Twelve Things You Need to Know About Metajournalism

It's not what you think it is. You've been lied to about it. And it might save journalism.

Introduction

Proof is one of the first media outlets in the U.S. explicitly devoted to metajournalism. That means that this site, its author, and its supporters will—for a while yet—at times face attacks from those who are hostile to metajournalism largely because they don’t understand it. The purpose of this article is to offer a brief introduction to the term by identifying the twelve things you most need to know about this emerging genre of journalism. There are others worth noting, but these twelve will do for a start. If you appreciate what you read here, I hope you will consider subscribing to Proof and encouraging others to subscribe (at just $5/month, Proof is tied for the least-expensive website on Substack).

As is outlined in more detail below, the primary intention of today’s highly diverse metajournalistic enterprise is no less than to save journalism by collaborating with—not replacing or dishonoring—conventional journalism and journalists. But this can only happen if the anxiety some are experiencing surrounding the term (particularly those who work full-time as reporters) is assuaged. I hope this essay will help do that.

Twelve Things You Need to Know About Metajournalism

(1) It is journalism and it is reportage—but it is not conventional reportage. Recently some reporters, including some who practice journalism without being much engaged by the theory or the history of the practice, have wrongly implied that all journalism is reportage, and that indeed “journalism” is essentially synonymous with “reporting.” The result of this needless confusion is that many news-readers believe that no one who is not a hard-news reporter can ever denominate themselves a “journalist.”

I hope you’ll listen to this journalism professor when he tells you this is poppycock.

As I write in my forthcoming journalism textbook (Macmillan, 2022), journalism is a research, writing, communications, and ethical practice that was professionalized and institutionalized only in the recent past—under two hundred years ago—and is only confused with one of its many genres, hard-news reportage, because it benefits individuals who practice journalism as “reporters” to confuse the public in this way. It would be more accurate to say that reportage is to journalism as rock music is to music.

Among the dozens of other genres of journalism—all of which I teach as a professor at University of New Hampshire, along with, of course, hard-news reportage in its many varieties (e.g., sports reporting, which I used to practice, and fashion reporting, which I could not possibly be less qualified to practice)—are the following: video journalism, photojournalism, immersive journalism, community journalism, New Journalism, data journalism, convergence journalism, service journalism, “gonzo” journalism, explanatory journalism, interactive journalism, citizen journalism, op-eds, advocacy journalism, XR journalism, investigative journalism, entertainment journalism (to be distinguished from entertainment reporting), feature writing, news aggregation, curatorial journalism (a type of metajournalism) and many others. There are also some genres of journalism that more than 90% of the time don’t deserve the appellation but can on very rare occasions, if certain preconditions are met, slip over the line into the hinterlands of the journalistic: for instance churnalism, gossip, and yellow journalism.

{Note: We can distinguish even this second, smaller, melodramatically “borderline” category of journalism with communications practices that are categorically beyond the boundaries of journalistic writing, research, communications, and ethics, some of which are ranked here from—approximately—most benign to most malicious: private diaristic writing, fiction-writing, marketing, clickbait, rumor, propaganda, libel or defamation, “fake news”, and blackmail.}

The four key principles of the writing, research, communications, and ethical practice we know as “journalism” are (O)bjectivity, (A)ccuracy, (T)ransparency, and (H)onesty. Taken together we can refer to these—and I will hereafter—as the “OATH” principles. When these principles are applied in the systematized transfer of information between persons with an eye toward first determining the “newsworthiness” of the information to be transferred—“newsworthiness” being measured by one or more of uniqueness, timeliness, proximity, public interest, impact, utility, trend circumscription, conflict circumscription and entertainment—there’s a good chance that what you’re observing is “journalism” in some variety.

It is unfortunate that these basic principles governing the landscape of public activity known as “journalism” have been so distorted by deliberately misleading disputes over who is or is not a “legitimate” journalist—battles whose aggressors are often scions of the Old Guard, like, in my own recent experience, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times or the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review. It’s reached the point at which many Americans are comfortable jeering at anyone who claims to be a journalist but is not a reporter—denominating such persons “frauds” under an entirely invented sense of what journalism is now, and has been historically.

Certain genres of journalism are still emerging, which is no surprise given that the comparatively recent development of journalistic practices being professionalized and institutionalized has now been interrupted—while it is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy—by one of the major inventions in the history of humankind: the digital computer. {Note: Some other innovations at this same level of transformative effect include fire, flight, electricity, the printing press, the wheel, the clock, and vaccines.}

With the digital computer has come a network of interconnected innovations like the internet, augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, artificial intelligence, blockchain, bioengineering, haptics, wearable technology, and nanotechnology that have changed the face of journalism forever. Nevertheless, despite institutionalized and professionalized journalism being less than two hundred years old, practitioners of several new, conspicuously technology-enabled genres within the writing, research, communications, and ethical practice now known as journalism find themselves confronted by peers who believe—because they have known nothing else of journalism in their own lives—that any method of systematically and ethically transferring newsworthy data between persons other than institutionalized, professionalized reportage is illegitimate.

