News – of the investigative journalist variety that helped launch Nixon to even greater fame – has been said to be the real casualty of the development of amateur news. I’ve heard this argument several times over the last few years, but a recent article captures the sentiment best:
But the real problem isn’t that newspapers may be doomed. I would be severely disheartened if I was forced to abandon my morning ritual of sitting on my deck with a coffee and the papers, but I would no doubt get used to burning out my retinas over the screen an hour earlier than usual. As Nation columnist Eric Alterman recently argued, the real problem isn’t the impending death of newspapers, but the impending death of news — at least news as we know it.
What is really threatened by the decline of newspapers and the related rise of online media is reporting — on-the-ground reporting by trained journalists who know the subject, have developed sources on all sides, strive for objectivity and are working with editors who check their facts, steer them in the right direction and are a further check against unwarranted assumptions, sloppy thinking and reporting, and conscious or unconscious bias.
This discussion has the same underlying fear that we see in educational reform: but how can people be informed without experts? Can amateurs do what experts do? Can society function without any sense of privilege applied to certain “keepers and disseminaters” of information? It’s a tricky question. First, it assumes that knowing in abundant information environments can be managed by the same model as knowing in scarce information climates. Secondly, it assumes that it’s an “either/or” question, not one with gradients. Thirdly, it assumes that most people won’t figure things out on their own without some type of guidance.
Somehow, we must retain the value of expert-levels of knowing while facing the reality that knowing is increasingly networked, with reduced prominence applied to experts (i.e. the expert becomes a node among others, not the central hub).