(A repost that first appeared April 1.)
Collage by Doug Millison ofÂ NonHuman Communications
In Hollywood everyone has a screenplay. In New York the unpublished novel is the thing. In Silicon Valley, which Iâ€™ve covered for most of the last 16 years, itâ€™s all about inventions. So at the risk of sounding like Iâ€™ve gone native let me tell you about twoÂ magic bulletsÂ that could cure the brain death afflicting newsrooms â€” theÂ editaserÂ andÂ dewhisperfier.
TheÂ editaserÂ is a smart stun gun to find and punish editors who assign stories based on stuff theyâ€™re read or seen in other media. The dewhisperfier is the antithesis of theÂ cone-of-silenceÂ from the 1960s television series,Â Get Smart. It would force rank-and-file journalists toÂ complain out loudÂ and generally behave like the heroes of newspaper epics such asÂ His Girl Friday, orÂ Inherit the Wind, orÂ The Paper.
Before I proceed let me correct any misconception that I am talking about the paper from which I amÂ currently on vacation, and which I consider to be theÂ Lake WoebegoneÂ of newrooms, where the editors are wise, the reporters fearless and the copy desk misses nothing.
No I am talking about mass media and I base my worries on two lessons that I learned at the Columbia University J-school (class of â€˜91) where I will be attending an alumni gathering this weekend.
It was while I was at J-school that ex-New York TimesÂ correspondentÂ James FeronÂ gave me the idea for the editaser. Feron co-taught my home room class with science-writing professor Ken Goldstein. One day Feron mentioned that he had aÂ TimesÂ colleague who never started an assignment without first sleuthing out from where and whom inside the building the assignment had come. As a reporter Iâ€™m trained to recognize the detail or quote that encapsulates the story. Though I wasnâ€™t quite sure at the time whatÂ Feron was trying to say I was sure it was what one former editor,Â Kenneth Howe, called theÂ objective correlative.
Let me pause to explain my protocol on naming names, which I consider a bedrock of journalism that allows a reader or viewer to better assess statements and anecdotes. As I articulate my concerns and suggest reforms for theÂ untrustedÂ andÂ deeply-troubledÂ mass media I will name former colleagues and past incidents, within the bounds of propriety. Current colleagues and issues, however, I deem protected by the obligation of employer and team loyalty. Plus I consider telling tales out of school smarmy.
But I digress. The dewhisperfier was also inspired by J-school recollections of what should have been pep talks by Big League journalists. But their body language showed more pessimism than pep. They whispered and frowned intete-a-tetesÂ with the profs who had arranged the visits. This head-shaking puzzled me because they had the jobs we wanted and yet . . .
After I got into the corporate world, by which I mean both journalism and the business beats I cover, I realized that I was witnessingÂ Dilbert syndromeÂ â€” a form ofÂ cognitive dissonanceÂ that afflicts many professionals, including journalists, who canâ€™t live up to their professional norms and expectations.
TakeÂ My Girl FridayÂ whose plot revolves around editor Walter Burnsâ€™ zany efforts to keep wise-cracking reporter Hildy Johnson from quitting. What a myth! If a reporter today said, as does Hildy â€” â€œI wouldnâ€™t cover the burning of Rome for you! â€” would Walter say, â€œHildy, Hildy, Hildy,â€ or, â€œOne less pink slip.â€?
If newspapering was ever as insouciant as is portrayed inÂ His Girl FridayÂ it isnâ€™t like that today. What kind of film would it be if Hildy was afraid to tell Walter to take his job and shove it. Meeting Walterâ€™s expectations would become her career skill while Walter, basking in her talented yet submissive admiration, would become overly impressed with his own discernment. I would re-title the modern remakeÂ The Jayson Blair ProjectÂ â€” a tale of the inherent corruptibility of the mentor-protege model.
That was an exceedingly bad manifestation of the archaic way in which we try to make journalism. What ails newsrooms today is too much incentive to look up and too little to look down. We survivedÂ Citizen KaneÂ because there were enough Pulitzers and Knights to keep the system in balance. How many media voices are there, now?Â Not enough. Todayâ€™s corporate media are to news in the 21st Century like theÂ condottieriÂ were to war in Renaissance Italy â€” not terribly skilled, lacking in principle and costly.
The imperious editor, as popularized today by the Spiderman-bashingÂ J. Jonah Jameson, is as useless asÂ Pharaoh. His day has passed. Hierarchies were useful when we need to build pyramids. But an historic change is occurring today. The pyramid is being smothered by â€œThe Cloudâ€ â€” one of the names used to describe the Internet, that anarchic disruptor of all modern industry.
Sociologists have coined the term â€œnetwork societyâ€ to describe the reorganization of wealth and work that is being driven by this new mode of organization. David Weinbergerâ€™s â€œSmall Pieces Loosely Joinedâ€ offers a more better metaphor and read. Network society is built around small teams with low overhead and high skills. They just do it while hierarchies convene committees that meets for hours to produce minutes.
It may be a difficult cultural adjustment but newspaper execs have the fix at their fingertips â€” give every person in the organization the power to publish to a paper-sponsored blog (If you have not already, please glance at my similar statement on thisÂ yesterday).
Imagine over time hundreds of people in your organizations spending perhaps 20 percent of their time finding and posting items of interest. Sound like a waste? Unless youâ€™ve shut down their browsers theyâ€™re already spending a good part of their days looking at videos, shopping or passing jokes.
Letâ€™s go with the flow and harness some of this curiosity and restlessness. With mild discipline and some training these e-pubs will find niche readers to replace the mass audience that has dissolved into droplets. Newsrooms must draw these thousands of currents inside and then ask editors to do a job theyâ€™ll find more fulfilling than attending meetings. They will look into this array of inputs for patterns. Some of these patterns will become stories â€” and many of blog posts will make briefs, brites and picture boxes. Journalists will form a symbiosis with what ex-newsieÂ Dan GillmorÂ calls â€œthe former audience.â€
Sure media organizations are experimenting withÂ citizen journalismÂ or what investors call â€œuser-generated contentâ€ (meaning free labor). Online journalist Jonathan Dube recently described anÂ opinion forumÂ created by New Hampshire Public Radio and a citizen mediaÂ site created by CNN. I am sure there are other examples of reaching out to readers.
But this must be more than a technologyÂ bolted-ontoÂ the pyramid. A new way of gathering and disseminating news is here. It will require a change in attitudes at the bottom and the top. Those accustomed to whispering at the base of the pyramid must reach for the clouds. Those at the apex will have to decide whether they love journalism enough to let it go.
I am confident the powers that be will do the right thing. Or perhaps Iâ€™m just hoping to keep getting paid vacation like this one. But as a backstop Iâ€™m offeringÂ open source licensingÂ to anyone wants to help design, build and/or finance my two inventions.
(Note: The title of this posting pays homage to Eric Raymondâ€™s 1997 essay,Â The Cathedral and the Bazaar,Â about Linux, a prime example ofÂ open sourceÂ software development. Thanks also to print journalist turned bloggerÂ Tom ForemskiÂ who helped me realize that journalism is an open source activity. Foremskiâ€™s posting, â€œThe Holy Trinity, isÂ worth regarding in this regard.)