McChesney and Nichols: $30-billion to save journalism

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Robert McChesney and John Nichols (56 minutes, 26 meg mp3)

Robert McChesney and John Nichols are grappling with the question: what would Thomas Jefferson do about the death of the American newspaper? Better, Jefferson said, to have newspapers without a government than to have government without newspapers. Yet here we are two centuries later, and the papers are disappearing. What is to sustain essential journalism in the digital age?

Core doctrine among the Founders, in the McChesney-Nichols argument, was not just that the press must be free of interference and censorship but that its vigor and variety should be sustained by subsidized access to printing and the mails. Some of the freshest parts of their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, recount how Generals MacArthur in Japan and Eisenhower in Germany designed and built new institutions of free open journalism on the theory, as McChesney and Nichols put it, that “creating a viable free press is the first duty … of the democratic state.”

Thirty billion dollars a year is the subsidy figure that McChesney and Martin are proposing today — their projection of the support that Jefferson & Company gave to the press two centuries ago. They insist they are thinking of rebuilding a culture, not bailing out dying newspapers. They embrace Dean Baker’s idea of a Citizenship News Voucher which would let people direct the spending of, say, $200 a year, to the local, global or specialized journalism they value, so long as it’s non-profit and non-commercial.

My question — my reservation really — is the thought that the Internet is already the government’s accidental gift that keeps on giving. It’s worth much more than $30 billion to have wiped out the cost of paper, printing, delivery and all the capital barriers to a worldwide marketplace of ideas. My guess is that Thomas Jefferson, a blogger in retirement, would be reading and reveling in the digital miracle that has enabled kindred spirits like Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Joshua Micah Marshall and Arianna Huffington… not to mention Robert McChesney, John Nichols and their admirable creation, FreePress. Net.

Post up, please, on what more you’d spend and where, to sustain the contentious journalism Jefferson had in mind.

Related Content

  • One of my best friends has a great desire to go to Yale to pursue journalism. One of things that she wants to do is pursue journalism outside of school by doing internship or something. She is a great writer and I just wanted some ideas as to what she could do outside of school to enhance her experience and show that she really cares about journalism when she applies. It is her great passion, so if any one has any ideas let me know. Thank you.

  • jack

    Apropos, a passage from Don Delillo’s Body Artist:

    You separate the Sunday sections and there are endless identical lines of print with people living somewhere in the words and the strange contained reality of paper and ink seeps through the house for a week and when you look at a page and distinguish one line from another it begins to gather you into it and there are people being tortured halfway around the world, who speak another language, and you have conversations with them more or less uncontrollably until you become aware you are doing it and then you stop, seeing whatever is in front of you at the time, like half a glass of juice in your husband’s hand.

  • Glen

    This sounds so familiar to me. I’m a musician, and if you swap that in for “journalism” you’ll have just what we’ve been talking about for a while now. The bottom line here is that no one has figured out how to make a suitable business model for a digital environment, at least not one that everybody can use. Just as music publishing companies have, over the course of several decades, been narrowed down to a handful of bloated, reckless, and completely oblivious corporate giants, the print publishers have as well. We have people who can make great new music, distribute it out to the whole world in an instant, but can’t make enough to recoup their recording costs, just as journalists can set up popular blogs and not make enough to pay their website bills. The idea of a subsidy for either, but especially for journalists, who have such a solemn responsibility to be independent, is on its face repulsive to me…but it may be the only way and I think these guys make a good argument for it. I do think they seriously overstate the case for newspapers, however. Television and radio journalism has for years provided comparable, and even superior, journalistic standards and the extension to podcasts and online video has shown it can be done online as well. Chris Lydon, for instance!

  • jack

    Ice hockey bag:

    Your friend might want to look into an internship (better yet a job) with The Anderson Valley Advertiser:

    …a good, radical paper in Mendocino that seems to be hanging on to certain old-fashioned notions of journalism.

    And then there’s TPM, which was recently looking for an intern.

    Good luck to you both.

  • Congratulations to Chris for attempting to crack open the US-journalistic oyster!

    Nichols and McChesney are probably excellent journalists and their book probably contains fascinating ideas. But what this interview mostly brought me is yet another sign that journalism is a very specific worldview. Not that it’s necessarily less interesting than another worldview. Journalism probably covers as much ground as most other worldviews. But it’s also as constraining as any worldview.

    In fact, journalism is further specified by political entities with which they entertain close relationships. In the case of these two US journalists, we really are talking about a US-specific model, with multiple comments about Jefferson and some passing remarks about what happens “in other countries,” as direct comparison with the US case. In other words, we’re not talking about a deep understanding of global changes pertaining to industries based on the transformation of information. We’re talking about jobs for career journalists in the US.

    The comparisons with music could lead to fascinating discussions. For instance, 30 billion USD happens to be the last amount public known as the worldwide recording industry. Sure, it’s very little money compared to bank bailouts. But it’s also as much money as was spent on music recordings, worldwide, in a given year (2005, I think).

    The comparison may also be fitting because the recording industry was in trouble, a few years ago, in a context similar to that of newspapers today. Consolidation, greed, lack of passion, complacency, empowered citizens, competition from Internet communication, lack of foresight… There’s something more than vaguely similar between the problems facing newspapers today and those facing recording labels ten years ago. Which doesn’t mean that newspapers will necessarily be able to save themselves (or find their saviour in Apple).