Among the emerging genres of journalism that are enabled by the new technologies mentioned above are curatorial journalism, news aggregation, immersive journalism, data journalism, convergence journalism, interactive journalism, and XR journalism.

Of these emerging modes, the one least like conventional hard-news reportage in its various iterations (e.g., science reporting, sports reporting, entertainment reporting, fashion reporting, tech reporting, and the crime beat) is curatorial journalism, a type of metajournalism. It’s for this reason that curatorial journalism, like metajournalism generally, often comes in for attack, rebuke, and distortion by conventional reporters like Haberman or academics like Daniel Drezner who don’t understand what they’re trying to end—and arguably don’t understand the history of journalism as a practice that for over 99.9% of its lifespan was neither professionalized nor institutionalized.

So what is curatorial journalism?

Curatorial journalism is the compilation, curation, and collation of major-media reporting from around the world and going back decades. Its purposes include: (1) to rescue from the “archive” stories that have been wrongly forgotten or abandoned because their relevance to events now occurring could not be known at the time they were published; (2) to network reports, whether new or old and from anywhere in the world, that address the same metanarratives, narratives, or subnarratives but are not currently in conversation with one another for benign reasons (e.g. memory-, time-, or process-related) or malicious ones (e.g. corporate-competition, transnational-bias, or archive-erasure ones); (3) to amplify the idiosyncratically newsworthy components of individual reports (that is, components that are not replicated in other reports on the same subject released at approximately the same time); (4) to encourage and aid “horizontal” news-gathering rather than merely “vertical” news-gathering (by which horizontal process institutions reach across the boundaries of their brands to work collaboratively with competitors and provide new context to the reports of each; (5) to add a much-needed “past-focus” and “future-focus” to a news ecosystem that is currently, for profit-motive reasons, present-oriented in an unhealthy, unsustainable way; and (6) to find in the gaps between published reports unmistakable, inarguable, inextricable metanarratives, narratives, and subnarratives robustly supported by their “tether” reports.

At its best, curatorial journalism invigorates existing reporting, exponentially increases its reach, honors it authors, permits a more robust understanding of the past and a more reliable contemplation of possible future events, and breaks down obstacles to the ethical and reliable mass transfer of information that are the result of journalism’s recent move toward professionalization, institutionalization, and centralization. It may also bring to light new narratives previously unseen, ones of such accuracy and significant probative value that their utility could not help but be recognized by even the most traditional investigative reporter.

(2) Metajournalism is an umbrella term that encompasses curatorial journalism, but also genres of journalism in both digital journalism and conventional journalism. While curatorial journalism is always metajournalism, not all metajournalism is curatorial journalism. For instance, news aggregation—whether automated or done at the hands of a human editor—is a genre of journalism that is adjacent to curatorial journalism while also being fundamentally different from it. News aggregation in the digital age focuses on three activities—identifying, linking, and indexing—with the first of these referring to the identification of communities of interest that would be likely to want to see all or most of a given subcategory of hard news. At its broadest application, news aggregation may be said to encompass the work of the programmers behind Google News, who deserve the appellation of “journalist” to the extent that they dedicate their lives to producing automated systems that allow for journalism to flow freely and reliably between persons (hence them being a breed of metajournalist).

{Note: It is an odd quirk, but one we must get used to, that metajournalism appears both above and below journalism in any visual hierarchy of journalistic concepts. While metajournalists are a subcategory of journalists, and therefore would appear “below” the term “journalism” in any mapping of the landscape of journalism, metajournalists also use acts of “journalism” as their core unit of measure and fundamental building blocks, and in this way might well appear “above” journalism in certain renderings. The Greek prefix “meta” variously means “between,” “above,” and “beyond,” which is appropriate for metajournalism because its processes mediate “between” existing major-media reporting, operate “above” such reporting to the extent that metajournalism must stand above existing reporting to curate it, and “beyond” conventional journalism inasmuch as metajournalism critiques how contemporary journalism functions.}

We might also identify popular social media users like Twitter’s Kyle Griffin as news aggregators, inasmuch as Griffin is so catholic in his attention to the news that he functions as a digital news anchor (a subgenre of news aggregation) who is “watched” by his followers on Twitter almost like a television station. Griffin is conducting all of the newsworthiness analyses listed above at once, resulting in a Twitter feed that may at one moment be focusing on criminal justice and at another moment on healthcare, on emerging technology or on major news in the entertainment industry. More common than this sort of general aggregator is an enthusiast and/or expert in a specific field, who acts as a special aggregator of the news relating to a very narrow area of inquiry (say model trains, or horror movies, or GPS devices). Anyone who is a hobbyist in a niche area can find a reliable special aggregator and then treat that aggregator as an essential journalistic source with a deliberately and transparently narrow bandwidth.

