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The Future of Journalism: Unpacking the Rhetoric

Panel # 4: Tenet = The Web Has Eroded the Quality of Public Discourse

Streaming video from this panel is now available | Watch Video

James Fishkin frames the discussion: has the internet served public discourse or not? Has it enriched, fragmented, or destroyed public conversation?  Are we becoming more self-reflective or using this medium to find information that simply reflects our selves?

Jaron Lanier gives a historical view on the current crisis facing journalists, tracing it to the rise of mechanized labor in the 19th century.  Over the past 15 years, technology has changed the role of journalists.  But, this problem will not remain limited to groups like journalists and musicians.  Rather, these groups are an early sign of coming changes in the relation between technology and labor that will eventually affect everyone.  Although we have historically believed that technological advances will lead to knowledge work that is more cerebral and humane, Lanier argues that our current model of monetization through advertising will not yield this result.  Instead of allowing people to be paid for their creativity and mental labor, it has led to new forms of physical labor – such as making t-shirts, playing concerts, or giving talks – which will also eventually be displaced by new technologies.  In addition to these economic challenges, journalism substitutes make it harder to distinguish fact from fiction and create self-reinforcing echo chambers that divorce groups from reality and foster a mob mentality.

Joshua Cohen sets forth a framework of four qualities that journalism must have in order to foster a healthy public sphere: (1) It must be deliberative, in the sense that it leads us to look at new information rather than cloister ourselves.  As an aside, he notes that merely studying links is not good enough because blogs are not just nodes and readers are not just link followers, so, a good understanding of blogs would require attention to discussion, not just tracking links. (2) It must be accessible, in the sense of providing equal and low-cost access to information. The outlook here is basically good. Costs have definitely gone down.  (3)  There must be equal opportunities for people to present arguments to others.  We are still nowhere near the Jeffersonian ideal where it would be as easy to provide a service as to consume it.  But the cost of one-to-many messaging has gone down. (4)  It must be based on high quality information. This is in danger because there is not yet a viable alternative to the old business model.  Blog discussion, Cohen argues, is parasitic off of traditional sources, and good investigative journalism can’t be crowdsourced.

Jay Rosen tells a public space/public sphere parable comparing Gramercy Park (the private park near Lexington and Twenty-first that most New Yorkers have never entered) with Washington Square Park (the public park in the middle of NYU’s campus which hosts, among other things, a vibrant chess scene).  His point: if New York made Gramercy Park public it would become noisier and more crowded, but at least it would be open.  If we focus only on the issue of lower quality, we miss the essential fact that it is now open.  Similarly, the internet might have lowered the average quality of journalism but it has increased participation. And, from the Civic Journalism perspective, public engagement is journalism’s core purpose.  So, more openness can only be good, and we don’t need to idealize public places like Washington Square Park or the internet as utopias to believe that they are better for being open.

Elisa Camahort Page addresses the common complaint that forums like blogs and Twitter are responsible for cheapening public discourse.  Agreeing with Rosen, Page argues that compared to 30 years ago, when the average person’s media sources may have consisted of the local paper, three TV networks and either Time or Newsweek, things today are much richer.  Page notes that it is a mistake to think of quality and reliability as binary and thereby assume that professionals are reputable and that User Generated Content is not.  Rather, there are sites where many different types of writing are curated and people are formulating ways of deciding what is and is not reputable.  Page argues that the desires of the public, not of journalists, should guide discussions about journalism’s future. The idea that readers will passively consume journalism is obsolete and journalists must become more responsive.  People want to talk back to the news, and if large media organizations lack a space for this, they should expect that readers will go elsewhere to do their talking.

Fishkin opens up the discussion by asking about the challenges created by greater participation.  Some forms of participation, as the founders feared, may lead to mob violence.  So, what we need is not just participation, but participation based on reliable evidence.

