20 Post-it provocations on media


Recently, I was asked to open an unconference with students and grads from our News Innovation and Leadership program at Newmark. I was also preparing for a Newsgeist unconference (which I unfortunately had to miss). Thus my mind has been its own unconference; I sneeze Post-its. So, for our event, I decided to present 20 provocations for discussion about news and media as virtual Post-its (that is to say, tweets):

  1. I’m thinking about the half-life of media forms. Magazines are going out of print. Studying the form, I’ve come to see how evanescent any publication can be and perhaps so is the genre. Television is in shambles as the institutions of prime-time, networks, linear television, broadcast, and even cable fade. Recently, The Times had a story about the unsustainable resource and risk it takes to make a best-seller. And the death of the print newspaper has been oft foretold but might finally be upon us, for it is fast becoming unsustainable. Nothing is forever. So what might follow?
  2. Journalism is unprepared to cover institutional insurrection. News organizations still seek balance, fairness, sanity, tradition, and the establishment and enforcement of norms, while much of the country seeks to tear down the institutions of society — journalism, science, education, free and fair elections, democracy itself. As Jay Rosen points out, we have no strategy for how to cover this coup.
  3. Should journalists be educators? Educators deal in outcomes, telling students what they will learn, teaching them that, and asking whether they learned it. What if journalism aimed for outcomes — such as reporting why people should get vaccinations or vote or believe election outcomes — and judged its value and success accordingly? Then do we become advocates? Activists? Propagandists? At a gathering of internet researchers we convened a few weeks ago, one of the academics asked whether all propaganda is bad. If the bad guys use it, should the good?
  4. Internet leadership. I’m turning my attention from news leadership to internet leadership. For I think we in journalism need to broaden the canvas upon which we work past stories, content, and publications to the connected society and its data. What should we then we teaching in journalism schools? What of the humanities and of ethics and historical context should technologists and policymakers be taught?
  5. The story as a form is an expression of power. It empowers the storyteller. It extracts and exploits others’ stories. It can tempt journalists into fabulism — witness the scandals over time at Der Spiegel, the NY Times, and Washington Post. It carries with it the expectation of neat arcs and endings. The story is an excellent tool, no doubt. But do we concentrate on it too much? Do we sufficiently warn students of its temptations and perils? Do we imaginatively teach many possible alternatives in journalism?
  6. Death to the mass! In two books I’ve just completed (plug: The Gutenberg Parenthesis, out in June, and another on the magazine as object, both from Bloomsbury), I write about the arc of the mass: its birth with the mechanization and industrialization of print, its fall at the hands of the net. What the net kills is the mass media business model, with it mass media, and with it the idea of the mass, an insult to the public, a way not to know them as individuals and communities. Said John Carey: “The ‘mass’ is, of course, a fiction. Its function, as a linguistic device, is to eliminate the human status of the majority of people.” How do we recenter journalism around individuals and their identities in communities?
  7. Our definition of “local” is too narrow. Communities are not just geographic. I am closer to the people on my Twitter List of Book History Wonks and all the media wonks here online than I am to my frequently Trumpian neighbors. How do we expand our definition of local to communities writ large, to people’s own definitions of themselves and their affinities, circumstances, needs, and interests? Yes, save local journalism — but redefine “local.”
  8. We have much to learn about communities making spaces for themselves from Black Twitter. I recommend Charlton Mcilwain’s Black Software and André Brock Jr.’s Distributed Blackness and I await Meredith D. Clark, PhD’s upcoming book. They chronicle efforts by communities to establish their own spaces, not under mass or white gaze. Communities do not need us. We in journalism need them.
  9. Jack Dorsey regrets making Twitter a company. He wishes it were a protocol so one could speak anywhere and anyone could build enterprises atop that speech layer, adding value — curating, verifying, editing, supporting. Especially now, I eagerly await what happens with his Bluesky. How might journalism fit into such an ecosystem?
  10. Censorship is futile. At the birth of every medium, incumbents fret about bad outcomes — fake news from print (witchcraft) or radio (War of the Worlds) or television (the “vast wasteland” where we “amuse ourselves to death”). How much better it is for us to turn our attention to finding, nurturing, supporting, and improving the good.
  11. Paywalls damage democracy. When disinformation is free, how can we restrict quality information to the privileged who choose to afford it? What is our moral obligation to democracy, to society as a whole?
  12. Fuck hot takes. The answer to abundance in media is not to pile on more abundance.
  13. Journalism is terribly, fatally inefficient. Every outlet copying every other outlet’s stories to make their own content on their own pages to get their own clicks and ads. Enough. We must concentrate on unique value.
  14. We desperately need more self-criticism in journalism. Especially after the departures of David Carr, Margaret Sullivan, and Brian Stelter. Media are actors in the story of democracy but they go uncovered.
  15. We desperately need more research on public discourse and media today. We must consider the entire media ecosystem, not just Facebook and not just The Times and not relying on such baseless tropes as the filter bubble. Doubt me? See Axel Bruns’ book, Are Filter Bubbles Real? His answer: No. We need to work with researchers to examine what we do, what works, and what does not.
  16. We need to reinvent advertising. The attention economy — invented by media and imported into the internet, is obsolete and damaging. Advertising must shift to value, permission, relevance, and utility. We will still need advertisers. Advertisers won’t reinvent themselves. So we have to.
  17. Media are engaged in a moral panic about the internet. See Nirit Weiss-Blatt’s book, The Techlash, in which she marks the pivot from utopian to dystopian coverage with the election of Donald Trump: Media wanted someone else to blame. News industry organizations have become lobbyists, cashing in journalism’s political capital for the sake of protectionism and baksheesh. At a time when freedom of expression is imperiled, we must do better and fight to protect the speech of all.
  18. Facebook is not forever. Even Google is not forever. And Twitter? Who knows what the next day brings? What new functions might we build?
  19. We have time. It is 1480 in Gutenberg years. I do not advocate longtermism. Our obligation to tomorrow begins today. In print, great innovation — the essay, the novel, the newspaper — did not come until 150 years after movable type. How long must we wait for such bold innovation online? Will you be such innovators?
  20. When will the first editor in chief or publisher of a major news operation come from the ranks of the people now known as “audience” or “product?” These are the new disciplines — new to news — that base their work and value on the relationship they have with, to borrow Rosen’s term, the people formerly known as the audience. I hope someone hearing this now will be that person.





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