    Now, one major distinction is that the “artisans” are more directly affected in the journalistic crisis than they were in the problems affecting the recording industry. That is, if we take journalists to be the equivalent of musicians, the jobs lost in the current problems with journalistic models seem dearer than the money (allegedly) lost by recording companies. While public opinion about journalists isn’t that high, there might be more sympathy for journalists than for “record producers.” Which isn’t saying much.

    And speaking of artisans…

    It’s quite remarkable that these journalists would talk about “generating” the news as if journalism were about creation instead of reporting.

    Sure, I understand what is meant by “generating stories.” I’m not nitpicking about the term. But the very idea that, in the end, it matters who “broke the story” is journalistic. In that context, these two journalists seem to completely forget that events happen to human beings. It’s no surprise that journalism should make such a fuss about “the sound of the tree falling in the forest.” Deep down, journalism seems to be based on the notion that if something goes unreported by professionals (from our Nation’s corps), it simply didn’t happen.

    Case in point, the notion that it’s important to talk about the number of US-based foreign correspondants at the time of the Earthquakes. Clearly, it can help make a point (basically, that people in the US tend not to care about the Rest of the World until something big happens). But what about, let’s say, other foreign correspondants or, actually, locals who reported on the events long before Brian Williams arrived and will continue reporting on those events long after the last foreign correspondants go “home?” I’m not simply talking about Radio Signal, Twitter, and those other sources which have been so useful to journalism outside of Haiti. I’m thinking about the fact that Haitians in Montreal found ways to get news from their relatives in Port-au-Prince despite all sorts of difficulties with the communication infrastructure. It’s quite possible that foreign correspondants have been helpful in this case. But they didn’t “generate the story.”

    In fact, when Nichols and McChesney talked about statistics on “breaking stories,” they enumerated the actual sources for much of “The News” (in Baltimore, at a specific point in time). The fact that much of it comes from press releases and other communication from corporate entities was briefly discussed and most likely represents the basis for a full chapter in any book on the journalistic crisis. (Haven’t read Chatel and Merlant’s Médias, la faillite d’un contre-pouvoir but I’d be surprised if it didn’t focus on this issue.) Yet the significance of this fact in terms of broad models of communication seems to be left unaddressed. In the grand scheme of things, aren’t we talking about journalism becoming much less relevant as an artificial obstacle between critical thinkers and data? If journalism is about filters, may it be more important to allow people to build their own filters than to rely on self-appointed gatekeepers? Given the alleged role of journalism in (representative) democracy, shouldn’t we talk about empowered citizenries instead of focusing on labour issues affecting adepts of journalism?

    And, speaking of democracy, it’s funny how quickly the necessity of journalism may be associated with democratic processes. To hear journalists, journalism makes democracy possible. The democratic model these people have in mind is what we might call “checkbox democracy.” It’s not really about social politics or about egalitarianism. It’s about a process through which certain people are invested with “power” (in the Weberian sense). Once power has been distributed among certain people, it may occasionally shift, but it’s meant to be used in lieu of other social dynamics.

    Hearing disciples of journalism, especially those connected to “J-Schools,” it’s hard not to think that they view their role as one of telling citizens which political party should be in power. They do claim the opposite, often with a very critical attitude toward “The Powers That Be.” But this (in)famous model by which journalism is supposed to enhance “democracy” is so frequently left unexplained and unchallenged (as if it depended on an axiom of the journalistic credo), that it’s hard to take such “counterpower” claims seriously.

    Within this, there’s the “republican” idea (yes, “small ‘r’ republican”) that people are too stupid to think for themselves. The fact that a friend doing a master’s in journalism said exactly this isn’t as important as the not-that-ironic comments about the “mass of people” who are “content, deluded, or satisfied” with the entertainment model in opposition with “people who are really smart, really intelligent and care about these issues.” In other words, the journalistic worldview, whether or not is confronted with “real people,” is frequently revealed to be based on “differential intelligence.” Maybe not with journalistic priests at the top of a sort of “intelligence hierarchy.” But, still, with a notion that unlike entertainment, information is directed at “smart people.”

    It’s just sad that they keep associating information and knowledge.

  • Dear Alexandre:

    That’s a real contribution, starting with the line that the McChesney-Nichols conversation fixed more on the (largely self-inflicted) illness of an industry and its work-force, and less “a deep understanding of global changes pertaining to industries based on the transformation of information.”

    The anthropological/philosophical eye is overdue here. That is, I find myself having to start all over again in all the definitions that my newspaper years gave me — in answer to questions about, for example, “what is news?” Is universal hunger a news “item”? Is a fender-bender at Fourth and Main? What or who is a “news person”? What is “objective” news? What is the individual voice in reporting? What is the geography of news? local news? American news? human news? What is the right division of labor and authority between “reporter” and “editor”? What are the connections with truth? political wisdom? Virtue? Does it make sense to speak of news as a “profession”?

    Most of the answers to those questions that I heard on the job were constructs of a commercial monopoly system in print and broadcast “news.” And most of them are conspicuously wrong or irrelevant in the digital-global game that emerges, and is surely here to stay awhile.