This leads to an exchange between Rosen and Cohen on how openness should be weighed against other essential values.  Openness is desirable, Cohen argues, but not sufficient for the journalism we want.  High quality information and other qualities are just as necessary and require attention.  Lanier adds that from a technological perspective, the internet is neither open nor free.  Under the current model of ad revenue, it is only cost free because large companies use the sites to gather data about users.  The internet may seem like a public park, Lanier says, but to be like the internet, public parks would have cameras and scanners that record your data and sell it to private parties. We need an idea of openness that is more sophisticated than what we inherited from Linux.  Financing everything through ads is not a viable business model.

Audience questions ensue.  Rosen argues that it would be a mistake to idealize the old business model. Back when there were substantial margins, the profits were not getting poured back investigative reporting, they were going to shareholders. The legitimacy was gone before the business model failed.  The underlying media system on which we built the press has been transformed, Rosen concludes, so we need to rebuild the press based on openness as its fundamental value.  Lanier notes that the state of science journalism should be included this discussion. The popular science press has especially struggled with the new media environment and we can see the results of this in popular misconceptions about science.  Page responds to the idea that the internet creates self-reinforcing communities, arguing that finding one’s tribe online does not mean that viewpoint echo chambers are more pervasive now than in the past.  The ills we see online, Page concludes, predate the current crisis. The internet has just channeled and amplified them.

Lively Debate on Information Wants to be Free

The second panel of the day featured a spirited debate of the tenet “information wants to be free.”

We knew we were in for fun when Rebecca Tushnet, Professor of Law at Georgetown, who was tasked with arguing in favor of the tenet, lead off by arguing that no, information does not want to be free.  Information doesn’t want anything.  People want things.  Rebecca went on to argue that adding new legal property rights is not the answer to the problems we see in the news industry. Creating new legal rights in information to tackle the thorny problem of “free riding”  would come at a high cost in other areas, particularly to journalists — as we’ve seen when sports associations and investment banks rely on the hot news doctrine to monopolize information others want to report.  She highlighted these examples to demonstrate the poor fit between making information property and saving the news industry.  Putting a price on information may keep information locked away, clearly not a solution that will save the news industry.

Moderator, Tony Falzone of Stanford’s CIS, engaged the panel by asking a fundamental question: is professional journalism in jeopardy or is it diversifying and evolving?

Alan Murray (Executive Online Editor of the Wall Street Journal which as we all know closely guards its web content behind a pay wall) jumped right in and unequivocally answered yes, professional journalism is in jeopardy.  And the reason for it is the industry made the mistake 15 years ago of giving away its content for free. Now it’s the minority voice that says news should not be free, making the news industry an anomaly among those like it that rely on intellectual property for their value (like the movie, music, software, and pharmaceutical industries).  In those other industries it is a minority voice that says all of their information should be free.  The news industry needs to stand up and say, its information shouldn’t be free either.  To get quality information and content, people have to pay for it.

Josh Cohen, of Google News, took issue with Murray’s contentions and argued there isn’t one cause to the problems the news industry is facing.  The news industry isn’t suffering simply because of the decision to not charge.  The competitive advanatage news publishers used to enjoy was the means of distribution and the internet has blown the doors off the monopolies that newspapers once had.  The challenge now is to focus on the unique value journalists can offer.

David Marburger, an attorney at Baker Hosteler LLP, vociferously contended the problem leading to decline of the news industry is that any one can take news stories, copy them, rewrite them, and trade on the reliability of the major news outlets.  New online media sites don’t have to hire journalists, they have low costs and easy profits.  He argued that these sites drive newspapers out of business by using their own content to compete against them (to which an audience member rejoined, “A suicide pact!”).   The law doesn’t adequately protect traditional news outlets and now the internet is full of websites that aren’t offering any “original” news.

Both Cohen and Tushnet took issue with this contention.  Cohen critiqued Marburger’s conclusion as overly simplistic and one that underestimates the innovation that has taken place on the web and the litany of challenges that publishers have faced for a long time, particularly the decline in classified ad revenues.  Tushnet added that more competition and voices on the web is a good thing, and that the problem might just be that people don’t want to buy the content news publishers want to sell them (a sentiment some in the audience cheered).

