But now I am ready to start on number six.
Looking forward to reading more about your ideas on adapting the industry. Since I first started as a local journalist I thought things might change from within with the rise of technology to connect people and stories. Instead, I think it made things worse from the perspective of news quality and journalist integrity. I agree a new system, adapting to the social climate and technological advances, is more likely the path forward. The method of "Solutions Journalism" addresses many pitfalls of the current media approach. Traditional local news might be dying (dead?) but people are still sharing stories and building community so there's still an opportunity for journalism to flourish. I am hopeful. Thanks for your work!
I have been having this conversation with my best friend for the past few months (and anyone that would listen), that we never talk about innovation or the cool things we are doing in this country via business. We only talk about politics and what the latest billionaire did. I miss being excited about our Country. I read Our Town when it came out and I really felt--this is what I like to read about.
And I fit right in with the polls. As an individual I am highly satisfied with my life, but I spend most hours worrying about the state of the world and my children's futures.
I have been thinking about this for a few days and I've had several reactions, all related, but one less directly. First and foremost, as others have pointed out, the fourth estate is driven predominantly by commercial motives (it seems). This implies that the primary goal is to have people subscribe and to go to the site and stay on the site. Clicks in and of themselves often count as meaningful (and generate ad revenue). Beyond that, allowing comments to selected articles keeps people engaged in a sort of undisclosed social network.
Related, and also as many have pointed out, the emotional conflict in what passes for dialogue in say comments sections keeps people engaged and enraged. Usually there is far less of a back-and-forth, and far more verbal baiting and "gotcha" comments. The language game gone off the rails...
I recently left Twitter and have willed myself to stop reading comments to articles (mostly NYT and WaPo) and it's been an interesting experience in that I find that now many of the articles and opinion pieces (I dislike the "Guest Essay" terminology) are far less engaging and I suspect that part of this is that they are written to provoke reactions and now the reactions are there for everyone to see in the comments.
I think all of this plays to the pretense of representing both sides of political issues in a neutral way. I assume (or think it would be naive not to assume) that in a large publication such as the NYT that there must be some percentage of commenters who are paid trolls. You can see the increased frequency of comments as the elections draw near and these comments often use identical talking points. I cannot be sure of this, but if it talks like a duck, and tweets like a duck... This interacts with the general 'both-sides' in ways that I think make MSM tools of propaganda (unintentionally, or quasi-intentionally).
Which leads to my final observation. Until recently I was a scientist working in the fields of psycholinguistics and theoretical modeling of various aspects of cognition (this was not using current AI models, to be clear). In any event, it's a well known issue that when you develop a model (or even apply a statistic) to account for data, you have what is frequently known in the machine learning world as the bias-variance dilemma. Essentially the dilemma (or trade off) is this: assumptions you make of what kind of form (parameters, complexity, etc) the model (statistics) takes can lead to a "biased" model, i.e. a model that does not account for your data very well (whatever that means). Conversely, you can choose a model that accounts for each and every point of data that you have. In this case you have "variance" problem: you account for the data points, but not the general dispersion of the data as a whole. In the extreme this makes the model useless at predicting future data. All models have this issue (although it is not always all that consequential), which requires some judgment on the part of the modeler to both set some initial parameters and to determine the inherent complexity of the model beforehand. You can't escape using judgment.
While I think that analogies can be taken too far (in which case, mea culpa), I think there is something in the current state of journalism and social media that relates to this. In particular, the bias problem is easy to see translate to personal and institutional biases. The variance problem I think is reflected in both the 24 hour news cycle and in social media posts. You follow every tree, but fail to see the forest.
What's the 'solution' to all of this? Perhaps Beckett said it best: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."
Forgive the long-winded comment; idle thoughts of an idle fellow (with apologies to Jerome K. Jerome).
I cant't help but think that if you are seeing the same patterns again and again, that indicates two things (well, at least 2 to start.)
One is that this is evidence of some fundamental constants in the world of journalism that are inherent to the basic assumptions it operates on, some of which may not be apparent to or even recognized by the people cranking it around every day.
The second is that to get a different result may require finding a way to modify those assumptions, or discover how to change the conditions under which they apply. Are the constraints you see common to other cultures, other ways of communicating stories to a mass audience, or what?
I'd make a guess Kauffman's Rules cover this in some way.
"My book Breaking the News¹ came out when Mark Zuckerberg was in sixth grade ..." I love it! You have such a wealth of experience, Jim, and when I read what you've written, it puts things into a sensible context. I feel the same way about Rachel Maddow, and lament that we have her on air only one night a week. Thank you for your perspective on important issues.
I apologize for being so late in commenting on your August 22 NO MAN BUT A BLOCKHEAD issue; it wasn't going to let me go, though, until I tapped out these thoughts, so here goes.