It is ironic that recent attacks against metajournalism have been publicly cheered by Daniel Dale, the chief fact-checker for CNN, and Brian Stelter, the chief media critic for CNN, as fact-checking and media criticism are further journalistic genres that, just like curatorial journalism and news aggregation, fall under the umbrella category of metajournalism. Unlike curatorial journalists or news aggregators, however, a media critic hones the combined skill-sets of an op-ed columnist and fact-checker to review both individual major-media reports and the field of reporting generally (usually to determine how well it is adhering to the four “OATH” principles). Meanwhile, a fact-checker uses archival research to focus almost exclusively on one of these principles (accuracy) with respect to individual reports or, not quite as metajournalistically, the newsworthy statements of individuals whether reduced to a discrete report or not.

Perhaps the most well-known and successful American metajournalist alive today is Rachel Maddow, whose nightly cable news program, The Rachel Maddow Show, offers a metajournalistic take on the genre of journalism we call “investigative reporting.” Maddow’s investigative reports are almost entirely dependent on existing major-media reports rather than original reporting, which is one reason why—along with Maddow’s willingness to look deep into the news archive during the course of her investigations—her show often teases out metanarratives, narratives, and subnarratives others don’t.

Another type of journalism mentioned above that has lately become popular and, despite being a form of metajournalism, is considered acceptable—because it’s housed inside a corporate brand—is explanatory journalism. Maybe the foremost practitioner of this new craft is Vox, which uses hyperlink-filled paragraphs to summarize complex issues and bring readers up to speed on them quickly. Perhaps no genre of journalism or type of metajournalism is nearer curatorial journalism than explanatory journalism, but again, the lack of institutional affiliation often found in the former is a hindrance to its wider acceptance—though there’s really no good reason this should be the case.

Even before digital journalism was possible, however, metajournalism existed. Charles Euchner—author of a dozen books, former writing instructor at Columbia University and Yale University, and a former think tank director at Harvard University—has noted, in a recent essay, that today’s metajournalists are like the “slot men” or “slots” (the latter being the preferable term today) of a conventional newspaper newsroom.

As Euchner explains, historically the “slot” was a newspaper journalist whose job was:

“…to put a section [of the paper] together: gathering stories, deciding on placement, laying out the pages. The best slot was also an editorial maestro. Moving paragraphs around, demanding a quote or a fact to strengthen a point, adding a nut [paragraph], sharpening definitions, and shifting emphasis…[they] could make a good story great. Legendary slots went even further. They took locally reported material and blended it with information from wire services like AP, UPI, Reuters, The New York Times, and more. With a broad and deep knowledge of the news—and history and human nature and storytelling—they could fashion a compelling, fair-minded, and sprightly summary of the latest news developments.”

One might go even further back into history and note that metajournalists are engaged in modes of research, analysis, synthesis, and the curation of extant work-product that every historian would recognize as the work of historians since time immemorial.

(3) If history is “slow journalism,” metajournalism is “fast journalism.” You can likely see, now, that if you take any of the major metajournalistic modes—fact-checking, media criticism, curatorial journalism, slotting, or Rachel Maddow’s digital research-oriented investigative reporting—and stretch out its work over not a day or week but many years or decades or even centuries, it becomes “mere” historical research. What do you call a fact-checker who is “fact-checking” the declarations of the pharaohs of the Egyptian dynasties? A historian. What do you call someone using digital research-oriented investigative processes to uncover how many Londoners died in the Great Fire of 1666? A historian. What do you call a curatorial journalist who is trying to more accurately depict of the events of Battle of Antietam in 1862 using hundreds of major-media reports, documentaries, and published letters from the combatants themselves? A historian. What do you call a “media critic” whose criticism is directed at the use and reception of “libels” (printed pamphlets on a matter of public debate that often defamed those they depicted) when they first appeared scattered on the streets of 17th century London, authored by some of the world’s finest proto-journalists? A historian.

