March 25, 2004
No One Owns Journalism: Discussion Paper for BloggerCon Two.
The background essay, "No One Owns Journalism," and an initial list of questions for the BloggerCon session I will be leading April 17 at Harvard Law School. Expect this post to change as comments come in and I re-think it. Plus, I need ten more questions for my final list of twenty. Got an idea?
I will be discussion leader for a session at BloggerCon that we are tentatively calling “What is Journalism? And What Can Weblogs Do About it?”
If you plan to attend, (see Dave Winer’s invitation) or follow along by webcast, or if you just have an interest in the subject, here are background notes, some distinctions that might usefully be drawn before discussion starts, and an initial list of questions for the group. There will be no lecture, no speeches, no panel. Dave’s philosophy at BloggerCon (and I agree with it) is that the people in the room are the panel. Keep that in mind as you read this. If you show up, you are a participant. It helps to be on the same page as others, and that’s the purpose of this post.
(Expect this to be revised up to the day of the conference, April 17.)
Background Essay, Draft Form:
No One Owns Journalism
(About 1,500 words, so read it when you have time.)
By “journalism” we ought to mean the practice of it, not the profession of it. Journalism can happen on any platform. It is independent of its many delivery devices. This also means that journalism is not the same thing—at all—as “the media.” The media, or Big Media as some call it, does not own journalism, and cannot dispose of it on a whim.
Nor does any professional group own journalism, any more than museums and galleries can “own” painting. Although the best journalists around today are professionals, this has not always been the case. During Benjamin Franklin’s time, printers were the people who served as journalists. They were stationed at the right point in the information flow, and they had the means to distribute news. Printers were often postmasters too, which helped.
If printers and postmasters, who didn’t set out to be journalists, can wind up as that, then in any era we should think it possible for people to wind up doing journalism because they find it a logical, practical, meaningful, democratic, and worthwhile activity.
The Open Practice and a Free Press
Journalism is a demanding practice; and only in principle—a pretty important principle—is “anyone” or “everyone” able to do it. It might surprise some at BloggerCon that journalists do not always like to be called professionals. Many don’t buy it, and they will argue with you if you say journalism is a profession. The first time I met with this attitude, I didn’t understand it. You won’t find social workers, pharmacists, dentists or public school teachers grabbing your lapels to say: We’re not a profession, buddy. Got that? But in journalism you get this argument often.
Why? Well, it’s part of a larger argument— for freedom in the press. “Journalism is a profession” only makes sense if you officially qualify people as journalists. That’s what a profession does: restrict the practice to the qualified ones. The bid for public trust follows from that initial division between the qualified and the not. “I’m a licensed teacher, trust me with your child.”
Journalists sometimes join in those kinds of restrictions (the press pass, for example) and they often do think, “we’re the pros at this…you’re not. ” But the deeper feeling among many is that journalism should always be open, unrestricted, in principle there for anyone, qualified or not, experienced or not, because to restrict the practice to approved voices is ultimately hostile to a free press. That’s why they say: we’re not a profession, don’t call us that.
The Professionals Set a Standard
So to argue that professionals don’t own journalism is no disrespect to professionals. It’s simply another way of calling for a free press, of preserving journalism as an open and democratic practice. The truth is that the people who do it for a living, because they are able to do it for a living, set a high standard for excellence, and—despite all kinds of problems—for basic accuracy in reporting.
Meanwhile, the capacity of the major news organizations to find out what’s happening, to package and deliver it to people, dwarfs any alternative capacity out there— including, of course, the weblogs. What I mean by “dwarfs” includes facts like the news and editorial budget at the New York Times: $180 million a year for a staff of 1,200. (See this.) That translates into power, as when The Times won a reprieve from Internet censorship in China because “its former editor appealed personally to former President Jiang Zemin.”
Even at two million weblogs and counting, the blog sphere isn’t in the same category or dimension as an institution like the Times, and that’s only one of hundreds of rich and powerful firms in the journalism biz (including nonprofit firms like NPR.) The weblog sphere isn’t an institution at all, and whatever strengths it has probably derive from that.
My own feeling is that amateur journalists, citizens, webloggers should take seriously the existing standard in the institutional press. They should understand what goes into meeting it, and even emulate professional journalism from time to time— when it fits with the author’s purposes. These are self-defined. And when they are not, a weblog is starting to become something else, more familiar to us. In the worst case, it’s PR or propaganda.
Of course, none of this means we should back off for a moment from criticism of a powerful institution, the press, or that all-surrounding complex, The Media. Both need it, and this is one of the first demands that weblogs, including this one, responded to. But when you free “journalism” from those two things—The Press, The Media—it’s easier to talk about the practice and what weblogs may add to it.
Passage to the Public Sphere
Even if only a tiny amount of “real journalism” (however you define it) goes on at weblogs, there is significance in a simpler fact: blogs represent passage to the public sphere. Citizens of any kind who decide to take up their pens and write their thoughts down at their own self-titled, self-published magazines—and there are a lot of those already—could, at any time, pick up the reporter’s notebook too. The first place they are likely to head is some event that concerns them— maybe the school board.
Are amateur correspondents unlikely to emerge en masse? Extremely so. And maybe their chance for a mass audience is nil. But picture them anyway. Were they to go out and report the world, the weblog is already there, an outlet to the sea. By starting to blog as a journalist, they can navigate to the open waters of the Web, and follow their own course in journalism to… who knows?
This is what openness means. It takes a stunted or cynical mind to find no importance in it. Any increase in human freedom—what people are now free to do for themselves—adds to democratic possibility. The weblog, I think, is an addition like that in journalism. Read James Wolcott in Vanity Fair on the blogs. He agrees.
No one owns the practice. In principle, it’s anyone’s game. The press doesn’t own journalism, entirely. And Big Media doesn’t entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn’t. These things were always true. The weblog doesn’t change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends “the press” to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night.
Journalism is Done for a Public
Journalism can be a commercial thing, done for money, or a noncommercial thing, done for love. It may be done as a public service, a way of entering into political debate, or for the simple and practical reasons people have always shared information or “talk.” It can be a purely human and expressive act. And, of course, it is sometimes done for reasons of power.
