The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The structure of journalism today

Square 2 - Edges

I played a funny litcrit game with a very serious journalism debate. I started drawing lines and rectangles and filling in blanks. It’s a little like highbrow madlibs. And it helped me figure a few things out.

Short summary: the debate between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller in the pages of the NYT articulates a lot of the big ideas people inside and outside the profession have had about the practice of journalism. (Also, about the relative merit of David Brooks, but that’s a sideline.)

But by framing it as a back and forth between two poles, it leaves a lot out. It actually doesn’t really recognize how close Greenwald and Keller really are in their basic assumptions about what kind of journalism is important and why, in their faith in the truth and in reader’s abilities to sort out really hard questions for themselves. And they’re arguing with each other, but also past each other, to targets they can’t quite bring themselves to name: people like Rupert Murdoch, and Nick Denton.

The left side is corporate or traditional media; the right is online media. The top is “serious” journalism; the bottom is tabloid journalism. For Keller and Greenwald, journalism is a calling; for Murdoch and Denton, it is a business. And without the largesse of patrons committed to the same ideals of journalism, the New York Times and Greenwald’s untitled venture with Omidyar would be very paltry businesses indeed, while Denton’s and Murdoch’s flourish, grow, and evolve. The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and Pro Publica, and a few others, have found a space in which they can continue to exist. But it seems to me foolish to deny that for everyone else, the business models and journalistic practices mapped by Murdoch and Denton are proving to be much more robust, repeatable, and influential.

The picture up top is called a semiotic square, and it’s a way of representing a few basic principles:

  1. Most attempts to think through things rest on an opposition between two ideas;
  2. When you pick those two, you’re usually suppressing two other oppositions;
  3. You’re also usually suppressing some kind of excluded middle or reconciliation between opposed terms.

This has always felt very logical to me. Maybe it’s because it’s like a math problem. If we say, “ok, there are two kinds of numbers, whole numbers and fractions” — well, you’re forgetting about the things that are neither of those. And that’s actually MOST of the numbers. So we say, okay, there are whole numbers and fractions, and not-whole numbers, and not-fractions (irrationals). But wait — now we’re just talking about REAL numbers, and if we’re interested in NUMBERS, you’ve got to talk about imaginary numbers too. And not just imaginary but complex.

And so on. You can always, always, ALWAYS, go further down by expanding and relaxing your field of assumptions. And you can do it all with a pen and a piece of paper. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has always been really important for all the fields I’ve been drawn too intellectually — the only tools you need to carry them out are books, pen, and paper. Maybe a calculator, ruler and compass, and a camera.)

But because I know you can always go further down, I know that this graph of journalism is really incomplete. It’s a schema — it clarifies some things, but it obscures even more. And it makes things fixed that are really on the move. It’s like those beads-and-wire atomic models we made of elements in middle school — shit, electrons just aren’t moving around in quiet circles like that. Electrons are a MESS.

So I’d really like to get some pushback and extensions on this here. Jay Rosen was kind enough on Twitter to say that I didn’t pay enough attention to the debate over insiders vs outsiders, access vs accountability, in contemporary journalism. I talk about it a little bit in terms of complicity with the mechanisms of power. But how extensible is that to finance journalism, sports, entertainment, technology? Maybe it is, or maybe we need to blend that discussion with one of access.

And that points to another limitation: even the graph I made sort of takes investigative political journalism as being the field of discourse. And news, journalism, media is enormous! And the centrality of political accountability journalism is not at all self-evident.

Does Silicon Valley care about this shit? Does Wall Street? Does the science blogosphere? Does ESPN? Kinda. But not really. For them the field of action, of real power, of news of genuine importance, is elsewhere. It intersects with that world of electoral politics and state power, but only tangentially and accidentally.

And where do data and coding fit in? Nothing in this graph tells me whether I should learn to code, or what “learning to code” means. Which as we all know, is the most important question for journalism in human history. I mean, if I knew how to program in R, this sad-ass square could be a super-slick data visualization with crazy mouseovers and tilt-shift views and shit.

So what do you all think? If this is a place to start, how can we make it better?


I’m draw to these sorts of two-dimensional representations too, although I know they end up being reductive. The quest for clarity can end up inhibiting understanding. On the flip side, imagining adding a third dimension can bring in nuance but make a mess of your neat model.

Anyway. Other spectrums to consider in journalism:
– investigative v. reiterative (Here, say, ProPublica v. HuffPost)
– money made through subscriptions v money made through advertisements

Oh! One thought I had is that when you start to throw magazines in the mix, this whole mess gets jumbly as hell. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, National Review, Wired, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Businessweek, Slate, Salon, Verge…

Or NPR. What do we do with NPR? I think we needs multiple dimensions — each square is a planar section.

