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Towards engagement

Note 1: Robin very subtly outed me early last week, but I needed a little while to get my groove on before announcing myself: I’m augmenting my blogging here with a blog about journalism, which will contain the insights and discoveries I encounter while doing a year-long research fellowship at the new Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. I’ll probably cross-post this over there, but I needed some of the brilliance of the Snarkmarket hive mind to help shape my thoughts on what follows. You’ll find a little background for this post here.

Note 2: What follows is an attempt to thread several very obvious lines of reasoning together into something possibly slightly novel. Not at all assured of success, so consider this a preemptive apology.

I’ve often heard expressed a lamentation for the disappearance of a news commons. When we all no longer look to oracular information sources like Walter Cronkite and the New York Times, the thinking goes, we stand in danger of retreating into our narrow ideological corners. Under this model, the front pages of a daily general-interest newspaper form the foundation for civic dialogue.

In an intriguing paper, Indiana University professor Mark Deuze reminds us that this notion of a news commons was not presented hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy. Until recently, newspapers were constrained into having one front page for everybody. Over time, we’ve come to view this constraint as a feature, not a bug.

Under the news commons model, we aim for our citizens to come to the voting booth (or the city council meeting or the church supper) armed with the same information from a few reliable sources. So democracy means weighing our common set of facts against our diverse values, and reaching a conclusion respected by all. Cf. David Mindich, so you don’t think I’m beating at straw men:

“One of the most powerful things about journalism itself is that it can communicate to a large audience and then we can have discussions about facts and where the facts bring us; but if we no longer are paying attention, then the facts don…

[Post data ends]


Matt, do you know Jurgen Habermas’s argument in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere? Something in this treatment reminded me of that. Basically the idea that we actually need to 1) understand and then 2) reinvent the structural conditions of communication if we’re going to have anything like the relevancy newspapers once had.

Fun facts about newspapers:

1) Before wood-pulp and the lifting of tariffs drove the price of papers down (and made it easier to display large-print ads), newspapers were mostly bought and shared by bourgeois men who read and discussed the news together at cafes. (A very different notion of public.)

2) There’s a translation loss, I think, between a utopian demand for / belief in universality and an assumption / reinforcement of homogeneity. The first may be more deeply mistaken, but its mistakes are more productive, say, then the meaningless middle, the pandering choir-preaching, or even the self-differentiated pluralist whole.

Okay, here’s the bad-conscience comment. Is the rejection of breadth for depth a matter of necessity or choice? Is the reader/commenter/blogger what we have left, or is it somehow qualitatively preferable to/better than the passive reader (or as we might call ’em in blogville, the lurker)?

If it’s the former — a matter of necessity, then okay, sure. News organizations can provide and perhaps even extract a similar amount of value with a small but highly engaged readership as they could with a large but weakly engaged one. To do that you might need to monetize all that info you get from your small/devoted readership — but sure, whatever.

If it’s the latter, that an active and engaged portion of the citizenry is preferable to an less active, more disengaged plurality — then we have to ask how, why, and under what conditions.

After all, if you essentially turn all newspapers into news for bloggers — high-information, high-feedback, highly personalized, demanding of attention — that is, indeed, a demographic choice, and a choice of one cultural program over another. You are going to get a whole lot of affluent and/or highly educated guys and some gals, from about 21-55.

Why is active readership better than passive readership? Let’s assume that passive readership isn’t coercive readership. I’m serious. I love passivity. It’s why I love TV and the movies. It’s why I love delivery. It might be “better” for me if I got up and walked to the restaurant, engaged with the people around me in democratic patter and dining, getting exercise and a small social thrill. But it is delightful to have someone bring what you want to your house. It is delightful to be anonymous.

Information is presented to me. I can choose which issues I’m going to delve deeper into. But this doesn’t make the information or my consumption of it any less valuable.

Wow, totally disagree that engagement = elite. Look at YouTube — that site is a massive carnival of community and engagement, and it spans the full breadth of the public.

