J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

When is a Mass Not a Public, and What Does it Mean if it Goes Away?

Posted by chanders on July 6, 2008

Inspired by my own research down in Philadelphia (more on that in a day or two) and a general dissatisfaction with the state of the current commentary on changes in local journalism, I was inspired to post this very long comment at Stowe Boyd’s blog here. Some of the other inspirational posts included this one and this one (which has gotten a lot of people’s attention).

But, the post was very long, so I figured I’d give it a home here. Consider it my curmudgeonly rant of the quarter.

*Sigh*. I started my non-journalism career at Indymedia way back in 2001. What’s happened to me– what’s happened to the world– in the intervening 7 years to make me feel so old fashioned??

I am getting a little sick and tired of the endless blogsopherical linking of an economic / social reality (the possible end of “massness”) with a normative claim (the end of “massness” is good thing, or at least, it’s “inevitable,” so we don’t need to waste time talking about whther it’s good or not). Marxists (remember them?) used to make this mistake. It’s inevitable, so we don’t have to judge it.

So let’s take a second to evaluate. And let’s start with a couple definitional questions — what’s the difference between a mass, a public, a community, a niche market, and a social movement? […] let’s just take the difference between mass and public. To what degree does the end of the mass mean the end of the public?

Here’s how John Dewey defined the public: when private actions have indirect consequences that affect large groups, that interest group becomes a public, with a stake in regulating the actions in question. Now it’s possible to argue– and I’ve done so– that social movement groups, communities, and even nice markets are more authentically “publics” that the public represented by that idiotic word “public opinion.” And in many ways the end of the mass, with the possibility of creating more authentic, democratic, and local communities, would mean a more public world, and could be a world where hyperlocal journalism, done the right way, could flourish.

The problem though is that, in some key ways, the mass hasn’t gone anywhere. In short, the metro newspapers may be dying, but guess what, people still live in cities! Their lives are still affected by other people who may not be in their hyperlocal coverage area. And most importantly, cities are still ruled by things like mayors and city councils and corporations and chambers of commerce. One the things monopolistic, dead-tree journalism used to do, or should have done when it was doing anything worthwhile at all, was make the public real.

So bottom line: when we all live in a truly anarchistic, communitarian world (a world I wouldn’t mind seeing) then hyperlocal journalism (again, done RIGHT, and I haven’t seen much of it done right) will be all we need. The problem, though, is that we’re not seeing that world emerge. What we’re seeing is the growth and centralization of power — the EU, the executive president, corporate consolidation, etc.

The metro daily may be dead, but the metropolis lives. Who’s going to notice when the city council gives itself all new cars?

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