I love BREAKING THE NEWS, but the NO MAN BUT A BLOCKHEAD issue felt personal. I appreciate and admire, for instance, that you were willing to share the evolution in your thoughts about and plans for your business model: truly generous on your part -- thank you. I also liked your comment: "The only reason to write a book is if you feel you can’t not write it." On the radio one evening, years ago, I heard a writer (I don't remember his name -- sloppiness on my part; I'm sorry) in conversation with a group of young *aspiring* writers, one of whom raised the question of whether to pursue a career as a writer because he worried he wouldn't be able to make money at it. The published writer responded to him, if you CAN quit writing, DO, because the odds are against you.
Many mentors have graced my life, too, and I am profoundly grateful to and for each of them; none of them is someone you are likely to have heard of, whereas I sort of swooned at your mentioning David McCullough as one of your mentors. I did not know him, of course, but I have considered him a mentor of sorts ever since reading his books, especially TRUMAN, a book I still keep handy despite its raggedy condition (literally held together at this point with rubber bands and paper clips), so that I may look things up in it I want to read again ... and again ... and again. I have an audio version, too, that McCullough himself recorded; it is a great deal briefer than the book, naturally, but hearing McCullough's voice fill out his words somehow gives him an avuncular persona that I enjoy.
In closing, I offer another late comment, this one having to do with THE BOYS, by your friend Katie Hafner. When I got to the part that, you know, all who read that book will remember for the rest of their lives, I was so astonished that I dropped the book because I was laughing so hard I couldn't hold onto it. Did.not.see.that.coming. Equally astonishing to me is the extent to which, for a bunch of wildly different reasons, I keep thinking about THE BOYS. I tried to find the issue of your blog in which you recommended this book, because I wanted to see again what you said about it that made me want to read it but without giving away absolutely anything about ... you know.
Jefferson, a future president in 1787, thought the folks that gathered in Philadelphia the previous Summer went a bit too far in assigning so much energy, power if you prefer, to a national government. His assessment was that they overreacted to Shays' Rebellion. It was a small local affair and we didn't really need a president in charge of an army to handle such matters.
These troubles would come up now and then when failures of communication between governments and the people needed rectifying. The people would rebel--it's in Americans DNA-- and the government could pardon, pacify and educate them as to the real meaning of liberty in a classically liberal democratic nation--"the remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them."
Jefferson considered Shays & Company as patriots, and blockheads, and criminals. Sound familiar. I'll bet bagels to bitcoin that there was at least one Tree of Liberty sweatshirt or T-shirt among those folks storming the Capitol on 6 January 2021.
Big thing, little thing, time will tell.
I had dinner with my daughter last evening. She turns 30 today. It wasn't that long ago that some Trump minion, Miller I think, floated a trial balloon recommending that the government review the papers of naturalized citizens for anomalies that might be used to get rid of them, rescind their naturalization and deport them. My daughter came from El Salvador a little over 28 years ago and was naturalized. There's context for you!
Then again, I'm probably just getting anxious over nothing. We put down the January 6th patriots with not a whole lot of fuss. All it really took was a few words from their leader after enjoying their antics on TV for a few hours.
I agree with at least one of your commenters below. We talk too much about these fringe dwellers, these zealots on both sides of what is popularly called "The Culture War." I'm probably something of a victim, or at least a dupe, to the media coverage which loves conflict and has built this skirmish, if that even, into a thing. I read Mr. French's essay too. Those who control the national narrative, control the nation! Media--can't live with them, can't live without them these days.
Daniel Shays died in poverty, on a government pension. Only two of the rebels suffered hanging out of over 4,000 who signed confessions. Most, including Shays, were eventually granted amnesty. Pardon, pacify and educate, that's the key to managing these blockheads. And then I imagine a corpulent bureaucrat in a dark blue suit, lily white shirt and blood red tie escorting a young child, maybe someone I love, loved or could love, to a virtual prison cell having been taken from all they know and love. Did it happen? Could it happen?
Things get so confused. I very much look forward to figuring out how the media can better deal with all this.
Sorry, this appears to have nothing to do with your essay except this last bit.
Did you see Perry Bacon Jr.'s column in WaPo on funding local newspapers? Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/10/17/local-news-crisis-plan-fix-perry-bacon/
It reminded me of Judy Muller's "Emus Loose in Egnar," an informative and thoroughly delightful book on US weekly newspapers.
"Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Schmyhal has said that the damage caused by Russia's invasion has already reached 'more than $750 billion.' " DW News, Germany
Catch 22, Britannia dictionary:
"Yossarian interprets the entire war as a personal attack and becomes convinced that the military is deliberately trying to send him to an untimely death. He therefore spends much of the book concocting ever more inventive ways of escaping his missions.
"The term catch-22 entered the English language meaning “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.