    I shake my head when people (even Bob McChesney) tell me where “facts” and “news items” come from. The newspaper folks like to argue to the effect that 85 percent of the facts you know were dug up by a reporter. Yeah, I respond: like the largely newspaper-based and wholly erroneous “fact” that Saddam Hussein was behind 911, which roughly 70 of our country “believed.” Do the math: most of the people get most of their facts from the papers, and most of what they “know” is wrong.

    Most of twenty years’ experience with smart talk radio and now the Web tells me that people know vastly more (and differently) than we ever imagined. And they ever and always learned more from their kids and their cousins, their churches and their grocery checkout lines than they ever learned from the news industry. And even then, of course, a lot of what we all learn is “wrong.”

    So how, mon cher Alexandre, would you reconstruct the robust conversations still vital to free healthy human societies?

  • Sincere thanks, Chris!

    You’re giving me hope. The reason I was so enthusiastic about your work in this interview is that I perceived something of a shift from the more journalistic worldview to something much more self-aware. For someone which such a background as yours, it’s more than surprising. It’s reassuring.

    And, no, I’m not talking about generations. I’m reflecting on open-mindedness.

    You say:

    “I find myself having to start all over again in all the definitions that my newspaper years gave me — in answer to questions about, for example, ‘what is news?'”

    This is exactly what I was looking for. Of course, I know that “J-Schools” are full of people who debate those issues. But I have a very difficult time hearing new answers to those questions. I’m sure these new answers are voiced. But I haven’t heard them, from where I stand. I guess I should go to those institutions and ask people myself. But changes in the “medias” put forth a new model which is more conversational, using both “push” and “pull.”

    Honestly, this might be the first time I get those new answers. Or, at least, new ways to ask those questions. As with any philosophical issue, important questions generate more questions. Unlike “gurus,” those who discuss these issues refrain from making claims about what the answers might be. In fact, at the risk of going on yet another tangent, it all reminds me of Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual Development. If it didn’t sound dismissive, I’d say some people are kept in the “received knowledge” positions.

    Despite my tone in that previous comment, I do want to avoid being dismissive. I’m really not talking about people. I may talk about their actions and statements, but it’s mostly about a situation.

    Still in the personal tone: it took me a while to understand that a lot of people want certainty. Even if they maintain a rational doubt, they still want to move on from uncertainty into a sphere of actions.

    Iraq’s WMDs are a good case in point. The scientist’s position might be that these weapons’ existence or non-existence is left unproven. There’s no actual proof that there weren’t WMDs in Iraq at that time. There’s also little evidence that they were as dangerous what some key people were describing. We’ll literally never know how much of a threat the Iraqi head of state really was for the USofA. But we have lots of evidence to talk about the effects of a war in Iraq.

    In newsspeak, the notion of being “a trusted source” seems to be a hard-won currency. Advertising for news outlets use superlatives about “trusted sources.” Furthermore, some people in that field tend to put critical thinking on its head and say that it’s about finding the most trustworthy source. At least, that’s something we get in the “general public.” When it works, it makes it easy to say things like “if it’s in the New York Times, it must be true.”

    With all due respect to your former colleagues, Chris, such a sentiment seems to me contrary to what critical thinking is about.

    Building a reputation as a trusted source isn’t easy, of course. You need to write a book, go on a few talk shows, display an ability to think on your feet when Jon Stewart or Jay Leno throws something unexpected at you. You also need to get on the New York Times bestseller list. If you can pull off the trick of receiving a Nobel prize (any of them), you need not worry about anything else: what you say on any subject is taken as Gospel Truth by anybody besides your detractors. So, if you contributed something to the study of DNA, you’re also an expert on culture. And expert status is the goal, here.

    Of course, I’m being facetious. It’s my own strategy to put the “trusted source” frame in perspective.

    All of this keeps reminding me of what Janis called “groupthink.” If he had published his decision-making after the release of the September 11 commission and the onset of the Iraqi invasion, it could have used those events as the original case studies. We’re still left with those as textbook cases, quite literally:

    My personal answer to your last question, Chris, revolves around a pretty simple idea: people can be trained to think critically.

    It’s so personal that it’s something of a personal quest. But I also think it’s an appropriate strategy. And a task for which professional journalists can play a key role. If, as you did, they accept to take a step back and find new answers to age-old questions.

    For one thing, I really don’t think we need filters. We already have filters. They sometimes cloud our judgements. More commonly, they make it difficult to keep our minds open and understand how other people see their world. I especially don’t think newsmedia is “an excellent source of filters.” As filters go, I’d rather use the scientific method than journalistic means, even though I’m wary of reductionism of any kind.

    We can use dialogue, conversations, rapport, respect, intersubjectivity, shared understandings, and even true empathy. They’re not necessarily much more efficient tools to quickly get at Truth. But who says Truth is so easy to attain?

  • Thanks, Alexandre. Let’s stick with this.

    I liked your opening point that there’s a sort of parallel here with the music wars that were all the rage a decade ago.

    My “aha” moment in that zone was realizing (and blurting out at the Berkman Center) : wait a minute, guys and gals: music is ever and always not something that human beings own. Music is something we humans do.

    There might be a comparable theorem out there to the effect that news is not inherently something people get. It’s a frame of understanding in which people absorb and eventually learn. Or something.

    Trying to think like an anthropologist, XL.

  • jack

    A great show and a wonderful exchange entre Alexandre and Chris. The musical parallels fuzzy to me, but I’ll listen again and try and understand. The notion of thinking like an anthropologist re the the news reminds me of a certain James — Help me out, Alexandre — who anthropoliges the anthropologists. A wonderful writer out of UC SC, The History of Consciouscess project, I think.. Thanks for the show and for the exchange.

