Replacing journalism: new foundations for expertise, diversity, and debate

May 3, 2009

Watching with an almost prurient fascination the tragic plunge of a sister institution—because the newspaper industry is cutting a path that the book industry will follow—I’ve noticed a subtle shift over the past few weeks from discussions of how to save newspapers to discussions of how to replace them. Today, as the leading paper in my own major city, the 131-year-old Boston Globe, faces its absolute, final deadline for a deal to avoid a shutdown, I decided to put forth here a small analysis of technical developments that could exploit the potential of the Internet to help us carry on where journalists have battled for us over the centuries.

The system you will find in the following paragraphs is by no means a comprehensive replacement for all the roles played by newspapers and news magazines. I haven’t managed to present a solution to a pressing social problem in a neat package crowned with a bow. In fact, I offered my general vision of a world without journalism two years ago in a short story named Validators, and it’s far from celebratory. In this article I’ll just isolate three key traits we seek in journalism—expertise, diversity, and debate—and suggest how we might elicit them from the general public without mediation by journalists. The exercise is an example of the kind of practice that could emerge from a combination of new technologies and new habits.

Using Internet self-organization to promote expertise, diversity, and debate

Journalism presents facts and opinions in a manner that helps us make critical decisions, individually and as a collective. If professionals can no longer serve us with the necessary research, analysis, and filtering, we must use other sources and incentives to cultivate the three traits I listed in the title to this article:


One of the Internet’s major paradigm shifts gives experts direct access to readers beyond their immediate professional circle. Instead of providing quotes to a journalist, who can truncate and recontextualize them, the expert can address the public as often and s verbosely as he or she wants.

The next task is for the public to recognize expertise. I’ve noticed that most speculations over the possibilities of Internet journalism concentrate on bringing in the unheard voices of average constituents. I think it’s even more important to raise the profiles of experts. These are the people tapped by journalists, but when the journalists don’t go find them for us, we need to find them ourselves.

Of course, we already have simple filters in place to judge the people we listen to. When learning about the spread of a new influenza, it’s reasonable to trust a doctor more than a police officer, and to trust the head epidemiologist of a national research center more than your general practitioner. If the police officer and general practitioner are privy to specialized knowledge, they can present it from the standpoint of their particular expertise.

But anyone can find an epidemiologist—or an economist, or a military officer, or another expert—to endorse some dubious point of view. That’s where a graded rating system, which many reputation projects have experimented with, can enter the picture.

This reputation system might have two databases: one covering experts and another covering articles. Credentialed experts could rate each other, while everyone could vote their agreement or disagreement with articles. An expert with a high personal rating would have a much greater weight when he or she votes an opinion on an article.

I am not normally a fan of ratings. The casual rants that commercial sites collect about books, hotels, and restaurants don’t show off the notion of rating in a very good light. We tolerate the undisciplined approach because these sorts of ratings are basically aesthetic judgements, and if we read the text we can determine whether the taste and criteria of the person doing the rating are similar to ours. I think that ratings of news analyses will draw on the public’s desire to promote the best possible decision making. These ratings will be like continuous voting on issues of public concern, and could well become a gratifying habit.


Some opinions will be partisan, and so will the people rating them. When a field is split, we need to draw in the next trait in our list, diversity.

Not only does every field have controversies, but the dominant opinion shifts over time. My dentist was an eccentric ten years ago when he claimed that mercury fillings had bad effects on general health, but now I’m told that a majority of dentists avoid mercury. Every field has a similar history of major re-evaluations.

When there’s controversy, experts in each faction will naturally rate each other highly and downgrade the other factions. So we need software that makes factionalism explicit.

People should be able to tag their opinions as expressing opposition to others, and should be able to use the tags to take sides. And there are usually more than two sides to every question—if we allowed for only two sides the world would be rather one-dimensional, wouldn’t it? (Cf. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland.)

For each expert and each article, the ratings of experts who have identified themselves as supporters are tallied separately from those who have identified themselves as opponents. Both are useful. And sometimes an endorsement by a habitual opponent can be particularly treasured.


All proponents of democratic governmence agree that it rests on citizens’ willingness to hear out and engage in dialog with their opponents. The Internet’s filtering mechanisms are often blamed for letting people shut out opposing viewpoints. But a system for identifying expertise and diversity could become the strongest impetus to hear these viewpoints.

With factions identified, an additional weight could be added to articles on each side: the more an article includes links to opposing viewpoints, the higher its value rises. Furthermore, authors should be encouraged to link to the best of their opponents’ arguments, not the worst. Therefore, the value added by links to opposing articles is in direct proportion to the ratings assigned to those opposing articles.

Once it links to an argument, an article will naturally be judged by how well it answers those arguments. Authors will not be rewarded for tossing in scads of pointers to opposing articles in the hope of pumping up their link count, because their ratings will fall if they fall to convince their readers with counter-arguments.

This system should have an additional benefit: when people rank articles they agree with, they may be more inclined to reward arguments that can sway opponents, not just arguments that play to the choir. People who assign rankings will know that highly rated articles will be cited often in opponents’ articles, and therefore earn an opportunity to change opinions.

History is replete with fanatical movements that wiped out not only their opponents but the texts written by those opponents. The age of the Internet banishes this crude censorship forever, but minority views can still get buried through deliberate neglect by experts in the majority. The linking and rating system will encourage them to nurture the flame of opposing views as well as concurring ones.

What would happen if everyone concerned with news and public life used this system? In my hopes, experts would receive recognition in proportion to their erudition, even if they were recognized only by small communities that agree with them. The public would be able quickly to identify different sides (even views considered to be crackpot by the mainstream). And the experts on different sides would engage in open and honest debate.