But what most identifies the practice of journalism is not power, profit, or free expression in itself. It’s the idea of addressing, engaging and freely informing a “public” about events in its world. It is an interesting question how many people it takes for, say, a political weblog to have a political public. I don’t know that it has an answer.
Philosophers disagree on whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound, if no ear hears it. But it is certain that the tree does not make news. Until it hits a house, and civilization gets involved. Then a public interest is at stake. Now there can be news. Journalism has something to do with things seen at stake in the world for a group of inter-connected people who share that world. Those are the people I’m calling a public.
To get even more elemental about it, and to go back further in time: Before you can have journalism, certain patterns in human settlement need to arise. The scale must be enlarged enough so that things happening all around the settlement are hard to know about without a lot of extra effort. Self-contained worlds on a truly human scale don’t need many journalists and may have none. Life there is self-informing.
Modern Scale and the Awayness of Things
I once tried to characterize this condition as the “awayness” of things. The harbor town small enough so that everyone knows when a new ship arrives needs no provider of shipping news. By going about its business, the town already has the news, so to speak. You could say that everyone’s a journalist around the harbor. You could say that no one is, which is probably wiser.
In this sense, journalism is modern because the scale that requires it is modern. Big developments in the awayness of things—wars, for example, or a growth in the scale of economic activity—always drive, transform and unsettle journalism. It seems we’re at such a point now. The Internet is a rather big development in the awayness of things.
If some say we are verging on a new era in citizens’ media; if they are tempted to phrase it melodramatically, as in “now the audience has a printing press,” or “now everyone’s a journalist,” then our discussion at BloggerCon must admit into evidence all the ways these statements misidentify the reality and over-estimate or misconstrue the weblog’s (so far) modest effects— all the ways they aren’t true.
But at the same time, it’s helpful to isolate the handful of ways that such sweeping and lyricized statements are true. “Now everyone can be a journalist” may be too idealistic, or just hype. But it speaks to a verifiable fact: barriers to entry have come way down in Web publishing. Monopolies of knowledge are being ended here and there. And there are in fact more citizen journalists out there today who do have their own printing press and perhaps a public too. They are interacting with the press more and more, criticizing it a lot. They are making use of their outlet to the sea.
Something New and Potentially Big
The same forces bringing us those developments are meanwhile writing a new chapter in the evolution of journalism, the professional practice, by its available technology. Which brings us to the possibilities of the weblog, a technology available to journalism, which also makes journalism more “available” to non-journalists. The premise of the J-track at BloggerCon (three sessions during the day) is that the weblog form and its setting (commonly but inelegantly called the Blogosphere) together represent something new in journalism— new and potentially important.
That’s very different from saying: the revolution is here!
What that “new” factor is, and how important it might become, what’s already happened in journalism because of weblogs— these are crucial matters on the floor, the meat of the subject at BloggerCon. The ticking heart of the subject, however, is why do journalism at all? What’s it good for? Why does it matter if it’s done one way or another? And why should webloggers even care about the practice? I anticipate good arguments around that.
One argument I do not anticipate making much room for is the most tired one: Are weblogs journalism? Frankly, I don’t care about this question. I think it’s dumb. As your discussion leader, expect me to lead away from it as soon as it comes up. But that means moving toward other, better questions, in pursuit of which there is the Comment section here (with 100+ entries) and here. (BOP News)
Finally, a Link
Ready? James W. Carey, The Struggle Against Forgetting. Carey, CBS Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University, has through a long career been Dean of the School of Communication at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, a member of the PBS Board, president of the Association for Education in Journalism in Mass Communication, and an author, scholar, critic concerned with journalism, culture and democratic life. The link goes to a speech Carey gave to entering journalism students at Columbia.
The snippet to get you interested:
“…Journalism arose as a protest against illegitimate authority in the name of a wider social contract, in the name of the formation of a genuine public life and a genuine public opinion. Journalism can be practiced virtually anywhere and under almost any circumstances. Just as medicine, for example, can be practiced in enormous clinics organized like corporations or in one-person offices, journalism can be practiced in multinational conglomerates or by isolated freelancers…. The practice does not depend on the technology or bureaucracy. It depends on the practitioner mastering a body of skill and exercising it to some worthwhile purpose.” More…
Aftermath: Notes, Reactions & Links…
A frequently productive discussion is underway in Comments, with over 100 replies so far. So hit the button and contribute your thoughts.
Interesting discussion at Tom Mangan’s Prints the Chaff: Bloggers and the Pulitzers. See the comments too.
Dave Winer, host and organizer of BloggerCon, decides to answer the question: What is Journalism? His notion: “”An independent view of a series of events.”
Dan Rosenbaum of Over the Edge: Blogging as Journalism Redux: “Weblogs are tools. What people do with those tools is up to them. Weblogs themselves are no more journalism than compilers are programming or automobiles are commuting. Tool. Function. Result. They’re different. Why is that so hard to understand?”
Former CNN‘er Rebecca MacKinnon, who will be leading the session on international weblogs and journalism at BloggerCom, starts her pre-conference discussion, in parallel to this one:
Weblogs are currently the most established and effective form of interactive, participatory media that can create these “cyber-commons”. But there are many other formats and tools other than weblogs that can also create “cyber-commons” – and may in the future do a better job of it. I do not want to limit the discussion to a particular set of software tools and hardware technologies. Some of the issues I want to raise pre-date the weblog, and most will definitely outlive the weblog as we currently think of it in 2004.
Interested parties should head over to LA Observed and check this post for the remarkable story of the World Journalism Institute retracting an earlier mission statement about Christians in holy battle with seculars in the newroom. The statement, by director Robert Case, apologizes to members for the earlier logic, and credits criticism from weblogs for the realizations WJI came to:
The World Journalism Institute has recently come under criticism in some blog quarters concerning its mission statement and its rationale for existence. The criticism has been directed towards the wording in our mission statement that suggests the Institute seeks to train Christian journalists to bend the news to fit a preconceived (presupposed) worldview shaped by the Bible, and then to send those propagandists into the mainstream newsrooms as agents (cadre) of Christianity.
