My first reaction upon reading today’s old-vs.-new media tussle between Ron Rosenbaum and Jeff Jarvis was to wonder “can’t we all get along?” A tiresome sentiment, I know. But is it any more so than replaying the arguments that these two heavy-hitters bring to the endless circular discussion about 21st century journalism?
Shorter Rosenbaum: Jarvis is cruel to those traditional journalists and old media outlets getting hammered by job and budget cuts. Jarvis ignores what they bring to the table – reporting on real life events – while focusing on the new forms journalism should take. And his self-regard has become unbearable.
Shorter Jarvis: I’m just telling it like it is: if traditional journalists don’t stop whining and adapt to a rapidly changing environment, they’re doomed. And I’m not unbearable; the truth hurts. Nyah.
Rosenbaum is his typically entertaining self: Jarvis’s oracular pronouncements and descriptions of his jet-setting do sometimes verge on self-parody. But I think Jarvis is, on the whole, correct: radical innovation is the only way forward for journalism, and is incredibly promising. Whining about the bygone days (five years ago!) of newspapers and magazines may provide a necessary emotional outlet, but it’s a huge waste of energy and a distraction from the challenges at hand.
But Rosenbaum does identify a weakness that runs through the pronouncements of many a new media guru: the obsession with, and fetishization of, technology and new forms. That’s good as far as it goes, but it’s still not clear what truly great post-dead tree journalism looks like. Oh, there are more and more examples out there – TPM, Spot.us, Grist.org – that combine reporting with technology, Internet, and social networks in compelling ways. And examples of the big media outlets adapting, such as the Washington Post’s decision to include blogger Chris Cillizza as part of its incoming White House team.
However, there’s a certain chicken-or-the-egg factor here. Do emerging technology and the social changes that follow from it naturally beget quality journalism (if you build it, they – journalists and readers – will come)? Or is there a risk that if you focus on technology and the changing relationship between the journalist and the news consumer, the fundamentals get lost in the shuffle? This is a problem at many newspapers, which in their relentless race to cut back and innovate simultaneously are literally trading journalism talent and experience for technical expertise.
The focus on technology, form, and social networking is a big part of the puzzle. But content should be given its due. What are the problems – in communities, the nation, the world – that deserve investigation and exposure with these wondrous new tools?