Marburger came back to his contention that free riding by all these media websites is the root of the problem, one he’d solve not by making new property rights but by strengthening common law tort of unfair competition – by amending the Copyright Act to make explicit that it doesn’t preempt unfair competition or unjust enrichment, and reinvigorate state courts’ reliance on the hot news doctrine.

Tushnet pointed out that the hot news doctrine is viable and exists, and questioned  what exactly legal reaffirmation of the doctrine would accomplish. What Marburger calls  “free riding” she calls talking.  These websites have a function: talk about a story, what that reader thinks about it, and provide a link to the full article if others want to read about it.  Handing out a right to sue for misappropriation is a bad idea and bad for journalists in particular. “Rewriters” aren’t the problem and copyright law already protects against those who simply copy.  The plaintiffs we’ve seen relying on misappropriation in the last decade are toxic to journalists — sports organizations and investment banks.  The WSJ certainly doesn’t gain in a world where we have pay the NBA to report basketball scores.  Not only would Marburger’s solution not solve the problem, it would come at a very high cost.

Falzone wanted the critics of the web to identify just who these bad actors are.  Murray immediately pointed to Cohen — Google and aggregators are the problem.  The ever-argumentative Marburger disagreed with Murray too, saying that it’s not aggregators he has a problem with, it’s the Gawker.com sites of the world — ones he says simply take news stories, rewrite them and compete with the originator.  Murray chimed saying he’d love to shut down Gawker and Huffington Post.  Marburger doesn’t want those sites shut down, he wants them to pay a license.

Looking ahead, Falzone then asked  are there technologies out there that will encourage people to read more news? Cohen contended that technology is key, and that news publishers need to innovate and create an engaging experience for readers on the web.  News publishers have to innovate to create a competitive advantage; there is space and demand for different perspective on the same stories and information but we need to re-imagine the format for what the news should be.  Murray disagreed that innovation alone will close the circle, contending that despite lots of experimentation and innovation publishers cannot support reporting staff on advertisement budgets only.  Cohen responded that there is not one change that will radically fix all this.

Given the divergence of viewpoints and the passion of the panelists for the topic, the discussion was fiery and held the audience in rapt attention.  For the full effect be sure to check back and watch the video when it’s posted.

Panel #3: Unpacking “We are all journalists now”

Streaming video from this panel is now available | Watch Video

Theodore L. (Ted) Glasser introduced the panel by saying that the statement “we are all journalists now” is actually quite an old one, but that the barriers to entry to the profession have recently been lowered.  He said that self-identification isn’t good enough for deciding who’s a journalist: “Jon Stewart claims that he isn’t a journalist while Glenn Beck insists that he is.”

Scott Rosenberg asks “who is the ‘we’, what’s a ‘journalist’, and what’s the nature of ‘now’?”  Not everyone’s a journalist, Rosenberg argued and suggests changing the assertion to: “now, anyone can do journalism.”  This restatement aimed to focus the statement on an activity, one focused on the potential for participation.  But it leaves us with this question of what it means to “do” journalism and says doing journalism means “delivering an accurate and timely account of some event to some public.”  If you don’t care about accuracy and timeliness, you aren’t doing journalism.  He notes that charging for journalism is irrelevant to this definition — it doesn’t really matter whether you make money off this activity.  He said that there’s only two real areas where such definitions matter, legally, what a journalist is: when you need to dole out limited resources like seats at a press conference; and when you need to protect journalists who are engaged in risk-taking reporting behavior.  Journalists can get accreditation in different ways: the government can give you credentials (by recognizing your presence at the events they organize) but we probably don’t want the state accrediting the very people tasked with investigating them; or an employer can provide credentials (by giving you an association).  Essentially, Rosenberg says that we need to protect acts of journalism, judged by standards of journalism.  But, more fundamentally, Rosenberg argues the most critical question is one focused on the relationship between participation and democracy: namely, does an increase in the number of people doing journalism help facilitate democracy?  His gut says yes, but see his blog post for more info.

