At the Personal Democracy Forum last week, which I did not attend, Jay Rosen delivered a talk in which he described the turmoil in today’s newsrooms as a phenomenon of tribal migration from the old print world to the Web:
The professional news tribe is in the midst of a great survival drama. It has over the last few years begun to realize that it cannot live any more on the ground it settled so successfully as the industrial purveyors of one-to-many, consensus-is-ours news. The land that newsroom people have been living on — also called their business model — no long supports their best work. So they have come to a reluctant point of realization: that to continue on, to keep the professional press going, the news tribe will have to migrate across the digital divide and re-settle itself on terra nova, new ground. Or as we sometimes call it, a new platform….And like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them, when to leave, where to land.
This astute piece reminded me of the creative but premature choice of imagery John Markoff used back in 1995 when he wrote about the launch of Salon as a harbinger of “tribes of journalists” departing newsrooms for the Web. Today, Rosen suggests, this diaspora is finally beginning in earnest.
I think that his analysis is accurate as far as it goes, and offers a useful metaphor, but that it lets the “tribe” off too easily, in two ways.
First, there is the not insignificant point that Brad DeLong brings up — that the tribe is not composed of blameless victims:
the press corps’s flaws are much deeper than that–it’s not just that it doesn’t understand the new ground to which it is migrating, it’s that it did a lousy job on its own ground as well.
There’s no question in my mind that the woes of the journalism profession today have been at least partially self-inflicted. At the very historical moment that the news pros faced relentless new scrutiny from a vast army of dedicated amateur watchdogs and expert critics, they offered up a relentless sequence of missteps and disasters. Some were failures of professionalism, from the Jayson Blair meltdown to the Dan Rather screwup. But the biggest — the absence of a stiff media challenge to the Bush administration’s Iraq war misinformation campaign — was a failure of civic responsibility. With that failure, the professionals forfeited their claim to special privilege or unique public role as challengers of official wrongdoing and ferreters of truth. The democracy still needs these roles filled, of course. But after the Iraq bungle, the professional journalists’ claim to own them exclusively became much harder to accept.
The other area in which Rosen’s piece lets journalism’s incumbents off a little easy is in its picture of the change in the business landscape as a sort of vast, impersonal inevitability. Like the Irish Potato Famine or the pogroms, the digital age is just there, a force of history that is uprooting the tribe for reasons beyond its control. But in fact the tribe bears some responsibility here — at least its elders and leaders do. Perhaps the average newsroom grunt was in the dark, but top editors have been in a position for at least two decades to see the disruption ahead. Any of them could have sat down with their corporate bosses during that time and said, “This business is doomed unless we take some of the 20-25 percent profit margin you are enjoying and reinvest it in a totally different direction that won’t pay off for a long time.”
Now, I’m not naive enough to think that such advice would have been taken. The public corporations that own most newspapers today (and the private ones, too, for that matter) like their short-term profits. But a newsroom leader ought at least to have been able to frame this choice for the owners. Did that happen anywhere? If so, it happened so quietly it made no difference.
The incumbents of the journalism field are no more likely to risk giving up their profits and their privileges of place than those in any other field. Sunday’s NY Times Business section has an essay by Randall Stross arguing that Microsoft ought to give up on the new Windows 7 and rewrite its operating system from scratch. This would be exciting and bold and could pay long-term dividends, but would entail massive short-term disruption and revenue loss. It is no more likely to happen than the Times deciding tomorrow to shut down its presses and move all its news delivery online.
Migration is certainly still an option for many individual journalists. For institutions, I think the ships may have already sailed.