The criticism, while unpleasant, is on target given that particular mission statement.
from LA Observed: Advocates for Christ no more. PressThink’s question: what is that a victory for?
In a post recommended to realists, Phil Wolff of a klog apart says
reading blogs is a zero sum game. Each person on earth has only so much disposable attention. Every content publisher competes for that finite pool. It’s not the blogosphere, of course, but the entire mediasphere and the real world fighting for attention.
The very popularity of weblogs and their ease for new entrants means that our marketplace for attention becomes more efficient. Like any nearly efficient market, overall rents (profits distributed) average toward zero. In an attention market, that means you may get your shot at the big time, but your content had better meet some niche’s needs superbly or you’re toast.
Fairness? Equal distribution of attention means that everyone has to read more dreck and that nobody ever gets to discover classics or bestsellers… it’s wrong to expect opportunity to scale.
The Oregonian profiles local blogger b!x (but without any links): Portland e-citizen doggedly chronicles local government: “during the past year and a half, this college dropout with no journalism experience has become the must-read source for those who follow city government.” And b!x (Christopher Frankonis) continues the discussion in Comments here.
Unbillable Hours has a detailed post, On How We Discuss Blogs, in anticipation of BloggerCon.
When she’s not serving as illustration in blogging articles, the unnamed “suburban mom” linked to above is Debra Galant of Debra Galant Explains the Universe (subtitled, “suburbia, motherhood and other black holes.”)
At commonplaces, Tom comments on this post: “Unlike TV news anchors, bloggers don’t all need to have the same hair, suit, desk. They don’t need to seem implausibly earnest when talking about things that do not interest them at all. Blogging is a realm where the professional conveyors of information can observe experiments with every variety of nuance, tone, image, feedback loop, voice, ellipsis, range of reference, linkage, obscenity, parody, fraud, uncertainty of data and of source, narrative, understanding of probability, personae, spidering, data packaging, genre, color, emotion, and any other conceivable component of form.”
At Reading A1, Michael comments: “… ‘journalism’ as such, as a categorical abstraction, simply doesn’t exist. Journalism is a practice, or a set of practices, enabled by the creation of certain social technologies (hard technologies + social forms adapted to their use) for the distribution of information. As the social technologies that structure the practice of journalism change, so does journalism.”
They’re planning to watch the BloggerCon session in China.
British blogger Harry at Harry’s Place, Some Thoughts on Blogs and Journalism: “I notice a tendency amongst the elite bloggers in America to treat blogging as a new form of journalism, or as part of journalism itself and I see dangers in both approaches….First of all I don’t think anyone in the news business really fears blogs. In fact most British journalists I have met seem to quite enjoy reading weblogs and it is fun to sometimes spot when they have taken ideas from blog posts. Secondly, I really don’t think bloggers need tutelage by people who understand. What is refreshing about reading blogs is that they are different from reading newspapers.”
And Jeff Jarvis reacts to Harry.
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 25, 2004 2:21 PM
I won't be at bloggercon, so I appreciate this opportunity.
As you know, I look at the media revolution in the context of cultural postmodernism. I think the energy for change comes from the bottom of the pyramid, and that's especially true with the press. The energy is fueled by eyes opening and saying, "You know, none of this works."
I view Weblogs as a natural part of the transformation, but where I run into difficulty is when I see bloggers searching for kudos, recognition and influence within the traditional media landscape. When I see this and "top 100" lists, I have to ask myself if blogging isn't evolving, instead, simply into another form of traditional media, albeit one wherein argument is expressed.
We have that human need to try to manipulate everything we encounter for our own gain, something that is hierarchical and, therefore, modernist. I would love to see us just continue what we're doing and let the people decide the ultimate role we're going to play in the world of journalism. Each should have his or her own manifesto, and the rules should be common sense.
That's not to say we shouldn't be able to support ourselves in so doing, but somehow I just don't think the revenue model is going to be based on modernist reach/frequency.
So my questions would be: Do weblogs really give power to the people?
If weblog journalism is about power, what's to prevent weblogs from falling into the same trap that has snared the traditional press?
Keep up the great work. You're my hero.
Jay, it's great that this piece is more nuanced than the typical blog triumphalism. But I'd say that the phrasing and focus is still an invitation for an echo chamber of abstraction. Nothing wrong with that _per se_, of course, if that was your intent.
I find this to be the key passage:
"It's the idea of addressing, engaging or somehow informing a "public" about events in its world. It is an interesting question how many people it takes for, say, a political weblog to have a public. I don't know that it has an answer, however."
It's easy to vamp on the idea, but much harder to grapple with the answer.
To give an illustration, last week, I committed an act of journalism:
Bruce Taylor, Declan McCullagh, and "rotten little kids"
As free, unpaid, working-for-nothing, voice in the wilderness, reporting, I mean "citizen journalism", I checked with a source to see if he had really said an inflammatory quote as widely reported by a powerful journalist. He gave an excellent explanation of being misquoted as to meaning, and leads where I could further check if interested in verification.
Abstractly, wow, I'm a journalist too. Practically, tens of thousands people are going to read the original, and only a few dozen will read my blog. Moreover, if I ever do have any effect, I'll likely be venomously smeared in a hatchet-job, and will have no way to fight back.
Maybe I'm just missing the focus. But my reaction is that practice has to inform the theory if the theory is to have utility.
Jay, I wonder whether online journalism, both formal and informal, will merge in a way, in the future, as traditional journalist enterprises see that they may just be organizers of chaos (editors who pick through blogs to find what they want to reframe and highlight) as bloggers do now, and bloggers do more reporting. And then, do we, the users/participants/citizens just pick and choose ourselves through a host of people/sites who with varying degrees of reporting and reframing, linking and commenting, achieve trust, credibility, expertise, bias, or interesting content or all of their opposites depending? I think the online key is linking. Everything else we do on the web is really the same, with different degrees of ease, as we do offline.
