Despite plummeting subscription rolls at the nation’s newspapers, thanks to the Internet the actual consumption of news is higher than it’s ever been. But expanded access has also made news a cheaper commodity and undermined journalism’s traditional economic model. In light of the change, New York University professor Mitchell Stephens argues that journalists need to do more than simply transmit information; they have to have a value added. In Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, Stephens, who teaches at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, advocates for what he calls “wisdom journalism.” The Prospect sat down with Stephens to talk about what he means by this.
You say “wisdom journalism” is the key to journalism’s future. What is “wisdom journalism”?
There was 150-year period—a century and a half, give or take a decade—in which it was possible to make a big business out of selling news. That’s the era into which all of us were born and many of us spent a good part of our careers as journalists. We developed certain assumptions based on that economic fact. But now that the economics have shifted, we must re-evaluate and learn to live in an era in which it may no longer be possible to make a good living just by selling news. News may go back to what it once was, which is something that people exchange for free. Journalists may have to go back to what they once were, which is people who led in wisdom, who led in insight, who led in intelligence to account for what was and is going on.
My argument is that we need journalists who, unlike the characterization of journalism in the 20th century, who are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news. I think we’re beginning to get there. A lot of that is happening online.
Rather than simply inform, you argue that journalism’s goal should be to transform how we think, to lead “wiser citizens and therefore wiser politics.”
Right. For a long time, journalism didn’t aspire high enough as a profession or craft. I think the mere transcription of facts, of quotations, which has been a lot of journalism during this century-and-a-half period, is just not enough. It’s done some wonderful things: It brought down a president of the United States; it exposed various kinds of corrupt behavior. There have been incredible exposés that have happened just because someone dug up and put down the facts. That’s valuable for sure. But I also sense that we need now is for journalists to explain significance and what we can learn from events, not just what someone said today or this morning.
Sites like Wonk Blog and Vox offer general information along with explantations of complex issues. Do you see sites like Vox as the future?
I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Vox.com. It has two of my favorite young, contemporary journalists on it—Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. They’re brilliant, and provide precisely the sort of insight I’m looking for. I’ve been a regular reader of the both of them.
On the other hand, their favorite word is “explanation.” Obviously, explanation is a happy thing and they have all these “note cards” to provide background to their stories. I tweeted, “Is one of our best journalists doing journalism for dummies?” That’s overly harsh, clearly. But my concern is that there’s an element of condescension. It’s sort of “Oh, we have to make sure you understand the background and if we don’t give it to you may not understand.” Sure, there’s a lot I don’t understand and a lot people don’t understand. But we’re pretty good at teaching ourselves nowadays. I’m not sure the best thing the Ezra Kleins and Matt Yglesiases of the world can do for us now is to spoon-feed us background. I want them ahead of the news, in the really complicated stuff. I want them providing insight more than explanation. With that caveat, both those guys and the people who work with them are great examples of the wisdom journalism I’m calling for.
How would you respond to critics who say the public is misinformed and starved for news?
Well, there are always going to be people who are ignorant. There are people who don’t care all that much about current events. I’m not sure it’s our role to make them care. There are a lot of things to care about in this world and some people have more pressing concerns than who the Republicans nominee for president will be a couple years from now. But I do think that it’s unfair to say we’re starving for news now. There’s plenty of news available. When something happens in Ukraine that’s scary, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on.
Yeah, when something happens anywhere, we find out instantly.
One of the things you see on the street is people walking and finding out what’s going on in the world through their phones. There are a lot of different worlds—what’s going on in the world of your friends? That’s news of a sort, too. I don’t think we’re starving for news. When people talk about a “crisis in news,” I think they’re wrong. I don’t think news has ever been in better shape. With the incredible inventions of the Web, smart phones and laptops we have better access to news now—quicker, faster, further reaching—than any other time in history. It’s true whether you’re in New York, which has always been connected to breaking news, or a small town in Kansas or even a town in Uzbekistan. It’s definitely true in Kiev. This is really remarkable. It’s wonderful—the era of world governments controlling what information gets in or out has pretty much ended. Despite what’s happening in China and Russia, news is in pretty good shape.