Rosenbaum-Jarvis spat over future of journalism

by on November 13, 2008 · 17 comments

This catfight between Ron Rosenbaum of Slate and Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine about the future of journalism in the Internet Age is quite a heated affair. But what I found most interesting about it is that it reflects one element of the Net “optimist — pessimist” divide that I have been writing about here recently. Specifically, it touches on the divide over whether the Internet and digital technologies are reshaping the media marketplace and the field of journalism for better or for worse.

Rosenbaum is playing the pessimist role here and asking some sharp questions about the advice being dished out by “Web futurists” and “new-media gurus” as it relates the reversing the decline of the journalism profession. Rosenbaum says that the problem with Jarvis is that:

he’s become increasingly heartless about the reporters, writers, and other “content providers” who have been put out on the street by the changes in the industry. Not only does he blame the victims, he denies them the right to consider themselves victims. They deserve their miserable fate — and if they don’t know it, he’ll tell them why at great length. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s virtually dancing on their graves.


Jarvis — a quintessential Net optimist if their ever was one — responds with his usual flare and says that all he is doing is “holding journalists responsible for the fate of journalism” and trying to show them and industry a better path forward. Then he goes after Rosenbaum as follows:

He whines and prefers to mock me for going to conferences, advising news companies, and teaching journalists (helping to train more of them, not end up with fewer of them). I’m not sure what he’d rather have me do: Sit in my room and mope, sitting shiva for the past? Refuse to discuss the future of journalism? Tell newspapers when they call asking for brainstorming to fuck off and die? Would that be in solidarity with my hack brethren who did too little to transform journalism in the last 13 years of the web?

Like I said, it’s a heated affair and I’m sure it will continue. Just to throw in my own 2 cents… As I pointed out a few days ago in my essay about why I am a “pragmatic optimist“:

I believe the era of traditional Mass Media is coming to an end, but “professional” media institutions and creators continue to play a vital role in the creation, aggregation, and dissemination of news, information, culture, and entertainment. The Internet, however, will force gut-wrenching changes on traditional media institutions and some of the more vital ones (ex: daily local newspapers) will struggle to re-invent themselves, or may wither away entirely. And I believe that “professional” journalism faces very serious challenges from the rise of the Internet and user-generated content, but I also believe that hybrid forms of news-gathering and reporting are offering society exciting new ways to learn about the world around them.

Having said that, I am somewhat sympathetic to the critique Rosenbaum sets forth in his piece. I have always enjoyed Jarvis, but sometimes his writing (like that of many Pollyanna-ish Net optimists) gets a bit tedious in blaming the disintermediated individuals or industries for not seeing what was coming. The fact is, the Internet has caught us all off-guard and few of us could have predicted, or planned for, the sweeping changes it has ushered in.

  • MikeRT

    The mainstream media has for too long acted like a combination of a propaganda ministry for the political left and entertainment outlet. The days of hard-hitting investigative journalism are largely over, it would seem. It still appears in niche outlets, but in general the mainstream media is either biased to the point of ruining such reporting, or doesn't dig deep enough.

    The media has also refused to take advantage of modern web technologies. I can't even begin to count the number of times that I've found a reference to an article that was pulled a few months after being posted to a newspaper website. I refuse to believe that their costs are so high that they cannot leave up all of their content, indexed on Google and other search engines. It makes no business sense, since they cannot be used as a reliable source of information.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Over at the American Journalism Review site, The Washington Post's Paul Farhi has a sharp essay that is directly relevant to this discussion:

    For decades, newspapers enjoyed what economists call a “scarcity” advantage. In most cities, there was only one outfit that could profitably collect, print and distribute the day's news, and it could raise prices even as it delivered fewer readers each year. Indeed, monopoly daily newspapers enjoyed enormous profit margins – sometimes as much as 25 percent or more – until very recently. But the scarcity advantage has faded; the Internet has essentially handed a free printing press and a distribution network to anyone with a computer.

    The real revelation of the Internet is not what it has done to newspaper readership — it has in fact expanded it — but how it has sapped newspapers' economic lifeblood. The most serious erosion has occurred in classified advertising, which once made up more than 40 percent of a newspaper's revenues and more than half its profits. Classified advertisers didn't desert newspapers because they disliked our political coverage or our sports sections, but because they had alternatives. Craigslist and eBay and dozens of other low-cost and no-cost classified sites began gobbling newspapers' market share a few years ago. What they didn't wipe out, the tanking economy did. During the first half of 2008, print classified advertising nosedived more than 25 percent, as withering job, real-estate and auto listings erased $1.8 billion in revenue from newspaper companies' books. Newspapers have been uniquely hurt — television never had classifieds to lose.

    Make sure to read the whole thing.

  • WSA

    An interesting model for the future of news reporting might well deviate entirely from the traditional “newspaper” model and move into a model more closely resembling a “law firm.” Take the Politico, for example. Reporters who respect each other, who readers respect, and who represent various specialties can become partners in a “news reporting firm,” maintaining their standards on a self-policing, and reputational basis. Seriously, might this not be a better way of presenting news than an agenda-setting editor-in-chief?

  • Danny L. McDaniel

    It is no where as bad as you describe. It is similiar to Ckicken-Little crying the sky is falling. The electronic gadgetry is here to stay but what are all the 20 somethings going to do when they get to be 40 somethings and all those little screens are hard to read? Their only recourse will be eye glasses and newspapers. Newspapers will be around the next one hundred years, right along with the liquid cooled, internal-combustion, piston engine.

    Anyway, with the economy in the sad shape that it is in newspapers maybe the only sourse of information the average citizen can afford.

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

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