October 19, 2005: Features
By Marc Fisher ’80
At my 25th reunion last spring, I chatted with Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, about the erratically spinning media world and our uncertain roles in it. I was an ink-stained reporter who was diving into online chat shows, blogging, and podcasting as my newspaper sought to weather a steep decline in circulation. She was an academic who had just been invited to climb down from the ivory tower and leap into the moshpit as a blogger on foreign policy.
Slaughter wondered how to blend this new world of rapid-fire polemics with the decorum and thoughtfulness expected of a Princeton dean. I advised her to develop an online persona, “The Dean,” who would specialize in the instant, fervent opinions readers associate with Web logs, the topical diaries that millions of Americans are writing as a form of citizen journalism. Wisely, she followed her own instinct.
Dean Slaughter quickly found her voice on Joshua Micah Marshall ’91’s popular group blog, www.tpmcafe.com — without gimmicks. She wrote with a passion that likely wouldn’t pass muster in an academic journal, but carried unusual power in the blogosphere. Every few days, the dean posts a few hundred words, usually about something in the news. Instantly, readers attach comments and an online conversation ensues.
In July, after The New Yorker reported that the U.S. military had sought permission to threaten a prisoner with the death of his child to get him to talk, Slaughter wrote, “As a parent, I cannot imagine any physical pain worse than a threat to the lives of my children.” She issued a call for action, writing that “It is time for a Take-Back-the-Country march on Washington; a march that says to the world that we are sickened, horrified, outraged — words fail — by what is being done in our name. ...” Strong words for a dean, but effective, appealing blogging.
Over the next 24 hours, readers debated Slaughter’s piece, at times lapsing into a “Did so! Did not!” exchange of accusations about what was worse — the terrorists or the U.S. government. Some of the comments directed at the dean got rough. But amid the name-calling, a few readers embraced the dean’s proposal, while others argued about definitions and attacked their ideological opponents.
This, as the dean and I had thought, was a new world.
And yet in many ways, it wasn’t. In the hectic, increasingly decentralized media environment made possible by the Internet and cable and satellite technologies, journalists, academics, politicians, business managers, and ordinary readers are creating new platforms for spreading the news and discussing democracy. Almost overnight, the old media seem outdated and clueless. But as the history of media shows, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Questions about responsibility, accuracy, power, and access endure. Whether the issue is Iraq, the Supreme Court, or the seemingly endless presidential campaign, Americans want to know what information we can trust and what truths we’re not hearing.
Those of us who make our livings gathering, telling, and selling the news are witnessing a revolution in how we do our work and how it is received. A boundless new technology has unleashed an unimaginable number of new voices, along with serious questions about who qualifies as a journalist. At the same time, the number of news organizations that spend big money to report the news and serve as a check against the government and other institutions is rapidly diminishing. In print, on the air, and online, the number of reporters covering federal, state, and local governments is dropping, even as consumers of news feel increasingly overwhelmed by the noise of too much information.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many Princeton students who played reporter on campus, like me, began our job searches by looking for newspapers that were committed to aggressive and substantial coverage of local and state affairs. We wanted to dig into public records, sniff out scandals, right wrongs.
A generation later, many of the best writers on campus barely glance in the direction of local newspapers. They are drawn to a journalism of opinion, to blogs, to online editions of political magazines. “I’d never thought about working for a newspaper” until The New York Times called, says Nicholas Confessore ’98, who first parlayed opinion columns for the Nassau Weekly into work editing, writing, and blogging for The American Prospect and The Washington Monthly. Last year, Confessore bailed out of the opinion game to become a local reporter for the Times, a job he loves because he is out reporting stories no one else has, rather than commenting on the work of others.
“Blogs are second-order entities,” Confessore says. “If every newspaper went out of business tomorrow, they [blogs] would have nothing to blog about. I was sick of blogging. There are days when you just don’t feel like having an opinion on anything.”
Confessore’s retro attraction to traditional reporting is an anomaly. What draws many smart kids to blogging is the idea that they can simultaneously make a personal statement and have an impact on the national debate (even if the revenue they generate from blogging is rarely enough even to sustain a Starbucks habit). But for all the buzz about ordinary people being empowered as journalists, Confessore notes, the countless Americans who now blog while sitting on the couch in their pajamas, as a joke among bloggers has it, are “not the ones who are being read.” A relative handful of blogs win large audiences, and even the most successful bloggers struggle to find a business model that makes sense.
If Virgina Postrel ’82 were going into journalism now rather than 23 years ago, she says, she would launch herself as a blogger. “These are new forms of news-gathering,” says Postrel, who went to work for The Wall Street Journal right out of Princeton and then wrote for Inc. magazine before becoming editor of the libertarian opinion journal Reason and one of the first popular bloggers. “You really see it when there’s a big event like Katrina, the London bombings, or the tsunami. You’re seeing an explosion of content about these events from people who are on the scene or who are working on grassroots relief efforts. Are they journalists or are they sources? Whatever you call them, it’s a leveling of the playing field.”
