Listen up, young journalists. Here’s some bad news from an old-timer: The economic basis for the detached, aloof-observer model of journalism that my generation built is crumbling fast.
The good news: You get to invent the next journalism.
The old system worked because print and broadcast journalism were naturally monopolistic. Broadcasting had a limited number of channels, and printing required expensive machines that broke easily. It wasn’t efficient to have more than a very limited number of them per market. That constraint produced a system geared to sending a few messages to lots of people.
Now, because of technology, the massiveness of the mass media is disappearing. We’re moving toward a system of many messages, each directed to a comparatively few people, and the new system is experimenting with different ways to do that. As markets will, it is trying the cheap ways first. Taking obvious facts and fitting them into a preconceived theory favored by the target segment is one way. It’s all the explanation we need for the success of right-wing talk radio.
Competition and entrepreneurial spirit will lead to other ways to profit from media specialization. Out of experimentation will come a new journalism that is at the same time better and worse than the old. One
benefit is that the motivations of senders will become more transparent as each seeks to woo and win a viable segment of the audience.
There will still be an economic need for objective reporting, but it will have to be based on true objectivity, not the fake kind that the old mass media system supported. In that system, the appearance of objectivity was maintained by a sprinkling policy. Ink and airtime were scarce goods and so owners put a little here, a little there, trying to give all sides at least a chance for exposure to the mass audience. Journalists had viewpoints, but they kept them well concealed so as not to undermine the perception of neutrality.
But it was always a false perception. Journalists have opinions. The old media economics compelled their concealment so their messages could be sold to a broader range of end users. However, the end of pseudo-objectivity does not undermine the need for true objectivity. If anything, it enhances it. As the venues for spin and advocacy multiply, there ought to be a market for a trusted, objective source in the original, scientific sense.
True objectivity is based on method, not result. Instead of implying that there is an equal amount of weight to be accorded every side, the objective investigator makes an effort to evaluate the competing viewpoints. The methods of investigation keep the reporter from being misled by his or her own desires and prejudices.
When I was a member of the 1967 Nieman class, I studied social science research methods. And I saw clearly, for the first time, how science and journalism have the same goals and could use the same tools. Six years later, I got that notion into print with the first edition of “Precision Journalism.” In the opening chapter, I laid out the theory. To report on our complicated world, journalism requires interpretation as well as the straightforward reporting of facts. But the leap from observation to interpretation needs to be subject to the same kind of discipline as science.
Two aspects of what I advocated then caught on quickly: news media took responsibility for their own polling instead of relying on national syndicates or the polls of politicians. And journalists started discovering the power of computers to manage and interpret large quantities of data. But the discipline of scientific method with its rules for analysis and hypothesis testing never fully caught on, although there are some brilliant exceptions. Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman and Steve Suo of The Oregonian in Portland are setting fine examples, and their editors deserve credit for giving them the resources to do it.
The trouble with this kind of journalism is that it is expensive, time consuming, and requires a level of skill not much in demand from a system that conceives of news media as mere platforms for attracting eyeballs to ads. That model puts a premium on low-cost attractants.
But, sooner or later, publishers will learn that to stand out in the noisy buzz of the information marketplace, they will need more trustworthy products. Journalism that yields reproducible results, reviewable by peers, open about its sources and methods, stands to find a privileged place in this new marketplace. You can be its creators.
Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is Knight Chair in Journalism professor at the University of North Carolina and author of “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age,” University of Missouri Press, November 2004.