So are metajournalists just historians in the business of writing “real-time histories”? In a sense, yes, though we certainly mustn’t relegate the role of emerging technologies in journalism’s dozens of genres and subgenres to a historical curiosity. Throughout the ages, technology hasn’t just informed the mass transfer of information but defined and transformed it. So it simply won’t do to say that metajournalists are no more than revved-up historians; rather, their practices, their procedures, their protocols, and even the subculture in which they operate distinguish them from historians as a matter of kind and not degree. A curatorial journalist, for instance, is likely to use ten times more sources than a historian while drawing substantially less material from each source. He or she is going to compile information as it is released, a sufficiently fraught endeavor that the metajournalist must create a network of information so vast it does not see its metanarratives, narratives, or even subnarratives collapse if one node in the network is subsequently revealed to be faulty. The audience of the metajournalist is more likely, as compared to a historian, to be an anxious public looking for actionable intelligence in the midst of an ongoing emergency, not an audience looking for the medium-term instruction and entertainment of bygone events. This transforms every aspect of the metajournalist’s work, from the time it must be completed in to how public it must be even as it is being undertaken, from how and where and when it is disseminated to how it handles any necessary ex post facto corrections. I might liken the relationship between curatorial journalism and historical nonfiction to that between baseball and cricket—they’re cousins, with key commonalities and points of divergence, with subcultures surrounding them distinct enough that they demand to be honored in their particulars.

(4) Metajournalism is a recognized mode in academia. It’s unsurprising that reporters like Haberman, with a surprisingly narrow understanding of the history of journalism and a vested interest in erasing journalists who are not reporters like she is, would like to eviscerate metajournalism as “not journalism” simply because it is not conventional reportage. Considerably more difficult to pin down are the motivations of academics like Drezner, who surely know that metajournalism has been a subject of study and discussion and research within the academy for years. In its early days, the concept was styled as “meta-journalism” (note the hyphen) and somewhat drearily literal—it referred to journalism about journalism, such as in a 2012 Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab story that associated the phenomenon with an “online news site about online news sites”, or on a Digital Media Law Project website page that defined it as an “organization[ ] engaged in scrutinizing other journalists.” But even such earlier reckonings are useful for two key reasons: (1) they acknowledge “meta-journalists” as journalists, a status both Haberman and Drezner would still deny them, and (2) they clearly encompass existing and universally embraced metajournalistic modes like fact-checking and media criticism, both of which “scrutinize other journalists” in exactly the ways enumerated by the Digital Media Law Project.

{Note: I admit to having great personal interest in the many as-yet-unindexed subgenres of metajournalism, such as those that practiced by those individuals online who correct major-media headlines before reposting the stories to which they’re attached, with an eye toward increasing their accuracy—journalistic operators who obey the core principles of journalism and who I think of as “fixers”; those who synthesize major-media reports alongside a reposting of them in order to dredge up buried ledes or unravel tangled subnarratives—men and women I think of as “reframers”; those who redress the errors produced by social media “previews,” which sometimes remove or shorten a story’s actual headline and thereby make it less accurate or engaging or instructive—individuals I think of as “retouchers”; or those who, knowing that the overwhelming majority of news-readers on social news websites will not click through to read even the stories they’re most interested in, select pull-quotes to put atop their re-postings of stories, fundamentally the work of an “excerpter”; and so on. All of these tasks, if conducted systematically, persistently, ethically, accurately, and transparently, could in some instances position one in the role of a journalist with a narrow, self-defined yet critically important task.}

But academic discourse on metajournalism goes well beyond just the identification of useful media watchdogs. Nearly six years ago, the academic journal Communication Theory published an article entitled, “Metajournalistic Discourse and the Meanings of Journalism: Definitional Control, Boundary Work, and Legitimation” (note the wise elimination of the now-antiquated hyphen). The article promised to “develop a theory of metajournalistic discourse that connects three components—actors, audiences, and topics—to processes of definition making, boundary work, and legitimation.”

Because this isn’t an academic article, I’ll stop here on this point. Suffice to say that the digital age has, unsurprisingly, launched a robust conversation among academics about what metajournalism is, how it can be practiced, and how it can be discussed.

(5) The newest metajournalistic modes are rightly deemed metamodern phenomena. If anything has slowed academic discourse about metajournalism, it is that academic discourse is now—and has been since the mid-20th century—generally channelled by those who self-identify as postmodernists or post-structuralists, the former a cultural philosophy that advocates for “deconstructing” events, people, and processes so that we can better see how truth is not absolute but encoded in innumerable conflicting perspectives. Postmodernists using post-structuralist thinking to “deconstruct” their areas of inquiry often find themselves creating dialectics—battles between opposing perspectives that can be mapped along a two-dimensional line with two poles like this one (•—•). In such a system, only one of the two warring perspectives can ever emerge victorious. While historically academics did not think of dialectics as destructive—it’s supposed to be a means of accessing previously locked quadrants of meaning—in the hands of postmodernists dialectical debates have, unfortunately, become exactly that.