But linking is different, and the linking expression has yet to become as noticed as I think it will in future. Now we understand it as something Google or Technorati see and use, but we don't yet see the full power of that act, that expression, on an individual basis or as a society. But online journalism as the rest of online content is all about this: who links out, who links in, how much, is there authority there in those links, or are they just references of indeterminate interest. But references matter if if that is all it is.
I want to know, does one kind of online work matter more because it gets more links, or sends more links, across the network, than others. I think so, but maybe that's not true for anyone else. Or does credibility come because you observe a writer over time, and when a mistake pops up, she deals with it upfront? (take a peek at this NYT post on Honesty: where Clive Thompson suggests we are more honest on the internet than in other social spaces because of the persistence of information.)
That's it for now. See you at the discussion.
Jagged thoughts, disconnected:
We set standards of excellence, but don't call us professionals. I juxtapose these two ideas because a friction exists between them. They don't necessarily contradict each other, but there's turbulence. While I agree that some of those who practice journalism for a living set a high standard for excellence, some also set new lows for despicability and unethical behavior. Perhaps journalists resist being called a profession because along with the idea of profession comes the idea of regulation and ethics. The best journalists need the least regulation and have a built-in sense of ethical reporting; unfortunately, the worst journalists, the ones who make others hate the "j" word, make me wish for some degree of regulation or standard to delimit unfair, biased, irresponsible reporting. At the very least, consensus on ethical behavior is welcome, and that exists already in some places.
My point: a free press is essential to democracy, but only if that press is free, fair, and ethical. Unethical, unfair, biased press is possible in a democracy but in no way advances the practice of it. Unethical journalism is the enemy of freedom and the champion of propaganda. Carey argues that the aspiration to democratic life is endemic to journalism. I'd like him to add the word "good" before the word journalism in that thought. While I agree with Jay's idea that restricting the practice of journalism to "approved voices" limits the freedom of the press, "unapproved" voices do not add to freedom either, if they are spawing crap and evil.
I can appreciate the idea that journalists exist outside "the media"; however, they also exist inside the media. You can try to separate the two, but as long as somebody else is operating the presses, hiring the staff, and paying the power bill, journalists remain a part of that larger system of media. Journalists are edited, and they don't write their own headlines. The very concept of "the editor" delimits the idea of journalists having a direct conduit to the public. A team effort (journalist plus editor) can both good and bad -- as Carey wrote, journalism "has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil." Unfortunately, journalists are
not always in complete control over the final virtue of their own stories, and they don't typically get up and shout on corner soapboxes to get a story out. They hand it in to an editor. No one owns journalism, but lots of people own journalists.
This is where blogs come in. I blogger is both the writer and the publisher, like in days of old when printers were the journalists. Bloggers aren't completely free to write whatever they want -- usually some restrictions come via the software distributor agreement the blogger acknowledges. Some blogging software companies are more hands-on than others. Otherwise, bloggers can post at their whim without any external editor (I'll argue that an internal editor always exists), and they can soapbox all they want. In fact, a blog is like a soapbox, some with higher aspirations than others.
I'm not convinced that journalists set a standard for basic accuracy in reporting for bloggers because bloggers really have no window on the practice of good journalism, nor do they have the ability to independently verify whether what they read in the news is accurate at all. Readers and bloggers only see the news, not the production of the news, not the newsroom. While bloggers might think they know good reporting when they see it, the problem is that they might not know bad reporting when they see that too.
Here's something to ponder. Jay wrote, "If printers and postmasters, who didn't set out to be journalists, can wind up as that, then in any era we should think it possible for people to wind up doing journalism because they find it a logical, practical, meaningful, democratic, and worthwhile activity." Conversely, Carey wrote, "Every despot creates his own system of media." We can surmise that bloggers find blogging meaningful and democratic if we want. Nevertheless, the possibility exists that the blogosphere is filled with mini-despots, people who want to create their own self-contained versions of the world and then project that for others to see or emulate.
Do bloggers write to create memorable experiences, as Carey suggests? That depends on whether they make their archives public : ) Honestly, I'm not convinced any journalist's task is to make experience memorable. Really, how long is the public's memory anyway, and who scrapbooks anymore? I'd argue that the good journalist's task is to uphold public accountability, with a secondary dash of public insight offered whenever possible. I don't believe this is the task of the blogger. The job of the blogger is more like observer or, if a comments section exists, engager. Blogs generate discussion, both between blogs and off-line. A blogger creates dialogue, even if it's with an imaginary audience, which is where Ong might have special relevance. Blogs can have entertainment value as well. They also provide an outlet for the "unpublishable," by any editor's standard. Blogs might represent chaos butterflying ideas into the universe. Good blogs have the quality of being genuine or real.
Ultimately, most bloggers are free, or as close to free as you can get. They can write their version of life and publish that to the world, and they can do it however they want -- narrative, poetry, fiction, images, sound . . . anything that can be represented electronically. True bloggers are accountable to no one but themselves, their "internal editor," and those who have a meaningful existence in the bloggers' self-defined worlds. Of course, this doesn't include opportuno-bloggers -- people who blog because they want to be elected or advance some particular cause or product. Opportuno-bloggers are sales clerks.
Jay, "Why do you blog?" is a fair question, if it's taken with serious consideration of the answer.
That is, when I write comments such as I've done, I often feel I risk a shoot-the-messenger reaction, and perhaps for that reason, I shouldn't.
I started my blog because I heard so much about blogging. And so I thought I'd give it a try. My basic problem, throughout all the years of net-activism that I've done, is that I have essentially no voice, no platform, no ability to be heard, no way to counter the overwhelming power of higher levels of the journalistic pyramid.
I'd rate my blog pretty much a failure in those terms. I know exactly how many readers I get, from server logs, and it's not a lot. Around 100. That's better than 0. But it's a joke of journalistic impact (I gave an example above).
I do the numerical analysis, because I'm concerned with reality, with effect. It's hard to convey the implications of the abstraction of power-law distribution, but it's harsh.
The amount of time and effort needed to write a good "journalistic" post, given how few readers it'll likely reach, is extremely discouraging.
So I've come close to abandoning my blog at times. Should I just keep it as a ranting indulgence? I don't know. I don't think there's anything wrong with a ranting indulgence, but I recognize sometimes other people do.