Postrel was frustrated early in her career by her inability to find an audience for her magazine beyond the true believers who already shared her perspective on life and politics. Once she started blogging (www.dynamist.com/Weblog), she connected both to those like-minded people and to intrigued visitors from another ideological planet. The Web’s pulsating, concentric circles of links persuaded Postrel that even though blogs, like opinion magazines, would not make anyone rich, they could have a powerful effect on the national conversation.
Still, after several years of daily postings of her passions, observations, and ideas — Postrel’s recent topics ranged from daylight-saving time to federal aviation policy to economic sociology to the aesthetics of Dell computers — she has scaled back. The blog had “started to crowd out my other work” — her column for The New York Times business section, her magazine writing, and her books.
Postrel’s classmate, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman ’82, has always served as the measure of my own technological cluelessness. Back when many of us were still awed by the speed and power of an IBM Selectric typewriter, Gellman was storing his life on a computer. But as Gellman reported on local criminal courts, the Middle East conflict, and the roots of the war in Iraq, he used new technologies to aid his quest for facts, not to shift over to Web-style journalism.
“I think in terms of efficiency, not transformation,” says Gellman, who shared the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2002 for his work on al-Qaida. “When there’s a paradigm shift, you always look at how it’s going to help you do the old work.” Though he knew that computers and the Web constituted a “paradigm shift,” Gellman saw technology more as a tool for improving traditional journalism than as a doorway to an entirely new form of media. “I didn’t foresee the whole participatory piece” of the new technology’s impact on the news media, he says. Gellman has observed how the possibility of easy interactivity between news gatherers and news consumers has altered the expectations of his readers. But he argues that while the conversation around his stories has changed, and as new tools draw journalists into extended and sometimes useful debate with readers, the rules he follows in deciding how and what to report are still shaped by the events he covers, not by the demands of often highly partisan readers. “You know now that every story is going to provoke endless commentary,” he says. “Sometimes it’s illuminating, but it’s just dominated by noise, so I don’t pay a lot of attention to it.”
Stung by embarrassing ethics lapses and scrutinized by blogs, newspapers that before the digital revolution had acknowledged reader complaints largely through brief, cryptic corrections have begun to report on their own shortcomings. But that has done little to dampen criticism of the news media as structurally biased or passive. Gellman and other reporters struggle with a growing disconnect between readers who want to see their perspectives reflected in the news they receive, and journalistic tradition and training that instill deep skepticism of any ideology. Gellman spent a year investigating the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons program, publishing groundbreaking stories that cast considerable doubt on the U.S. government’s positions. Despite Gellman’s reporting, he found himself being lumped into a stereotype of a silent, pliant press, as voices on both ends of the political spectrum complained loudly about having been ill served by American journalism. Every journalist I spoke to for this article readily conceded that the nation’s news organizations miss some stories and get bamboozled on others. Yet these reporters also noted that many of the most virulent criticisms of the press are built on a foundation of reporting by the very same news organizations that are being targeted.
That apparent contradiction, along with the tendency of so many bloggers to buy into conspiracy theories about why the media report as they do, leaves some journalists frustrated by what Gellman calls the “death of fact, death of empiricism.” He says, “It drives me crazy when I watch political debates in the blogging world and see the irrelevance of core, verifiable facts.” Yet Gellman remains bullish on traditional journalism because he has seen that despite the heated chatter on the Internet, original reporting still has a powerful impact. Witness the remarkable pivot in public opinion from the large majority of Americans who believed at the start of the Iraq war that Saddam had active weapons of mass destruction to the conventional wisdom today that he did not. “There was a lot of very good investigative journalism that brought that out,” Gellman says, and he can’t help but note that that work originated not in the much-ballyhooed blogosphere, but in good old print newspapers. Fact is not yet passé, he concludes; journalism works.
Of course, blogs make a difference, too, playing a large role in removing Trent Lott as majority leader of the U.S. Senate and in exposing flaws in CBS News’ reporting on President Bush’s National Guard service. Gellman says blogs don’t often break news, but the best blogs “assemble all the new tidbits in an intelligent framework, with really valuable insights.” Still, like many reporters, Gellman is unsettled by blogging’s impact on the news industry. “This new medium is cheaper and easier and has more popular appeal, so more news organizations will say, ‘Why bother with our very expensive news-gathering process?’”
Robin Martin ’75, editor and publisher of The New Mexican in Santa Fe, has seen the decline of reporting firepower all around her state. As other newspapers cut budgets to the bone, her paper remains one of only two that still send reporters to cover the state legislature. Martin, who inherited The New Mexican and a weekly in Taos from her father, has bucked the cost-cutting trend, maintaining a staff with almost twice as many reporters and editors as most chain-run papers of a similar size (weekday circulation of about 26,000). Martin’s paper has more than 60 editorial employees, while chains such as Gannett and Knight-Ridder have pared back reporting resources so sharply that many local newspapers offer hometown readers little beyond the headline services that are readily available on the Internet.
