The New Gatekeepers Part 1: Changing of the Guard

A stark look at the challenge of the old gatekeepers– and the possible emergence of new ones.

First in a series on The New Gatekeepers.

As the number of cities in the United States with only a single newspaper ownership increases, news becomes increasingly nonessential to the newspaper.

At the time A. J. Leibling wrote the above, in the early 1960’s, there were only 61 U.S. cities (out of 1,461) served by multiple newspapers. Today that number is 41, though only twenty of them have newspapers operated independent of common ownership or joint operating agreements (see Editor & Publisher for the list). Since Leibling’s death four decades ago, media observers have continued to bemoan the loss of diversity and evident stagnation in the daily media.

The latest hopes are pinned on “citizen journalists,” who use blogs and other Internet-based publishing tools to provide an alternate voice. This group has been championed by three middle-aged practioners and observers of media: Jeff Jarvis, the President of Advance.Net, the online division of the Advance Publications magazine empire; Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at New York University, and Dan Gillmor, who for many years was the technology columnist of the San Jose Mercury News– recently stepping down to publish primarily on a blog and devote himself to “grassroots journalism.” Last April, they held forth at a “Digital Democracy Teach-In” panel titled Gatekeepers No More where they discussed the role of new media, particularly the blogs which they have been so enamored of.

It is a good read, for anybody who is unfamiliar with these individuals, or who wants some basic background on the revolution in media, though some parts I have tagged as blogbunk. What Jay, Jeff, and Dan explain is that news stories that were once blocked by editors, discouraged by publishers, can now get now reach a wider audience in faster time than they otherwise would have. A popularly cited example in subqequent months was an email message sent by Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi to her friends last September. The message was reproduced on the Internet, and many recognized that its grim tone departed from her usual reporting. Rosen assembled some of the the salutatory reactions to this apparent breakthrough and throwback to an age of correspondents, and declared victory for blogdom: “Fassihi, it seems, was blogging without having an actual weblog.” Though celebrated for its veracity, the note was not wholly accurate in its outlook. Its conclusion, expressing dire predictions about the upcoming January elections– a position shared amongst the war’s critics (myself included)– turned out to be wrong. [After note: I do not mean for this point to be hanging on the balance on democracy in Iraq: I would have preferred to say that the letter had no special veracity over ordinary reporting.]

Though it wasn’t like this reporting couldn’t be found. During the same time, William Langweische had been working on a 17,640-word piece Welcome to the Green Zone, which would be the cover story for the November 2004 Atlantic Monthly. A year earlier, George Packer had contributed a 20,000-word New Yorker article about the Iraq war and stirring insurgency. Packer was a finalist in a new award that the Atlantic gave out in honor of Michael Kelly, its former editor and the first American reporter to die in the second Iraq war. The winner was Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, who also earned the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting on the war. Which gatekeepers were responsible for keeping these reports out of the view of the American public, I am not sure.


Back to the safe confines of San Diego for the Digital Democracy panel. When asked whose role it was to do analysis of the explosion of raw information, Jarvis answered quite plainly: “I think that, yes, the more information is good thing and the more that it gets edited is a good thing.” And the others agreed with him that filtering was still necessary. This should not be a surprise.

And it reveals a very important point. It’s not that gatekeepers are going away (a common refrain of Rosen’s; he has tentatively titled his forthcoming book “Gatekeepers Without Gates.”). As Seth Finkelstein has articulated repeatedly, it’s that the gatekeepers are supplanted by a new set of gatekeepers. In a PR trade publication, B. L. Ochman concluded an assessment of the new media landscape by saying “savvy marketers need to learn how to work with these new gatekeepers now.”

After all, while many stories are able to get released, many get “Stuck at the Gates.” As I’ve shown in an article by that name, suspicion about the White House reporter named “Jeff Gannon” had wallowed for almost a year– outlasting the election, in fact– before it received any attention outside of two people. Also, discussions about the role of women in online media have been ongoing for a couple of years now, but only now did a number of women decide to do something about it. Why did it take so long? I asked. There was also the story of President Bush’s “bulge” from the debates that did get out– to late night televsion, and to Charlie Gibson asking the President a direct question about it on Good Morning America. This story got out of the gates, far enough that it outran its supply line of convincing evidence.

I was not the first to document these trends. Microdocs News had modeled this in May 2003 with Dynamics of a Blogosphere Story; veteran blog-researcher Tom Coates cited it favorably; Microdoc expanded it the next month, identifying 22 individuals making up the “A-List,” who are critical hubs for breaking stories. (The author of “Microdocs News” appears to be an Australian named Elwyn Jenkins, who just the previous year was caught at offshore banking fraud; and his primary purpose of doing this research was judged to be gaining the trust of the A-listers in order to game Google’s PageRank algorithm, to drive traffic to his site, where he advertised in search engine optomization techniques. He hasn’t been heard from since. The only conclusion I can draw is that this is someone too clever for his own good, and perhaps the law caught up with him).

Why is this important?

At least the changing of the gatekeepers has been noticed in some parts. JD Lasica, a former editor and blog booster who writes a column for USC’s Online Journalism Review, wrote a couple of months ago that he was looking forward to people creating media “without the intermediation of the pros and the elites.” Four years ago, when blogging was still very new, blog pioneer Dave Winer asked Paul Andrews, a newspaper reporter and new blogger to share some thoughts on the medium. Andrews contributed a 1,500-word essay “Who are your gatekeepers?” the last paragraph of which asserted:

There will always be a role for gatekeepers of our choosing, as is implied in any publisher-reader pact. … But bloggers have the opportunity to conduct the process for ourselves, rather than relying on an official or sanctioned gatekeeper to define truth and beauty for us.

The sins of the gatekeepers (editors, really) are now identified: professional. elite. official. sanctioned. The only thing that really sticks here is “professional” (and I am waiting to hear why that is an offense.) What could be said is that the gatekeepers are the product of a competitive market which the public only plays an indirect part in; once safely in such central roles, they do not easily budge. (This is less of a fiction than ascribing their powers as “sanctioned.”)

The new technology has a potential to change this. What boosters promise about the new media and skeptics hold out for as well, is a true meritocracy of ideas and their creators. (The BlogPulse research service tracks these.) This is the science of memetics, as originally conceived by Richard Dawkins. Considered Britain’s top intellectual as well as one of the leading experts in the word on evolution, Dawkins introduced this concept in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Where Darwin had plainly argued that species evolve as its members choose genes to pass on to the next generation, Dawkins figured that we can think of genes as using a species to pass on. (A folksy way of describing this “a chicken is merely a thing for an egg to make more eggs.”) So Dawkins then conceived that the same model can be used to explain how ideas spread throughout a culture, through memes. People are always looking for good ideas to transmit to other people, and ideas, it could be said, are looking for the right sort of people to transmit themselves.

Malcolm Gladwell celebrated just these sorts of ideas in his popular 2000 book The Tipping Point. He used used contemporary social science research to explain why certain people can exercise vast influence outside of any formal organizational structure, and dubbed it “The Law of the Few.” As for the few, he called them “connectors.” No one particularly elected these folks either, but they seem to be naturally accepted in society by virtue of their connections.

The difference with the blogosphere is that the connectors are in plain sight: most everybody knows who they are. Is it that this new set of gatekeepers is more responsible to the public than the old? There’s little reason to assume yes, but that doesn’t mean we assume not. We’ll look into more details in the next section.

Rankism by pansophia

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