James Fallows’ awesomely-titled article on the future of journalism – “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media” – is well worth reading in full, like almost everything he writes. It’s one of those articles that validates its central thesis by virtue of its existence: Fallows is a perfect example of what the future of journalism might look like. To wit: much more interdisciplinary (he combines investigatory reporting with economics, history, and small-scale social theory), mixed media, practically useful and – above all – experimental. Fallows is dead right when he says that journalists should be more like entrepreneurs, and that we should be should be “biased in favor of almost any new project”:
At no stage in the evolution of our press could anyone be sure which approaches would support life, and which would flicker out. Through my own career I have seen enough publications and programs start—and succeed, and fail—to know how hard it is to foresee their course in advance. Therefore I am biased in favor of almost any new project, since it might prove to be the next New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, NPR, or Wired that helps us understand our world. Perhaps we have finally exhausted the viable possibilities for a journalism that offers a useful and accurate perspective. If so, then America’s problems of public life can only grow worse, since we will lack the means to understand and discuss them.
My only quibble is with the last part of the paragraph. His casual association of “America’s problems of public life” with the “possibilities [of] journalism,” seems to undermine his point. For if we simply stipulate that journalism exists in order to solve the “problems of public life,” then we limit the experimental possibilities of the form. Because journalism could do so much more.
The question that would need to come first is the most basic question possible: why does journalism exist at all? It’s a brazen line of reasonsing, no doubt, but it sits on the shadow-side of all the prognosticating we do about the future of the news industry: why, in the end, do we bother with the news?
Does anyone in the world need me, Max Novendstern, student of 21, taker of final exams in biology, frequenter of college parties and the occasional business conference — does anyone really need me to know the relative benefits of cap-and-trade over carbon taxes, or to have an opinion about whether the intervention in Libya was a good idea? Does my knowledge of these things indeed solve the “problems of public life”? And if it does, somehow, is it for this reason, descriptively, that I read? And does mainstream, “respectable” political journalism – the type that we’re wringing our hands to defend – depend on the myth that it is?
I ask this with the operating premise that if we want to figure out the future of news, we should begin by wondering why we bother reading it in the first place. So here’s my tentative list of why we read the news (and feel free to add your own in the comments):
The J.S. Mill Thesis: We read the news because it’s our duty as citizens. We have the privilege of voting, and of participating in the governance of our country, and we take that task seriously.
The Gawker Thesis: We read the news because we think it’s fun. Our relationship to politics is roughly the same as the video gamer’s relationship to video games.
The Habermas Thesis: We read the news because it gives us something to talk about. The news is part of our “public discourse,” our set of shared intellectual touchstones that help to affirm our membership in communities like campus and country. We value that.
The Ida Tarbell Thesis: We read the news because we have principles and personal projects, and “getting the facts” help us achieve our goals. I care about climate change because I want to stop it. I need to know about ethanol policy because my job depends on it. Etc.
The Chomsky Thesis: We read the news because powerful people lie, and it’s our “responsibility as intellectuals” to expose those lies.
I could probably go on, of course. But just acknowledging the fact that we read the news for different reasons helps us make the case for “new media.” The internet promises to diversify the ways we experience information. It helps us stretch more fibers in our reading muscle by pulling on them in different, diverse ways. Gawker, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Colbert Report, ProPublica, The Huffington Post, TED Talks, The Gutenberg Project, Twitter, Kindle Singles and Newsle — these represent not just alternative modes of journalism, but also different rationales for why we bother to read. But it’s only the beginning. I envision a world where news looks like fantasy football leagues, or David Foster Wallace novels, or Second Life.
And who could possibly argue that having all this together at once would be worse for the reader? It might be worse for the publishers of the traditional newspapers, of course. But that’s another story.