The State-Within-A-State Model of Journalism

You’ll notice that several of the people in my blogroll (538, Wonkbook, The Dish, Glenn Greenwald) are blogs that have followed a particular kind of trajectory: they start out as small independent blogs, gain a large following and then get vacuumed up by a legacy news organisation as a little department within the larger structure. 

Jay Rosen had a really interesting post about this two days ago, on the occasion of Nate Silver’s 538 blog going to ESPN. Rosen names the following features of the State-Within-A-State: 

  • Star journalist at the center with a large online following and cross-platform presence. (Six of the seven I named are male.)

  • Editorial control rests largely or entirely with the founder and personality at the center.

  • Part of a larger media company with a negotiated balance of power between the two states. (See Shafer on this.)

  • Identifiable niche or niches; no attempt to be comprehensive. (It’s all Things Digital, not all things business.)

  • Plenty of voice, attitude and personal expression allowed.

  • Mix of news, opinion, analysis without a lot of fuss about categorizing each.

  • Additional journalists are hired as the franchise succeeds and the founder gets to hire them.

The reason I follow these kinds of blogs, which exist somewhere in the no-man’s land between opinion and journalism, between institutions and personal expression, is that they add something vital to the legacy journalism institutions. Rosen is right on it: 

Brands still mean something as a guarantor of quality and huge audiences attach to them, but they are weak on voice, which creates loyalty. Loyalty moves across platforms as platforms shift. The state-within-a-state model solves for that, as Marshall suggested.

This is it exactly. A lot of traditional journalism has a kind of negative rhetoric, a passive, authorless voice. I grok why that kind of work is necessary, but for many kinds of story — indeed, for the stories that matter the most to me — I look for different kinds of voices. People who can both provide me with facts but also embedding those facts in viewpoints, opinions, a web of possible interpretations. Doing journalism like this doesn’t even necessarily mean the death of traditional journalism. Quite the contrary, as several of the first bloggers have pointed out, and as Glenn Greenwald spectacularly demonstrated with his NSA scoop. 

Jay Rosen, who I find myself more or less parroting in what I just wrote, has a good way of explaining the history and behaviour of this kind of journalism (well, some parts of it, at least) in another great post he did recently about the Greenwald/Snowden case: “Politics Some/Politics None“.

The professional stance that proscribes all political commitments and discourages journalists from having a clear view or taking a firm position on matters in dispute (you can call it objectivity, if you like, or viewlessness, which I like better) is one way of doing good work. A very different professional stance, where the conclusions that you come to by staring at the facts and thinking through the issues serve to identify your journalism… this is another way of doing good work.

 

They are both valid. They are both standard. (And “traditional.”) They are both major league. 

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