In short, postmodernism has become hostile to paradoxes—situations in which two seemingly mutually exclusive phenomena exist in harmony. This is a problem for any idea in academic discourse that is metamodernistic, a metamodernism is a cultural philosophy generally focused on “reconstructing” things that have been previously deconstructed, which it does not by placing concepts in dialectical opposition to one another and then choosing one to promote, but rather, metamodernists by adopting a “both/and” philosophy in which one simultaneously embraces two opposing poles and, in so doing, creates a new edifice of meaning.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with metajournalism?

Well, metajournalism, particularly the emerging mode of metajournalism known as curatorial journalism, is interested in acts of reconstruction—inasmuch as curatorial journalists find far-flung objects within our collapsed journalistic ecosystem and “reconstruct” from these objects a more robust, accurate, transparent, and honest series of narratives than they ever would have been had they been left in far-flung locales. More importantly, in doing this the curatorial journalist must necessarily embrace a paradox: he or she amplifies the work of conventional reporters even as that amplification implicitly and necessarily offers a critique of conventional journalism.

Postmodernists like Drezner and Haberman are discomfited by paradoxes, and seek to resolve them with binaries: for instance, the idea that the metajournalist is either a friend of journalism or a foe. In fact, the metajournalist is both of these two things simultaneously—but we can see how, to a postmodernist who happens to also be a political reporter (Haberman) or academic steeped in postmodernism (Drezner), if one must choose one of these two possibilities one will choose, if only for self-preservation, “the metajournalist is a foe.” This option identifies a threat to be summarily destroyed.

In fact, while metajournalism’s simultaneous amplification and critique of traditional reportage can be perceived as threatening, in fact—as the gradual acceptance of fact-checkers, media critics, and curatorial investigative reporters who almost exclusively use others’ work (like Rachel Maddow) teaches us—metajournalism is, in the long run, only beneficial to journalism. For instance, metajournalism implicitly critiques the fact that limited time and resources means reporters often don’t read previous reporting on the subject they’re reporting on before filing their own reports; far from this critique being a curse or burden to reporters, however, it’s freeing: either metajournalism absolves reporters of doing work they should currently be doing because they can rest assured that metajournalists will do it later on, or the fact that metajournalists exist will keep reporters honest about knowing the contexts into which they’re writing and this will, in time, make reporters be better reporters. Both these ends are positive ones for reporters, even if it’s always hard, and understandably so, to have a change imposed upon one from without. Still, the mild discomfort of a positive but inconveniently timed impetus isn’t the same thing as the threat of an all-out assault on the profession.

(6) Older journalists and journalism professors hate and fear metajournalism. This has already been pretty well covered, but it bears repeating as its own item for one simple reason: older journalists and journalism professors (Jay Rosen at New York University comes to mind) don’t just want to eradicate curatorial journalists from the landscape of journalism—including by destroying the personal lives and professional careers of curatorial journalists if they must—they aim to erase the word metajournalism altogether by leaving their own peers (at CNN, at the New York Times, and elsewhere) out of the picture altogether. In the view of the Old Guard in media, the less metajournalists like fact-checkers and media critics are discussed, the better, as the focus must always remain on hard-news reportage (which is easier to teach and easier for an audience to understand than any metajournalistic mode, so it comes more naturally to both the journalism professor and the practicing journalist). The problem, of course, is that not only is the discourse on journalism that results disingenuous, it’s incoherent; it leaves the Old Guard distinguishing between, say, the op-ed columnists of the Washington Post and the op-ed columnists of a digital sports-reporting start-up solely on the basis of the pedigree of the former institution. In short, conversations about journalism become, in this view, nothing more than conversations about brand and, still worse, cultural capital.

This is not only intellectual untenable, it’s immoral. Journalism existed long before it was defined by professionalization and institutionalization, and the arrival of platforms like Substack may well herald the end of the era of professionalization and institutionalization in journalism (at least as we’ve known it). If we don’t start having a conversation about what journalism really is now—that is, if we don’t discuss it as a bundle of core principles and values wrapped up in emerging technologies and a clear public-interest function—we’ll have no means whatsoever to discuss journalism as individual corporate brands collapse and disappear over the next twenty-five years. In short, what Old Guard scions like Haberman and Drezner are deeding us is a future in which the death of individual media institutions will be deemed synonymous with the death of journalism, a false, apocalyptic tautology that must be disqualified right now.

