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<nettime> Corey Pein: Amway Journalism
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<nettime> Corey Pein: Amway Journalism


     < http://www.thebaffler.com/blog/amway-journalism/ >

Amway Journalism

Corey Pein July 28, 2014

Like uninsured New Agers afflicted by terminal illness,
journalists facing the collapse of their industry are turning in
desperation to faith healers, quacks, and hucksters of all sorts.

The new media charlatans' latest cure-all is a toxic concoction
of marketing-seminar bluff and hypnotic technobabble. They call
it "entrepreneurial journalism." They're even selling it on
college campuses now. According to the label, this new blend is
an invigorating panacea for a distressed profession. All claims
remain unverified.

At a basic level, entrepreneurial journalism means going
freelance and devoting countless hours to Twitter in order to
promote your Personal Brand[TM]. At its most ambitious, it means
leveraging a foundation grant or a venture capital seed round
into perpetual paid speaking invitations and, with luck, entree
into the exclusive grifterhood of future-of-media experts.

As with all good cons, this one begins with a dose of common
sense. When established institutions fail, as old-fashioned
newspapers and broadcasters have, it's smart to seek out new
ideas. At their most engaging, leading journopreneurs can summon
the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock, spreading dreams of a
bold digital future across the bleak post-industrial milieu.

They tell aging, ulcerous newspaper reporters, "Don't sit around
waiting for the pink slip! Strike out on your own, like Kara
Swisher and Walt Mossberg. It's your turn to shine!"

They tell indebted, future-fearing students, "Don't wait for some
crusty Boomer editor to give you permission to try out your crazy
idea; Just build it, baby! Ezra Klein did it, and so can you!"

Having launched a few unprofitable websites of my own, I
certainly understand the appeal of the journopreneurial message.
Hard times beget constant hustle. Since no one currently employed
in media can be sure what their next job will be, everybody's
working another angle, a side project, a PR gig.

But the most influential journopreneurs take this ethos to
irrational extremes and, worse, actually exude disdain for
traditional reporters and their craft. Their views, not
coincidentally, echo the familiar gripes of many an unscrupulous
news publisher.

Journalists, writes James Breiner of the News Entrepreneurs blog, 
"tend to view ourselves as high priests of an exclusive
profession and bearers of a special ethical standard that few
others can live up to."

He goes on:

     That [puritanical attitude] is at least part of the reason we
     have trouble in the new world of entrepreneurial journalism,
     where journalists start and run their own news operations. If we
     want to go out on our own, we have to recognize for the first
     time that journalism is a business [...]

     Profit is not a dirty word....

Of course it is. A "special ethical standard" is not something to
be poo-poohed. It is actually the only thing that distinguishes
journalism from advertising. Businesses thrive by becoming
popular. Journalists piss people off every day in order to sleep
well at night  --  they are (or should be) engaged in an
unpopularity contest. Businesses win by exploiting conflicts of
interest. Journalists win by exposing them.  To pretend otherwise
is just so much exculpation and self-delusion.

A little self-delusion may be necessary for the brave new world
of bootstrapped media. According to Harvard Business School, the
failure rate for tech startups is as high as 95 percent. Funny
how they don't mention that in the brochures.

The grand poobah of the journopreneurship society is "hyperglocal
thinkfluencer" Jeff Jarvis, who in the mid-aughts parlayed his
popular, Iraq war-boosting blog into a professorship at the City
University of New York graduate school of journalism.

Jarvis's entrepreneurial journalism course there was launched in
2009 and later expanded to a full MA and mid-career certificate
program, with prestigious foundation backing via the Tow-Knight
Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which Jarvis directs. The
course was pioneering indeed.  According to CUNY, more than
twenty-six universities, most in the United States, now offer
similar programs.

