It’s the year 1472 in journalism, a fact some people like and some don’t

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Jarvis, Rosen, Dean Starkman, Karen Dunlap, Joshua Benton (Jed Lipinski)
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Jed Lipinski

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“You ask what the future of news is? I have no friggin’ idea. No one does.”

So said Jeff Jarvis at Tuesday night’s roundtable discussion titled, naturally, "The Future of Journalism," and held at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate Center, was one of five panelists invited to examine this tricky subject before a room of mostly undergraduate students, many of whom appeared to be questioning their decision to major in journalism.

To kick things off, Joshua Mills, the department chair of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch, listed some reassuring statistics. Earlier that day, the Audit Bureau of Circulation released a report showing that, in the six-month period ending on March 31, The New York Times experienced a 73 percent spike in average Monday-to-Friday circulation compared to the same period the previous year. As a side note, Mills said that more than 2,000 print newspapers and magazines have opened for business in India since 2005.

“So don’t get wrapped up on the dismal New York media landscape,” he said cheerily. “There are other forces at play globally.”

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Dean Starkman, however, who edits the Columbia Journalism Review’s business section, quickly reminded the crowd not to put too much stock in the Times’ circulation numbers.

“It was the Audit Bureau Circulation’s gift to newspapers to allow them to count digital subscriptions the same as print,” he said.

For the remainder of the talk, Starkman played the role of old-media nostalgist. In fact, the panel existed partly to address Starkman’s recent article “Confidence Game” for C.J.R., in which he champions traditional long-form journalism and sounds off against what he considers the limited vision of the “news gurus.”

His fellow panelists Jarvis and Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and author of the blog PressThink, were clearly on Starkman's mind.

Fittingly, as the other panelists spoke, Starkman scribbled notes on a legal pad while Jarvis and Rosen typed on Mac laptops. Jarvis even tweeted a few times during the course of the panel, once congratulating fellow panelist Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, for using Clay Shirky and Clay Christensen in the same sentence.

Though Starkman’s C.J.R. story is concise and thoroughly argued, he struggled to articulate its message on stage. A few awkward pauses led to some color commentary in the Twittersphere.

“Starkman's having a very tough time tonight,” Luke Waltzer, the assistant director for Educational Technology at Baruch College, tweeted. “Reminded of the scene in Bird where the drummer throws the symbol. #BaruchFON.”

Later, Starkman, who spent eight years at The Wall Street Journal, decried newspapers as “the worst-run businesses on the face of the earth.”

“They wouldn’t pick up the phone when you called for your wedding announcement because they didn’t care about you!” he said.

Whether one agrees with their controversial ideas or not, listening to the highly articulate Jarvis and Rosen was a more soothing experience. Watching Starkman struggle to defend the conventional journalistic model caused students to squirm in their seats. But watching the silver-tongued Jarvis and Rosen effortlessly quote John Dewey and Mark Zuckerberg as they diagnosed the news media machine seemed to trigger a collective serotonin release in the crowd.

“The underlying media system has forced the practice of journalism to adapt, which is in turn forcing us to evolve in our thinking about what the press is,” said Rosen, calmly leaning back in his chair. “It has forced a crisis of survivability onto the practice itself.”

Jarvis, in his role as provocateur, took a more antagonistic approach. Taking issue with Starkman’s use of the word “catastrophe” to describe the media landscape, Jarvis said: “I’d be a bloody hypocrite to be teaching journalism to send students off into a land of catastrophe.”

He admitted, however, that adapting news to the Internet is a gradual process.

“Elizabeth Eisenstein, a key scholar on Gutenberg, said it took fifty years for the book to take on its own form after the invention of the press,” Jarvis said. “In that sense, we’re about at the year 1472.”

As for his thought on the future of news, Jarvis questioned whether “the article and the story are necessarily the only vehicle of journalism.” (Such viewpoints have earned him a share of enemies, perhaps most notably Ron Rosenbaum, who has criticized Jarvis several times for Slate.) Jarvis also chastised news organizations for arrogantly defining valuable content as “the content we make,” excluding the content that Google, Facebook, and Twitter produce and aggregate.

“You can see in Twitter the mood of the nation,” he said. “There’s value there if you have the respect to go look for it.”

Jarvis, who made a point of plugging his new book Public Parts, received the only round of applause of the night.

Josh Benton, meanwhile, suggested that the pre-web days were not as romantic as some like to think.

“It’s really easy to overestimate how awesome we were,” he said, adding that “even in the good old days … a really small portion of the sources that were dedicated to news companies went into the production of journalism.”

Benton also critiqued what he saw as Starkman’s lack of faith that new institutions can ever replace the old ones. The state of tech and political writing online 10 years ago, he said, was a “cacophony of blogs and one-man bands.”

“There are more actors now, but at the same time there’s been a remarkable concentration,” he said, citing the existence of TechCrunch, Talking Points Memo, Engadget, and Politico.

Oddly, just as the criticism against Starkman died down, a woman from the audience raised her hand and launched into a wandering diatribe against Benton. Calling his Harvard-affiliated perspective “blinded” and “blinkered,” she said: “I wonder if there’s a distinct bias that comes from your community.”

Starkman spoke up. “Full disclosure: That’s my wife.”

The crowd gasped.

Jarvis and Rosen, who throughout acted as a kind of brainy comic duo, promptly dismissed Starkman’s wife's complaint. Rosen even suggested that she reread the transcript of what Benton had just said.

Toward the end, Rosen turned wistful about the future of news. Back in 1995, he said, one could expect “like 970 reporters” to cover the Super Bowl, whereas “you could probably entertain only about 40 possible story angles.”

“The old system wasn’t rational,” he said.

Distancing himself once again from Starkman, he added, “I emphasize the good that comes when old institutions fall apart. What happens is that frozen conceptions of journalism and what it can be suddenly become unlocked and we can rethink them. That’s how American institutions evolve.”

During the short Q & A that followed, a slightly shaken journalism student asked whether or not he really needed a journalism degree.

Rosen responded that the beauty of journalism has always rested in the lack of certification requirements. The tradeoff, he added, is that “we have to live by our wits.”