Journalism existed before newspapers and will exist after them; it existed before cable news and will exist after it; and the reason for this is that journalism is a writing, research, communications, and ethical practice defined by (1) its core principles and values, and (2) its use of emerging technologies to accomplish (3) a public-interest function related to the mass transfer of information in some way necessary to those receiving it. Any attack on a journalistic mode that is helping us advance this timeless cause is an attack on journalism itself. And any such attack predicated upon one’s own role in the journalistic enterprise—or one’s lifespan-delimited understanding of what journalism finally is—is fundamentally risible.

(7) Metajournalism can save journalism in both the short- and medium-term. While we can’t know what would “save” journalism in the long run—as changing communal values, still-undiscovered future technologies, and therefore unknowable future needs, contexts, and desired functions for journalism make this sort of calculus impossible—we can at least assess the present and see enough into the future to say metajournalism can save journalism in both the short- and medium-term. The “brand”-focused debate over journalism I mentioned above is what brought us the “fake news” debate, which fundamentally seeks to distinguish “good” from “bad” media institutions using still disturbingly unclear criteria. By contrast, an analysis of where journalism is now that focuses on either core journalistic values or the ways in which the real needs of news-readers are (or more often aren’t) being met comes to a very different conclusion.

It’s not that fake-news websites don’t exist; they do, they’re horrid, and we could wish that no one ever looked at a single one of them again. But the truth is that identifying and shaming such sites does nothing to limit their audience, as it doesn’t touch the reasons they arose in the first place. While we don’t want to exculpate any individual news-reader from their responsibility—and it really is a civic responsibility—to avoid “fake news,” we must nevertheless determine why so many of our fellow Americans have turned their attention in this direction. And the hard truth is that some (not all) of those reasons have to do with how journalism is being practiced today by conventional journalists. If we treat journalism as a concept with three parts (values, technologies, and contexts) we can see that various elements of today’s corporate media ecosystem run afoul of all three: they don’t encapsulate the values with which journalism has historically been associated; they haven’t responded adequately to new technologies; and, as a result, they operate in ways that are ill-suited to our present context.

If we identify a certain bundle of flaws in conventional reporting roughly have to do with the twin topics of “time” and “space”—e.g., conventional journalism both isn’t dextrous enough to engage intelligently with the best-informed news-reading population in the history of humankind (made so due to the speed and dynamism of the internet) and has become conceptually provincial due to “brand siloing”—it is these very blind-spots that metajournalism can partner with conventional reporting to address. If, that is, conventional reporters will simply stop trying to public assassinate metajournalists and erase metajournalism altogether from contemporary journalism.

(8) While metamodernism is indeed a mild threat to corporate journalism, it is not a threat to conventional journalists. For complex stories, metajournalistic modes like curatorial journalism are increasingly not optional but mandatory, for the reason that individuated corporate-journalism “brands” just aren’t up to the task of reporting on global, complex, interdisciplinary, fast-developing, emergency-producing matrices of news items on their own. This isn’t the fault of these brands; indeed, it’s simply that no one brand can have enough reporters, anchors, editors, executives, equipment and so on to adequately cover a story like (say) climate change. There aren’t enough hours in the day for for-profit media, which depends on viewers’ ardent attention, to do all the deep dives into the history of a single issue like this one that could be done in, say, an epic trilogy of books or in a Twitter feed that makes near-obsessive use of “threading.”

This said, corporate brands know their limitations, and sometimes acknowledge them. They will, on occasion, report out news that was first reported elsewhere but that they themselves have not independently confirmed. They’ll interview reporters from other media outlets they see themselves as not competing with directly, and sometimes even outlets they do compete with. They may even air shows (as MSNBC does with Rachel Maddow’s program) whose content even more robustly “crosses” brands, indeed in a manner we would call metajournalistic. To the extent some metajournalists believe the “siloing” that keeps corporate brands from doing more to push work like Maddow’s is harmful to our news culture, they and their work-product do represent a threat to the discreteness of for-profit brands. Conversely, to the extent that metajournalistic work like Maddow’s or more conventional curatorial journalism will always require the work of conventional reporters to act as its units of measure and key building blocks, it will never be a threat to conventional reporters. Indeed, inasmuch as curatorial journalism has certain standards for the use of a media outlet’s reporting—such as the presence of an editorial structure—that presume a certain degree of continued institutionalization and professionalization in journalism, it’s not even clear that metajournalism’s threat to corporate media is that strong. It perhaps would be best to say that emerging modes of metajournalism are ambivalent about for-profit journalism (mainly as an averaging out of some hostility toward it and a necessary admiration for it) and unambiguously in favor of the work of the world’s hard-news and investigative reporters themselves.