Now of course, a lot of the engagement is stuff that makes us (the elite) go “yuck.” Lots of LOLs. But that’s our challenge as system designers: Find ways to engage lots of people, from lots of different background, with lots of different interests, and turn their energy and interest into something cool.

There’s always going to be massive passive readership. And that’s the magic of this model, of course: More active readership means more content… means more passive readership, too.

So I don’t see this as a narrowing or a focusing at all. It’s passive content that’s narrow: It can only ever be one thing. One size fits all. Either you’re into it… or you’re not. By contrast, an active system w/ engaged users can grow, morph, change, mutate, expand — and ultimately speak to many many more people.

Hmm, so on second thought I regret holding up YouTube’s “engagement” as my example. But even so, I maintain: An engaged readership gets you an *expanded* audience ultimately, not a narrowed one.

Sorry — but I think that this picture of engagement:

With this mission, it should matter much less whether folks are reading our news or their blogs, and it should matter much more that we

Right, I totally agree, but it’s in no way subtractive or limiting — it’s additive. Like, SUPER-additive.

The more commenters, bloggers, and advocates you generate, the larger and longer a life your content has, and the bigger its audience will ultimately be — active AND passive.

Let me perform a sneaky procedural move and define the terms of debate after the arguments have started.*

First off, let’s agree that “active” and “passive” aren’t binary states, but contrary directions on an axis of engagement. So when I talk about “engaging” someone, I mean pushing them towards the ‘active’ end of that axis.

While I’m dispensing with binaries, Tim, let me see if I can knock down a few that you introduced.

  • Breadth vs. depth: I don’t necessarily believe that an impassioned, active citizen will necessarily dive deep into a few select topics, so I don’t think this dichotomy applies. I think for some folks, becoming more active will mean seeking out an ever-increasing variety of information from an ever-increasing variety of sources, while for others, it will mean honing in to a particular subject.
  • Large and disengaged vs. small and highly-engaged: My argument is not that we should limit our attention to the universe of highly-engaged info-seekers, but that we should work to move our entire audience towards the active end of the scale. Make disengaged folks into slightly-engaged folks. Hook ’em on the subjects that interest them most (e.g. arts and entertainment) and help them turn that interest into passion.
  • Contributing vs. consuming information: Lastly, I don’t actually want to suggest that a blogger is necessarily more active than a voracious info-seeker, although it’s my fault that that’s what my “readers into commenters into bloggers into advocates” example implies. So I’ll ask you to take that as just an example. And now I’ll provide another.

Take In many ways, it’s like a typical news site — click on the headlines, and you’ll be taken to the articles on FreeRepublic. If you’re a liberal, you might notice that all the links presented on the site are carefully curated to reinforce a particular (conservative) worldview. Click into the comments section, and you’ll often see a few commenters picking over the articles presented to select highlights that further reinforce this worldview. Hover over the links on the main page, and you’ll find that very few of them take you outside of

Compare this to The American Scene, another conservative weblog. Links to other sites proliferate (not the inclusion of the liberal Ezra Klein on the site’s blogroll). Many posts exude a sense not of certainty or finality, but honest probing and self-doubt. In the comments, you can see people grappling with what’s been presented, not just rubber-stamping it or sloganeering.

With thin evidence but some confidence, I would argue that TAS is pushing its audience towards the active end of the axis of engagement, and that FreeRepublic is pushing them towards the passive end. This leads me to two observations:

  1. Right now, the focus of the debate might be how to move people from reading FreeRepublic to reading TAS. I think the focus should instead be on encouraging an ever-more-active form of engagement with either information source — challenging, dissecting, remixing, &c.
  2. As I mentioned, FreeRepublic resembles a typical news site in a lot of ways. I would extend my argument to say that we might improve our news sites by taking a cue from TAS instead — linking out, asking questions, probing, demanding ever-deeper engagement.

