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Jeff Jarvis

586. What print transformation can teach us about media’s future

Are we asking the wrong questions about the future of journalism? 

Jeff Jarvis has been thinking about the future, and the past, of journalism for decades now, as a faculty member at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He was also a founding editor of Entertainment Weekly, a blogger at Buzzmachine.com and co-host of the podcast The Week in Google. His new book, “The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet” puts a sharp focus on how journalism will evolve in the digital age might be slightly misplaced. 

“What motivated me to write (the book”) was to see what lessons there were to be learned from our entry into the age of print as we leave it,” he says. “I’m not saying print died, though it probably will for newspapers and magazines. I’m not saying we forget the lessons we learned in print or that we abandon the good value that was created.” 

Newspapers and magazines, in particular, are still understood and recognized as such online, but “we haven’t really begun to rethink and reinvent what journalism can be,” Jarvis says. He teaches a course on this concept, called Engagement Journalism, in an attempt to “get students to think past content, to think past stories and their story ideas. Think of journalism as service, as a process, as an act, rather than the vestige that comes out at the end of the day.”

To draw another comparison between the dawn of print and the dawn of digital, Jarvis notes the first Bible came off Gutenberg’s printing press in 1454, with the first technological advances coming in 1800 and the first real competitor coming in the form of radio broadcasts in the 1920s.

“The beginning of the popular internet with the release of the first commercial browser in 1994, we’re about a quarter century away from that beginning, which puts us at about 1480 in Gutenberg years,” he says. “It’s very early. We don’t know what the internet is yet. We’re still seeing the analog of the past. How long will it be before we see, ‘Martin Luther? Is that Black Lives Matter?’ How long before we see Cervantes and Montaigne and Shakespeare? Are we seeing that in advances in AI? I don’t know.” 

Instead of being afraid of what the future might hold, Jarvis encourages exactly the opposite. 

“I tell students this is a great time to come into journalism because they are the ones who must change it. I’m too old. Maybe it’s beyond their future. But they’re the ones who have to learn how journalism was, to question everything we tell them, to understand it in terms of money, and then to challenge it. There are things worth preserving. There are ethics and mores worth preserving. But we also need to rethink fundamentally the relationship of journalism with the public.” 

Students in Jarvis’ class are challenged to rethink, if not cast aside, the idea of being storytellers in the way journalism students have been trained for generations.

“Yes, it’s a tool we have, but it’s also a tool of power,” he says “It’s the storyteller who decides what the narrative is and who’s in it and what they get to say. How do we help people tell their own stories? How do we help people get the information they need? How do we get past information?”

Even when Walter Cronkite ended his nightly broadcasts with his trademark “That’s the way it is,” it wasn’t exactly true for all Americans.

“It was a hegemonic view of old white men presenting the nation with one narrative,” Jarvis says. “This is why the tired, hackneyed, horrible discussion of objectivity drives me bananas. We have to have journalism emergent from communities. We have to have an audience that understands how to listen first.” 

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