Reporting—meaning the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience—is a distinctive, fairly recent invention. It probably started in the United States, in the mid-nineteenth century, long after the Founders wrote the First Amendment. It has spread—and it continues to spread—around the world. It is a powerful social tool, because it provides citizens with an independent source of information about the state and other holders of power. It sounds obvious, but reporting requires reporters. They don’t have to be priests or gatekeepers or even paid professionals; they just have to go out and do the work.The Internet is not unfriendly to reporting; potentially, it is the best reporting medium ever invented. A few places, like the site on Yahoo! operated by Kevin Sites, consistently offer good journalism that has a distinctly Internet, rather than repurposed, feeling. To keep pushing in that direction, though, requires that we hold up original reporting as a virtue and use the Internet to find new ways of presenting fresh material—which, inescapably, will wind up being produced by people who do that full time, not “citizens” with day jobs.
Journalism is not in a period of maximal self-confidence right now, and the Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence. They have got the rhetorical upper hand; traditional journalists answering their challenges often sound either clueless or cowed and apologetic. As of now, though, there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing. As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.
I thought journalism, as Glenn Reynolds says, was something you do, not something you are? Well, calm down. Lemann did say journalists were a distinct class, yes, but he also said the way one becomes a member of that class is by doing journalism — not having a degree or a press pass.
I think he’s right, and that his argument is right, too. By and large, the Internet — including blogs — reacts to stories and the way full-time journalists tell them. But very little important news is broken or even routinely reported on the Internet. I don’t think it will be soon, either. The MSM deserves to be teased, pilloried even, but rumors of its demise are quite premature. Yet the function of media blogging is a very useful one, and bloggers have nothing to be embarrassed about in that regard. Keeping the mainstream media, which have a sunk and valuable investment in the equipment and staff to report news, honest is the epitome of freedom of the press.
And… one more thing. That sunk investment is worth a lot, but one thing it doesn’t do any more is provide a monopoly for the one thing that used to really matter: The ability to publish. That means that, eventually, Internet-based publications can, and really will, compete with the legacy press in reporting and breaking stories. And there’s no better way to keep the media honest than that.