The New News

Dear David:

Regarding the old news post (is that a triple oxymoron or subliminal irony?)…

I enjoyed your exegesis on the history of journalism, the emergence of the new journalism, devaluation of the objectivity criterion and the rise of subjectivity in reporting.

First, ringing in my ears were Hitchen’s denigrations of the New York Times for presenting mere approximations of the truth (he’d flip through it in 10 minutes or less, then call his foreign correspondence friends to find out what was really going on) and Chomsky’s ongoing rebuke of the American media for failing to challenge the establishment with balanced reporting–to the extreme of turning a blind eye to pivotal events–or passing over them in silence.

So, from the argument by authority, right to left, there is some questioning of the objectivity of the mainstream media. Even Rush Limbaugh, attacking from the ultra-right, disparages them as “the drive-by media.” (At least there’s somebody over there to articulate Palen’s intractable views.)

Second, you brought us up to the brink of blogging (the rise of the “me” news) but stopped short of the rise of hyperlocal journalism and citizen reporting.

(A) Regarding effects of these on mainstream media outlets, consider…

The Huffington News was the first instance of a mediated blogging source that in large part led to the demise of approximately 50% of domestic print papers in the last 10 years. (I was tracking that for a while).

For example, clicking through the list of links to state newspapers maintained at (Links to an external site.) reveals that half are out of business (404 error), roughly 20% of the remainder publish only digital editions, and a good number of the rest have consolidated–in that clicking on two or more brings up a single point of presence (ala, “Serving town 1, 2 and 3, etc”).

Another factor leading to the demise of print and mediated news was Craigslist, which sucked the baseline of classified advertising revenue out of the pipeline. I know you don’t put the blame squarely on the emergence of digital advertising but, bubula, it played a part.

(B) Regarding social impact…

As a consequence of (A), we have top-down erosion of objectivity as the media hierarchy flattens and consolidates, and a rise of subjectivity as disintermediated citizen journalists are empowered from the bottom-up. It could be argued, in fact, that they are more emboldened to effect social change than the mainstream media. Consider the Arab Spring. A Facebook page and an iPhone led to the relatively peaceful downfall of 5 Middle Eastern regimes in short order. Can that be a bad thing? Nu?

Thus, hyperlocal journalists are filling the mediation gap, while bloggers, twitterers, snapchatters, instagramers, facebookies, etc supply a modicum of source material and fodder for gossip. The big outlets are still around. They sure got the election right.

Remember, to the flyover state plurality, we’re the crazy ones. And south of the Mason-Dixon line–well thank you James Madison.

(C) You gave an accurate account of the rise of the new journalism (some trace it further back to the writings of Dubois). Keep in mind, however, that narrative journalism has had its venues–dating back to the 1840s by my reckoning. For example, Fuller for a time redacted much of Thoreau’s early journalistic writings, and is credited for both polishing his prose and perhaps the ultimate success of Walden.

Consider also that in an era of free news there is little incentive to pay for it. The disruptive consequences of this are impacting academic publishing as well–the gold standard for objective 3rd person (bordering on voiceless) writing. You may be aware that even the esteemed ivies are caving under the costs of high-priced journal subscriptions. As reported on the front page of the Boston Globe on April 28, 2012:

Harvard may be the world’s wealthiest university, but fees for its academic journal subscriptions have gotten so steep–some as much as $40,000 a year–that an advisory council is encouraging faculty to submit their work to “open access” online journals that are available for free.

This was already underway. Due to the inherent delays in refereeing journal publications, their prohibitive costs, paltry audiences, the tenure clock, pressure to publish or perish (and the likelihood of the latter) there’s been a trend among academics to vernacularize their writings, express themselves in first person narrative form, post to open journals–coupled with a move to post-publication review.

In other words, many academics are closet journalists.

They may not brand themselves as such. The move from power journal cliques to open publishing is cheaper, faster, more democratic, admits of inaccuracies but is as a consequence subjectable to a sort of popular Popperian falsifiability regimen. This is a problem?

You may also be aware of the phantom publishing industry and its “journal” subsidiaries, which will publish any submission containing academic overtones. Plenty of Tier-2 and Tier-3 promotion, tenure and renewal decisions have been based primarily on false perceptions of the quality of professorial writing but at least they serve to pad curriculum vitae nicely. You may also be aware of SCIgen, which uses an AI to automatically generate articles that have proven credible enough for acceptance by indiscriminate journals or conference proceedings.

See (Links to an external site.)

For the same reasons, I’m no longer impressed with the quality of writing in established conference proceedings. The winning piece in the educational technology category of the AERA last year was a disgrace. But it makes sense. Despite the illusion of influence one gleams from the number of people attending the plenary sessions–especially those keynoted by celebrities–the number of those attending the quantitative and technical presentations rounds to zero.

For a little while, I continued to go as a professional benefit and retreat of sorts. But it became a schlep, there’d be maybe one pearl of wisdom or take away from the vendor displays, and to paraphrase Woody Allen, “the food was terrible and the portions were small.”

So, after nearly 40 years in this business, I have shelves full of impressive looking journals and proceedings containing low impact contributions to the zeitgeist.

(D) Regarding the impact of the Internet on reporting, let me begin with an anecdotal account…

I took a journalism proseminar with a host of Neiman Fellows once. Pretty much everyone in there had a Pulitzer, Emmy or multiple Regional Emmys. Except me–the “academic interloper.”

So I asked the woman sitting next to me, who turned out to be an editor at the Washington Post, “If Bob Woodward had the Internet, would it have helped the Watergate investigation?” What transpired was like the McLuhan scene in Annie Hall.

She said, “I have his number. Let’s ask ’em.” She proceeded to dial, the phone rang, he answered, and after a perfunctory introduction, stuck her BlackBerry in my ear. So I asked Bob the question, and he replied that a lot of that reporting entailed shoe-leather journalism, most of it in covert parking garages and the like, so the Internet would not have helped. Moreover, if Nixon had a Facebook page, he probably would have delayed the investigation like a spin doctor–using the outlet for his own brand of yellow journalism.

The upshot of it all is that–with the rise of the Internet, utilization of verification and validation standards, a modicum of decline in the use of objective voice (not always correlating with “subjectivity”), algorithmic fact checking, and a broader application of the falsifiability criterion–the integrity of reportage, despite all the noise, should be upheld.

Moreover, objectivity is inherently mired in subjectivity. Not to worry, for as Thoreau advised that the “I” is to be preserved, for there is no one who knows us as well, and in his own words

I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.


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