One of the real catalysts for this blog post was a recent panel of big media bigwigs discussing the future of journalism. While the panelists could fairly be described as techno-optimists (i.e. “We’re optimistic that people will buy our technology”), they indulged in plenty of hand-wringing about the unwashed masses turning to blogs rather than to traditional media, an almost universally agreed-upon tragedy. Those panelists able to summon any sympathy for the blogosphere expressed faith that folks would turn to “us” as a sort of curatorial filter for the blogs.

But the most insidious sentiment was this idea that the great promise of the Web was that “we” would be able to deliver “our” content to people in all sorts of glorious new ways. I was sitting onstage and smiling as part of a kaleidoscope of people intended to serve as a pleasantly diverse backdrop to the proceedings, but inside I was burning up. Didn’t these people realize that the Web is not exclusively or even primarily about them? That the most incredible thing about the Web is the supernova of creativity and community it’s fostered in the unlikeliest corners?

I was getting trapped in the same old news-commons vs. fragmented-media debate we’ve been having since the Web was born without even realizing it. I wondered, “What if we shifted the terms of the whole debate towards engagement?” Folks aren’t going to turn to our approved sources of information just because we tell them to, nor should they. But we can do a much better job of prodding them towards a deeper engagement with all the information they consume.

* Amusing, off-topic story: My freshman year in high school, my best friend and I teamed up with two of our sophomore friends to start a debate team at our school. That year, the National Forensic League policy debate topic was immigration. We knew very little about debating except for what our high school speech teacher had remembered from her college years. But we spent countless hours in the library culling articles to craft our case. Our sophomores, Sara and Amy, went to the debates armed to the teeth with facts, and little knowledge of how to play the game.

In the very first sequence of our very first debate, we neglected to perform one of the most basic and perfuctory tasks: defining the terms. So our opponent, arguing the negative case, took up the opportunity, and defined “immigration” as any movement into a country … originating in Albania. This might not have flown in the high-falutin’ corridors of real NFL debating, but at our little state Christian-school tournament, it was a devastating blow.

We lost that year. But Rocky and I ascended to become co-captains (and sole members) of the debate team our sophomore year, and we won state competition three years running.

BTW, I don’t think I’ve heard the name Jurgen Habermas since taking Michael Sandel’s course on justice back in the day. This is why we love you, Tim. You come through with the best references. I’ll bone up a bit on Structural Transformations while I’m railing against the news commons. 🙂

I don’t totally buy your characterization of my characterization of the binaries I thought / pessimistically assumed that you were introducing of your own accord. 😉

I do want to stick up for both consumption and passivity as legitimate and perhaps even desirable modes of action for people vis-a-vis the news. I guess I’ll call this “receptivity.”

What I don’t think is tenable is the assumption that the only modes of action that are meaningful or valuable when faced with a news document is the production of more and more text. The most desirable response to media may not be more media. You may find that the old media crowd is stuck inside a logic of content delivery, but I worry about becoming stuck in a logic that privileges one mode or one subset of modes of action — writing, reporting, dissecting, “remixing” — and simply wants to break that monopoly and popularize them. That actually feels like a thin conception of “engagement,” not a thick one.

Yeah, yeah, I’m known to break out with the Romantic poet or German media philosopher from time to time. Just doing my egghead elitist part.

Google Books: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

I approve of this thread.

Ooh! Another binary I forgot to knock: production vs. consumption. This might have gotten lost amid my little comment opus up there, but I’m not saying that an engaged audience will necessarily produce more media. Many folks, when engaged by information, will be prompted to consume yet more related information, which is also quite awesome.

I submit to you that I would always opt to turn someone who reads the NYT into someone who reads it critically (in the judicial sense, not the ideological one). Or that I would always opt to have someone who finds something interesting on a blog share that interesting thing with others.

I take your worry about the potential of someday privileging some to-use-your-term mode of action in the hopes of merely breaking our content-delivery monopoly. I submit to you that I intend to cross that bridge when we get to it. A widespread case of over-engagement with the information we consume would be a problem I’d love to have.

You can’t mediate all your problems away, Prof Hegel.

You seem to think that you’re stepping out of these binary logics, but the case I’m making is that you’re covertly reintroducing them, and privileging one side of that binary to boot.

