Has anyone checked the Internet connection at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute lately? Last week, the Institute announced the nominees for its “Top Ten Works of Journalism of the Decade,” and of the 80 contenders, only three were originally published on the web. In contrast, 22 of the pieces appeared as books, 14 appeared in magazines, and 21 appeared in newspapers, which for those of you unfamiliar with the term, are those large gray sheets of wood pulp that various media conglomerates produce to help subsidize America’s recycling industry.
Granted, the intention of this list is to recognize outstanding instances of journalism, not their delivery methods. And no doubt most of the newspaper and magazine stories it has singled out, along with pieces that originally aired on TV and radio, appear online. But in a decade characterized by radical shifts in the way news is produced and distributed, it’s still pretty startling to see a list of stories that for the most part could have been compiled in, oh, 1980. Read through the nominees—The New York Times gets nine nominations, the New Yorker gets six, HBO gets four, The Wall Street Journal gets three, The Atlantic gets three, NPR gets three, and The Washington Post and PBS get two each—and the unspoken message reverberates louder than Chris Matthews singing in the shower: Citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, “living stories,” whatever. The decade’s best work mostly came from elite media professionals living in New York. So much for the decentralized, democratized future of news!
Coincidentally, the Institute released its nominees in the midst of South by Southwest, where there were exactly zero panels on how to write a compelling New Yorker feature and seemingly hundreds on citizen journalism, community-funded reporting, hyper-local journalism, Twitter’s effect on the news, and the future of context, amongst others. Perhaps because we’re all looking ahead, wondering how these various approaches to news-gathering are going to evolve, it’s easy to forget that, throughout the decade, they were already having an impact at least as important as David Foster Wallace’s musings on political campaigning or Caitlin Flanagan’s first-person reporting from the front lines of the Nanny Wars.
Surely, there must have been some way for the list-makers to acknowledge that for the first time in history, hundreds of American soldiers were filing public dispatches about life during wartime. Or that journalists like Josh Marshall had begun to see their readers as a powerful investigative resource. Or that thanks to Twitter, the real-time eyewitness accounts from plane crashes and earthquakes start flowing faster than ever now.
And if bestowing high honors upon off-the-cuff tweets seems to honor proximity over craft a bit too generously, well, how about Wikipedia? Not only does it mostly depend on professionals to do the leg-work—its volunteer editors are limited to aggregating information from “reliable published sources”—it’s one of the last true believers in Old Journalism objectivity. Almost everywhere else, amongst professional and amateur journalists alike, the drift is toward more subjective, more colorful, more attitude-laced reporting. Wikipedia, on the other hand, instructs its contributors to adopt a “neutral point of view” and against all odds, readers can’t seem to get enough of its dull, fact-based gruel of disinterested truth.
In the age of hyper-partisan hyperbole, that’s a stunning achievement, but it’s not even Wikipedia’s most significant journalistic achievement. That distinction goes to the way it’s helped make old news more accessible. In the days before the web, last year’s headlines were a scarce commodity. To get your hands on them, you needed an incredibly costly Lexis-Nexis account, or lots of free time to scroll through rolls of microfilm at your local library, or a neighbor with hoarding issues, a big garage, and lots of magazine subscriptions.
With the birth of the web, news outlets began to realize their archives might have value beyond the specialty markets that had traditionally used them (i.e., lawyers, investors, journalists, and students). But they did little to unleash the true utility of their past work. Instead of making old news a fundamental part of their sites, they locked it behind paywalls and sold it on a piecemeal basis at rates no casual user would ever spring for.
Bloggers, on the other hand, recognized that the news could be more than one day deep. They combined the chronological urgency of the news media with the packrat approach of search engines and directories, organizing their posts by category as well as time and keeping them forever at hand via links that typically remained on the front page. Wikipedia adopted a similar approach, putting more emphasis on categories than chronology but updating its contents at a pace more akin to The New York Times than the Encyclopedia Britannica. In essence, it popularized the topic-oriented, heavily contextualized approach to news presentation that Google, NYU’s Jay Rosen, Matt Thompson, and various other forward-thinkers are championing as the future of journalism.
And so while Wikipedia doesn’t do any original reporting or break any news itself, it has established itself as a go-to site when big stories break. On the day after Michael Jackson died, for example, his page at Wikipedia attracted 5.9 million visits. It may not have had the most detailed coverage of his death, but it was the easiest, most efficient place to get a comprehensive overview of his life. Our hunger for old news, it turns out, is as often as strong as our hunger for a scoop. And Wikipedia’s contextualization of every big story that has broken in the last five years, while never as artful as, say, an instruction manual, much less a New Yorker feature, should earn it a place on any list of the decade’s top journalism. Except perhaps, on lists prepared by those who aren’t so eager to embrace the fact that it isn’t 1980 anymore.