) crazy weather, 2) a litmus test for Republicans, 3) man bites dog, 4) evidence of an actual climate movement, and 5) futility.

What’s that, you think I missed something? I’m all ears.

Category: climate change, Journalism

A Critic of Science Journalism Dons a Masquerade

There are two recent critiques of science journalism that paint very different pictures of the profession. One of them, an editorial in Nature this week, is more broadly aimed at the news media in general, and decries “scientific ignorance of the press,” agenda-driven stories, and “journalism that favors attitude over accuracy.”  The criticism is directed at British newspaper reporters and editors:

With stories ranging from ludicrous (wind turbine attacked by aliens) to downright irresponsible (promoting the link between childhood vaccinations and autism), the fourth estate in the United Kingdom has hardly covered itself in glory when it comes to science and scientific issues.

Indeed, according to Sarah Mukherjee, a former BBC environmental correspondent, the struggle for UK journos on the enviro beat is to avoid being superficial and part of a herd. (Come to think of it, that’s a pretty universal struggle for everyone in the press.) But Nature, taking particular issue with the lack of rigor in science reporting, says

there is a sense that the situation is more acute in tabloid-driven Britain, particularly given the distasteful news-gathering techniques that are now under the microscope like never before.

I’m not familiar enough with science coverage in the UK media to have an opinion on Nature’s assessment. I’d be curious to hear what British science reporters or bloggers think.

Interestingly, David Whitehouse, another former BBC correspondent (1988-1998), has a different sort of beef with his colleagues. It boils down to this: science journalists were better at their jobs last century (like when he was at the BBC, I’m guessing):

There has never been a golden age of science journalism, but certainly there were more characters, better writers, more newsgathering zeal, and more originality in the recent past.

Well, as you might expect, these are “fighting words” to the average, self-respecting science journalist, which is how veteran science writer Paul Raeburn put it in his rebuttal at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

We’ve heard these criticisms before, and I should probably ignore them, but, as The Dude put it in The Big Lebowski, “This will not stand, man.”

The Dude would be proud. But Whitehouse also made it easy for Raeburn, who writes:

He [Whitehouse] begins his argument with the contention that “science, and communicating science, is too important to be left to the scientists.” It’s unclear whether he believes that, or whether he’s setting that up as an observation that he wants to challenge. In any case, as anyone who reads news online now knows, scientists are communicating to the public more broadly and effectively than ever before. Where once Carl Sagan stood, a thousand blogs now bloom. Science communication is clearly not too important to be left to the scientists.

Raeburn also observes that Whitehouse

makes the odd argument that the widespread availability of science news has led news outlets to become “bland clones” of one another. To me, the situation seems quite the opposite. With fewer restrictions on science news, the big news organizations can no longer manipulate the supply chain and dominate the coverage. With expanded competition, news organizations and science writers now have more incentive than ever to do good work.

Whitehouse, though, is on stronger footing when he accuses

many journalists being supporters of, and not reporters of, science. There is a big difference. Many have become advocates for science that are too close to the scientists they report on. Anyone who has downed an orange juice at a scientists and journalists bash will not have to look far to see them compete to see who can be the most sycophantic. At one such gathering I remarked, tactlessly, that I was surprised, and disappointed, that half of the scientists there didn’t hate half of the journalists! Scientists even run prizes for science journalists! Jonathan Leake, science and environment editor at the Sunday Times said recently, “Science in the daily media is too often reported in the same deferential way as political journalists used to report politics in the 1950s.” Because of this back slapping closeness, many journalists lack detachment and by implication judgment about the stories they cover.

Raeburn acknowledged these and other points:

Reporters are, as he says, far too dependent upon press releases. But that has always been true. And he says that too many science writers have become supporters, not reporters, of science. I’ve made the same argument myself. Writers and bloggers have every right to be supporters of science, if they choose, but we need a strong corps of reporters who see themselves as critics, shedding light in dark corners.

Raeburn then notes that the “only example” Whitehouse provides “to make his case is that of climate-change coverage.” Yes, that kinda jumped out at me, too. So I googled a bit to see what he might have written about the subject and this column in the New Statesman popped up from 2007. In it he explains why “global warming has stopped.” (To see how he arrived at this, you’ll have to go and read it for yourself.) Similarly, in 2010, Whitehouse wrote a piece for the UK’s Global Warming Policy Foundation and reproduced at WUWT, titled, ”The climate coincidence: Why is the temperature unchanging?”

It turns out that Whitehouse does a lot of writing for the UK think tank that is a known clearinghouse for climate skeptic-oriented commentary and research. He is their science editor.

Strangely, this affiliation wasn’t mentioned in his bio for the Huffington Post piece.

Let me be clear: Whitehouse being the science editor for the Global Warming Foundation doesn’t (and shouldn’t) disqualify him from penning an opinion piece for anyone, including the Huffington Post. But it’s a bit peculiar that in a column critical of science journalists and climate reporting-that his connection to a climate skeptic think tank was not disclosed to Huffington Post readers.

One last thing. Whitehouse is absolutely on the mark with some of his points in the column, including this one:

Journalism is about not taking sides, or about being a cheerleader.