There's a few social benefits. But overall, it's pretty marginal. So to me, any blog-triumphalism strikes me as somewhere between wrong and cruel.
The power of Bloggerism is its bias and intent. It embraces the bias of the individual voice. Bloggers have opinions. Bloggers wear bias on their sleves. Big B Bias. Bloggers don't have editors. Bloggers resonate with readers because they have no responsibility to be fair.
As a result, Bloggerists amuse, educate, piss off, and hurt those who wander through their pages. That's neat.
Big J journalism has a responsibility to cover, or at least a responsibility to attempt to cover, or at the VERY least pretend to cover, the broader story landscape.
And as a Journalism major and a reporter in my more youthful days--granted years ago--I always approached a story with the understanding that I would be doing a disservice not to cover the w-h-o-l-e story even as I sliced and diced my angle.
Bloggers? Screw the whole story. I'll tell you what I think, and maybe what he thinks and she thinks, and YOU, the reader, YOU write the story by assimilating and arranging the voices you like to read into your own head, and hopefully in your own posts.
In the blog world, the story is spread across voices. It is a kind of story landscape. Thanks to comments, trackbacks, and the like.
something like that.
I'm pretty sure I didn't stick with your questions.
Consider this a living example.
Looks to be a great talk, Jay, and I wish I'd be there to hear this one, even if I've been, well, a little hard on the meta-conference trend lately.
Hi, again, everyone. Anna: please reconstruct.
Clearly, the discussion to be held at BloggerCon has already begun, as participants pick apart the questions: what is journalism? what can weblogs do about it?
I don't want to make any grand claims about that. I do want to say: keep it going, please, because I am finding it helpful.
It's good news that Rebecca MacKinnon, formerly of CNN, will soon be starting a similar discussion about her session, "Blogging the World." I will urge Jeff Jarvis to re-introduce his session (on the business of blogging) and re-invite those witty and razor sharp Buzzmachine readers to the comments section of a prequel post. Dan Gillmore, I understand from his blog, is planning to do the same. I double-posted my essay at BOP News, so there will be a second comment stream for it.
Seems to me that it is possible, with a little conscious effort, to start these things--conference sessions--on second base, even third, if you begin the discussion in writing across the 'sphere, then pick it up from there.
One thing I noticed around the time of the first BloggerCon and again this time: in Blogistan, which is a complex nation, there's a lot of sacarcastic (but seriously-intended) commentary about how silly and pretentious, unnecessary and often elitist, these events are.
I suppose that's inevitable when you have a such a high brow "academic" setting and an up-from-the-bottom subject. And having been to hundreds of academic and industry conferences, there is always much to mock. I partake of the sport myself, and with enthusiasm.
The puzzling part to me is when webloggers who, as writers and kibbitzers at their own sites, often engage in serious and lively reflection on the form and how it differs from "journalism," (or other things) find it hilarious that there's a conference at Harvard engaged in the same act of reflection they, at times, undertake.
On balance, it is probably good to have skeptics who say: "well, that's a ridiculous premise for a conference." Makes you look at the premise.
I'm planning to junk the idea of synthesizing twenty questions. The ones I had were sounding pedantic to people, and my request, "phrase it as a question," wasn't helping. In place of that, I may draft a list of contradictory propositions about weblogs and journalism bubbling through this discussion.
Example: "Weblogs reduce barriers to entry for citizen authors." (Rosen, Jarvis, others.) And then:
"Weblogs reduce the old barriers, maybe, but the blog sphere erects new ones just as effective." (Seth)
Anyway, keep at it.
Question to B!X in Portland. How much of the journalism your weblog does is journalism about the Big Media in town-- reacting to it, riffing off it, incorporating it, or somehow using it? And how much is "original" work (whatever that means to you) done at your blog, free and clear of the local press and its product?
"a shift in story sovereignty" - i like that.
glad to hear I was making sense. surprised even. ;-)
i don't think it's RSS or any other technology specifically. Although I have an RSS feed from my blog, I am yet to fall in love--even in like--with aggregators. I like cruising the neighborhoods. Stories I assemble as reader-journalist often range outside of the favorite feeds i'd be checking out via RSS (if I were actually doing so, which, as I said, I'm not).
The thrill is in stumbling onto the out of the way bits, isn't it? RSS doesn't lead you off the beaten path unless you get there via the well-worn paths you always follow. no?
The only technology enabling this shift (technically speaking) I see, pure and simple, is the net. It's net culture plus the tools that make it free and "push-button" simple for people to post and to comment. To talk.
That's why Blogger was as important as it was--because it welcomed anyone with a keyboard and a browser into a conversation that was once by, for, and about tech pioneers. Grandma, four-year old kid, and every one in between. No $. No tech know-how. Nothin' but Net.
That's a long way around saying, though RSS/aggregators are interesting and helpful to many, they are not the point.
I resist the urge to complicate the simple, wonderous elegance of the Web in looking at it from technology down. I like to look at it from voice up. Not eyeballs looking in; ears listening out.
Jeesh. I guess I'm going on and on. I should take this over to my blog and think about it more. But I do really like the idea of this sort of absorptive journalism idea of assembling stories from pieces--him to her to me to them--as reader-seeker first.
I'd like to address the issue of power a bit, and institutional cluelessness.
Atrios doesn't fit any definition of "journalist" I'm familiar with unless it's the cultural amanuensis sort, but he's a power in the sense that he's a premier distributor of news and opinion and he has the ability to channel large sums of money to what he believes are worthy causes. He rarely breaks a story, but he does synthesize the news and makes suggestions as to what his readers should do about what they're reading.
In other words, it's not a passive experience. I think someone upstream mentioned the transmogrification of readers into journalists, and I'd like to add to that concept the notion of readers as newsmakers. Their responses to what they read can change reality, as when Atrios funnels $100,000 in contributions to the Kerry campaign. The story there isn't just that Atrios had the audience and credibility to get that result, but that the readers acted, becoming news in their own right. Stories within stories.