Some of that growth can be explained by the seasonal changes in
academic fashions (and the tantalizing whiff of philanthropic
catnip). There is however another, corrosive element to the
trend. Entrepreneurial journalism is more than a practicum, it is
an ideology. This ideology scorns old shibboleths like "afflict
the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." It can be unnervingly
flippant on matters of ethics.

"We've corrupted journalism with capitalism," Jarvis tweeted 
from an entrepreneurial journalism summit in early July at CUNY.
At the same summit, he bragged to attendees that his students
"come in communists and leave capitalists."

Surely Jarvis flatters himself. How many card-carrying pinkos
have committed to a four-semester course about building a
business plan, led by a bona-fide corporate guru? It seems more
likely that Jarvis -- a Davos groupie who wrote a popular book
that equates Google with Jesus -- has an extreme, almost
McCarthyite sensitivity toward perceived socialist infiltration.
It's also possible that Jarvis simply lost touch with reality
after watching one too many network dramas during his years as a
TV Guide columnist.

Jarvis's Gordon Gekko schtick goes down a little easier once one
accepts that his "entrepreneurial journalism" course is not about
journalism at all -- it's about sales. Jarvis himself can't seem
to tell the difference. This much is clear reading Jarvis's
descriptions of the program as well as a published course
curriculum.

The anecdotes collected in a 2011 Atlantic Wire article titled
"What It's Like to Learn Journalism from Jeff Jarvis," written by
one of his former students, are even more revealing.[*] According
to one student quoted in the piece, Jarvis maintains that
"journalism could be defined as anything that allows people to
communicate with each other."

Ergo: Twitter "is unadulterated, raw, unctuous journalism," as
Jarvis reportedly tells his students.  By that definition so is
email. Or the telephone. (Not that a brand-conscious
journopreneur need pick up one of those fusty old things.) The
Atlantic piece goes on:

     "There's a syllabus, it's loose but there is one," says [another
     graduate of Jarvis's program]. "You practice your 'elevator
     pitch' every day...."

     While other students were braving the elements in the city,
     reporting on say, the lack of heating for residents in NYCHA
     housing, we were asked to look at Twitter, Facebook, HuffPost,
     Gawker, Foursquare and how they were making money.... The
     idolization was saved for the Dentons, Huffingtons, and
     Zuckerbergs who monetized their ideas, disrupted the market, and
     made themselves profitable.

Hell, why not Steve Jobs? It's downright criminal he hasn't
gotten a posthumous Pulitzer.

The entrepreneurial journalism curriculum does "address" ethical
issues (because "instruction" might suggest that ethical
questions have preferable answers -- how passé!). The ethics
portion of the course includes a classroom exercise that involves
"select[ing] a target to be disrupted based on vulnerability and
opportunity" -- in other words, finding a business to destroy.

The course concludes with an "apprenticeship" in which students
"gain an appreciation of startup culture," the curriculum states.
"The startups need not be journalistic." Sure, at this point, why
bother? In this class, students are graded based largely on their
business plans and related presentations. The future of
journalism is PowerPoint.

Perhaps the most persistent damage wrought by professional
turncoats like Jarvis is psychological.

In their long and seemingly hopeless search for answers,
journalists have internalized the abusive rhetoric of the
"disruption" brigade. Jarvis tells beleaguered journalists that
they themselves, the lowly content-serfs -- not short-sighted
newspaper proprietors, not the Wall Street backers of corporate
media conglomerates, not the sociopathic unchecked tech
monopolies, not hostile politicians and prosecutors -- are to
blame for their sudden loss of livelihood. Don't blame
remorseless corporate Vikings like Craig Newmark for killing the
news business. Blame old-school reporters like Dana Priest for
failing to cultivate their Facebook fanbases.

What's worse, the solution Jarvis offers will only accelerate the
destruction of journalism. That solution is basically to put
one's trust in the likes of Google, because big tech companies
know how to make money. That's simply terrible advice for anyone
starting a small business (terrible advice perhaps informed by
Jarvis's own close relationships to the tech titans). Ask an
indie web publisher how her Google AdSense account is doing. You
will find many who have concluded, as have many large European
publishers, that big American tech companies like Google are
waging a scorched-earth campaign for global domination.

