Enough with the manifestos about the future of news, let your product do the talking
Nikki Usher had a great Columbia Journalism Review article "Startup site manifestos are press criticism" where she notes that startup news orgs like PandoDaily, Vox, FiveThirtyEight and more have gotten into the habit of writing manifestos (much like the New York Times did when it launched in 1851). These manifestos are essentially their critique of the press in action.
The implication is that traditional journalism simply doesn’t offer readers this kind of news in the existing environment—that it’s not doing enough to give us what we need to know, and these sites are going to offer an alternative way to give us the public information that is the perceived obligation of journalism.
I think Nikki is right in her observation. These manifestos feel like the result of an organization sitting down on a psychologist's couch, talking about its metaphorical parents and writing how it intends to deal with feelings of abandonment. "I WILL BE BETTER THAN THEM" the news organization shouts. Catharsis!
I found out about the post because of a tweet from my colleague Anthony DeRosa.
— David Cohn (@Digidave) September 26, 2014
I've worked on several projects and endeavors over the years. Some of them are now shut down, some of them like Circa are currently kicking butt. But all of them were manifestos. They were all applied critiques of the news process. Emphasis on "applied."
NewAssignment.net and Broowaha were critiques on the closed process of data collection/reporting
Spot.Us was a critique on the flow of money in journalism and sought to make it more transparent and participatory.
NewsTrust was a critique of accountability
Circa is a critique of the "article" as the most common/base unit of information (among other critiques).
Manifesto writing is important and helpful, and each of these projects spilled plenty of digital ink describing their goals, but it was the product that spoke loudest. It was the product-in-action that defined what these projects said to the larger industry.
Vox's stacks are more poignant than the video where Ezra Klein talks about how the web can change things. Pando's use of comics scream louder than Sarah Lacy's about page. FiveThirtyEight's drop-down menu tab says more about its values than any interview about it could. First Look's future products will say more than any blog post explaining those products.
At the heart of the New York Times innovation report I don't think the conclusion was the NYT needs to write a new manifesto. Instead, NYT recognized it needs to re-think product(s). That's how you critique the press today. That's how one shows what you offer that no other news organizations can.
Writing a long article is how you critique a specific act of journalism (think Ombudsmen) and is incredibly valuable. Just look at the wonderful work of Margaret Sullivan for some of the best examples of recent memory. But a long manifesto won't re-imagine what we do. Creating a news product is how you critique the press today at an institutional level. That's how you make a statement on what you think the future will feel like.
There is so much talk about entrepreneurial journalism, it's important to see the forest for the trees. Why is this a golden age of exploration in media? Why is it important to discuss the "future of journalism"? If you want to work on a new project or product ask yourself why. Is it because you can? Because you want to make money? Or because you have something to say and the best way to articulate it is by showing how things can work.