Not many blogs have that sort of clout. Josh Marshall gets significantly more traffic than Atrios, but wouldn't and probably couldn't outdo the latter as an activist because he values his role as a traditional journalist, albeit a partisan one, and wouldn't want to compromise it.
The recent flap about South Dakota Democratic congressional candidate Stephanie Herseth's "secret" fundraising web site offers a dual lesson in power. The site scared her opponents, who reacted much as if she were clandestinely collecting money from France or some other equally suspicious source when in fact the site was linked from ads she ran on various left-leaning blogs.
At the same time, the blog-related fundraising affected Herseth's campaign. One of the sites she advertised on, The Daily Kos, was barraged by angry comments after Herseth announced her support for amending the constitution to enshrine marriage as a hetero-only deal, and Herseth amended her position shortly thereafter.
There again, the readers acted as newsmakers. The opinions expressed on the Daily Kos aren't going to win or lose votes in South Dakota, but they surely did affect her fundraising and her understanding of her constituency.
So there's one question: have blogs helped invert the news pyramid? That is, are the people who traditionally make the news now overtly reacting to the readers instead of the other way 'round?
On the institutional front, I think Bill Keller's defense of Judith Miller's Iraq reporting is as vivid an example of living inside the event horizon as could be found. Keller's defense is that Miller has fabulous sources that got the Times a lot of exclusives, and that most of them turned out to be more fabulist than fabulous is simply a contextual issue.
No doubt that's at least in part a closing of ranks behind a star reporter - the scarcity of her byline in the past six months or so certainly indicate some skepticism about her capacity - but it's also an indication that Keller is at least to some extent unaware of the coincidental reporting disputing Miller's work. Had he been a blog afficianado, he could have followed the simultaneous examinations of Miller's reporting and the pieces debunking much of what her sources had to say.
That he didn't, and that he didn't try even in retrospect, is symptomatic of the institutional unease with unorganized information. Keller doesn't recognize that although the Times is still the paper of record, the record isn't sacrosanct anymore.
So there's another question: can blogs help crack the insular world of elite journalism? The record on the Times is mixed: its reporters seem more inclined to resent or dismiss, or both, the daily barrage of criticism than to examine what their contribution to it might be, but the editorial desks seem much more responsive. One example of that is the faked Fonda/Kerry photo the Times ran with and then corrected, albeit without a mea culpa, in less than 24 hours.
Interpreting the news is something that most journalists do to one extent or another, but blogs pretty much have a license to ill. I think many bloggers, including the most opinionated among us, hold themselves to a higher standard of accuracy with regard to hard news simply because it's so easy for anyone to fact check the news upon which the opinions are based, and unlike as with the traditional press, reluctance or failure to own up to an error can be fatal.
At the same time, bloggers can synthesize such a large number of sources that they are in at least some cases creating news. A case in point is the recent Pakistani army crackdown in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan.
U.S. papers were filled with speculation about "high-value" targets and devoted very little attention to the actual conflict, while the Pakistani papers and others in the region were looking at the facts of the fighting - who was involved, who was getting killed by whom and how and why, what was the local and national reaction to the incursion, what did it mean to relations between Pakistan and the US, Pakisan and Afghanistan, even Pakistan and India and India and the US.
It took US papers almost a week to get into any of the internal ramifications of the fighting, and even now it's not being covered especially well. A number of bloggers, however, were able to assemble the various available sources to produce an overview that wasn't available through the parochial press here or there. Blogs could offer, in broad strokes or in detail according to preference, the perils facing Pakistan from religious turmoil and potential divisions in the army sparked by the conflict, the degree to which the US and Pakistan were serious about accomplishing their stated goals, the potential efects of success or failure upon the local tribesmen and the foreign militants living among them ... it was a cornucopia of news and opinion you really couldn't get anywhere else, and it came about almost overnight. That's reporting even though it doesn't involve beatin' feet to the war zone or the White House.
So there's another question: in the long run, can traditional reporting compete with the use bloggers make of it? I know this smacks a bit of the TV v. newspaper conflict, but the difference is that newshound bloggers aren't rushing to get their particular story on the air, but instead to assemble as many different sources on a particular story for readers to view and comment upon.
And that brings up another question: will bloggers eventually be absorbed into the traditional press as stringers? Rather than attempting to compete with the multitudes, will the traditional press attempt to put them to work to gain the advantage provided by that plethora of sources?
One other point on the question of readership as a measure of influence: I have a readership numbering in the tens, but I've managed to get a writer at a fairly major opinion magazine to amend his position after reading something I wrote, and Okrent's assistant at the Times recently told me that several people had made favorable mention of me in their comments to the public editor. Possibly that's my mom adopting disguises, but the point is that I've made a small dent in relatively high places with a very small audience. On the other hand, I couldn't raise a dime for a candidate of my choice and it's extremely unlikely that anything I write will ever inluence a politican one way or another. So you really have to define influence before you can begin measuring it.
"Stories pick up speed with every link." This is really getting at something, Jeneane. What I read in your last comment is: weblogs are screwing around with the time boundaries and story rhythms that had become natural in journalism.
But this really means natural-ized because the journalist's sense of story time is "stored" in professional rituals and conventions. Those things are learned, not found in the nature of news. The notion of a "second day" story, a staple in American journalism, is a staple because that's the accepted convention and it fits with production cycles, the once-dominant form of the daily newspaper or broadcast, and so on.
But if weblogs are "screwing around" with measures of time and the life cycle of news, they are doing so mainly within the special conditions of the blog sphere-- where so many readers are writers. Where what Dave Winer calls the "rule of links" more or less prevails. Where individual authors with quirky interests and non-generic voices reframe or restate the news, elongate the narrative arc, fill in the back story, add in missing facts, apply counter-spin and commit the sin of having a style.
Linking--or let's say linking at its best--annuls and overrrides journalism's enormous appetite for forgetting things (also called dropping the story.) Linking negates the context-stripping that daily journalism in a sense demands. Linking obeys a different informational ethic entirely, which is why, Anna, op-ed style writing online--at weblogs--is frequently done at a higher level than the professional norm.
