Mitchell Stephens on Why Wisdom is the Key to the Future of Journalism

“We need journalists who … are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news. I think we’re beginning to get there. A lot of that is happening online.”—Mitchell Stephens

Beyond News, Mitchell StephensIn a recent interview with The American Prospect, Mitchell Stephens discussed his new book Beyond News: The Future of Journalism. Stephens argues that journalism needs to move away from an emphasis on “objective” journalism and instead privilege analysis and what he considers “wisdom”:

Q: You say “wisdom journalism” is the key to journalism’s future. What is “wisdom journalism”?

Mitchell Stephens: There was 150-year period—a century and a half, give or take a decade—in which it was possible to make a big business out of selling news. That’s the era into which all of us were born and many of us spent a good part of our careers as journalists. We developed certain assumptions based on that economic fact. But now that the economics have shifted, we must re-evaluate and learn to live in an era in which it may no longer be possible to make a good living just by selling news. News may go back to what it once was, which is something that people exchange for free. Journalists may have to go back to what they once were, which is people who led in wisdom, who led in insight, who led in intelligence to account for what was and is going on.

My argument is that we need journalists who, unlike the characterization of journalism in the 20th century, who are experts, who are specialists, who are really capable of adding insight and wisdom to the news. I think we’re beginning to get there. A lot of that is happening online.

Q: Rather than simply inform, you argue that journalism’s goal should be to transform how we think, to lead “wiser citizens and therefore wiser politics.”

MS: Right. For a long time, journalism didn’t aspire high enough as a profession or craft. I think the mere transcription of facts, of quotations, which has been a lot of journalism during this century-and-a-half period, is just not enough. It’s done some wonderful things: It brought down a president of the United States; it exposed various kinds of corrupt behavior. There have been incredible exposés that have happened just because someone dug up and put down the facts. That’s valuable for sure. But I also sense that we need now is for journalists to explain significance and what we can learn from events, not just what someone said today or this morning.

Q: Sites like Wonk Blog and Vox offer general information along with explanations of complex issues. Do you see sites like Vox as the future?

MS: I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Vox.com. It has two of my favorite young, contemporary journalists on it—Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. They’re brilliant, and provide precisely the sort of insight I’m looking for. I’ve been a regular reader of the both of them.

On the other hand, their favorite word is “explanation.” Obviously, explanation is a happy thing and they have all these “note cards” to provide background to their stories. I tweeted, “Is one of our best journalists doing journalism for dummies?” That’s overly harsh, clearly. But my concern is that there’s an element of condescension. It’s sort of “Oh, we have to make sure you understand the background and if we don’t give it to you may not understand.” Sure, there’s a lot I don’t understand and a lot people don’t understand. But we’re pretty good at teaching ourselves nowadays. I’m not sure the best thing the Ezra Kleins and Matt Yglesiases of the world can do for us now is to spoon-feed us background. I want them ahead of the news, in the really complicated stuff. I want them providing insight more than explanation. With that caveat, both those guys and the people who work with them are great examples of the wisdom journalism I’m calling for.

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