Technology and journalism: shall we dance?

by Vincenzo Marinotranslated by Roberta Aiello

The New Republic and the dispute between technology and journalism

Two years ago, the 30-year-old Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes took over The New Republic with the declared intention to re-launch it as a «vertically integrated digital-media company.» Some days ago, after months of friction between the ownership and the editorial staff – which have two different ways of imagining the present and the future of the outlet – many journalists resigned following the removal of the editor Frank Foer and the recruitment of former Yahoo News executive Guy Vidra as the new CEO (on The Daily Beast there is the description of the crucial meeting, amid the tears and scenes «like the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.»)

From what was explained by Julia Ioffe, former author of the website, it has been clear that Hughes’ new course has not found a lot of success in the old newsroom. Ioffe speaks of it as «vague and full of Silicon Valley buzzwords.» There is the widespread fear that the newspaper could be transformed into a «new BuzzFeed.» On the other hand, Hughes has tried to defend his idea of The New Republic on the Washington Post – explaining that if he wanted «to chase traffic with listicles and slide shows» he would have done it. Nevertheless, in recent months, both he and Vidra have not spared criticism of the overly serious style of the outlet that has combined with the desire to change everything (including headquarters, to be moved from the capital to New York) giving the project an acceleration.

The episode has unleashed media critics (Choire Sicha of The Awl has collected 40 opinions on the topic, «from worst to best») and has gone back to the recent debate about the complicated relationship between technology and journalism. The discussion has put a new world – not always able to adhere to the traditional rules of publishing – and an older one – that has not yet found a way to survive in this scenario – one in front the other, although one of the causes for these mass layoffs is also due to personal reasons (a way of expressing solidarity towards the «disrespected» editor)*

From the outside, Emily Bell explained in an article entitled «Can Silicon Valley disrupt journalism if journalists hate being disrupted?» that this opposition seems like a war between stereotypes, among those who talk of «ideation» and «product development» against those who fear an inexorable moral and qualitative degradation of the profession. It is not so, Bell continues. There are also positive examples – Bezos and the Washington Post, Vox Media – and a scenario where the number of people who get news on the web continues to grow (according to a Pew study published in the past few days, the number of Americans who feel more informed thanks to the Internet continues to grow) requiring new forms of production and a different, professional culture. The problem of the dispute between «legacy journalism» and new startups (or worse, between paper and web) can no longer exist. It is necessary to find a way to unite these two cultures and create a new one, working in mutual respect.

The true guardians of the public conversation

Completely shifting the weight of efforts only to the technological side and ignoring the journalistic one is an approach that cannot work. Technology alone will not save the media says the CEO of the Guardian Media Group Andrew Miller. «We are about breaking news and strong stories and the idea that we will survive by becoming a technology company» in a market like publishing, in which you are working primarily on content, «is garbage.» One needs, Miller continues, to deal with platforms that behave like media (first of all Facebook, which is working a lot these days,) because of which «the old days of a newspaper owning the linear distribution from creation all the way to landing on the news stand has long gone.»

One example, above all, comes from an article by Simon Owens, published this week on NiemanLab. Until recently, with the launch of the iPhone and the iPad, many publishers were confident of being able to gamble on platforms that allowed adapting content on a mono-brand newspaper app to buy and read like they were newspapers or paper magazines. They were sure that they had found a safe and profitable distribution channel. This attempt, however, has failed miserably. There were aggregators, able to provide news (mostly for free) from multiple sources, forcing publishers to move their investments to such applications – exemplary in this regard is the case of The Daily, launched as the first newspaper for iPad and closed after a few months, or the agreement between historic media like the New York Times and the application Flipboard.

«The era in which a handful of magazines were the effective gate-keepers for an entire national conversation is gone,» Andrew Sullivan writes on his blog. Writers and editors «live with a perpetual sense of foreboding, which leads to plummeting self-confidence in their own work,» says George Packer of the New Yorker in an article entitled «The real crisis of journalism». A sort of cupio dissolvi (death wish) has caused newsrooms to decide to stay away from the new, like rats afraid of cats, or – the opposite – to «overestimate the new digital enterprises, or the new rich owners of the old digital companies» (as discussed here) even without long-term projects or concrete results. and the boat in the sea of news

One way to think of a new journalism, without structural inheritance or ideological battles between the old and the new, comes from the «core values» of the new project presented this week by Andy Carvin on Medium. We are talking about, which is related to First Look Media (the group of eBay CEO Omidyar) and will start in a few weeks. The concept at the heart of the project is what Carvin calls «native journalism» which means bringing journalism to places of discussion, opening stories and news construction to users. In a nutshell, this means extending what Carvin and his team (Malachy Browne of Storyful, the Italian Marina Petrillo, the programmer Asteris Masouras, Kim Bui of Digital First Media, and radio presenter Wendy Carrillo) have individually done in recent months. This is telling news and events on social networks – from Twitter to Reddit – relying on the experience of storytelling gained in the field and the network of contacts that has developed. reproduces the «disc jockey of the news» theme, dear to Carvin, in which the center of the stage is reserved to the story, without the need to act as a newswire or postpone everything to a website (which will be built later, as a simple hub).

The most interesting aspect of the project, according to Mathew Ingram of GigaOM, is the idea of working on the news as an ongoing process, without taking advantage of the social platforms as a means of launching content, but to be a point of reference for those who want to participate in the story actively, making journalism regardless of professional background, working with filters and connections.

There are risks, however, and this week Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed speaks precisely of the alarming growth of the «Online Vigilante Detective» (of which Sam Biddle of Gawker has analyzed the purely aesthetic side) as an extreme form of what in the year 2000 was called citizen journalism, based on the obsessive search for conspiracies and not very well founded reconstructions. Practical examples were the posts published on Reddit following the Boston Bombing, which identified the wrong bomber. On the other hand, Warzel continues, whenever such events are told on the Net – by professionals or others – the understanding that the traditional media do not have a monopoly on the news anymore becomes clearer. «It’s time for the press to start guiding readers through the sea of information – and stop pretending there’s only one narrative.»

*= For a complete and balanced report, the resigning TNR have also been accused of leaving the newsroom, only now, and for internal reasons, and not in the past, when the outlet hosted controversial allegedly racist content.