"The mess officer, Milo Minderbinder, gradually turns his mission to acquire food into an international black-market syndicate in which he eventually enlists the enemy Germans, at one point even having German planes (bearing the logo of his syndicate) bomb his own base (resulting in Mudd’s death)."
[profits are made by having opposing armies collude on bombing each other, then rebuilding over and over - something that is happening in real life around the world in over 60+ war zones that involve American troops and American money -db]
Thank you for the great article! And "like" all the comments in the comment section, it is so interesting to have a dialogue about the ideas in the article!
News is a business. What about the role of the advertisers?
NYT: "Corporations Donated Millions to Lawmakers Who Voted to Overturn Election Results"
"One year after the Capitol riot, many businesses resumed corporate donations to lawmakers who voted against certifying the 2020 election.
"In the year since the riot at the Capitol, many corporate giants and trade groups have moved from making stern statements about the sanctity of democracy to reopening the financial spigot for lawmakers who undermined the election. Millions of dollars in donations continue to flow to what watchdog groups deride as the 'Sedition Caucus,' highlighting how quickly political realities shift in Washington. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/06/us/politics/congress-corporate-donations-2020-election-overturn.html"
"Fund Managers Donated $1 Million to GOP Election Deniers"
" Nonprofit calls for ending donations to group of 147 lawmakers
" Firms face scrutiny over political giving after Capitol riot" Bloomberg
Robert Reich quotes:
"Until everyone who needs a decent job at a livable wage gets one, there is no such thing as an 'overheated' economy.
"The average minimum wage worker would need to work a staggering 79 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom rental in 95 percent of U.S. counties...in the richest country on Earth.
"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."
"There is no reason U.S. billionaires should hold $4,300,000,000,000 in wealth while food lines stretch for miles and millions are on the brink of eviction.
"Tax the rich."
I've followed you on Twitter (along with Ms. Sullivan as well as Jay Rosen and Dan Froomkin) in the hopes that one or all of you would catalyze the change in the new industry that's so desperately needed. You end your essay with the point that "building something new. Devising new public-information systems, attuned to the social, political, economic, and technological realities of our times." is needed. I want to highlight the "realities of our times" portion of your statement, because the question "Why doesn't the news industry cover the reality of systemic solutions that I'm aware of?" has been on my mind literally for years... since 1979 when I first read Buckminster Fuller's book "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth".
There is a new world... born of scientific advancement (what Bucky wrote about) but also born of sociological transformation from the cut-throat competition world view to the cooperation world view taught by pioneers in the organizational development field like W. Edwards Deming... that has been struggling to be born since the late 1960s. But it cannot be born if the mainstream media never talks about it!
The corporate social responsibility movement was launched in the early 1990s (see Business for Social Responsibility bsr dot org) and picked up by Kofi Annan, who created the UN Global Compact in 2000 to push a transformation in the value system underlying capitalism. But if you search the archives of The New York Times, you will find zero coverage of the UN Global Compact over the last 22 years of its existence. This, despite the fact that people like Mike Bloomberg have spoken at its Leadership Summits!
Also in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton created the President's Council on Sustainable Development (in response to the call at the UN's first climate summit in 1992 for all nations to develop a strategy for becoming a sustainability-based societies). Al Gore helped lead this multi-year effort, whose final report - Sustainable America - was a road map for the transformation of American society (through a massive educational effort orchestrated by a partnership between government, industry and non-profit sectors). Did the President's Council on Sustainable Development ever get in the news? No! Why? I do not know... except you say something about "Martians don't eat humans" not being news worthy. Well, this isn't about "coving nothing bad happened stories isn't news". This is about covering transformational solutions being developed that can ONLY succeed if they get the attention - the "public oxygen" - they need!
Bill Clinton's PCSD's research and final report are still available online if you know where to look. The failure of the news industry to cover its work... along with the work of the corporate social responsibility movement... is one of the greatest failures of all time. It's as if the Wright Bros finally made an airplane that could fly, and that invention never got in the newspapers.
There ARE solutions to our problems... but they are hidden from view of the public by a news industry that seems incapable of telling this story.
I invite you to reach out to me for further details about all this. Perhaps there's a column you could write that would shame the industry into covering the real solutions that are out there!
I'll close with this link... to one of the many videos I've collected from efforts I've personally made to get the story of these solutions out to the public. This link is to me at an event at NYU's Stern Business School, at which advertising guru Peter Georgescu moderated a panel on the future of the corporate social responsibility studies being taught at Stern. Peter admitted that my point was valid... that the public needs to learn that the CSR movement exists. Sadly, in my follow up efforts with NYU Stern to create a Center devoted to building public awareness, I learned that NYU was not willing to launch anything that involved "teaching the public". I was literally told "We only teach our students... not the public." Here's the link to my original question to Peter Georgescu and the panel. I look forward to hearing from you about all this. And thanks again for all you've done to date!