And that different ethic (about what it means to be informed and to inform others) is why stories "pick up speed" (or hang on to life) with every link. In the blog sphere, special conditions do apply. We might even, if we're being brave, call them new.
Which to me raises a question: what is the significance for big-J Journalism that this other biosphere of stories, with its other tempo and time, is simply out there, doing its thing with the news? Do special conditions count for something, even when they apply only to a numerically tiny sphere?
And yes, Jeneane, you should write about all this at your weblog. If you'll pardon the drill sarge's tone, that goes for you too, Weldon.
Where to start?
Ok. September 12, 2001. I'm a Jersey columnist for The New York Times and my beat has been humor and suddenly nothing seems funny anymore. I go up to Eagle Rock Reservation, a mountain perch about 15 miles west of the city, where people can stand and watch and talk. I interview people. I hear story after story. And what is all reminds me of (and what I write about) is the painting of "Sunday in the Park" by Georges Seurat. Pointilism, if you remember your art history. Every person has a story to tell. Every person had some relation to the events of the day: was somewhere, called someone, felt something. Every person is a dot in this huge canvas of a story.
And weblogs are like that. They're just more data for the big picture. They're more dots. They fill the picture out. I think the fabulous thing about weblogs is all the original source material they're creating for future historians. And you know what they say (yes, Jay, I'm going to bring it home, now): journalism is the rough draft of history.
Does this make any sense?
I guess what I'm saying is that for those of us who are interested in what historians call social history, and what journalists call lifestyle reporting, is that blogs are an amazing source of material.
A couple of other thoughts:
-- with a blog, you don't need anyone's permission to publish. When the Times gave my column to someone else, I gave it back to myself by creating a blog, and then telling everybody on my e-mail list about it. I made cards to hand out. I've regained a lot of my readership, and found new readers in Toronto and Vancouver.
-- when you enter the blogosphere, the reading requirements increase exponentially. There is just so much out there (11,000 new blogs a day, says Technorati), it's hopeless. You learn how much is out there that you didn't even know existed.
-- the part I've been thinking about most lately. As a journalist, at least one associated with the Times (I'm freelance), you're bound by that institution's sense of propriety and objectivity. At the Times, you're not allowed to accept a gift of more than $25. You're trained to think: could anything I do potentially embarrass this institution? As a blogger, you represent yourself and only yourself. It's the soapbox thing that others have mentioned. Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin and all that. It's quite a different feeling writing for oneself. And one I quite like.
Seth: I take your point about blog triumphalism being somewhere between wrong and cruel. And the cruel part I get from your comments, because as a writer you make it vivid. Also, you frequently say things that remind me how there is always a risk in public expression. The risk of being ignored is one. You write, "I often feel I risk a shoot-the-messenger reaction." That's another. Libel: a risk for anyone publishing words about other people. Misappropriation, another. One I happen to feel acutely, and which is also a major factor in journalism, is the risk of being wrong-- publicly, as it were. The risk demagoguery represents. And there's a hundred more.
In my latest post, I wrote about someone--public relations professional Karen Ryan--who lost when she took a risk and stuck, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting" into election year propaganda sent out to TV stations, which offended a lot of people who, let us say, have access to the press. I think her profession had lost all sense of risk when it regularized the video news release, sending phoney news out at a level of verisimilitude far beyond the homely press release on paper. "Wait, I played by the rules," she tries to say, "there was not supposed to be rhetorical risk if I played by the rules." But that was a fantasy.
So if we forget that there is risk in public expression we are actually devaluing it, which is why I wrote critically of Karen Ryan. She devalued; it was seen and reported. Of course, saying that does not mean: all risk equally. It's radically unequal, this factor. But there has to be some of it.
Perhaps one question weblogs raise is: is it really "public" expression, a weblog for the public, if there's virtually no risk? Which could also mean: a speck of an audience. If we ask this, however, someone is sure to raise another, equally good: who are you to say what public expression is? There are answers to that, too, and they even make sense on occasion.
Still, and given all that, it's never been clear to me why you, me, Blogrunner, or anyone, can make statements like, "the blog is read by 100 people a day, a tiny, almost meaningless number." I would argue that no such number has any meaning until one's purpose is on the table, and the blogging context is understood. We can think of hundreds of situations where 100 people reading the weblog makes the thing successful: a PTA blog at a school could be thriving at that rate.
I'm not trying to say you have a large user base, but don't know it, or a small user base, or a medium one. Nor am I saying it's important to have lots of traffic, or unimportant. I'm saying the number is meaningless until there's a purpose you have for doing the damn thing (weblog) and a place, or space you're trying to do it "in." So that's why I asked you my question: Seth, why do you blog?
What you told me is (mostly) that your blog is mostly a failure, usually not worth it. You said you started off with the enthusiasm of "giving it a try," but you have found that trying hard--applying talents and time--brings little success and yet entails a lot of risk. So I ask you again: Seth, why do you blog? confident that there is an affirmative answer, a reason for Seth Finkelstein's Infothought, which might be useful for people at BloggerCon to understand.
Jay: Yes, of course, the significance of the audience number is connected to the context. This is where the conflation of "blogging" as meaning all of diaries, chat, commentary, and reporting, creates so much fog and confusion in discussion. If someone is writing a personal diary, just for themselves, then they don't care about having any readers at all.
However, if someone is volunteering their time to be an unpaid journalist, out of civic virtue, then they may care greatly about the existence of the audience, as that is the reason for the activity.
So I think I misread your question a little earlier, as to how deeply you were asking me "why". My purpose is, well, roughly, *journalism* - more precisely, what goes under the phrase "public intellectual" nowadays.
I devoted much costly effort over many years to try to keep the Internet free. This is not activism for which is it satisfying to stand on a street corner and rant. There's *no point* to such shouting to the wind. Rather, it was an attempt to engage a part of the public (not the general population, but a significant amount of the net community) on issues of censorship, copyright, the DMCA, etc, and to influence the outcome of the evolution of the net.
I was in fact one of the first people to start raising alerts about the DMCA, way back before that was cool.
So the "space" is activism/policy/advocacy-journalism.
