Apocalypse 26: Lights at the End of the Tunnel

Posted: May 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Apocalypse Series | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

On Wednesday, I graduated from Columbia’s Business and Economics Journalism master’s program, which I’ve been blogging about a bit this year. As you might imagine, the two day Commencement was full of speeches about the value of journalism, and laden with allusions to the crisis we face now.

One surprise was that at the University-wide Commencement, Columbia President Lee Bollinger focused his address to the undergrad class primarily on the future of news, even though there are no undergraduate journalism students at the University. Bollinger seemed to be making some of the First Amendment arguments I’ve been making on this blog and elsewhere.

a crisis of journalism is a crisis of democracy. No one should assume that the institutions committed to a professional culture of journalism or scholarship can be replaced by thousands of individual, citizen-journalists, just as you cannot replace our great universities with multiple individual websites each offering specialized knowledge in an atomized way. Sometimes you need big, strong news organizations to challenge the vast powers of government, corporations and other large institutions

As I’ve been articulating similar notions, however, I have become more convinced that this idealist argument for media is unlikely to stick with the vast majority of the public.

What the public wants and needs is tangible evidence of why professional media matters. They need more hardhitting investigative reporting at precisely the moment when that kind of reporting is becoming impossible to finance. So another highlight of our Commencement cermony was when the J-school’s Commencement Speaker, Mexico’s newspaper revolutionary Alejandro Junco de la Vega, proposed his model for how to make media profitable. To paraphrase: Put down the phone and go back to basic, gumshoe-on-the-streets reporting; then cede the horse race to the Internet and become experts (his papers are partnering with academic institutions to research policy ideas and implications in a broad, sociological way). Advertisers, online or off, will never pay for this kind of Gonzo journalism, but that was Junco’s point–if you walk amongst your readers, showing them that you can identify trends in THEIR lives that they themselves cannot see or make sense of, that you can offer solutions to THEIR problems that they themselves cannot devise, if you do this in person, it is readers who will pay for content. My instinct is that this is a model for a media economy that is still mostly in print, and therefore for a developing, rather than a developed nation. I don’t know if it would work here, but I thought it was new and bold of him to suggest it. The speech, which was beautiful and intelligent on many other points, is here.

Our other Commencement Speaker was Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, most recently of Dowd-plagiarism fame. Marshall is certainly a cause journalist but unlike other web evangelists, he did not spend his time on the stand chastising “old” media or pooh-poohing the value of professionalism. His tone–staid and respectful–suggested that the realignment has begun, with the forces of reporting marshalling against the forces of spam. Josh Marshall realizes, as do we at the J-school, that he has more in common with us than any of us does with A. Maureen Dowd or B. Gawker.

Pot and Kettle

Posted: October 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism, Politics | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

My good friend Megan and I spend a lot of time emailing one another with thoughts on Maureen Dowd’s NYTimes columns. We both generally dislike Dowd’s work, yet somehow we can’t get her off our minds. My major problem with Dowd isn’t the arguments she wants to make–I’ll agree with her, for example, when she depicts George W. Bush as simpleminded and Dick Cheney as manipulative. It’s the fact that her style of snarky satire only confirms the dangerous stereotype people have about women in power–that they are catty and clawing–the same stereotype Dowd often complains about. In general, Dowd has a tendency to mimic or come down to the level of the people she is trying to dismantle.

This weekend’s column was a perfect example. Dowd’s right that Sarah Palin is less than brilliant and that the Joe Six Packs like her for it. There is surely room for a sustained examination of why folksiness beats intellect in our politics, so much so that intelligent leaders (Bill Clinton, Rhodes Scholar comes to mind) have to play down their brains to succeed. But Maureen Dowd is hardly in a position to complain about someone speaking to the lowest common denominator. If she’s so in favor of high-minded elite discourse, why doesn’t she write some?