Starr, Jarvis at Yale

A few more snippets of dialogue from the Yale conference. The optimistic digerati were most sharply attacked by Paul Starr, a Princeton academic who feels that enthusiasm for web journalism is out of control and obscuring the democratic damage being done by the disappearance of papers.

Living and working in New Jersey, he feels particularly strongly that the decline of papers (which, he notes, began well before the internet was ever a threat) has left local democracy badly damaged. He gets especially irritated by being told that is a harbinger of the future because, as a long-established online local news site it apparently makes money. That doesn’t mean that local democratic accountability is safe, he replies: baristanet is produced in Montclair, an upscale comuter dormitory for New York City – hardly typical Middle America, or even average New Jersey. And one business plan that works in the affluent north-east does not mean that journalism is saved. “There is a rot at the base of American democracy,” he said, “and we haven’t even begun to confront it.”

Starr got into a brief spat with Jeff Jarvis, unlikely to have been their first. But the direct reply to Starr came from the editor of the New Haven Independent, the local news website which gets philanthropic funding. He’s been a reporter for 30 years in New Haven and this is the best time he’s known for news; can’t keep up with the new starts. This conference, for example is being more fully reported than it could ever have been before. “All these reporters writing about the death of news are spending all their time in funeral parlours.” We know that foundation money won’t be around indefinitely. We’re planning. But he gave no details.

Jeff Jarvis, in his presentation, did his regulation-issue riff on how news is distributed, de-centralised and how value lies in links. If news is that important, it will find you. But then he said this: “Journalism becomes the business of adding value. it becomes a task and not a profession. Anyone can do act of journalism.”

The last statement is literally correct: anyone can act like a journalist. But is that how we define journalism? Adding facts to the pile? If journalism is about relaying stuff on which people can rely (i.e. it helps if its true) and perhaps about digging out hard-to-reach information, then it’s possible that some people, selected by aptitude, training and experience may be better at it than others.


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