Reinventing the press

A generation ago the New York Times was for most Americans, and for a large foreign readership, the final arbiter of the news that was “fit to print.” Its prestige gave Daniel Ellsberg decisive leverage when he leaked the Pentagon Papers. Since then journalism has suffered a sea change. When Julian Assange wanted WikiLeaks’ documents to cause maximum embarrassment, he placed much of his most damning evidence online, recognizing that this would ensure global notoriety and make later collaborations with the Guardian and the Times more consequential, not less. Edward Snowden, the latest high-profile whistleblower, shared his information with a blogger and documentary filmmaker — a sure sign that the traditional press no longer has a monopoly on public trust, especially when handling incendiary stories that governments would like to suppress.

We have become accustomed to near instantaneous news coverage as broadcasters with global reach document the latest natural disaster or act of war. The power to deliver information at this speed is impressive, but it may be the least important aspect of serious journalism. What the WikiLeaks and Snowden disclosures have shown is that the new media landscape has started to come of age, and it has learned the deliberative processes that distinguish professional reporting from mere infotainment. In the last few years the line between a conventional press and online journalism has narrowed considerably, and many bloggers are now capable of interpreting complex stories like the current surveillance scandals.

Several wealthy internet entrepreneurs have noticed opportunities in  the new media landscape and they have begun to support a long-awaited return to content-rich public interest journalism. Last year, Chris Hughes, the cofounder of Facebook bought The New Republic, a prestigious political magazine. Earlier this year, the CEO of Amazon bought the Washington Post for $250 million. (As some noted, the Post cost Jeff Bezos about one per cent of his private fortune, so in relative terms he acquired one of America’s iconic newspapers for a song.) Two weeks ago another tycoon stepped into the fray. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay — after passing up a chance to buy the Washington Post — announced a $250 million startup that would support and empower independent journalists “across many sectors and beats.” His collaborators will include Jeremy Scahill, a leading American investigative journalist, as well as Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras — the blogger and filmmaker whom Snowden approached.

Omidyar told National Public Radio he felt it was “absolutely critical that we have journalists holding government to account, bringing attention to stories that may be overlooked.” Asked why someone from a business sector that had caused so much disruption to traditional journalism should want to help reinvent the press, Omidyar replied that “rather than looking backwards at old business models that we wished still existed, we’re looking forward … It’s a time for independent journalists to make their mark [and] we’re going to create an entity that helps drive that forward.”

A decade ago, Jay Rosen, one of the most perceptive media analysts, recalled a meeting between former Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, and the editorial board of the Kansas City Star. (Disney had acquired the Star when it bought ABC in 1996.) The board asked Eisner whether Disney intended to sell the newspaper and he said no, explaining that his company preferred to acquire businesses rather than sell them. He declined to comment on the newspaper itself, saying that it was beyond his competence to do so. A year later Disney sold the Star, and two less well-known local papers — even though they remained profitable. Rosen wasn’t surprised: “Newspapers were about the prosaic, the real and the local. Disney was about the fantastic, the imaginary, the global. It wasn’t a hard decision.” Rosen was prescient about the trend towards “Absolute Commercialization” in the media landscape, particularly as media companies that had failed to master the new technology used their deep pockets to buy up younger companies which had. He noted that: “We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media.”

The sudden injection of so much Silicon Valley money into refurbishing old media companies and financing startups with serious journalistic ambitions is a promising sign that digital journalism has grown up. But it remains to be seen whether it can stand the test of time, and whether it can do so without furthering the absorption of the press — an independent group that insists on facts, and asks hard questions – into the media corporations who control so much of the world’s news today.

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