Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Battle of the NY J-Schools: Rosen vs. Lemann

Years after the Blogging vs. Journalism snarkfest coughed up bits of its bankrupt ghost, Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann revisits the question in the New Yorker. He ends with:
Journalism is not in a period of maximal self-confidence right now, and the Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence. They have got the rhetorical upper hand; traditional journalists answering their challenges often sound either clueless or cowed and apologetic. As of now, though, there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing. As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.

The actual news hook of his piece seems to be Jay Rosen's announced project entitled NewAssignment.net (see also Some Problems... ), a funded trial of what Rosen and others call citizen journalism.

The effort, which Rosen himself describes as an NYU research project, is still in its formative stage, but this has been no obstacle for certain apologists of objective professional journalism who assure us that it will arrive with a deathly pallor, ripe for embalming. (Lemann briefly addresses Rosen's idea, wrapping it within his larger argument.)

There is a good deal to say, and it's already being said quite well by a growing mass.*

I just want to offer one observation about Lemann's piece for now. It concerns his interesting definition of reporting:
Reporting—meaning the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience—is a distinctive, fairly recent invention. It probably started in the United States, in the mid-nineteenth century, long after the Founders wrote the First Amendment.
Reporting as he formulates it developed only after many other modes of journalism had already developed. The reason can only be one element of the definition: "a member of a distinct occupational category." The communicative process of relaying information gathered by questioning, interviewing, and sourcing one's information is acknowledged by Lemann to be a "tradition" -- an interesting word choice in itself -- but it only becomes reporting in his modern industrial sense of the term when it is being performed by a salaried employee of the news industry.

This feature appears to be responsible for what Lemann sees as journalism's prime claim to value:
...it provides citizens with an independent source of information about the state and other holders of power.
The fact that reporters work for corporate entities whose economic determinants require performative agendas that have to do with ad rates, subscription bases, the cost of newsprint, the cost of oil, aspects of forestry and many other things, is also the reason why many ordinary users of journalism constantly worry about its ability to be independent.

Lemann may, if he wishes, conflate the epistemics of relayed speech with the social set-up of capitalistic enterprise: these guys have jobs. However, nowhere in this is there any necessary link between the act of re-porting and the fact of getting a paycheck, other than the assertion that one can only be independent if one is dependent upon a corporate employer.

Reporting is indeed a tradition -- a human tradition extending back thousands of years (here the Melians are interviewing the Athenians on a subject of near interest). Millions, if we consider that the carrying of sense data to the brain is an early form of reporting which did not require ad sales to occur. It is understandable that Dean Lemann might wish to make relevant the occupational element, given that he runs an institution whose economic viability depends on its production of professional reporters. It is less understandable that he would stack the definition of his terms so that only card-carrying professionals can be recognized as valid reporters.

On the other hand, if reporting as a profession is a mere 150 years old and the offshoot of an evolving capitalist framework, why should folks like Dean Lemann be so entirely resistant to the fact, illustrated every day, that that entire framework is continuing to evolve, and that a tradition as broadly grounded in our humanity as "reporting" is will continue to evolve with it?

For the present, there are blogs that can and do offer an intelligence and critical news sense that professional reporters and editors and publishers, ensonced in their 19th century industrial modes of representation, often fail to attain. Future evolutionary paths would seem even less likely to concern themselves with the precise employment status of those bearing precious data upon which their survival may depend.

*Jarvis, Ratcliffe, Social Media, Witt and many, many more.

9 Comments:

Blogger Jon Husband said...

Given that the mainstreammedia vehicles are corporations, it would be interesting to see a re-porter's job description, accountabilities and performance objectives, and know whether they participate in what are euphemistically known as "variable compensation" programs .. in other words bonus schemes ostensibly triggered by meeting performance objectives.

8/02/2006 1:36 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

I doubt there's any norm for the industry; each owner offers whatever. At Times-owned papers in the 90s, there was a strong anti-union managerial posture, at least in states where that was possible (eg, FL). The whole approach to employees was more or less: we pay cheap, you work cheap, we don't imagine you will be capable of any enterprise, since we're essentially a drone farm connected to a highly profitable ad shop. Our profits go to NY. I doubt it's much changed. It was an industry without an imagination of imagination, and it liked it that way.

8/02/2006 8:17 PM  
Blogger Chuck Pinatubo said...

Nicholas Lemann might be more accurately called the Vestal Lemann. Understandably, he sees ill omens when issues of chastity arise. The virginal look and feel of his students is their best job market asset, along with the charming naivete of seeing no dissonance in the appearance of their columns alongside recruiting ads for spin doctor jobs.

8/02/2006 8:24 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Scruggs: I think Lemann's note is more blue collar, someone's-got-to-get-the-job-done, those who can, journalize; those who can't, blog. He's too seasoned and sensible to put on the sacral robes, unlike the presbydigerator described here.

8/02/2006 9:54 PM  
Blogger Chuck Pinatubo said...

Tom, that's a treasure.

8/02/2006 10:55 PM  
Anonymous certainly not klaus said...

"However, nowhere in this is there any necessary link between the act of reporting and the fact of getting a paycheck, other than the assertion that one can only be independent if one is dependent upon a corporate employer."

That's fucking ridiculous. If you're freelance, then you're dependent on multiple employers.

If you're a blogger, then you're potentially a mercenary up for bid, with no financial disclosure unless there's a political context that requires it.

At least with the way it works traditionally, you can verify who's paying off the correspondant, publicly, whatever else may transpire.

8/02/2006 11:26 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Certainly, certainly not. The relation of ideology and money is a giant fungible cloud, no? The fact that Mr. Ricks is paid by WAPO doesn't help us understand, necessarily, the agendas of his editors, their supervisors, the executives, board, owners, investors, etc., and how these probably multiple forces interact. My point was about how embedded Lemann's notion of reporting is with the current corporate club. Here's an analogy you'll probably find even more ridiculous: the "content" of news is to newscorps as music is to compact discs. We're in a moment in which the activity of the intellect is able to circulate without the inevitability of the usual property owners. The resistance to this is remarkably strong in both cases.

8/03/2006 7:41 AM  
Blogger Juke said...

"Barista of Bloomfield Avenue, the nom de Web of Debbie Galant, who lives in a suburban town in New Jersey and is one of the most esteemed “hyperlocal bloggers” in the country"

"What is generally considered to be the most complete local citizen-journalism site in the United States, the Northwest Voice, in Bakersfield, California."

Lemann's metric in these examples is...unknown to me.
I have no idea how to go about finding what is "generally considered to be" "one of the most esteemed" anything on this pulsing sphere of digital whateverness.
But evidently Lemann has an inside hook.
Or needs to think he does.

8/07/2006 12:03 AM  
Anonymous tom said...

Juke, Your ear is true. The metric is as old as the hills. Only we're not in the hills - at least, not those hills.

8/07/2006 12:11 AM  

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