Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Journalism, Lamentable and Otherwise (Herein of "Curation")

Mrs. B and I  were chatting at lunch yesterday about the lamentable state of mainstream journalism and the possible alternatives, if any. We were wondering if perhaps mainstream journalism is no worse than it was a couple of years ago, but more easily discredited because more exposed, more subject to instructive criticism.  

Criticism by whom?  Why, the blogosphere, of course.  All those people who really cannot imagine why Thomas Friedman and David Brooks get a steady paycheck and a bully pulpit for purporting to expound on topics that the critic might (no snark here) very well be able to expound upon better.

Which moves the spotlight to the other side of the stage, with a more provocative proposition: maybe journalism is in many ways getting better--more room for more voices, letting a hundred digital flowers bloom, you actually generate a lot of really interesting stuff.  It may be more than lucky accident that the New York Times gives Krugman a platform, surely far more remarkable that Glenn Greenwald gets so powerful a megaphone--surely in an earlier time he would have been relegated to some lefty backwater.  Or the really extraordinary range of semi-journalists, never quite rooted in the old school, busy defining a new home of their own--I think of Josh Barrow, David Weigel, Felix Salmon, David Frum, Dan Froomkin, Doug Henwood, Bruce Bartlett, Ezra Klein, etc., with apologies to the near-numberless voices I have forgotten to include.  And how is one to classify the really original and ingenious bloggers like Barry Ritholtz, Steven Ray Waldman, Daniel Davies, Noah Smith?

Well yes, says Mrs. Buce, but don't you want some form of curating here?  With a hundred flowers blooming, how do you know which to pick?    She's got a point but  there are responses.  For one, you could say that with old-school media, the curating is precisely what they got wrong (yes, I'm looking at you, little Freddie Hiatt).  Second, the new digital potentates--Huffpost, Daily Beast, do a kind of curating and it may be a disputable point whether too much or too little.

Third, there are any number of other improvisational curators.  I get my daily dose pre-gummed and pre-salivated from The Browser which is somebody's guess of what is worthwhile.  I frequently click on links from Longform or ProPublica.   And I skim half a dozen daily newsletters, from foreign policy through banking to bankruptcy, all curation of a sort.  

In the end, of course, this is a game nobody can win.  You have to delegate the job of selection. But once you delegate, it's an agency problem: you're subject to the whims and prejudices of the delegatee.  Perhaps the best we can said is that for the moment we live in a kind of sweet spot.  Old-fashioned curators--Times/Post/WSJ, suffer(ed) from too much of a bully pulpit, too easy to dominate, with too much power to exclude.  Grant that these days a huge chunk of the audience will never turn the dial away from Roger Ailes. Still, for a remarkable chunk of the audience, there may never have been a better time to be a news consumer: illimitable amount of stuff, quasi-illimitable range of sluices and channels, a genuine possibility for constrained and intelligent choice.  Can't last, of course, good things never do.

Anecdote: In my morning news feed, I see a summary (with links) of a new proposal on what to do about Cyprus.  The authors are longtime sovereign debt guru Lee Buchheit at Cleary, Gottlieb, and Mitu Gulati of Duke Law School. Their proposal comes in the form of a paper published at the Social Science Research Network,the number one Serengeti watering hole for policy wonks of all stripes.   Where this lies on the continuum between scholarship and journalism--and what it says about curation in the news biz--are questions I am just beginning to sort out.

Etymological Footnote:  Curious word, "curate."  Without hitting the books, I assume it is cognate with  Κύριος and Κυρία, (Old fashioned? Formal?) forms of address for "Mr." and "Mrs." in modern Greek. Also "Kyrie," as in "Lord have mercy on my soul."  Also "curia regis," the king's court.  But not the same as "cure" in what you do to a patient or a parishioner or a ham (cf. "care").

Update:  David shows me that I could have saved myself a bunch of time if I just read SlateCf. link, link (could be my unaccountable unwillingness to read Matt Yglesias, about which I really must speak to my therapist).


Dave said...

Curate: my pre-Google intuition is the opposite: care of the flock exactly. Oh, looks like Google agrees...

Davis X. Machina said...

Before antibiotics, as my history of Greek medicine prof said, there was surgery, and there was nursing, but there was no actual medicine.

For most of human history, "curing" someone meant nursing them, while they healed themselves