Defining article as a “luxury or a byproduct” as Jeff Jarvis did last month, is like suggesting jazz is secondary to rap music, or saying literature is a Deluxe version of slamming. Reading Jarvis’ Buzz Machine blog is always interesting, often entertaining and more than occasionally grating. His May 28th blog post titled The article as luxury or byproduct reverberated across the media sphere – as provocative pieces are meant to, regardless of the argument’s actual connection with facts. Quite frankly, I didn’t pay attention to Jarvis’ latest taunt until the issue was raised in a conference I was invited to.

Let’s take a closer look – in a gracious and constructive manner.

What Jarvis said:

  • Tweeting and retweetting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.
  • Background can be done easily with links.
  • The article is: “An extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps”.
  • “An article can be a byproduct of the process”.

In fairness to the City University of New York journalism professor, he fell short of saying that articles are useless or dead (we can breathe a sigh of relief).

To support his position, Jarvis mentions Brian Settler’s coverage of the Joplin tornado: the abundant stream-of-consciousness tweets provided raw material for good reporting. He also refers to the Arab Spring where legions of witnesses fed the social cauldron with an endless current of instant accounts, often supplementing the work of journalists.

Let’s get this straight: I’m not going to join the collective glorification of approximate journalism. Like Jeff Jarvis (but on a smaller scale), I teach journalism. In doing so, I’m careful to remind aspiring reporters that live blogging or compulsive tweeting is not the essence of journalism, merely a tool – sometimes an incredibly efficient one – created by modern internet technology.

The article actually is the essence of journalism. And by no means a “byproduct of the process”.

Two and a half years ago, the Airbus landing in the Hudson became the poster-child for crowd-powered breaking news. Then, the only true visual document was a cell phone picture taken by a ferry passenger. Today, the same event would have been live-tweeted by a dozen of witnesses using all the digital nomad firepower you can think of, from hi-res pics to HD video. And, by the time the genuine reporters show up, all relevant material would have been broadcast to the entire world.
Then, if we follow the Jarvis Doctrine, any additional reporting – let alone narrative reconstruction – would become extraneous or useless. (OK, I’m slightly over the top here).

Still, this “extraneous or useless” byproduct is precisely when and where the real craft enters the media stage. For me, William Langewiesche’s 11,000 words article in Vanity Fair became one of the most compelling stories ever written about this spectacular event.

Similarly, tweets about the Arab revolution are great, but I’m still awaiting for an in-depth profile of Mohamed Bouazizi, the individual who set himself on fire, thus triggering a cluster of unprecedented civil unrest events in the region. Similarly, no social media flow can explain why Western diplomacy is so indulgent towards Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“Articles are no longer necessary for every event”, states Jarvis. As a matter of fact, I think exactly the opposite. Articles are more necessary than ever to understand and to correct excesses and mistakes resulting from an ever expanding flurry of instant coverage. The substitution from one genre, article, to the other, tweets and the like, can only be done in a marginal way. Daily newspapers become increasingly unable to deal with breaking news or developing  stories. Publishers’ heads remain deeply buried into the sand; they don’t see their costly publications scream their irrelevancy every morning when hitting the streets. They still haven’t come to terms with the need for bold moves such as really separating what belongs to digital media from what works best on paper. (Practically, this means transforming daily newspapers into biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.)

My biggest disagreement with Jarvis lies in his lack of appreciation for a story’s background. Don’t bother with the context, he said, just link to it:

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki), isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

Come on Jeff. You are way too smart to seriously believe what you’re saying. Or maybe you need clicks on the Buzz Machine to cash in on your AdSenses… You can’t ignore that  good journalistic coverage cannot exist without serious background. Are you suggesting background work ought to be subcontracted to third party providers?  On what criteria? What about the notion (outdated, I know) of accuracy, of fact-checking? Is this your vision of modern journalism?

Actually, Jarvis ‘piece doesn’t make any reference to the notion of journalistic sources. Weirdly enough, the most essential part of the reporting process – finding sources, determining who is reliable and who is not, who is genuine and who is manipulative – is completely absent from his pronouncements (not from his teaching, I hope).

The problem is not Jarvis’ views of journalism. He’s a talented provocateur who sometimes smokes his own exhaust. But punditry isn’t reporting or analysis. Still, his talks, books, multiple appearances and knack for self-promotion are quite influential with many young journalists. They shouldn’t be misled. It’s not because news organizations tend to spend less and less on original reporting or on expertise, that those assets ought to be declared unimportant. Also, it’s not because a growing proportion of journalists are actually unable to produce high value stories or articles that the genre is no longer needed. On these matters, Jarvis is reversing cause and effect.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com