In introducing Bruce Brown, Glasser asked about the definitions of journalism under a proposed federal shield law.  Glasser asked what kind of blogger is not a journalist and what does regular reporting mean?  Brown responded by saying that the law can distinguish among people, denoting some people as journalists but not others, because the law has done it before (e.g., look at who gets postal subsidies).  The larger questions are should you –and how could you — distinguish among people, defining some people as journalists but not others, excluding some people from an industry while protecting others?  Brown recalled that, sometimes, the law creates functional tests for journalists (what do people do), versus a status test (have you published significantly?) or a test based on anonymity (perhaps journalists are people who don’t write anonymously).

Turning to C.W. (Chris) Anderson and Geneva Overholser and referencing a recent book review by Bill Keller, Glasser asked about the role of professional journalists, asking does there remain a useful catagory called a “professional” journalist and who would be included in it?  Overholser responded that the more critical question isn’t really how “professional” journalism is doing — or whether the new or old ways of journalism are winning — but, rather, how the public is doing in these new circumstances?  She emphasized that there are things, traditionally, that journalism hasn’t done well.  We need to recognize what these old failures were and, moving forward, we need to make sure that we do the best possible job of serving the public interest in whatever these new systems.

Anderson asked how professions get authority.  Sometimes they get degrees and certifications; other times they make appeals to public service (doctors serve sick publics, lawyers understand the law on behalf of publics).  Critically, what do journalists do that’s in the public service?  Anderson says that original reporting that serves public interests is how journalists can derive authority.  Anderson wants, though, to challenge this relationship between original reporting and democracy, asking what exactly is original reporting and how does it help democracy function?  Anderson argued that some reporting is surely original but it is kept private, not really serving democracy.  Further, Anderson argued that some kind of reporting — e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s aggregating of information during Iranian uprisings — isn’t really original, per se, but does serve democracy.  In sum, Anderson says that we can’t all be reporters all the time; reporting is best done by news organizations who pay reporters to report. But, he said, we can be citizens who participate in the news system, e.g., as aggregators.

Opening up the intra-panel Q & A, Glasser asked about the institution of journalism and whether this institution can nurture the practices of journalism?  Overholser first pluralized the question (said that there are institutions of journalism) and that it would be a shame if we lost large journalism institutions because we need some of these large institutional powers, e.g., the ability to withstand lawsuits and engage in the kind of reporting that might run the risk of incurring lawsuits.  She also said that there are some non-journalism institutions (e.g., Human Rights Watch) that do original reporting, but aren’t journalism organizations per se.  Rosenberg noted that large news institutions should be tasked with investigating authority, but noted that (e.g., in the run-up to the last Iraq war) sometimes even large journalism institutions fail.  Rosenberg didn’t think it would be a bad thing if we lost our existing news institutions — as long as we had some infrastructures that ensured the growth of new institutions that served democracy.

Brown—noting that he’s the only person wearing a tie—said that he certainly saw value in having large news organizations.  Blogs and newer forms and practices supplement large-organization journalism but they’re only supplements.  He said that we do need some kind of public policy approach to journalism, e.g., anti-trust exemptions.  Brown notes that the federal shield law is stalled and guesses that this might be because people are paralyzed with this question of who a journalist is.  He argues that we can move to other kinds of public policies.  Anderson said that we’re going to get institutions whether we like them or not — and that even new media organizations like Wikipedia are indeed institutions.  The critical question is how and why we want to shape these institutions.

Glasser concluded the formal part of the panel by noting that we couldn’t even have asked these kinds of questions 10 years ago — that this is a new and important kind of conversation.

Panel #1: Tenet = Professional journalism must be saved.