  • Glen S.

    Woah there, those “music wars” aren’t over. Maybe the industry would like you to believe that they’ve found a way forward, maybe they’ve managed to sell a bunch of “online music” but the fundamental problem is miles away from being solved. I don’t want to divert the discussion off journalism though, so I’ll leave it at that.

    I do agree that definitions are really important. In the US, journalists are a special class of people who are able to tell stories, that’s my take on the definition. We, as civilians, are supposed to be able to evaluate both the message and the messenger, though I believe the last few decades of education “reform” has made that very difficult. A journalist is someone who has access to “the story” in the sense that they are sent to locations, do interviews with people involved in certain situations, have a certain wider perspective of certain types of situations, etc. and -also- have access to readers/viewers/listeners viz. “the public”. That’s the key difference between commentators, columnists, bloggers, etc. and journalists, is that they need to be a medium between a direct experience with an event or situation and those of us who can’t have that direct experience, and both nodes must be directly connected to the journalist. They’re not “experts” in any sense other than the fact that they may have some perspective gained from their cumulative experiences, but even that has to be taken with a grain of salt. They are, in the end, storytellers, which is why we (the public) need to hear from several of them for any given event in order to have an informed picture. This is what’s so troubling about the lack of foreign bureaus and the cutbacks of journalists on the scene. Now what we’re getting is an aggregator doing all the critical thinking for us, and then sending out a single story spun through several networks, which does add a trivial degree of difference in output but the underlying story remains in tact.

    I do agree with Geertz that anthropology is a form of journalism, in the sense I’m talking about where anthropologists are really storytelling media who bring us a certain perspective on cultures we can’t connect with directly. It is incumbent on us, as “the public” to control the narrative, however. One anthropologist is never enough to base our conceptions of “the other” upon.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Ah, Chris!

    If I had had any input in your epiphany, I could say that “you make me proud.” Since I didn’t, I can’t. But this description about what you blurted out at the Berkman Center made me grin, ear-to-ear.

    You are indeed thinking like an anthropologist, in this matter. Not necessarily in the sense Glen has it (in connection with Geertz) but in the sense Omohundro has it:

    It’s actually the textbook I’m using this semester. If several of my students may end up making similar realizations, I’d be ecstatic.

    The reason I’m specifically so “proud” about the “music is what humans do” idea is that it’s something I’ve been trying to get people to discuss. In certain contexts, people seemed to think I was “missing the point” about the commercial value of music (Jacques Attali has fascinating things to say about this). In other cases, I received the whole “musicians have to eat” (without paying attention to the fact that very few people make a living through their music). And yet others (I’m especially recalling a conversation with geek icon Richard Stallman) don’t perceive that music ever was a commercial product.

    What it has to do with journalism is indeed a bit fuzzy. As Glen says, new business models haven’t been that effective, in the recording industry, and the notion that music is content that people can own (what we generally call “the commodification of music”) is even stronger than before. My argument is that we’re not only talking about similar events, with online transmission being blamed (wrongly, I’d argue) for the “problem.” We’re talking about a broader social change. From a long movement toward increased specialization and professionalization to a more fluid network structure in which roles are constantly negotiated, boundaries between amateurs and professionals blurred beyond recognition.

    In Glen’s description, I recognize the one argument that I can still buy about the relevance of journalism as a profession: access. Nichols and McChesney talked about something similar, in terms of resources, but they went directly to the details of journalistic practice, which are much harder to perceive as being exclusive prerogatives of “The Press.”

    The notion has been that, technically, anyone could be a journalist and, in the short history of journalism, it’s only recently that so many restrictions have been placed on who can be considered a member of “The Press.” It’s in fact one of the beauties of journalism, that practitioners came from all walks of life. Of course, the same is true of many “professions.” Literary history is full of law clerks (Kafka), engineers (Vian), and other authors with non-literary backgrounds. But journalism may have maintained a rather open recruitment pattern until more recently than other professions. Some might say that it’s easier to be hired as a journalist without having gone to J-School (or political science, etc.) than being considered a literary writer without having at least some background in literature.

    The effect of the journalism label, though, is quite specific. It allows some people to have, as Glen says, access to both “the public” and to some key resources, especially well-placed people within corporate entities. A huge strength that reporters have, apart from their sense of observation (which may not be as keen as that of members of a police force) is their list of contacts.

    Which is one of the lessons of the “Huis Clos sur le Net” experiment.

    I haven’t read the following but it seems to cover the bases of that experiment, in English:

    Of course, I have a lot more to say. Including about UCSC’s James Clifford as playing a part in the so-called “Crisis of Representation” in cultural anthropology and other ethnographic disciplines. In fact, there might be a lesson for journalism, in there.

    But I do have to leave. And it’s probably better if I let other voices be heard.

  • nother

    Musicians now make the majority of their money from playing live, that’s one reason ticket prices have gone up. But I don’t mind paying that price, I feel like it’s a direct connection to the artist. And the Internet now enables the musician to communicate (and market) directly with their fans thru facebook and twitter.

