November 14, 2008

On Nov. 11 in Slate, author and journalist Ron Rosenbaum attacked maverick media futurist Jeff Jarvis, asking: Is Jeff Jarvis gloating too much about the death of print?

Central to Rosenbaum’s thesis is the notion that Jarvis has become “increasingly heartless” about the many decent journalists “who have been put out on the street by the changes in the industry.” Rosenbaum continues: “Not only does he blame the victims, he denies them the right to consider themselves victims. They deserve their miserable fate — and if they don’t know it, he’ll tell them why at great length. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s virtually dancing on their graves.”

The next day Jarvis responded in his BuzzMachine blog. “Sadly, Rosenbaum doesn’t debate the idea and history and fate of journalism, which might be productive or at least provocative.”

Jarvis’ Oct. 13 Guardian piece, Journalists must take responsibility, seems to have precipitated the current exchange. There, Jarvis says his goal was “not to flagellate journalists but to empower them. To take responsibility for the fall of journalism is to take responsibility for its fate. Who’ll try to save it if not journalists? There’s not a minute to waste whining.”

In my opinion, Jarvis is making a concrete attempt to help brainstorm new business models for news. However, embryonic new business models for news probably won’t make many journalists happy — and that seems to be at the heart of this conflict. Jarvis states plainly that he’s not interested in saving “journalists” so much as trying to save “journalism.”

Here’s another angle to consider: In their desire to protect their livelihoods, journalists may be inadvertently harming journalism more than they’re helping it.

A key to understanding Jarvis’ distinction between journalists and journalism is to separate core journalistic values from current journalism practices. Most journalists simply can’t (or won’t) do that. Their jobs are changing or going away as journalism practices are changing. Trying to prevent the change is holding back the evolution of journalism and by extension threatening the adoption of core journalistic values within a (scary!) set of new practices.

Emerging tools, technologies and forms of communication enable better journalism. There should be no debate about that. The potential for journalism is mind-boggling.

The essence of the negativity among many journalists is the completely understandable and very human fear of losing their jobs. For years now, these journalists have been focusing on how to preserve current journalism practices — not on how to save journalism.

Will journalists fully engage in these evolving practices and try to imprint their values DNA? Jarvis, and others, (notably Jay Rosen) seem to have lost their patience.

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