Streaming video from this panel is now available | Watch Video

Stanford University Professor Ann Grimes opened the first panel citing H.L. Mencken’s adage that “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” asking whether the internet really extends that freedom to us all. She also put to the panelists the question of what it means to be a professional journalist—perhaps craftsmanship or ethics?—and whether that professionalism is integral to a functioning democracy.

Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle emphasized that although he was not worried about his profession being usurped, per se, an obsession with form runs the risk of deemphasizing content. These current obsessions with new technology might be overshadowing the collapse of a fourth estate that, while imperfect, has supported American democracy from the beginning, Bronstein warned, suggesting the fantasy that an army of citizens might “delete” journalists is at once troubling and misplaced.

Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University countered that among people who are optimistic about the digital revolution in journalism, nobody is talking about “deleting” the professional. Rather than focusing on an either/or proposition, he suggested, journalism is better conceived as an ecosystem that is becoming more healthy with increasing diversity, even if there is some pain as models rise and, more to the point, fall. He also noted that it is important not to idealize the print media, rather suggesting investigative or accountability journalism has always been a small sliver of reporters’ work, whatever the medium.

John Nichols, who is currently promoting his new book co-written with Robert W. McChesney, The Death and Life of American Journalism, went straight to one of the premises of the discussion by rejecting the idea of professional journalism entirely, stating that he had never joined the Society of Professional Journalists simply because he doesn’t want to be called a professional. He then sketched some of the argument of his book, suggesting that if government media subsidies today were proportionately as large as in America’s early years, they would total more than $30 billion, rather than the meager $1.43 per person we actually spend.

Gillmor, however, noted that subsidies have existed in a historical context of high barriers to entry—not mentioning Mencken’s adage, but perhaps echoing it—while the internet brings that into question. Gillmor resisted the idea of government subsidies for news organizations, per se, suggesting that the appropriate modern equivalent would be to build out a serious national broadband infrastructure, eliminating the ethical quandaries of having to choose who should or should not receive subsidies for speech.

Nichols nodded in acknowledgement but quickly jumped in to note that although the barriers to entry might have dropped, the collapse of America’s precarious advertising-based model had put up barriers to the “entry of food into a journalist’s mouth.”

Joan Walsh of Salon, however, was joined by other panelists on a more optimistic note that although many newsroom jobs are disappearing, a bevy of experimental startups are turning out good content. Further, those startups are employing recent journalism school graduates who enter the industry both with some fear and trepidation and with an excitement about the unknown, in terms of finding tomorrow’s news as well as shaping tomorrow’s newsroom.

Panel #2 Information Wants to be Free

Streaming video of this panel is now available | Watch Video

We’re back for Panel #2, analyzing the tenet, “Information Wants to be Free” and exploring the real-life impact of the free information ethos on the practice of journalism.  This panel will be moderated by CIS’s own Tony Falzone.

Kickoff event tonight

Streaming video of this panel is now available | Watch Video

The conference is set to kick off tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Room 290 at Stanford Law School. Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! will be speaking, and it should be a great opening to a conference about challenging the conventional wisdom about the future of news. The event is free and open to the public, so please join us.

Registration to close at 5 p.m. PST

We have had such a great response to the conference that we are going to have to close off registration at the close of business on Wednesday. If you miss out on registration, check out the live webcast on this site.

If you can’t attend…

If you are unable to make it to Palo Alto for the conference, please tune in to the conference website to watch a live webcast of the entire conference. The recording will also be available to watch after the event.

Also, if you registered to attend the panel debates on Friday and your plans have changed, please let us know as soon as possible.

The agenda

We have planned a special kickoff event about independent media on Thursday, April 29th, as well as a day of panel discussions and debates on Friday, April 30th. More than 150 people have signed up, and we are still accepting registrations. For a full agenda of conference events, click here.

And the speakers are…

We are pleased to announce our fabulous lineup of speakers and moderators. The roster includes journalists from old and new media, academics, authors, and technology experts. The list is here.