The old media was a vicious and ugly beast, but at least it
recognized the value of supporting full-time employees with
benefits. In techworld, everyone's a permalancer. Insecurity
breeds obsequiousness, not courage, and journalism cannot bear
too much more obsequiousness.

The digital-first propaganda obfuscates the qualitative
inferiority of the new media order. Newspapers were always
ruthless capitalist enterprises that happened, sometimes by
tradition but often by mistake, to produce some valuable
journalism. But the rising tech monopolies are ruthless
capitalist enterprises that are plainly not interested in
journalism as that term has been understood by generations of
Americans. Their agenda is automation, standardization and
de-professionalization; let the robots do it all, and whatever
the robots can't handle, leave to the Redditors.

That is plain stupid, as strategies go -- but a few people will
certainly profit from the ensuing chaos.

I'm not the first to criticize Jarvis for his tiresome "cyber
hustler" persona or his shameless grave-dancing amid mass
layoffs. It's also worth noting, though, that Jarvis's own record
in online entrepreneurial journalism is less than stellar.

Prior to his attaining his university imprimatur, Jarvis's most
substantive experience in digital journalism was as president and
creative director of the internet arm of S.I. Newhouse's
publishing empire, Advance Communications. During the years when
Jarvis was in charge, the websites of Advance's many newspaper
and magazine titles were notorious for being thin on content,
difficult to navigate and overrun by commenter-trolls. The
websites were, in the words of one commentator, "universally
despised by all [Advance] publishers, editors and ad execs."
(Having worked across town from the Advance paper in Portland,
Oregon in the mid-aughts, I can vouch for the fact that reporters
and readers also despised the Jarvis-era websites.)

In 2008, Jarvis partnered with a former Advance colleague to
start Exploding Video Productions, which launched two websites.
One was PrezVid, a blog culled videos about that year's
presidential campaign from YouTube. The site is still online, but
judging by the column of WordPress error messages at the top of
the page, appears to be experiencing some technical issues. The
other venture was IdolCritic, which served the democratic
conversation by giving our nation's citizens a place to discuss
the most recent episode of American Idol. That site is no longer
online, but Jarvis can still claim to have gotten in early on the
TV-recap phenomenon, for whatever that's worth.

Although Jarvis flogged the sites on his widely read blog,
BuzzMachine, and in his 2009 Google book, they both shared the
fate of many startups–a quick flash, then poof -- vanishing
without even a pivot.

More recently, Jarvis took a prominent advisory role with a hedge
fund-owned newspaper conglomerate, Digital First Media, a
swaggering reinvention of two large, struggling chains formed in
a post-bankruptcy merger. Digital First CEO John Paton may have
consumed more of the tech-cult Kool-Aid than any preceding
old-media executive, and Jarvis was enthused. "This is all I've
ever wanted for the newspaper industry: Brave innovation and
dogged determination to update and upgrade, not hold onto the
past," Jarvis wrote upon the birth of the new company in 2011.

That "dogged determination" lasted fewer than three years.
Beginning this April, the company commenced a series of cuts
apparently in preparation for another asset sale, buttressing my
pet theory that "innovation" is the new code word for "looming
layoff massacre designed to accelerate the upward transfer of
wealth." The cuts included the abrupt closure of Digital First's
key online initiative, a centralized national newsroom called
Project Thunderdome. The prolific Jarvis for some reason didn't
see fit to blog about this news. Last month the Colorado Westword
quoted an employee at the Digital First-owned Denver Post
describing the current situation as a "F-ing horror show."

Given all this, perhaps it's no surprise that Jarvis's
entrepreneurial journalism program has yet to revolutionize the
industry.