    Direct connection is what we yearn for, and blogging gets us closer to that. It enables the writer to blog in something closer to real time, and it creates space for their story to evolve over time in real time. As readers we are able to comment and respond on the same page (a nice metaphor) in rapid time – as opposed to a letter to the editor printed weeks later.

    And I agree with Glen S. about journalists being a “special class of storytellers.” I’m pleased that the illusion of objectivity is evaporating – a good story necessitates only the spirit of the truth as far as I’m concerned. Unless of course you know someone who has defined “truth,” cuz I haven’t. Now I find myself googling the storytellers I trust, the ones who feel authentic (as Potter put it), guys and gals like Lydon! And I don’t look to them as the voice of God, I look to them as simply people with the brightest torches. And I’m willing to sit through a commercial before I’m linked to their story…yet it will be better when we get to a point of the commercials being directed to our personal interests, so I don’t have to sit through Pamper spots.

    I recently came across a description of what a good documentary can be by the filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond – who goes on to say that it might apply to all art. Now I’m thinking it is apropos of journalism as well.

    “Documentary’s role is to try to build a dam, to hold back the waters a while and try to understand what’s going on, assess it. But to do this while the current is running…life doesn’t stop for it. So we try to create a tiny bit of meaning. With documentary, and maybe in art in general – it’s maybe in this sense that documentary is a work of art – when it tries to humanize just a bit more, humanity.”

    Methinks Journalism is at it’s best when it tries to “humanize just a bit more, humanity.” And in that sense, journalism at it’s best, is a work of art. Maybe.

    Here is the clip of Lafond saying the above:

  • jack

    James Clifford the fellow I was thinking of. Worth a look.

  • Along with George Marcus, James Clifford was the editor of the book which launched what we call the “Crisis of Representation” in ethnographic disciplines. The book, Writing Culture (1986), marked a turning point in the history of ethnography as it was associated with a process to rethink what it means to “put culture on paper.”

    Not that the book itself caused the «remise en question», but it’s a useful way to distinguish the “before and after” in cultural anthropology and other ethnographic disciplines. Some books are called “After Writing Culture” and it’s easy to use as something of an “end of innocence” moment in those fields.

    Before that time (and before work by Fredrik Barth), there was a tendency to treat “cultures” as bounded entities. Since that time, ethnographers have become much more adept at describing processes through which groups define their own fluid boundaries. Before Writing Culture, the legitimacy of representing culture from the outside was rarely challenged. In the 1990s, this challenge was so common that some scholars had difficulty justifying their own work to themselves. Writing Culture also coincided with the moment at which the “interpretive” anthropology of Clifford Geertz largely gave way to a form of “reflexivity” in which ethnographers were using themselves as research tools to the extent that some of them started talking more about themselves than about people with whom they worked. Through the “Crisis of Representation,” the concept of the “informant” has been thoroughly challenged way beyond terminology. Since then, a lot of ground has been covered in terms of collaboration between researchers and “members of the cultural context,” who are occasionally co-authors of the texts about those contexts. And those texts, the “ethnographies” or “ethnographic monographs” have been thoroughly analyzed for their literary character. Such literary devices as the “ethnographic present” (writing as if a practice were common at the time of the writing) have been contextualized. The distances between the research context and the writing context have been the object of intense reflection. Even the relationships between “subject” and “object” have been reassessed.

    What does this have to do with journalism? Plenty, in my humble opinion.

    Some things might be obvious, but I’ll still spell out a few.

    Journalism makes clear that the quest for Truth is distinct from the “telling.” And the effects of format on reports are well-known. In fact, the codes are so well-established that they are easy to parody, and Charlie Brooker can tell us How to Report the News:

    Similar to the ethnographic move to reflexivity, journalism has seen something of a move to self-reporting. Not only through an acceptance of subjectivity, but through a process which, in journalism, is associated with “personal branding.” Individual practitioners of journalism now represent themselves instead of representing media institutions. Or they get represented by agents.

    There are several other links, but some parts seem to be missing, from the perspective of those who went through the Crisis of Representation. I’ll pass on the “knowledge is power” issue which, in my mind, seems to inform social sciences more than journalism, to focus on things which could more helpful for journalism to grasp and use but may not have been widely understood.

    For instance, there hasn’t been that much of a journalistic «remise en question» of who’s allowed to speak for whom. For some disciplines of journalism, it makes perfect sense to dump foreign reporters in a field, regardless of whether or not there are locals who could report on the situation, including people with a broad experience in reporting. Obviously, there are several issues in this, including that of language. (Cultural anthropology was often associated with “cultural translation,” long before the “Crisis of Representation”…) And the notion of “Nation,” which could lead us to Benedict Anderson.

    In fact, the link between journalism and nationalism is among my own epiphanies, happening a few years ago and a few years after reading Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which sheds light on the deep links between nation-building and journalism. Part of Anderson’s argumentation may sound like a version of technological determinism, turned on its head. But I’m more interested in what can be done in terms of going beyond Nationalism and Journalism.

    A notion of “Nation” informs the ethnographic field of folkloristics. In a sense, this is one dimension through which the Crisis of Representation, as lived in folkloristics in the 1990s, could help the current journalistic crisis. But I’m thinking about something broader, as a nationalistic issue.

