Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Journalism is dead! Long live journalism!

This week’s New Yorker has a challenging article by Eric Alterman titled “The Death and Life of American Newspapers.” With references to Walter Lippman, John Dewey and Arianna Huffington, he tries mightily to advance the obvious story that the days of newspapers (and traditional journalism) are numbered.

Alterman argues that the new news medium, the internet, is a kind of Vox Populi, or as he describes it, “a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism.”

The demise of the old print journalism will mean, he asserts, “the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of ‘facts’ by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly ‘red’ or ‘blue.’”

Of course, as he notes, that was the case in the 19th Century, when the press was truly partisan. A few papers retain their partisan names. Just down the road from here, The Albany Democrat Herald still touts a political label. It isn't alone.

It wasn’t until the formation of news-gathering cartels, (telegraph) wire services like the Associated Press, just prior to the Civil War that the notion of so-called objectivity began to emerge. The wire services, because they supplied news to newspapers of all political stripes, had to be “objective” and offer a "national narrative."

We should welcome the resurrection of “conversational journalism.” There’s still not enough of it, even on the internet. Take this blog for example. Some 50 people read it but few comment. When they do, the conversation begins.

Recently I had an extended, spirited exchange with an anonymous correspondent (who ultimately identified himself.) It was rough going at times but each of us forced the other (and our readers) to think to the next step.

It was quite different from having a traditional journalist try to mediate differences through “objective” reporting. I’ve been in that mediating role and still am on my on-line Hillsdale News. As journalist you try to pose the questions each side would ask of the other. Unfortunately, that takes you only to the first level. The debate, such as it is, usually stops there, either because of space limitations or perceived reader exhaustion.

But a conversation pushes on. The discussion goes deeper. The on-line reader, of course, can break away to see whether this statement or that is true by searching the web, and then dip back into the discussion and even enter with a new set of facts and a different perspective (Yes, there are more than two!)

So the internet widens and deepens journalism. At its best, this is “participatory, conversational journalism” or even “democratic journalism.” It’s a far cry from the “traditional” journalism that is dying with each passing day.

Journalism is dead! Long live journalism!

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