Fast Forward: Journalism

Fast Forward: Joe MandeseJournalists like Tom Wolfe were becoming celebrities and getting rich on book and movie deals, while others like Hunter S. Thompson were simply having fun.

I have a confession to make. Journalists are smug and self-righteous. We think that what we do for a living is important, and makes a difference. That the world could not possibly function properly without us. That consumers will be duped. That bad guys will get away. That democracies will crumble. We're about to find out.

One of the casualties of the shifts taking place in the media economy may be the kind of journalism that has informed and influenced Western Civilization for the past century or so. Big journalism organizations that depended on an abundant and free-flowing print and TV advertising marketplace appears to be collapsing, or at the very least, trading "analog dollars for digital pennies." They are the organizations that journalist and author David Halberstam once referred to as, The Powers That Be. Others have called them the Fourth Estate - the one that was necessary to counterbalance the religious, industrial and government estates that would otherwise rule a corrupt and unlighted world.

That sounds about right. It was noble aspirations like that that made me want to be a journalist in the first place. Like many of my peers growing up in the post-Watergate era, we emulated Woodward and Bernstein, revered The New York Times, and gushed over the great, expository magazine journalism published by Harper's, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Journalists like Tom Wolfe were becoming celebrities and getting rich on book and movie deals, while others like Hunter S. Thompson were simply having fun. All in all, it looked like a pretty good gig.

In retrospect, that may have been the high-water mark for my profession. In the decades that followed, the esteem associated with the journalism profession has faltered. Once-vaunted newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post got caught up in scandals of plagiarism and faulty reporting. And then came the Internet's double whammy: First migrating the audience for professional journalism from paid printed to free online sources of news; then spawning a legion of "citizen" or quasi professional journalists that blurred the line, and the practice, in a way that may have finally killed it.

Former Time Inc. editor Walter Isaacson has been making the case for a new online "micro payment" model for journalism. A plan that has been echoed by Wired editor, and Longtail author Chris Anderson in his new book, Free. Or, Steve Brill, who is once again pushing an online subscription model.

"Despite all of your accomplishments, one byproduct of the new world you have helped to create has to be fixed, and has to be fixed now," Brill told a roomful of online publishers during a keynote at the recent OMMA Publish conference in New York. If not, he said, "Solid, independent journalism," the kind that society depends on for "accurate, honest information that they need to make decisions, will simply disappear."

Brill's hope is to preserve a paid subscription model via a new company, Journalism Online, that will be for quality journalism what was for books, or Apple's iTunes was for music: A convenient, centralized way for consumers to access and buy the content they want.

I hope it works. But even as Brill was delivering that message to online publishers in New York, halfway around the world, a community of citizens were using online publishing to spread information and influence society in a way that the journalistic elite like Brill claim only the professionals can achieve.

"I wouldn't know a twitter from a tweeter, but apparently, it is very important," Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told the international press last month after Iranian micro-bloggers used Twitter to fuel protests against some of Iran's ruling governmental and religious estates.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that professional journalism is important, and does make a difference. But I also believe that new communication and publishing technologies are also enabling people to make their own differences. I just hope we can co-exist.

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