    It may sound to some as if I were playing with words. To them, the connection between “nations” and “Nationalism” isn’t so clear. I’d agree that it’s not a simple and direct connection. The term “nation” is often used in ways which seem opposed to some forms of Nationalism. But the very notion of a “nation,” whether or not it denotes a group of people with a common origin, would need to be problematized. As social constructs go, this is one which defines a historical period: the National Era. A time through which national identities have superseded other identities. A period which shifted power to not, “The People” but “representatives of the peoples.”

    This period is easily called “Modernity.” Something we associate with a few Revolutions: Industrial, American, French… And a period which might be coming to an end, giving way to the Post-Modern.

    Which actually ties back to the “Crisis of Representation.” In ethnographic disciplines, this crisis could be conceived as the form which Post-Modernism has taken, in close association with Post-Colonialism. If we have a view of History in which historical moments happen at different times and in different ways through different dimensions of life. The distinction between “Baroque” in music and in visual arts would bring about the same notion. In this case, “Post-Modern” in architecture, philosophy, and ethnography would differ in much of the same way.

    And we do keep this vision of history, a bit like Anthony Kwame Appiah’s notion of a “Golden Nugget” (of “Democracy”) moving across the World, the multicolour blob of Post-Modernity moves across worlds. We take part in a transition which is both Kuhn’s paradigm shift and Foucault’s episteme.

    And this transition is the context in which we’re having all of these conversatins about #FoJ: The Future of Journalism.

    So, to go back to Nationalism and Journalism.

    The notion of a “Nation” may be more significant in my mind because I come from a cultural context which has been deemed “nationalistic.” My description of this context is slightly different, though. The way I see it, it went from ethnicized “French-Canadian” nationalism to a much more open movement for Quebec sovereignty. Funnily enough, the political processes divide nationalists on both sides of the “national question” and bring anti-nationalistic advocates of open sovereignty with some nationalists. The joys of “representative democracy.”

    The fact that the publication for which Nichols works is called The Nation has a different on me than it might have to people in the US.

    What seems not to be a personal reaction, however, is the move from “-national” (including “international”) to “Global” (and, sometimes, “glocal”). With everything it represents in a shift in power from national governments to Global corporations. But also Global Warming (the need for Worldwide solidarity), Global inequalities, the “Global War on Terror,” and all the «sans frontières» (“without borders”) groups, which are still caught up in transnationalism along with refugees and immigrants but which can lead to a new concept if we take the terms seriously.

    Of course, there are other concepts going beyond Nations, Nation-States, and United Nations. Several of which pose difficulties for journalists. War of Civilizations, Imperialism, Orientalism, Internet…

    Journalism is often associated with “Democracy.” One might argue that the “democracy” supported by journalism is quite specific. For one thing, it’s clearly not a Global Democracy, since it would mean much more weight given to South and East Asia than to Euro-America, and journalism couldn’t have that. It’s not participatory democracy either, since journalism is founded on directionality (broadcast), somewhat similar to the one-to-many discourse of a Catholic priest. And, I would argue, it’s not that directly tied to power to the “demos” given the rather dismissive attitude displayed by so many practitioners of journalism.

    In this sense, Journalism and Nationalism are closely associated with a historical period which might end in the not-so-distant future. Maybe not in ten years or even in fifty years. In fact, there might be a resurgence of that pattern. For instance, national identity in South Africa replaced racial categories to the extent that expected forms of xenophobia and chauvinism took the place of the horrific discrimination known as Apartheid. In this sense, it’s hard not to think about nationalism as progress over colonialism. Yet, even at the political macrolevel, the World is changing in a large number of directions: transnational unions like the AU and EU, balkanization, decentralization, civil wars, etc.

    I’m sure political scientists and journalists alike have a lot to point to, in terms of comebacks of Journalism and/or Nationalism in the last twenty years (after the end of the Cold War, which seems to have taken them by surprise). But it’d be rather absurd to say that the current era is deemed never to end. It’d be like saying that we are at the onset of a period of Global Prosperity in which markets can only go up.

    Which can bring me back to the Crisis of Representation. This crisis began in the mid-1980s and raged on through the 1990s. Some ethnographers are still caught up in it but ethnographic disciplines have made their own resurgence. Not just because of figures like Mike Wesch and danah boyd, who become known to certain publics. But because social media is in line with the very core of ethnography as it developed in the meantime.

    Unlike journalism, social media needs not be dominated by national structures. It can easily go from the Global to the “hyperlocal” and back, within a few links. It also has more to do with participatory democracy than with political representation through governments and parties. From an anthropological perspective, social media is indeed a series of frames of understanding, instead of being about “news” that people get.

    In the end, it may all be about more than just writing the World.

  • @nother: Insightful comments!

    Lafond happens to be the spouse of our Canadian head of state. So, in a way, he’s the equivalent of Michelle Obama. What’s funny, though, is that he has been associated with the Quebec sovereignty movement I mentioned in the previous comment and he’s worked as something of a radio commentator. So he probably has interesting things to say about both journalism and nationalism.

    What you say about live shows is quite accurate, as far as I know. Although, it’s a bit hard to know if the situation is much different from what it has been for quite a while. Among professional musicians, a tiny percentage ever made their money from royalties on recordings. Of course, recordings have been quite important in the recent history of music, as Attali exposes so well in Noise and his more recent work on Globalization. But the fact that Rock and Pop “Stars” have moved from an album-focused business model to other models which give a lot less weight to their recordings shouldn’t detract from the fact that most musicians aren’t Stars.