Larry says…

You should check out the political compass, which employs a similar matrix as the above graphic.

Great conversation. I’m 57 years old and I remember the pro-war Walter Cronkite. The reality is that the old establishment media system was quite awful and has become cartoonish. It was the draft that ended the Vietnamese War, led largely by privileged and (legitimately) self-interested 20-somethings. My point is that we need a way to show the polis the actual harm that the current drivel-machine is doing to their personal lives. Mobilization to be sustained requires, I think, a leadership core that feels directly harmed by the status quo. The question of my day is, how do we inform the polis that they are being gouged?

I don’t have time to lay this out in detail, but let me suggest another way of measuring the landscape: profitability.

There are two measurement: financial profitability and social profitability.

On one end, you have the for-profit journalistic ventures, whether they chase traffic or offer valuable niche audiences. On the other end, you have non-profit ventures that might deliberately eschew financial gain and seek out those stories that offer no monetary reward.

The other scale is how your efforts are viewed by society. One group wants to be seen as responsible and sober-minded. The other group wants to be snarky and rebellious (maybe even deliberately disruptive and cynical).

Some outlets will cover under-reported stories in order to serve the public good, both because they’re not driven by profit and because they want to make things better. Some will cover under-reported stories because it marks them as an alternative to the mainstream press and helps them build a potentially profitable audience. Some will avoid controversial stories or viewpoints for fear of offending advertisers. Some will do so for fear of looking Not-Serious.

Anyway, just a quick thought…

gibran ashraf says…

I would point to something that Tim mentioned earlier. I think that semiotic square is like a foundation (or a more middle) layer of a 3d pillar extending upwards, downwards and sieways too ( no one mentions video here).

Everyone associated with journalism today is still looking at the subject, its financial model, in the same way as they did 10, or 40 years ago when the truth is that journalism (more in practice than in its core) has changed. Its changed in the way we produce it, in the way people consume it and in the ways it can be sold. But because our legacy media and much of business practice has been built and driven around stoic structures that most journalists can’t think outside of it. Just yesterday I was listening to a live stream of editors and reporters where they said that the tv ratings are built as a measure for advertisers, and not reflective of what the people want. Similarly, newspapers, whether offline or online are built with keeping the advertisers in mind because they give money to pay salaries and bills, not the people – and the people they want something totally different with the oft-mentioned-rarely-practiced-watchdog role forgotten and free speech arguments are used to uphold allegations against corporates who rival your advertisers. So what you end up on the pages is a cross between stuff you put to keep your advertisers happy (no badmouthing advertiser’s products or those close to them and you make the advertisers the subject of news even if they sneeze) and putting on stuff that gets you the hits ala daily mail style. In the middle of all of this stuff like what say Assange or Greenwald talk about because it is content that advertisers really won’t pay for, nor what a large number of people would wznt to read – as opposed to what miley cyrus twerked against now?

But there is a silverlining. I thing legacy or mainstream media can help build honed human resources who would flourish in an environment that greenwald is building.

To thin that semiotic square presents relation linkages “proving” that there would be no greenwald if there was no rupert murdoch and the news of the world/fox news and no new york times either.

Aaron Rutkoff says…

Murdoch’s tabloids tend to either be epic money losers (NY Post) or at least no great shakes in terms of growth/profit—part of the reason he was finally convinced to separate the publishing company from the super-profitable broadcasting company. So tabloid sensibility doesn’t match up with growth.

The non-tabloid WSJ is supposed to be somewhat profitable and moderately growing by itself, however, and it also doesn’t really fit comfortably on the left side since it is far and away the heritage newspaper with the most remunerative and well-established digital business model. (Paywall in effect since the launch of in 1996).

Other missing dimensions: size and geography, local or regional granularity or perspective, focus ( issues, process or personalities?), and journalism practice. Most of this chart’s “big issue” voices are national or international in focus.

Some have organizations large enough to divide into topical or regional management areas (newsCorp, McClatchy, Berkshire-Hathaway, Gannett, etc.) down to topical or local news “sections” or “beats,” others do not. Some dealings with issues may be bottom-up, or top-down, depending on vision, ego and structure.

Aside: When I ran a five-town news bureau (each with one or two reporters) in 1970s Connecticut, I met a NYT reporter whose beat was our entire state of 169 towns — but even that was a bit narrower in focus than his previous beat, called “Africa.”

Where are the Associated Press, Reuters, NPR, the broadcast TV network news organizations, cable TV news?

Could a multidimensional presentation reflect size and practice as news-gathering organizations, rather than output channels or corporate/editorial entities?

I guess it all depends on what you want to think about, talk about, or build.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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