Barbarians at the Gate, Dinosaurs at the Dock

After watching a frustratingly clueless, “barbarians at the gate” NewHour segment on campaign smears (which apparently never existed before the Internet and were never spread by the old media) hosted by Gwen Ifill, who also hosts a conventional wisdom synchronization and self-congratulation session known as Washington Week (which I long ago gave up watching), I turned to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s PressThink for a more critical view of the old media and, by Jove, I found it in a post called Migration Point for the Press Tribe. Here’s how it begins.

We are early in the rise of semi-pro journalism, but well into the decline of an older way of life within the tribe of professional journalists. I call them a tribe because they share a culture and a sense of destiny, and because they think they own the press—that it’s theirs somehow because they dominate the practice.

The First Amendment says to all Americans: you have a right to publish what you know, to say what you think. That right used to be abstractly held. Now it is concretely held because the power to publish has been distributed to the population at large. Projects that cause people to exercise their right to a free press strengthen the press, whether or not these projects strengthen the professional journalist’s “hold” on the press.

The professional news tribe is in the midst of a great survival drama. It has over the last few years begun to realize that it cannot live any more on the ground it settled so successfully as the industrial purveyors of one-to-many, consensus-is-ours news. The land that newsroom people have been living on—also called their business model—no long supports their best work. So they have come to a reluctant point of realization: that to continue on, to keep the professional press going, the news tribe will have to migrate across the digital divide and re-settle itself on terra nova, new ground. Or as we sometimes call it, a new platform.

Migration—which is easily sentimentalized by Americans—is a community trauma. Pulling up stakes and leaving a familiar place is hard. Within the news tribe some people don’t want to go. These are the newsroom curmudgeons, a reactionary group. Others are in denial still, or they are quietly drifting away from journalism. Many are being shed as the tribe contracts and its economy convulses. A few are admitting that it’s time to panic.

And like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them, when to leave, where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life, and which parts were well adapted to the old world but may be unnecessary or a handicap in the new. They have to ask if what they know is portable. What life will be like across the digital sea is of course an unknown to the migrant. This creates an immediate crisis for the elders of the tribe, who have always known how to live.

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Filed under blogging, democracy, migration, publishing

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