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.

  • 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?

  • becker

    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.

  • 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.

  • becker

    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.

  • 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.