I have a lot of sympathy for you, Jim. This must not have been an easy post to write, essentially admitting that your life‘s work with the national media has been for naught, more or less. I mean, it was worth the effort, and historians will cite your work when explaining the development of a public sphere that has not lived up to the expectations of our founders. But the industry has mostly turned its back.
I am curious, like everyone commenting, on what you suggest be developed as an alternative to criticism. One area for your consideration: journalism education. It’s not a subject I know anything about, so I have no suggestions. But I do know journalism programs are ubiquitous in American higher education (a topic I do know something about). Considering how widespread the problems are in national journalism that you and Ms. Sullivan have demonstrated over the years, I cannot help but assume journalism education has played some role.
Admittedly, you point out that the major issue is framing, which in large measure is an editorial function, yes? Editorial decisions appear to me more linked to corporatist sensibilities than a learned habit of mind. Maybe that explains why the national press spends so little time on the benefits of full employment for the vast majority of our fellow citizens, or largely accepts without challenge the proposition that inflation is a function of a tight labor market. Heck, the national press doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that the Fed’s plan to achieve “price stability” means throwing decent people out of a job so they eat up their savings trying to stay alive and thereby fall behind in wealth creation and have a greater chance of an impoverished old age. (Ok, I have a bit of a hobby horse there.)
Yet surely the educational system that editors come from, and that shape the line reporters, has had some influence on the baleful habits of journalists? Is it socialization? An overemphasis on vocational training? Are there any scholarly studies on journalism programs? Anyway, it’s just a suggestion.
Oh, and the Martian schtick was really funny.
Another great post Jim.
But first of all I do appreciate your opening Martian theme.... drawing on that classic and indelible (for us of a certain age) Twilight Zone show: "To Serve Man". ("It's a cookbook!!!!!!")
I do agree that what passes for the "mainstream" or legacy media have been failing in focusing on process and inside baseball, and I don't think they will change at all. Next January, the Republican House will be impeaching Joe Biden (which will be a norm for years to come now that the Democrats have legitimized it). The Times and Post and all the others will treat that as serious politics, where it will be but more pointless theater.
And I think that the legacy media's focus on national level process -- which makes them overlook the local level where domestic life really occurs -- goes along with the fact that the Democrats have totally neglected local and state politics for 15 years. This is why the Republicans, who are not so locally blind, have taken over school boards and state legislatures where particular concerns are most important. In turn, this has given Republicans control over the majority of redistricting.
Always enjoy your writing...Randy
One further prescient text to cite is my late brother Mike Janeway’s book, The Republic of Denial, whose thesis 30 years ago was that the entertainment industry success in taking over journalism was a step towards its taking over Politics. Bill Janeway
I grew up in, and have retired to, the lovely little town of Grand Haven, Michigan - where the state's largest river empties into Lake Michigan. As a teenager in the 1960's, I recall the byline of our local newspaper, The Grand Haven Tribune: "Best place in Grand Haven to find out about the world; best place in the world to find out about Grand Haven." I always thought that was a terrific way to summarize the purpose of our local newspaper.
Unfortunately, today's "communities" are divided by ideology and not geography. This notion of "creating community by covering local news" is up against this enormous challenge - the communities of my youth don't appear to exist any more, having been replaced by ideological communities. Many of us feel closer to someone thousands of miles away who shares our beliefs than to our next-door neighbors. We can certainly bear witness to this fact with a synopsis of local school board meetings over the past year - parents and community members spoke of controversial issues as if they were living on separate continents. In my youth this would not have occurred, as the vast majority of residents all received their news from the same sources, and so there was a shared factual basis on which to build a discussion. When we can't agree on facts, how can we possibly find consensus?
Today the Tribune still exists, although I don't have a subscription (a lapse I really need to correct soon, I suppose). I read the online NY Times every morning, and follow several excellent writers here on Substack. Plus of course the people I follow on social media provide a nearly endless string of references to stories on various public media. And so I have to present my own experience as evidence of this phenomenon I describe.
Consequently, I eagerly await "what comes next," because I long to see us recapturing some of that geographical sense of community that was built on that solid foundation of localized media.
to me one central piece you are leaving out is the role of corporatization in terms of shaping content. The media won't let go of bothsidesism because it draws eyes. The negative news bias that you have referred to keeps the tension in the news cycle.
I was glad you mentioned the absence of good news stories ... I was really struck how there was no coverage I could find of President Biden's comments from the Roosevelt room on Friday about how the deficit has fallen $1.4 Trillion this year ...
I like the idea of a public media perspective outside of the corporate hold on information and agree that ultimately we have to end up there ... if we don't end up in the one-side-ness of fascism.