(9) Metajournalism can be executed digitally or in print. By this point in the essay I suppose this may go without saying, but while many subgenres of metajournalism—notably, curatorial journalism and the sort of digital research-oriented investigative reporting Rachel Maddow does—are substantially aided by emerging technologies, and some may even be conducted by artificial intelligence exclusively or as part of a human-machine collaboration in the future, we find plenty of metajournalism in print.

It’s not just the tradition of the “slot man” or “slot” mentioned above; or the fact that media watchdogs and fact-checkers sometimes publish their work in print; it’s that metajournalism can appear in “long-form” as well as “short-form” varieties. My trilogy of books about Donald Trump’s foreign policy scandals—Proof of Collusion (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Proof of Conspiracy (Macmillan, 2019), and Proof of Corruption (Macmillan, 2020)—are epic works of print metajournalism that required extraordinary resources to finish, including $75,000 in fact-checking costs, a team of 12 professional fact-checkers, a professionally formatted online index of sources hundreds of pages long, and compositional and editing techniques that are wholly foreign to traditional political nonfiction (for instance, writing at the level of the sentence rather than the paragraph, such that one sentence might be written and then immediately designated to chapter 33, the next chapter 19, and so on; the book is written “from the inside out,” that is, rather than sequentially).

(10) Metajournalism is always meticulous about sourcing and citation. Because some metajournalists work outside media institutions—a trendline that will only become more dramatic as the years pass—it is easiest to attack them, if it’s your aim to do so, by falsely assuming they don’t believe in the “OATH” principles or (even more cruelly) falsely accusing them of “stealing” the word of others. This monstrous practice of portraying ethical metajournalistic practices as rank intellectual property crimes has to stop, not because it’s hurtful (though it is) but because it’s manifestly untrue. As much as any genre of journalism, metajournalism depends upon meticulous sourcing and citation. Readers of metajournalism should be able to track how a metajournalistic document was constructed and return to the original sources themselves; indeed, neither a work of curatorial journalism nor a piece of media criticism nor a cable-news fact-checking segment would be of much value or carry with it any indicia of reliability if readers and viewers had no access to the original sources. Just so, metajournalists who are augmenting conventional reporting (e.g., curatorial journalists) rather than scrutinizing it (e.g., fact-checkers and media critics) owe it to the conventional reporters on whom their work depends to clearly source and cite those same reporters.

More broadly, a metajournalistic mode like curatorial journalism falls apart if it has no standards for the sources it selects—one reason that another fraudulent attack against metajournalism is often a specious claim that its sourcing is questionable. In a recent Ask Me Anything (AMA) here at Proof, I wrote that “there are a number of criteria [for selecting media outlets as part of a digital curation]. A few: reputation of source; longevity of source; editorial structure; amount of investigation done; synchronicity with reporting in known reliable sources; pedigree and curriculum vitae of top editors and/or the reporter(s) in question; [the outlet’s] commitment to the topic in question over time; [the plausibility of [its] reporting based on known characteristics of certain actors [in the curated narrative under review]; awards or other indicia of prominence in the outlet’s jurisdiction; and the lack of anonymity among anyone associated with the outlet.” This is not a complete list, of course, but it gives you a sense that metajournalism that involves curation is impossible without protocols for the act of curation. Just as criminal defense attorneys don’t—contrary to popular perception—want even their guilty clients to lie to them, as those lies end up sinking any defense at trial, no metajournalist who curates wants to use unreliable sources, as by definition these could damage large portions of the matrix of information being created. Indeed, as I noted above, the larger the universe of information curated, the more reliable the metanarratives, narratives, and subnarratives presented or exposed by the curation; anything endangering a sector of the curation is anathema to the work.

(11) Subject-matter expertise helps, but it’s not a prerequisite. Many reporters are not actually experts in the fields they report upon until well into their careers—if they ever achieve expertise at all. So it’s odd that some traditional reporters seem to demand of metajournalists that they possess a degree of expertise few conventional reporters do. While it helps if a Supreme Court reporter has a J.D. and has practiced law, and while it’s even better if they’ve practiced appellate law and done so before the Court itself, we rarely find such pedigrees among such reporters. Instead, immersion in the field of Supreme Court practice and jurisprudence over time gradually provides a conventional reporter with enough context about this highly specialized field—and enough contacts within it—to become, as it were, an “amateur expert” (something of an oxymoron, but you understand the meaning) if not a “professional expert.” Indeed, one reason that access journalists like Haberman continue using sources who have lied to them in the past is because a political reporter who uses this method to gain access to scoops isn’t so much an trained expert in politics, governance, the history of the executive branch, legislation, or anything else reported on; but the fact that Haberman doesn’t hold any graduate degrees didn’t stop her from receiving a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, nor should it have, as she developed a wide knowledge of politics over decades working in the field.