The CUNY program's listed success stories include one alum who
raised $16,194 for her scavenger hunt app through a Kickstarter
campaign. That's pretty good for a crowdfunding campaign, but shy
of the $19,300 cost of four semesters of in-state tuition
required to complete a CUNY entrepreneurial journalism master's
degree. Anyway, isn't the point of the startup economy to do away
with artificial barriers to the free-market meritocracy, such as
university credentials?

Another alum launched a website called Narratively, which
launched with a Kickstarter campaign of its own and quickly
picked up lots of good press. Atypically among its cohort, the
site's raison d'être is nothing more complicated than to publish
long-form narrative reporting (although, typically, the site
doesn't seem to pay much for it yet). What's curious, considering
the bottom-line focus of Jarvis's curriculum, is that the star
pupil's business plan remains something of a work in progress.

Narratively accepts some advertising, but the big idea is
something called Narratively Creative Group, an ad and PR agency
with clients including Chevrolet and General Electric. The staff
of this agency? Narratively journalists. "The same 800+ editorial
contributors who come to Narratively from top media outlets like
The New York Times, NPR, CNN and GQ are available to apply their
innovative storytelling techniques to your brand's content
needs," the website boasts.

Is this what entrepreneurial journalism means? Moonlighting for
GE? Hey, it was good enough for Kurt Vonnegut. Granted, Vonnegut
was an aspiring novelist, not a reporter, when he worked as a GE
copywriter. No one relied on him for timely, accurate,
independent coverage of, say, a toxic waste spill, or a corporate
earnings report.

But scrubbing the concept of integrity from the journalistic
ideal is only part of the program. Jarvis has long spoken of his
plans to turn his CUNY program into a startup incubator serving
idea-hungry venture capitalists.

"If I were a VC," Jarvis wrote in his Google book, "I'd reach out
to colleges and offer to help talented entrepreneurs, dangling
seed money for those with great ideas."

It's easy to see how a university-based startup incubator would
benefit Jarvis, who would gain another platform to arrange
meetings with and favors for big-league VCs from New York to
Silicon Valley. It's also easy to see why CUNY administrators
might smile on such a program: Imagine what the prospect of
multibillion-dollar initial public offerings could do for
recruitment. How you like that, Stanford?

It's harder to see how such a program could be in the best
interest of students. As many bright-eyed Silicon Valley migrants
have learned the hard way, VCs often make their money by screwing
over young, energetic and eager (read: clueless) startup founders
and employees. Consider everything the NCAA does to keep student
athletes from earning a salary. Now imagine what a seasoned
venture capitalist might do to deprive a naïve student of the
equity in a company built in a campus incubator.

What better way to learn how capitalism really works?

For those invested in the ideology of entrepreneurial journalism,
the time has come to face facts. Perhaps the individualistic
mythology of entrepreneurship, with its emphasis on big exits and
one-time windfalls, is in irreconcilable conflict with the
public-spirited mission of journalism. And perhaps, as Michael
Wolff and others have argued, online journalism simply cannot
break even. Seriously confronting those two possibilities could
set the whole blinkered "future of news" conversation on a more
promising track, but it may spell the end for the multi-level
marketing network of journalism-as-sales franchise.

Some are already moving on to the next thing. In April, Jarvis
announced he's developing a new program in "social journalism."
That's social as in social media, of course, not as in social
issues (or, god forbid, socialism). As he wrote in his
announcement on Medium:

     So, yes, it's social but it's not just about social media. Yes,
     it's about engagement but not engagement with us but instead
     about a community's engagement with its own work. It's about
     results, outcomes, impact.

It's about, you know, buzzword, buzzword, buzzword. For next-gen
edu-capitalist journopreneurs, there could be no higher calling.

[*] This post previously stated that the article by one of
Jarvis's former students was published in The Atlantic, but it
was actually on The Atlantic Wire online. This has been
corrected; we regret the error.

Corey Pein is a writer and reporter in Brighton, England. He
offers free samples at coreypein.net.


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