The giant sucking sound that many newspaper publishers hear as readers let subscriptions lapse and pick up their news online — for free — is less of a disturbance in Santa Fe, where readers remain loyal to Martin’s paper. “People need us, and that’s not going to change,” she says. But her corner of the country is not immune to the elemental change in how people define news and where they get it. So The New Mexican has invited the state’s bloggers to post their work on the newspaper’s Web site (www.santafenewmexican.com), which thereby takes on a more interactive, egalitarian spirit. Readers are invited to comment on reporters’ stories and do, often quite harshly. All this change has some people at the paper, including the boss, wondering “whether we are letting all the public comment water down our product. Are we letting it push us into things we don’t want to do — more weather, comics, and color instead of serious journalism?”
Martin, a geology major at Princeton who always expected to take over the family business, sees a shift in reader expectations. For one thing, the tone of readers’ comments has changed sharply since the Internet came along. “In the old days, when people had to sit down at a typewriter and get a stamp [to mail a letter to the editor], it was a higher quality of comment — more thoughtful,” she says. Now, Martin has to calm the nerves of her editorial writer, who “doesn’t want to do the job anymore because everyone’s being so mean-spirited.”
Like many publishers, Martin is chasing after readers by creating an electronic newspaper to serve her community should print’s era finally pass. The New Mexican offers its top stories free online, and a paid site delivers the entire contents of the paper. In addition to reaching out to local bloggers, Martin is experimenting with having reporters write blogs of their own, keeping readers up to the minute on the stories they cover. But every blog entry represents time that a reporter spends interacting with readers rather than out finding stories. “That’s the time they should be going down to the county courthouse and looking at the lawsuits, or going to the school to get to know the principal,” Martin says. “I guess you have to do some of the blogging and all, but that’s not our main job.”
At Don Hazen ’69’s AlterNet.org, the conversation between journalist and reader is the main job. “The blogging revolution helps break down the gatekeeper model, and that’s good,” says Hazen. A former political campaign consultant, he entered journalism in the 1980s as publisher of Mother Jones magazine before becoming executive editor of this nonprofit Web site, which is a Reader’s Digest of left and liberal political journalism and a hub for progressive blogs. Hazen, like many others, sees the new technology as a vehicle for giving voice to the grass roots, letting ordinary people speak at the same volume as members of the journalistic priesthood. Every morning, AlterNet’s “Peek” page highlights five blogs, part of what Hazen calls the five C’s: “connecting computers can create community.”
The idea is that citizens, rather than depending on journalists to deliver reports from on high, can craft the news themselves, morsel by morsel like a wiki — an Internet innovation in which random readers contribute to a common Web site, together telling a story and building a version of the truth. Advocates of the new news see that as inherently more honest and affirming than the old model of a neutral, dispassionate press. Defenders of the American tradition of nonpartisan journalism see it instead as a tragic loss of a tool for building consensus.
The blogosphere “is about reaching the group that already agrees with you and hardening their attitudes,” Hazen says. “It’s really a kind of narrowcasting.” Yet if Hazen’s revolution sounds like preaching to the converted, its supporters nonetheless believe that Web-based dialogue will strengthen their core ideas and inevitably expand their ranks. “The technology is neutral,” Hazen says, “but it’s so effective, fast, cheap, and ubiquitous that it really has changed the model for journalism. It is a mini-revolution.”
Do blogs represent a real shift in content rather than merely a snazzy new delivery system? The changes in media in the past decade are as multi-faceted as the Web itself, simultaneously serving left and right, establishment and grass roots, journalist and reader. It is, so far, a revolution brimming with contradictions. Many journalists who now find themselves derided as part of the “mainstream media” take comfort in being dismissed equally by both liberals and conservatives. We must be doing something right if we tick off both extremes, we say. But bravado aside, many journalists are not taking chances: Rather than risk becoming irrelevant, we embrace the new information reality, writing blogs and chatting with readers ourselves.
Across the digital generation gap, bloggers and Web journalists — in search of relevance, audience, and a decent paycheck — reach for the blessing of the old media.
Nick Confessore switches to daily print journalism, the bloggers of New Mexico trumpet their recognition by Robin Martin’s newspaper, and Virginia Postrel cuts back on her blog to make certain she meets deadlines for her column in the Times.
The grand American tradition of old media co-opting the innovation and spirit of new media — just as radio survived TV’s arrival and daily newspapers snapped up ideas offered by alternative weeklies — lives on.
In the end, once our excitement over the flash, fun, and freedom of the Internet ebbs, the news will be, as ever, about groping for the truth and having the courage to use it to confront the powerful. A decade after we were told that the Internet would lead us to world peace, permanent prosperity, and a transcendent new path, the biggest draws on the Web are pornography and gambling. Technology is what we make of it. The news — however we learn it — is still the story of our lives.
Marc Fisher ’80 is a columnist at the Washington Post and author of The Radio Generation, to be published in 2006 by Random House. He is experimenting with a podcast version of his newspaper column (www.washingtonpost.com/fisher). Fisher wrote his first columns as a student for PAW’s On the Campus section.