Stand by your reporting
On media outlets buying audiences by hiring brand-name journalists, the decline of the unsigned editorial, and the reviewer's marks we should see on anything published by news outlets
Amid the all-out war for attention in the digital publishing economy, many conventional news outlets have inadvertently moved their incentive structures away from rewarding engagement that is good for the institution and towards engagement that depends upon the "personal brands" of their individual journalists. It happens at institutions both large and small.
■ When the Washington Post heralds the hiring of Taylor Lorenz as a technology columnist, it is in no small part seeking to gain institutional access to her 330,000 Twitter followers. Corporate edicts require the public-facing hosts, reporters, and personalities at some outlets to use their own social-media profiles to promote company events. Most every journalist and commentator can be found using the phrase "my latest" to direct attention to their work -- in the enduring quest to get the next marginal click-through.
■ In spending so much time depending upon these "personal brands", media outlets in the United States have broadly sacrificed their own institutional outlooks on affairs. It has become very easy to find first-person journalism at the same time as it has become very hard to find regular editorials.
■ It would likely be a public service if news outlets would begin addressing the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between "objective" reporting, first-person journalism, analysis, advocacy journalism, reported opinion, and straight commentary in two ways. First, by applying those labels (and doing so consistently) where they can clearly identify what the reader, listener, or viewer can expect.
■ Second, outlets could begin to identify which editors (or those in adjacent roles) will personally vouch for the content. That doesn't necessarily require an endorsement of what is said. As a starting point, we already have the model of judicial opinions, in which one can read a majority opinion, a concurring opinion, or a dissenting opinion. Journalism could easily adopt an editorial model whereby an editor could say, for instance, "I endorse the following", "I take no opinion on the following, but believe it to be accurate", "I find this informative", or "I disagree with the following, but believe it to be worth considering".
■ Those descriptions are ungainly, to be sure, but refinements can surely be found. Good editorial guidance is more valuable than ever, and just as people learn to value the opinions of movie critics, so too would critical consumers of media learn to evaluate the opinions of individual editors.
■ Sometimes a movie critic is worth following because their opinions are helpful in the prima facie sense. Sometimes, the careful reader learns that a particular film reviewer is useful because their opinion is almost always the opposite of the reader's own. The same would be true if editors were accountable for expressing a judgment about the content of the articles published under their supervision.
■We tell young people to become "critical consumers" of media, but that shouldn't take place in a vacuum where every new piece is understood as a blank slate. Editors should help audiences to understand what kind of professional judgment has been passed on a piece of content before it has been served up.
■ Few journalistic institutions have such a strong editorial voice that they would adopt the practice of The Economist and omit bylines altogether. It has the potential to do a great deal of good if editors everywhere would help to guide their audiences to understand why they agreed to the publication or broadcast of a particular piece of material.
■ Some would reveal themselves to be worthy guides. Some would reveal themselves to be idiots. But the time has come for them to openly show at least some of their work, either way.