    Among people with whom I play, there are several who do make a living through music. Some of them have played on albums which sold well but, as they weren’t the featured artists, the money they made wasn’t in the form of royalties. The situation has been pretty much the same for much of the history of sound recordings, with a tiny proportion of recordings by a tiny proportion of musicians make up for the overwhelming proportion of profits. In the late 1980s, a sound engineering trainee (and the owner of the French restaurant where I was working) was told that 95% of albums made my major labels carried a loss and that one album a year generated most of the profits for the likes of Sony Music. I didn’t search for these figures and they may be inaccurate, but they sound as if they were in-line with what several people have in mind, as a model. As you may have heard from Courtney Love’s math, even the most successful albums may not bring that much money to the musicians they feature. If I remember correctly, after everything is paid back (recording studios charge you for everything), members of a four-piece band selling an album which “goes platinum” may only make the equivalent of the average salary in the US. Of course, Courtney Love herself may have made more money than that and “Stars” have other revenue streams apart from albums. But the point is that recordings haven’t been the primary source of revenue of many musicians in the past. They are the main (though not the sole) source of revenue for the major labels, most of which are associated with other businesses.

    People with whom I play in Montreal and musicians with which I’ve worked in Mali tend to consider recordings as promotional items for their other activities. When, with Montreal-based Dakan, we recorded an album (thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts), much of the idea was to have something to sell at shows, get invited to festivals, etc. For several reasons, this album has yet to be released (we went through the studio a few years ago) and we keep thinking about it as something we would be able to use to reach the next step. The recording isn’t an end in itself.

    For the main musician with which I’ve been working, in Mali, sales of the more than thirty “albums” he recorded pale in comparison to what he gets from fans. I can’t remember if he was the beneficiary or if it was with another member of Mali’s hunters’ association, but I know that one musician was given a Range Rover by a fan. Duties on such vehicles are as expensive as the vehicles themselves so that gift is even larger than what it’d be in North America. One reason such gifts are made is that music serves to promote people, individually and collectively.

    Yes, music as a form of advertising.

    Something similar happens in the well-known case of Tecno-Brega, in Brazil. They let people copy the recordings and they get paid to do shout-outs.

    Congolese music uses a similar system and it’s possibly the most popular musical genre on the African continent.

    Point is, music isn’t content to be owned. Music isn’t a “content industry.” Why should journalism be?

  • Potter

    Thank you for a very good discussion. Mostly I love the questions arising which began with Chris’s in the interview: How do we get the news that does not want to be covered? How is the common narrative challenged? There were more wonderful ones posed in this thread. I agree that the questions may be more important than answers.

    I agree also with what Alexandre says above about the value of stories that come from sources other than news organizations, and with that, the revolt against mindlessly depending on certain/few filters :

    If journalism is about filters, may it be more important to allow people to build their own filters than to rely on self-appointed gatekeepers?

    That’s happening. I am learning to choose, who to trust. But we cannot avoid filters altogether.

    I agree with Glen S. above about journalists and why we need them ( as I was thinking of John Burns) – the whole paragraph in which he says this:

    They’re not “experts” in any sense other than the fact that they may have some perspective gained from their cumulative experiences, but even that has to be taken with a grain of salt. They are, in the end, storytellers, which is why we (the public) need to hear from several of them for any given event in order to have an informed picture.

    Reporting is about judgement, choices- which stories to tell, the sensibility, the underlying world view behind the telling. Journalists know how to write as well as tell a story.


    My personal answer to your last question, Chris, revolves around a pretty simple idea: people can be trained to think critically.

    I agree wholeheartedly. I am still learning. It feels good to keep the brain stretching. So if we think more critically, we can deal with the filters which cannot in any case be avoided. We have been so liberated with the internet. There is so much available. But also we need the curiosity and concern about the world – and to know that we each are a necessary part of it. Anyone else’s eyes, brain, heart in a faraway scene can connect to mine now more easily. And that someone could still be a professional “journalist”. We have access… the profession has the needed competition to excel… to offer something more or different or better.

    A healthy democracy does connect to good journalism but now, not that only. On the other end- an adequately informed public starts with education, acceptance of the responsibilities of citizenship and the work, the caring, to become well informed, to know, to understand the issues. Journalism may be failing us- but I think there are too many out here failing to inform themselves adequately… too busy, to lazy, too selfish. I hear them out there shouting. They seem the easy victims of demagoguery. I don’t know what we do about that.

  • Great discussion. It would be terrific if you rid yourself of the ridiculous term “testicular fortitude” from your vocabulary in relation to journalism in the future. It’s enough of a boys club as it is.

  • Ow! Tina, I’m sorry. I’d say I’m chastened, but that too would sound sexist or neurotic or mischievous… Thanks for your tone. XL

  • Lest we forget, feminism is among the rare ways out of the worldview dominant in journalism. Not exactly a crowbar to open people’s minds, but a baobab seed planted in a not too fertile ground.

  • nother

    I like that, Alexandre. I’d like to watch the Sunday morning talk shows more often, but if I wanted to spend all my Sundays with awkward 40 plus know it all white guys in bad shirts, I’d take up golf.

  • I speak as an author and ex-senior employee of the NYT Co property, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune. I’m a Brit, living in France, I’m 44.

    Here’s the good news for newspapers.

    Internet advertising doesn’t work – for anyone: publishers, consumers and mostly advertisers.