By the same token, in writing the Proof trilogy I found useful my training, experience, and education in reporting, political editorials, criminal investigations, trial advocacy, legal research, cultural theory, political activism, digital communications, composition studies, professional editing, creative writing (nonfiction), and poetics (an academic discipline in which one can receive a Ph.D.)—but despite these influences, my books ended up getting classified by online booksellers as being in the areas of History and Intelligence & Espionage, disciplines in which I have no specific training, experience, or education.

But here is where metamodernism, which takes a view of expertise fundamentally inspired by the fluidity, dynamism, and interdisciplinarity of the digital age, really shines: by the time I was done with my trilogy on Trump’s foreign policy scandals I was being contacted by national security reporters from major-media outlets to pick my brain, not because they saw me as an “expert” in the conventional sense (e.g., someone with a degree in Homeland Security Studies) but because they saw me as an expert in the same way Haberman is seen as a political expert by her peers in major media. Like all forms of journalism, metajournalism requires such a marshaling of different skill-sets and knowledge bases over time that one develops competencies that do not readily show up on a resume or CV. We accept this for reporters, who spend years, frankly, reporting in highly technical and/or complex areas of inquiry before we can truly recognize any notion of expertise in their command of it, but in the future we will need to make the same accommodation for metajournalists. I’ll never have the expertise of a trained intelligence analyst, but after writing a 2,500-page epic with 12,000 citations on the subject of Donald Trump’s foreign policy scandals, there are plenty of reasons why a trained intelligence analyst might want to speak to me (and vice versa, of course).

So it is not that metajournalism specifically, or metamodernism broadly, has a lack of respect for expertise—far from it. It’s that it takes a much more mature, dynamic, and technology-enabled perspective on how competencies are gained. In a world in which reporters like Haberman win Pulitzer Prizes without graduate degrees in journalism, that’s all to the good. When you read the story of how Haberman became a reporter now, it is astounding think that, decades later, she’d position herself as a gatekeeper of who gets to consider themselves a journalist and how journalism must be practiced.

(12) Metajournalism, manifested as curatorial journalism, globalizes journalism. It is embarrassing that, in 2021, with much of the world connected digitally, Americans still have so little awareness of what is happening in other countries or what reporters elsewhere are focusing on unless and until the United States comes into conflict with another nation-state. Among the most important but least heralded components of curatorial journalism is that because it does not require on-site interviews there are no travel costs associated with it; for that reason, metajournalists who are curatorial journalists can draw from sources all over the world—reporters whose knowledge of events will necessarily differ from American reporters’ knowledge because their perspectives, values, and local context may well be very different from ours. To the extent that globalization can help make all journalism more responsive to the “OATH” principles of objectivity, accuracy, transparency, and honesty, this responsiveness will be felt first in relatively friction-free metajournalistic modes like curatorial journalism that can be practiced irrespective of one’s financial resources or institutional support.

(BONUS) Metajournalism undermines the hegemony of “now-ism” plaguing major media. It has been observed so frequently that it is no longer interesting to observe it that major media is judged by its ability to accrue eyeballs—the attention of a mass audience—with the result that it can only focus on individual stories for a few minutes at a time; must constantly be identifying its reporting as “breaking news” whether it deserves the appellation or not; must use audio and video in highly manipulative ways to puppeteer viewers’ emotional responses; must sometimes “manufacture” news by reporting on the actions or reactions of its own employees (as when a cable news outlet urges us in a headline to “Watch Don Lemon’s reaction when…”); and generally must favor provocative surrogates and strident pundits over sober experts because to do otherwise would be to risk some measure of audience that determines ad rates and revenue. In short, the profit incentives in corporate media nearly all run counter to the “OATH” principles and actively alienate viewers.

One of the clearest indications of this is a sort of “now-ism” that presents news stories to readers with as little context as possible, as context is considered dry and turgid when placed alongside the flashing brilliant light of any new development. Just so, this “now-ism” encourages outlets to always be reacting to the crisis of a given moment rather than projecting current events forward into their most likely outcomes. For instance, it was easier to cover Donald Trump’s tweets du jour than it was to identify compelling evidence that his inaction on COVID-19 was almost certain to be the proximate cause of hundreds of thousands of preventable American deaths. The result of “now-ism” in this instance was that Donald Trump controlled the news cycle and continued to do so as deaths mounted due to his actions—with the first and often last word on America’s mounting death toll always being, appallingly, Trump himself.

{Note: This is the first in a long series of essays on contemporary journalism that will be published by Proof in the weeks, months, and years ahead.}