Kevin Anderson, at Strange Attractor, gives me a nice shout out about a comment I made on his site, and posts on it. So of course now I’ll post on his posting on my commenting on his posting…. and doubtless he’ll then comment on my posting on his posting of my commenting on his posting… You gotta love community and interactivity.
But I digress: Kevin’s post (and my comment) is about the dangers of mythologizing the past – that in clinging to an imagined past of great journalism and newspapers of paragons of public service we handicap ourselves as we try to build a new future.
There’s no question there was great journalism committed in the past; as there still is now. But viewing our profession through rose-tinted rear-view mirrors doesn’t help us adapt to the future, because nothing we can come up with will be as good as what we imagine our golden age to be. And so we cling stubbornly to the notion that we must recreate those glory days, or democracy and the world as we know it will end. Or something like that.
To be sure, there were some very good days – back when newspapers reaped monopoly profits, they could afford to expand their newsrooms and invest in deeper and more public-spirited reporting, and some did. That came with a trade-off, though; their size and market position meant that fewer other voices could be heard. That’s neither good nor bad per se – but all things come with pluses and minuses, and if we’re to be honest about understanding our business, we need to examine all sides clearly.
That’s not to say that myths have no redeeming value. We all need myths, and in so far as they push us to higher and better aspirations, they’re a good thing. More public spirited, public interest reporting? A good thing. Ideals about integrity and speaking truth to power? Ditto. It’s harder to motivate yourself to come to work to work for a double-digit EBITA margin and growing revenues in the all-important department store advertising category. So myths are good there – they remind us (and people in every profession, whether doctors, lawyers, accountants or marketing execs) what we got into this business to accomplish.
Where they go wrong is when they prevent clear thinking, both about the past and the future. If we dream of a golden age that never existed – or one that can’t be replicated – then we don’t knuckle down to building a better reality that doesn’t look as good.
Even worse is when they elevate and ossify newsroom practices into unchangeable traditions. As in: We can’t possibly do this or that because that goes against our entire core of our identity. Sometimes there are good reasons to shun a practice – probably not a good idea to have journalists write stories and sell advertising – but other times habit just gets in the way of learning and innovation. For example, it took years before journalists and journalism schools accepted the idea that we need to understand more about how our business works.
One of the best ways to de-mythologize our business is to make sure we understand our history better – we should all encouraging each other to read and discuss more media history. It’s sometimes astonishing how little we know about how we got here. There’s a fair amount of it out there, although admittedly not all of it is easy going. I confess I have a copy of Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media but haven’t started it yet. Michael Schudson, at Columbia University, also writes well on the subject.
In any case, we’ll never really escape mythology. We need it. But the best mythology is one that doesn’t place us at the center of it all – journalists as crusading loners, or whatever – but instead places the public, and information, at the heart of it. When we’re the key element in the myth, it’s hard for us to change. But if instead the myth is more about how the democratization of information, both via journalists and the public, will empower citizens and societies like never before (or whatever), it gives us a different target to aspire to. Whether completely true or not, that’s a mythology that will serve us – and the news business, and the public – much better.