    Which is why it’s so cheap. Soon enough advertisers will wake up to the fact it has next to NO value. Full page, four color ads in print have impact on a readership spending 30-45 mins who have come in, via choice, paying for the privilige, via the front door/page. Most of the NYT’s c. 20 million unique visitors spend less than five minutes, even seconds, and come in via the side door. Advertisers will get over this internet advertising myth, not for all advertising (e.g search) but where the big bucks money is: corporate identity/ brand/advocacy advertising. So the model isn’t broken, it’s just in transition.

    If you don’t believe me, tell me the name of more than one advert you recall from your most recent visit to your most favoured news site. The pricing model has shifted from cost per thousand (readers), to cost per click, to cost per action and it will go to cost per transaction. Advertisers know they need not pay for eyeballs, but results only. And when they figure that out, they’ll be paying peanuts to the NYT Company who still struggle to increase digital revenues above 13% of total revenues, including In other words, it just IS NOT WORKING. Not for the publishers but neither for the advertisers, or, if you regard advertising as something useful, for the consumer.

    The bigger problem is the cultural shift in whether people place value on being broadly and well-informed (and not being DELUDED). It’s got bugger all to do with the Internet. If you’ve got $30 billion dollars a year to dish-out (which you haven’t), give it to your schools. If you want a prime example of deluded Americans, Bob and John have to be right up there.

    If you wish citizens to engage with serious journalism, here are a few pointers:

    If newspapers, or news organisations, want to prosper, they must put the word ‘new’ back into what they do. If there was one web site or newspaper that when we opened it, contained truth that we had NEVER heard of, seen, or read of before, we’d be there, we’d be paying and advertisers would want to be there alongside us. To say advertising is no longer linked to journalism is the sort of nonsense only journalists are able to discuss with a straight face (that and use of terms like “testicular fortitude”).

    Secondly, the NYT model of ‘objectivity’ is dead. People need to put their money on truth, not balance.

    Thirdly, mankind will always love narrative and STORY. Give us stories. Not complicated.

    Fourthly, virtually everything taught at virtually every J-School is redundant. Chris’ post on the LANGUAGE of journalism, who created it and when, says it all.

    Finally, let’s start talking about ‘a conditional information age’ (something I published an article on ten years ago or more now): what would could/should, happen, not what has happened.

    Lastly, Robert and John are good guys, intelligent and sincere, and dead wrong. What they are right about is the way most non-MSM info comes first from MSM. This is correct Chris, and there is lots of academic work out there that shows this, but so what? Most MSM info comes from PR people. News organisations need to take PR agencies out of the equation – there’s your 85-95% source, including WMD.)

    BTW: re. public broadcasting/NPR/NYT: the highly respected head of left to join NPR. I think she did this for a reason and the reason is where I started this post. Internet advertising is so much hot air. Advertising on it doesn’t work, and any pay barrier will fail.

    What will eventually change is how advertising on the Internet will eventually successfully work. That will come from agencies, publishers and designers, but we’re a long way from it yet.

    The danger is corporate inertia at companies like the NYT: their deep, pathetic, irresponsible fear of change; their avoidance of making the radical changes required; their belief that they, who created this mess, can solve it; their deep belief they are smarter than you. Editors and Managers, their total lack of imagination and ability to think beyond their legacy inheritances. They can’t tolerate the thought of anyone solving their problems other than themselves, they won’t roll dice on change projects. Google launch thousands of products, few come to being. The NYT did a share buy back at the top of its historic price range and bought a massive new HQ (which saddled them with enormous debt). The people in charge there are not competent. If change doesn’t come quickly you will lose the NYT and other great American institutions and the U.S.A. will be in very serious trouble. They have to act before it is too late. The demise of American journalism, if it happens, will be a self-inflicted and entirely avoidable wound.

  • Re Chris’ comment: I shake my head when people (even Bob McChesney) tell me where “facts” and “news items” come from. The newspaper folks like to argue to the effect that 85 percent of the facts you know were dug up by a reporter. Yeah, I respond: like the largely newspaper-based and wholly erroneous “fact” that Saddam Hussein was behind 911, which roughly 70 of our country “believed.” Do the math: most of the people get most of their facts from the papers, and most of what they “know” is wrong.

    Chris, do you have ANY data that shows the majority of American newspapers printed stories that said Saddam was behind 9/11? Secondly, do you have any data that shows that most of the roughly 70 percent of your country who you say believed Saddam was behind 9/11 (what is your source for that gem btw? MSM? A newspaper sponsored survey?) formed that opinion from newspapers, and not TV or talk-radio?

    I agree with you that most of the MSM agenda is set by PR agencies etc but I’m not sure the WMD example is the best one to illustrate this point, nor is it a refutation of the fact that most non-MSM do get their source info from MSM.

  • Michael

    There’s seems to be a piece missing. It surfaced somewhat in the Harold Evans conversation – the image of the crusty typesetter, or the local print-on-demand device at the corner store. Even with the paperless internet there’s the reality of the hardware/software – and those that have the knowledge to maintain and control it. We will never have a truly democratic platform until we all take an interest in the “operating” platform and not relegate it to some new world prejudice of “blue collar geekdom” It appears that the latest geek attack on world democracy came from academic institutions in China.

  • Bob

    The leftists want more taxpayer money to fund “journalism” – simply hilarious.