The Postmodern Journalist

by Terry Heaton

July 30, 2012

man scanning the horizonAs I wake up each morning and scan the news and information horizon, it's hard not to notice that things are remarkably different today than they were when I was young. I'm sure every generation has made this claim, but just stop to consider the stunning changes brought about by technology in the last 30 years alone. It's vastly more than simply the culture "advancing," however, and I've attempted to chronicle that in these essays.

A new cultural era has dawned in the West: the post-modern era, and the journalists who chronicle both its everyday occurrences and its life-altering events will themselves be different than their modern era counterparts. This new era, call it postmodernism, post-Christian, postcolonial or something like "the second Gutenberg wave," is driven not from the top but from an empowered bottom, and if we're going to understand what's taking place around us — and more importantly, where it's going — we need to step back and analyze what's happening.

postmodernismModernity, with its hierarchies and representative institutions, has its roots in Gutenberg's invention of moveable type as a means for interested (and usually wealthy) parties to easily distribute ideas and concepts to the masses. In Western Europe, where America has its roots, this blew away the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the premodern institution that ruled the land by keeping its source of knowledge and authority — the Bible — to itself and only sharing it with those rulers and noblemen who supported Rome. Gutenberg slowly undercut that authority by making the knowledge of the priests available to everyone, which then gave way over time to new hierarchies.

The printing press influenced every institution of humankind, from government to religion to medicine to the law to business and even the academy. If you're involved in any way with an institution that has top-down governance, chances are it's a product of the modern world and its industrial age. Postmodernism, therefore, is what we're confronted with today, because it's "post" or "after" modernity, and one of its biggest, most controversial shifts is again in power, control and authority. People may have always complained about "the top," but what's different today is their ability to do something about it, and this is nothing short of revolutionary (e.g. Arab Spring). It's the fruit of a second Gutenberg moment, the ability of everyday people to distribute knowledge and information without going through an institutional third-party "middleman." Jay Rosen calls it "The Great Horizontal," and I like that highly descriptive phrase.

So what's got my attention about this today?

Mike CavenderMy friend and colleague, RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender, has penned an interesting reaction piece to recent Gallup research regarding confidence in TV News ("Americans' Confidence in Television News Drops to New Low"). His view is that the entire Gallup survey demonstrates a growing cynicism today about all institutions, not just TV News. What he's talking about in actuality is the postmodern cultural shift, only he doesn't necessarily view it as such.

Between the lagging economy, high unemployment, constant gridlock in Washington, sex scandals in our churches, and myriad other depressing daily events, itís no wonder that a lot of folks simply can't find reason to be very positive about what lies ahead. And that negative outlook can easily breed cynicism about the institutions that are central to our lives. Remember the old saying, "A pessimist is rarely disappointed." People have experienced too many disappointments lately and, so, the lack of confidence can be seen almost as a defense mechanism against further letdowns.

Mike's a journalist and a seeker of truth, and his conclusions are spot on. There IS great cynicism in America today. There ARE a lot of dissatisfied people. To Mike and most other conventional thinkers, the institution itself needs to provide hope (again), which is an understandable perspective. I would argue, however, based on my view of the culture shifting, that this is actually impossible. The institution needs to be rebuilt entirely, because it is a modernist-based hierarchy trying to survive in a postmodern culture. Its solutions, therefore, can only go so far, because each must also include the protection and furtherance of the institution itself. As Clay Shirky so wonderfully put it, "institutions will always try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." In a postmodern world, this is suicide, because the people will revolt against any such notion. It's simply too self-serving.

You can argue with me, if you wish, but the whole Gallup Confidence Series is evidence of something much bigger, something that isn't going away. Those numbers will keep diving southward until something comes along to replace these anachronistic institutions. I call it the shift to postmodernism, and the defensive posturing today of each of the institutions Gallup surveyed — organized religion, the medical system, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the public schools, the criminal justice system, newspapers, TV news, organized labor, banks, big business, HMOs and Congress — evidences the understandably negative perspective of those being disrupted. We're going to be experiencing some very difficult years ahead as this transition plays out. The old won't give way easily. Each of the institutions referenced by Gallup will continue to defend its turf, and each will ultimately fail, because it's not the work of institution that's corrupt; it's the self-serving structure of the institution itself.

The needs of the people are different than the needs of the institution.

This is not so much intended to be an indictment of the status quo as it is a simple call to open one's eyes when making decisions about one's future. The hardest time to bear witness to "big" is when you're in the middle of it, which is why historians have it made. Journalists aren't so lucky, and much of what we're experiencing today in our profession is the clash of this transition. Postmodern journalism will most assuredly win out — and it may well seem like chaos in the process — but it's already possible to get a glimpse of what this will look like downstream.

I first wrote of this ten years ago. A "Pomo" is a member of the postmodern age. Younger people are more "pomo" than their parents' generation, but we're all pomo to one degree or another. The following is from my 2002 essay, "A Postmodern Wake-up Call:"

I also wrote that stations should spin off their news departments as wholly-owned subsidiaries, so that so-called "content companies" could be the authors of their own distribution fate. This would have helped some traditional companies from being encircled by well-funded Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who function to provide a new infrastructure for traditional media content. Our brand obsession has played right into the hands of tech companies, thank you very much.