In the end, you basically own up to this, even though you don’t really have an argumnent for it, but you want to put the onus on me for casting your argument in terms of these binaries.

In particular, I still think you are privileging production over consumption — to the extent that consumption is valuable, it’s because it can be made more “critical,” more like production — and media over non-media, where one way or another, information begets more information.

Say what you will about the traditional news + democracy argument, at least it pointed away from media towards something else. You need an informed citizenry to have a functioning democracy — to vote in elections, serve in local office, act as witnesses and jurors — not an ever-expanding media universe.

(These terms are so heated for two people who basically agree on everything — except possibly the philosophical underpinnings. Chalk it up to narcissism of tiny differences.)

Agreed, re: agreement on philosophical underpinnings. But the overpinnings are still tendentious.

Especially the one about the traditional news + democracy argument as being pointed away from media and towards something else. I think if I’m covertly introducing anything, it’s that the news commons crowd is (perhaps unwittingly) upholding a weak dystopian vision of democracy as an ex post facto justification for the shortcomings of traditional news vehicles. In this vision, we all read the same few things and share a wealth of agreed-upon facts, but come to different conclusions based on our diverse values. I call this dystopian because I think it nostalgizes a dangerously homogeneous information ecosystem that might omit valid competing facts that might, say, avert a costly and unnecessary war.

Meanwhile I’d say that when we’re not looking for reasons why a one-size-fits-all newspaper is actually an Aristotelian ideal, democracy is more naturally given to people with diverse interests and values seeking out diverse sources of information to help advance those interests and values within the democratic framework, by voting in elections, serving in public office, acting as witnesses and jurors, &c. Now how’s that for a binary?

In any case, my fetish for engagement is nothing if not a transparent plea for more robust democracy. My argument distilled to its essence is that journalists should forget about blog-bashing and start promoting a more active citizenry instead.

We all agree that democracy requires an informed citizenry. I just think we’re likelier to achieve that end by encouraging the citizenry towards greater engagement with the information they consume rather than telling them what they can and cannot read to be informed.

BTW, I also don’t see how critical consumption = production.

Since I’m not writing this on Newsless, and since anyone who’s read this far deserves a bit of a teaser, I’ll say that I’m dancing around a point that I’m laying the groundwork for with this argument. I intend to argue that journalism has acquired a responsibility (beyond mere “news literacy” programs) to help citizens learn how to evaluate information for themselves.

NB: I still think you are privileging production over consumption — to the extent that consumption is valuable, it’s because it can be made more “critical,” more like production — and media over non-media, where one way or another, information begets more information.

I’m not saying that critical consumption = production; these are terms in a series (admittedly infelicitous). I wonder though whether your definition of a good citizen is too much like a good journalist.

I mean, citizens know how to evaluate information for themselves. They may not always get it right, but they know how to do it. It’s not like we’re all just staggering around the dark. Maybe they need to learn a different grammar, or they need new tools. But it can’t be painting a mighty picture of the journalist on the wall and say “become like me, reader — learn how to write like me, read like me, think like me!” I don’t think this is what you intend to mean, but it does indeed mean something like this.

You could very well make the opposite point — that the advantage of these emerging forms isn’t just that citizens (“civilians”) are becoming writers, editors, filters in their own right, but that the new formats allow good writers to become or appear more like good readers. They don’t produce finished, polished statements, they give evidence of their reading and thinking that emerges over time.

This certainly gibes with your praise of TAS over FreeRepublic, and I think would hold true of many good blogs as well.

The whole point of this can’t be the transformation of everyone or everyone with the inclination to become a reporter, an editor, a pundit. This doesn’t mean that nontraditional/citizen reporters, editors, pundits aren’t valuable, because of course they are — just that it doesn’t touch the limits of what can be done.

It has to be a structural transformation of what all of these terms mean. And it has to be a reevaluation of everything valuable and less than valuable at all nodes in this media circuit, so that the scramble doesn’t just put things back where they used to be for no better reason than collective or institutional or verbal or mental inertia.

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