Journalism has become about the journalists, writes Jeff Jarvis.
The press has become journalism’s curse, not only because it now brings a crushing cost burden but also because it led to all these myths: that we journalists own the news, that we’re necessary to it, that we decide what’s reported and what’s important, that we can package the world for you every day in a box with a bow on it, that what we do is perfect (with rare, we think, exceptions), that the world should come to us to be informed, that we deserve to be paid for this service, that the world needs us.
In his article about journalistic narcissism, Jarvis points to an article from the New York Times about the paper’s daily 4 p.m. content meeting — where the editors decide what will be on the front page of the next day’s paper. He riffs especially on the writer’s description of the ritualistic and “formidable” nature of the room.
Eighteen editors had gathered at a table to discuss tomorrow’s news. The table was formidable: oval and elegant, with curves of gleaming wood. The editors no less so: 11 men and 7 women with the power to decide what was important in the world.
To which Jarvis replies:
Behold the hubris of that: They decide what is important. Because we can’t. That’s what it says. That’s what they believe.
But if you read further down that NYT article, past the hubris — yes, there is some overbearing pride there — you get a question that I think is, in some ways, driving that hubris: “With the blogosphere expanding like the freeways of Atlanta, are readers going to want a little guidance with their news? Or will they simply navigate the Internet alone?”
The NYT writer, Alan Feuer, goes on:
Here, the belief remains that editing isn’t tyranny but perhaps a little closer to curating. Pick whatever metaphor you like: wheat from chaff, signal from noise, gold from dross. Without that process of selection, one is left to find the news on a Borgesian online map that is as big as the world itself.
(I especially like the literary allusion to Borges thrown in there for good measure.)
Newspapers have argued in the past that they were a vital piece of our democracy, that they keep the public informed so that public can go out there and operate a successful democratic society. Many have disproved that myth.
That argument has not completely died away, but another argument is rising up to compete with it. That argument says that we need curators to help us filter through the news noise that blares through the pipes every day, curators we trust to show us what we need to know and make it easy to find.
Jarvis takes offense to the idea that someone might assume to know more about what’s important to readers than the readers themselves. In a time when those readers can become writers — and indeed news outlets — in just minutes and when we have powerful search tools and networks of social contacts at our disposal, why do we need the professional, paid middlemen? Why can’t the people take care of their own news needs, using tools like Twitter to sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff?
In other words, when we have the tools to filter the news for ourselves and our friends, why should we worry about paying professionals to do it for us?
I’m not going to argue pro or con on the issue of professional news curation. I think it’s a good idea in theory, but I don’t know whether it’s vital or whether a business model can be found to sustain it.
I will say this: I think the blogosphere and Twitter-sphere tend to have short attention spans and can be distracted easily, whether that distraction is natural or designed by marketers (or worse). Without professionals, I wonder whether a popularity- and recommendation-driven news ecosystem will manage to stick with the important-but-perhaps-a-bit-boring stories long enough.
Professional curators will stick with those stories. At least I hope so.
Though, judging by the prevalence of Michael Jackson news coming from those professional outlets lately, I have to wonder whether those outlets still have any journalistic judgement left.