Category: climate change, climate science, Journalism

Barriers to Nuanced Reporting on Climate Studies

Some of the commentary about how the media covered last week’s big climate sensitivity study in Science prompted me to explore underlying issues that have already been identified by people much smarter than me. Have a read over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Category: climate change, climate science, Journalism, media

What Journalists Do

This CJR story by Dean Starkman is being widely disseminated and discussed in journalism circles. Here’s what it’s about:

No one reading this magazine needs to be told that we have crossed over into a new era. Industrial-age journalism has failed, we are told, and even if it hasn’t failed, it is over. Newspaper company stocks are trading for less than $1 a share. Great newsrooms have been cut down like so many sheaves of wheat. Where quasi-monopolies once reigned over whole metropolitan areas, we have conversation and communities, but also chaos and confusion.

A vanguard of journalism thinkers steps forward to explain things, and we should be grateful that they are here. If they weren’t, we’d have to invent them. Someone has to help us figure this out. Most prominent are Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen, whose ideas we’ll focus on here, along with Dan Gillmor, John Paton, and others. Together their ideas form what I will call the future-of-news (FON) consensus.

According to this consensus, the future points toward a network-driven system of journalism in which news organizations will play a decreasingly important role. News won’t be collected and delivered in the traditional sense. It will be assembled, shared, and to an increasing degree, even gathered, by a sophisticated readership, one that is so active that the word “readership” will no longer apply. Let’s call it a user-ship or, better, a community. This is an interconnected world in which boundaries between storyteller and audience dissolve into a conversation between equal parties, the implication being that the conversation between reporter and reader was a hierarchical relationship, as opposed to, say, a simple division of labor.

Here’s the argument by the author:

Not only does the FON consensus have little to say about public-service journalism, it is in many ways antithetical to it. For one thing, its anti-institutionalism would disempower journalism. Jarvis and Shirky in particular have reveled in the role of intellectual undertakers/grief counselors to the newspaper industry, which, for all its many failings, has traditionally carried the public-service load (see for a laundry list of exposés—on tobacco-industry conspiracies; worker-safety atrocities; Lyndon Johnson’s wife’s dicey broadcasting empire; group-home abuses in New York; redlining in Atlanta; corruption in the St. Paul, Minnesota, fire department, the Rhode Island courts, the Chicago City Council, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball program, and on and on). But their vision for replacing it with a networked alternative, or something else, is hazy at best.

Meanwhile, FON’s practical prescriptions—what it calls engagement with readers—have in practice devolved into another excuse for news managers to ramp up productivity burdens, draining reporters of their most precious resource, the thing that makes them potent: time.

The journalism stakes, then, are large. Just as it was an open question a hundred years ago whether a man like Rockefeller was more powerful than the United States president, it was far from clear only a hundred days ago who was more powerful in the United Kingdom, Rupert Murdoch or the British prime minister. Today, it is clear, thanks largely to reporter Nick Davies and his editors at The Guardian and their long, lonely investigation into the crimes and cover-ups of Murdoch’s News Corp. While the FON consensus is essentially ahistorical—we’re in a revolution, and this is Year III or so—we know journalism is a continuum. What Tarbell did, Davies does, and all great reporters do, always in collaboration with the community. Who else?

That’s the 10,000 foot view of public journalism, the Pulitzer winning one. We should be reminded of the aforementioned achievements, as we are annually when all the big prizes are handed out. But I think it’s just as important to highlight the actual community, ground-level view. For that, let’s go to Jonathan Thompson, a terrific editor and writer based in Colorado. Spurred by the CJR article, he reflects:

It makes me think back to the years I spent running a weekly newspaper in Silverton, Colo.. Silverton isn’t only a small town — year-round population approx. 450 — but it is also isolated by mountain passes on either side, and is the only town in the county and the county seat. That meant that all the business, all the politics, all the decisions, and about 90 percent of the “news” took place in a space that is about one mile long by one-third of a mile wide. And that meant that, long before the Internet was even conceived of, the newspaper in Silverton should have been obsolete under the “Future of News” gurus models. That is, you didn’t need a weekly newspaper to tell you what was going on, because there were plenty of “citizen journalists” (read, gossips) to fill you in wherever you went. The streets themselves, the post office, the coffee shop and the Miner’s Tavern were the Internet of Silverton, overflowing with information; if a big decision was made at Town Hall, the whole town knew about it, or could know about it, by the next day at noon, which might be a full week before they read about it in the newspaper.

Nonetheless, the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper has continued to be published, and read, every single week without a break since 1875. And during that 136 years, there have been many times when Silverton had two or even more newspapers (this even happened in the post-Internet age). They even kept reading it after big news was broken on Facebook or various Web sites, and after all the town/county/school board meetings were broadcast live on the local radio station, allowing everyone to get the big news delivered to them as it happened.


 Because people naturally need and therefore crave the authority, voice, context and commentary that a news organization can offer by a newspaper, even if it isn’t delivered in “real time.” They know that while Donna down at the Post Office can tell you about how the vote turned out at last night’s school board meeting, and even who voted for what, they also know that she didn’t sit through all three miserable hours of the meeting recording not only the vote, but also the argument leading up to it; and not only that, but also the mood of the board members, and the audience, and the rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth. Nor did she go back into the school the next day and pester the superintendent and the principal and get the inside scoop; nor did she dig through databases on the Internet and crunch numbers and make more calls to figure out what they mean. Nor did she dig back in the archives to see what may have led up to that particular vote.

 The reporter did all of that.

Category: Journalism, media