When a journalist as renowned and respected as Geneva Overholser writes a paper boldly titled, â€œA Manifesto for Change,â€? an optimistic guy like me desperately wants to read a authentic call for innovation and reinvention.
Unfortunately, Overholser, one of the true red-robed cardinals of the Church of Journalism, seems to merely restate the same old orthodoxy.
It is the norm in the world of American business to place an emphasis on profitability â€“ an emphasis that has grown across most sectors of the economy in recent years. But journalism is not just another business. As Hutchins said to the National Conference of Editorial Writers in 1948, “The sole test of the success of a steel business or a cracker business may be, for all I care, its ability to make money, but the public concern with the large elements in the newspaper business suggests that, though a newspaper must make money to stay in business, it should meet a further test; it is proper to ask whether it is discharging its responsibility for public enlightenment.”
And hereâ€™s the crux of my differing opinion: If we had been doing a good job of informing the public and taking seriously the call to civic enlightenment, we wouldnâ€™t be in the pickle we find ourselves in today.
If we had been doing our jobs instead of feeding our egos, we would have readers and we would be relevant, and we would be much further along in building the kind of Web sites that people want to visit. In the marketplace of trust, we would be winning.
Our chief problem isnâ€™t technology. Our chief problem is attitude.
Leonard Witt, who gets credit for pointing me to Overholserâ€™s PDF (a PDF with no ability for feedback, comment or links, in itself a rather obvious blunder in the age of conversation), is also unhappy with Overholserâ€™s manifesto.
This week at the Huffington Post she fairly begs for citizen help, but read my italicized sentence to understand why she and the mainstream media folks are adrift:
Please meet me there, oh fellow citizen of this unsettling time, at my immodestly named Manifesto, and check out those Action Steps. Typical of us legacy-media types, we haven’t quite gotten our site interactive yet, but we will, very soon. We’ll be posting progress along these various paths. We’ll need your views on the action steps we’ve thought of, and your suggestions for others. I hope you’ll join us.
Geneva, the problem isn’t that the legacy-media types haven’t quite gotten their site interactive yet, but that they have not gotten their minds interactive yet. And I am afraid your manifesto is in some ways clueless.
I took the time to carefully read Genevaâ€™s manifesto today, and as much as I wanted something revolutionary, I came away paragraph after paragraph feeling that I was reading a call to arms for business as usual.
First off, Overholser spends way too many words consumed with the state of newspaper ownership. Ownership isnâ€™t the problem. Knight-Ridder didnâ€™t fail because of public ownership. KR failed because its basic new media strategy was fatally flawed and it lacked any true vision for 21st Century media. Journalism isnâ€™t in trouble because of public ownership. There are plenty of bad privately owned newspapers. Journalism is in trouble because weâ€™ve lost connection with the people we believe we serve (that, and the multitude of choices available now). There isnâ€™t one privately held company that is doing any better at meeting the business and journalistic challenges of today than any of the best publicly held corporations.
But thatâ€™s only part of the problem within Overholserâ€™s manifesto.
Her entire premise is built on the notion that big-J journalism is needed, a necessity, like water and air
Sorry, but itâ€™s not.
The first step to healing is honesty. We need to be honest: journalism as traditionally defined is not needed. There is a sizable minority of people today (from what I know of various ratings/readership studies, I’d guess in the 30 to 40 percent range) who get along fine without journalism. We all know people who don’t read newspapers or news magazines, or watch TV news, or listen to the radio (even something as uninformative as talk radio). Sure, journalism should play a watchdog role in a free society (ideally), but that doesn’t mean people perceive the need for journalism. It doesn’t matter how much we want them to perceive it — if they don’t, they don’t. Add to the lack of interest, the fact that more and more people without pedigree or training think they can do it for themselves, and you wind up with a world where traditional journalism is left without mooring or direction. So you can’t say, in all honesty, that big-J journalism is needed. It’s a good to have, but needed, it ain’t.
Of course, there will always be a need for people who ask questions and publish answers, and I call that journalism (though not within the orthodoxy of the Church of Journalism), but it doesnâ€™t take training, it doesnâ€™t require editors, and it certainly shouldnâ€™t be credentialed, as Overholser suggests.
One of the most detrimental and dangerous thoughts we can hold is that professional journalism is necessary. That is the path to destruction.
As media organizations are learning, citizens want to be part of their media. The media no longer exercise the control they once did but, through embracing interactivity and engaging the readers, they are coming up with new kinds of power …
Here is a fatally flawed assumption: that citizens want to be part of our media organizations. Actually, people want a voice, and they arenâ€™t looking at it as our media or their media. Thatâ€™s why Dan Gillmorâ€™s book title was so apt: Itâ€™s â€œwe the media.â€? To Overholser, apparently, interactivity is just another path to power and control. But in a true conversation, there is no position of power. There can be no true communication where one person dominates the patter and jive. The true power is in the network, and networks are a path to the truth journalists supposedly regard so highly. Networks are more powerful than the omnipotent voice of a journalism organization.
Overholser extols the virtues of professionalization, but it is professionalization, created by early 20th Century publishers to satisfy advertisers, that has separated us from our communities. In the age of networked communication, professionalization is irrelevant. In the age of networks, conversation will create the standards, transparency and accountability Overholser seeks.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said: “I think there is a really poisonous atmosphere out there. What those Times people are reacting to are the attacks by partisans and bloggers. The environment is really pretty tough, and you have to be prepared to make your case.”
What Kohut calls poisonous, I call healthy. What Kohut is defending is a New York Times that is arrogant and insulated — two characteristic anathema to truth. That isn’t to say all media critics are right or accurate, but within the cacophony of voices, intelligent people can sort out relevance and meaning.
Near the end, Overholser notes that bloggers are beginning to see themselves as journalists and are getting “more and more obsessed with accuracy.” Beginning? As far back as at least 2001 Ken Layne was noting that “we can fact check your ass.” I know many bloggers who would argue that over the past six or seven years, bloggers have been far more obsessed with ethics and accuracy than many MSM journalists.
It is this disparity between reality and perception that separates Overholer’s manifesto from a true call to arms.
One last observation to lament: Overholserâ€™s paper opens with nine propositions â€“ propositions drafted by a panel of industry experts, with no opportunity for others outside that clique to weigh in, or for the public to comment. So what weâ€™re given is a manifesto for change that fails to recognize the true change going on â€“ that small groups of elite insiders no longer dictate what media is. A better approach would have been to publish the propositions in a blog or wiki and seek a broad range of input â€“ what should journalism be in the 21st Century?
While I applaud the effort to find a way to grapple with the changing role of journalism, I think Overholser and her group still have a lot of work to do, and attitudes to change.