Just as journalism itself will be different in the postmodern world, so will the people who create it. The postmodern journalist: what will he or she be like? What characteristics will shape this future breed. Many are obvious and some are actually in practice today. Here are eleven characteristics that I define as postmodern or that use the thoughts and tools of postmodernism:

  1. He "lives" his beat — The postmodern journalist is a specialist in his beat and is so embedded in that beat that nothing takes place within it that doesn't have his awareness. By fully embracing a beat in this way, his brand grows and along with it the trust of his readers or viewers.

  2. Her personal views are known and stated, and her arguments are shaped by them — She is known by her point-of-view and accepted for it. Her coverage is more provincial than metropolitan, and she often strives for the betterment of the people of her beat and beyond. She moves freely within the community, because she is not recognized as a threat to anything but wrong-doing.

  3. He outputs in real time and in the world of finished media — The postmodern journalist works from a home base but participates in all forms of distribution. To quote Dave Winer, he IS his feed, which contains both elements of stories and finished stories together. This is to accommodate the growing number of curation and aggregation devices that put news "content" in the hands of readers, viewers or users.

  4. She participates in the life of her beat — Not to be confused with #1, this characteristic involves being more in her chosen community/issue than just an observer. She is recognized by those within her beat, because she is a part of its heartbeat and lifeblood. She may even go so far as to receive financial remuneration from elements within the beat. She is unafraid of appearances of impropriety, because she is transparent in all of her doings.

  5. He strives to be fair to everyone, including his readers — The postmodern journalist is obsessed with fairness as a cornerstone of his work. While maintaining a unique perspective, he is not afraid to include those who disagree with it. He doesn't make an artificial attempt at "balance," but he acknowledges, through his work, that the beat or community is comprised of various positions.

  6. She swiftly and skillfully deconstructs the narratives presented to her — One of the great gifts of postmodernism is the practice of deconstruction — the ability to provide critical analysis of opposing views (e.g. Rosen's "he said/she said" journalism practice) by taking apart the hierarchies that support those views. In journalism, this often reveals the self-serving nature of either or both "sides" in any narrative.

  7. He is responsible for his own revenue — As the institutions of journalism evolve, they will more resemble what Jeff Jarvis calls the "New News Organization," one that is comprised more of aggregated and curated content than the more cumbersome employer-employee institution. This means that the postmodern journalist will more likely be an independent contractor than an employee. This dovetails with the growing trend of working at home, and the institutions of health care and insurance will adapt accordingly.

  8. Her ethical conduct is judged by her readers, not her peers — One of the most serious problems with the old model of journalism is the corner it paints itself into with ethical canons designed to serve the institution rather than the people. Journalism is a trade, not a profession. It is not a pathway to power or riches. It cannot exist with even a hint of hegemonic artificiality in a postmodern world, because influence will demand complete honesty.

  9. He is an expert in the use of his technology — There is currently a debate over whether journalists should "learn to write code." Actually, it's not so much a debate as it is a recognition of its inevitability and a discussion about how much. To a certain extent, everyone will be equipped with such knowledge, but the journalist must be able to use the language of the Web in ways beyond that of everyday people.

  10. She allows her readers to participate in developing her output — One of the most prevalent aspects of postmodern life and its 3-way communications network is the way its citizens will participate in everything important to their lives, including the gathering and dissemination of information and knowledge. To be successful, the postmodern journalist will incorporate the contributions of those she serves, for she values their roles and knowledge in the community she serves.

  11. His celebrity will be accompanied by humility, or it will become his undoing — The postmodern journalist will serve an important role in the culture, for, like today, he is a chronicler of events and a writer of the first draft of history. However, celebrity is a two-edged sword, and evidence that he is in it for himself will result in his immediate rejection by the culture, for self-promotion is the way of the past.

The personal brand of the postmodern journalist is everything, but that brand will be based entirely on his work and not in any way on what he says about his work. The network within which he plies his trade abhors and rejects any form of artificiality, and that is what will be so different in comparing journalism today with journalism tomorrow.

What the Gallup trust presentation reveals is far greater than simple cynicism over the economy; it signals a complete changing of the cultural guard, and while I don't expect it to be pretty, it is as inevitable as the rising sun. To everything is a season, and the season of self-serving hierarchical rule is on its way out.

Nobody knows for certain what lies ahead, and that includes me. We will certainly have new hierarchies, because that's the nature of humankind. I don't think we need to fear totalitarianism of any sort, although the tyranny of the majority may be problematic in a postmodern world. It's useful to think about the future, however, and my thought stream begins with the 3-way communications medium of the Web clashing with the top-down medium of modernity.

Attempts to "get back" to a vibrant, top-down mechanism will fail badly, as will attempts to keep the 3-way mechanism from advancing. As Dylan admonished us, it's time to lend a hand or get out of the way.

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