The hubris of the paid news curator

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.

5 Comments on “The hubris of the paid news curator”

  1. Kevin Sablan

    I absolutely agree that, as more content is generated from social media sources, there is a need for "professional news curation." The company that creates a platform to facilitate that curation will probably have a sustainable business model. Should journalists ("expert users" in techie terms) partner with developers to be part of that business?

    1. becker Post author

      I think an important thing to think about is the ways in which "professional news curating" will differ from the way the system works now. I suppose it's the number of sources that will make the difference, isn't it?

      Right now, reporters and editors curate the stories they and their outlets produced — perhaps with a few hyperlinks thrown in for good measure. The future curators will produce less of their own content and pull more of other sources' content into the stream for the reader.

      I think journalists will absolutely need to partner with those curator services, but I don't think you'll see a lot of outlet-affiliated journos jumping onto third-party services — they'll be busy helping their own outlets sort out their own curating services. That said, there is no shortage of journalists looking for work.

      1. Kevin Sablan

        Yes, the number of sources will make the big difference. But it isn't just the volume, but who those sources are, or who they claim to be.

        Some of those sources will be everyday people armed with mobile devices, not the trained reporters who turn in well-formed copy to editors nowadays. Other sources might be individuals with agendas, imposters, or hacked accounts. Curators will need to learn to sift through it all and quickly add accurate substantive information to the stream of a story.

        You're probably right that journos will probably stick to their own outlets to tackle curation internally (if they're even thinking about it!). In the meantime, someone else will come create a new platform by everyone else, and they'll probably create a sustainable business out of it. WordPress has done it with blogging. Maybe some news organization will see the business potential in creating an open-source platform, providing it free-of-charge for non-commercial use, and selling support and enterprise deployments for a profit. Probably too much risk for an industry that is trying to keep its head above water.

  2. Laid Off Too

    Mr Becker, here's the rest of Mr Jarvis' post:

    And that’s what Winer is trying to do when he reminds us that the important people in news are the sources and witnesses, who can now publish and broadcast what they know. The question journalists must ask, again, is how they add value to that. Of course, journalists can add much: reporting, curating, vetting, correcting, illustrating, giving context, writing narrative. And, of course, I’m all in favor of having journalists; I’m teaching them. But what’s hard to face is that the news can go on without them. They’re the ones who need to figure out how to make themselves needed. They can and they will but they can no longer simply rest on the press and its myths.

    My conclusion from reading the above is Mr Jarvis is not saying professional journalists are no longer needed. They are just needed in a different way now. I believe you share that opinion.

    I've never been in the media profession. While I do read Mr Jarvis' blog regularly, I'm not in 100% agreement with all its opinions.

    1. becker Post author

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, despite my snark at the end of my post, I think that journalists will just be needed in the future, but not in the same way we need them now. What that way will be, though, is a hard question.

      A lot of people think that if we can't keep journalists the way they are, then journalism and all the good it can do will perish. These people fight to save the system as we know it and fear the changes the future could bring. Other people think we should abandon the past and just fly into the future, letting the market sort the winners from the losers.

      I sit somewhere in the middle. I know the professional journalist will not disappear. His pay may be greatly reduced and his job may look completely different from what we know now, but the profession will survive. Should journalists be varnished by legislation or government funding? No, but I wouldn't rule out nonprofit grants or some sort of National Journalism Foundation (akin to the National Science Foundation) as possibilities.

      And I agree with you in not agreeing with everything Jarvis says, but he's a good read and has a lot of good ideas, for the most part.