Missing elements from the three-trait plan

Expertise, diversity, and debate are not enough for civic life, of course. One of the historic advantages possessed by the great journalists was simply the time and resources to investigate stories that powerful forces wanted to keep hidden; my proposal doesn’t address that need. Moreover, debate can be divisive and exhausting when it occurs outside an atmosphere of community. Democracy was barely functional in the United States when we were divided by the culture wars, just as it failed in Iraq and the Balkans when culture wars turned into actual civil wars. Something more binding than fiber cables must link people in order for debate to be productive.

Articles by the Center for Social Media and by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney in The Nation explore some of the multifacted issues involved in saving civic discourse. In the rest of this article, I’ll air a few related points.

The trouble with charging money for content

The rationalization of distribution in any industry tends to lead to unbundling. It’s quaint for us to buy critical information about matters of intense public concern in chunks of a few dollars along with art reviews, fashion news, cartoons, and puzzles (not to mention advertising). We don’t need this model anymore.

The same rationalization also leads to a widening of the divide between commodities and premium offerings. Whether in print form or online, we’ll always have a few really fine institutions that can charge money for their news and opinions. But doing so has a cost in terms of public debate.

Money is not the issue. The time you’ve devoted to reading this article—whether you skimmed it in a couple minutes or scrutinized it for half an hour—is probably worth much more to you than the few cents you’d pay in a typical subscription or micropayment system. Some people in the world lack even those few cents, but enough people in developed countries are reading articles to subsidize the less affluent.

No, the problem with charging for content is the barrier it raises to distribution. Readers are more likely to refer their friends to web pages that can be reached in a single click than articles that are available only in print or after paying a fee. Hidden behind passwords, such articles aren’t even crawled by search engines, so only a few words offered by the publisher for public view (usually a title and abstract) can turn up. Essentially, these best of all articles abstain from the larger public debate. I’d rather have them at the center.

Paying the experts

Good journalism takes time, experience, and gumption. Corporate pressures and declining revenues have eaten away at the opportunities that led to great journalism in the past. Even in our day, a lot of deep journalistic investigations receive support from non-profit foundations.

Experts with a message to offer can often use help shaping it. They might well pay a professional to organize their points, provide context, sharpen their focus, and so on—activities a lot like the book editing I do for a living. So journalists might find careers as co-authors.

I won’t take a position on the myriad proposals circulated over the past year of so for government support of journalism. But we should recognize that journalism is not just a job but a calling. Massive changes in the whole structure of the periodical industry and its role in the world will have ramifications that go beyond pay.

Journalists thrive on all kinds of perks that arguably motivate them as much as money. Journalists see their bylines in prestigious places. They hobnob with the leading thinkers and famous people of the day. They get invited to conferences and formal dinners and parlay their experience into other writing opportunities.

The prestige of the publication also affects the people being interviewed. I’m sure that, when I wrote for major publications, I got access to some important sources who would not have deigned to talk to me for a stand-alone web page like this one. If major newspapers and journals lose clout, we might find ways to pay journalists, but perhaps not to get sources to pay attention to them.

The role of community

I noted earlier that my technological solution to replacing journalism left out community. Identifying factions may help people find others who share their views, but it’s only one small ingredient in building community. Community building always been something journalism has contributed to, but something much bigger in scope than journalism. And the Internet provides other tools that help.

But let’s not assume community can power every issue. Human beings just can’t be part of every possible community. Just as I want to vote for people I don’t know personally, I want to take sides on issues without hanging out in forums for hours at a time.

For instance, I couldn’t sit here writing and disseminating this article without the electricity grid. There happens to be a debate in my region over the best way to get electricity, and some people have formed a group to push for a municipal utility. I don’t have time to be part of that community, but I plan to continue using electricity and I may vote on alternative ways to bring it here.

That’s why I’m suggesting new ways to bring expertise, diversity, and debate to constituents who care about issues. Such solutions won’t emerge organically; they must be planned, funded, and coordinated. What’s important in this article is not the particular solutions, which no doubt have flaws, but its way of thinking that tries to combine available computing technologies with achievable social relationships. Pursue similar lines of thinking, and we’ll find ways to engage the public in civic discourse that take root and flower.

Update: Can we quantify point of view?

This article has been criticized as trying to hang a system of pulleys and levers onto an essentially unmanageable discourse. Issues are complex; expert reactions to issues are even more complex. This very article is an example: were someone to try to assign this article a position in a simplistic poll such as “Should we try to save journalism?” the details would frustrate them.

But a “point of view” doesn’t have to be along a single line. Whether you use the term literally (to refer to the place an artist stands to take in a scene) or figuratively, you can encompass many dimensions.

It’s still unsettling to think of ranking and ordering opinions. No matter that this is what citation indexes and Google’s PageRank has been doing for years; it clearly encourages us to think in terms of aggregates of information instead of considering each item of information on its merits.

I feel caught on the horns of this dilemma too. I reject the two extremes to approaching human opinions. One extreme I associate with the philosopher Karl Popper, who believed that anything worth knowing or discussing should be objectively verifiable. The other extreme I assign to Jacques Ellul, who saw any application of “technique” as dehumanizing.

I always encourage people to look at issues creatively and avoid getting trapped in premature categorizations, but I don’t reject the use of tools to help us make judgements.

Every issue ultimately forces someone to take a side: to support or oppose a law, to vote for one candidate or another (or none), to take a medicine or reject it. Thus, we end up placing the decisions along a spectrum, and all I’m suggesting is that we can help each other by doing it collectively.

You can reply to this article by signing up for an account on the O’Reilly Media blog site and adding a comment to my associated blog.

May 4, 2009, afternoon: The Boston Globe reports that it has reached agreement on substantial concessions from six unions and will not file a plant closing notice.

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Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This article represents his views only.

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