This post assesses Peter Daou’s “The Triangle: Limits of Blog Power” (2005), Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” (2009), and Dean Starkman’s “Confidence Game: The Limited Vision of the News Gurus” (2011), as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power at the Kennedy School.
In his 2005 piece, Daou deconstructs “the triangle,” the term he coins for the intersection of the netroots, the media, and the political establishment. Bloggers’ influence stems from their ability to tap into the triangle to make an issue relevant within mainstream media and politics. Building on Daou, I would argue that the triangle serves as the power structure that allows bloggers to gain the necessary momentum to pull a critical issue from the long tail of the blog world to the head of the media and political establishments.
In “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” Shirky argues that similar to Gutenberg’s printing press, the Internet has ushered in a period of revolution in the news industry. As the old ways of delivering information whither, we don’t yet know which of the new ones we can trust. Giving newspapers a “digital facelift” will not succeed. Instead, we need to pursue the “unthinkable,” and experiment with a variety of new models in an effort to figure out what really works. These experiments will need time to incubate before we can see their real impact. In the meantime, we’ll need to become comfortable with the chaos.
Starkman is more cautious about the impact of networked journalism and peer production. He questions the “future-of-news” (FON) consensus championed by Shirky, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, and others. Starkman argues that the citizen-driven model of journalism runs into the “Ida Tarbell problem”: that public-interest reporting requires significant amounts of time, money, and energy to produce, and that the networked model does not support these as well as the old model did. He argues that we need to find a way to “re-empower” journalists to do the kind of critical reporting that speaks truth to power.
I think that Starkman’s point is critical: journalists need resources to do research on complex, largely hidden problems that involve powerful actors. Even if networked citizen reporters are partially able to overcome the challenge of resources, they will still face the additional hurdle of spreading news widely enough to spur change. Blogs and other small ventures will have to navigate “the triangle” adeptly. And sometimes, even though a blog may contain important investigative findings, it will get lost in the noise of the long tail.
I am particularly concerned about what this trend means for poor people in the developing world. For instance, without investigative reporting on the working conditions that many poor people face in producing goods for Western companies and consumers, there would be few mechanisms for action and accountability. Last month, The Guardian released an investigative piece on the inhumane working conditions and high number of deaths among Nepalese construction workers building facilities in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. This past summer, almost one Nepalese worker died each day, mostly from heart attacks and heat exhaustion. The Guardian’s reporting prompted public outcry against FIFA and the government of Qatar to take action.
Investigating appalling working conditions around the world requires time and resources. Creating international momentum to demand change requires a platform with significant reach. A world in which investigative journalism is severely underfunded does not bode well for poor workers, especially informal and migrant workers. When issues are transnational, publishing them in a global outlet is also key to mobilizing disparate actors (from labor rights activists in the U.S. to Nepalese ex-pats around the world).
So what can be done to preserve public-interest reporting as the old news industry model crumbles? Carving out enclaves for investigative reporting is critical. While it’s a young publication, ProPublica is a key example of how investigative journalism can be successful in the digital age. Starkman also argues for the “Neo-Institutional Hub-and-Spoke Model,” as exemplified in The Guardian’s News Corp. coverage, where traditional investigative reporting broke the story and social media powered its rise in the public consciousness. The Guardian’s investigation into the deaths of Nepalese workers in Qatar presents yet another interesting model for consideration: the story is part of a year-long initiative on modern-day slavery that The Guardian is undertaking with funding from Humanity United, demonstrating the potential for a non-profit and media partnership in support of investigative journalism. Ultimately, I think that it will require a mix of older institutions that bring legitimacy, reach, and (some) resources, along with new and hybrid actors (Shirky’s “experiments”) that successfully bridge citizen-driven investigation with the platforms that have greater reach and/or resources.