I'd hope it's clear then that I can make statements like, "the blog is read by 100 people a day, a tiny, almost meaningless number.". In terms of having an *effect* (being that the President and the Pope are not amount that group) it's almost a joke.
A couple of thoughts:
I do not agree that many journalists will say theirs is not a “profession.” I think people do officially “qualify” as journalists, and the profession does restrict the practice to those licensed to practice it; just take a look at the credentials that any young journalist, looking to get paid for his or her work, has to go through: the long-houred unpaid internships, the teeth-cutting obits, the inverted-pyramid format. Also, the professional training that is mandated – but that is not always practiced – like standards of “objectivity,” verification, accuracy, are part of the journalist’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Americans.
We cannot ignore the “production” of journalism, which is far more important than any notion of a free press and free speech as an ideal in that it works against an open, participatory environment of communication. These traditional production methods – often the remnants of a distribution process in the off-line world that was aimed at profit – are justified by their claim on these professional journalistic standards cited above.
This is evident in the initial reaction of the mainstream media towards blogs, as they were thoroughly discounted as being the bastion of unverified, biased opinion not conforming to journalistic standards. And blogging as a medium – as a format – is increasingly being picked up by this mainstream press, and their credibility and reputation, which will impact their readership, is their strongest suit – which takes us back to the way that journalistic norms are sanctioned as a profession more “worthy” of the public’s attention.
The other thing that needs to be taken into account is the journalistic model of “objectivity” as specifically relates to the role the press has played in the last 80 years in terms of democracy. Journalism has served for the better part of the last half of the century as a tool for providing information to the public so citizens can participate in democracy; journalism was not conceived as being a “purely human and expressive act,” but rather a process – rooted in the scientific method – of gathering information and facts that the public and elected officials could then act on.
Blogging moves the “informational” model of journalism to serve a more “deliberative” notion of democracy. I would argue that it the mainstream press still largely sets the “news agenda,” and blogs are still reliant on this primary source reporting as a starting point for deliberation, but they extend the conversation further, set new paths for political communication, and serve as a check on the mass-media. It is participatory deliberation, and thus, it heralds a changing notion of what journalism is.
But we are at a point where these old values of “objectivity” and professional norms still have wide-spread credibility for the vast majority of us in America. They have no innate claim to be truth, but they are perceived to be a standard of legitimacy. So when you write that blogging would be well-served to incorporate these norms I thoroughly concur; in fact, I think it is necessary if blogging is going to remain an open process not dominated by the new blogs of major media outlets.
Picture a determined gal out there, April, who think she thinks she can compete with every journalist out there writing regularly about... you name it: global warming. So she starts up her weblog Melting Ice and sets out to compete-- with "their" journlism. Big J.
Now April is pretty good, not only as a writer commenting on things, but in finding news and explaining things. She knows this beat, but unlike hundreds of other specialists with intimate knowledge (April used to work on global warming from the activist side) she can also take elusive matters in science and politics and make them vivid.
She also knows where information is. She's funny, a real person with a voice. Never been a journalist or published a word. No friends in high places or "connections." But after a lifetime of preparing for it, she emerges--through her weblog--as a dazzling guide to global warming, able to compete with the best journalists from the biggest places.
When she debuts Melting Ice it is already a quality site. Pouring energy and time into the blog, she starts to see results-- tiny but signs of life. Melting Ice gets a few mentions. The traffic climbs from 7 people a day to 75, and within weeks to 150 a day, sometimes spiking wildly when a big blog takes notice.
Meanwhile, the journalism she's doing is not only first-rate, but within two months better than the standard set in the commercial press or the activist media. But at a certain point the growth in her traffic slows and seems about to stop. Melting Ice is a winning weblog, but it doesn't seem to be winning in the attention derby.
This is where the thought experiment might begin. April turns to you for help. She has questions:
What's happening and causing the leveling off?
How do I know if I am wasting my time?
What should April do at this point?
What must Melting Ice try to become?
How can she afford to put effort into it?
Is April a journalist yet and can she break news?
What questions does she have to face before going on?
What's missing from my thought experiment?
Any kind of reply invited.
Meanwhile, the journalism she's doing is not only first-rate, but within two months better than the standard set in the commercial press or the activist media. But at a certain point the growth in her traffic slows and seems about to stop. Melting Ice is a winning weblog, but it doesn't seem to be winning in the attention derby.
this is where i fall off the cliff, to quote the worst manager I ever had, one that saw no worth in our first corporate web site back in 1994, ("the big companies out there don't have web sites and they're making money") where we gave away all of our articles and white papers for free, because he wasn't watching us.
I fall off the proverbial cliff because I come at this writing-in-blogspace from the other end of the spectrum: I come here to read what individual bloggers have to say, not for some kind of "news coverage," but because I like to watch human stories unfold. I rarely spend time on themed blogs, even the PR blogs where you think I might. After about a week, I'm like: okay, so zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
I would say since April has achieived the "legitimacy" and "credibility" she was evidently looking for initially, she now has to evolve, use the opportunitiy to solo, improvise, take it out, blow.
She needs to risk somemthing. She's gotten safe.
I've seen too many bloggers who came here writing on things they cared deeply about intitially get traffic, get an "audience," and subsequently get safe. Boring.
Risk it April, honey.
In short, I'd email her and say, hey, enough with copying bigj style and topics (even if in this case, bigj only means the already establiished activist outlets) and start letting on who YOU are.
What was your mother like and how is that tied to why you care about the sun sauteing us like plump mushrooms? what makes you scream out in your sleep? what makes you come hard? what makes you throw up and why?
Screw the traditional model of reporting, April, its time to let on who you are, from the inside out. In short, if her traffic falls off, its because April's writing isn't connecting. It's grown stale. And in blogspace it has to move to continuously connect because there are a million other places to go.
If we fail to open ourselves here, we've got just another online newspaper or magazine, carbon copy of same-ole-same-ole. To me, that's not news. Those have been around for a decade or more.
Next - Seth, that's not what I was describing. Power to the people and all - no. I don't care if blogging doesn't change a thing, although I think it is. I do care when people accuse blogging of not changing a thing for the masses as if there were some code of responsibility AND barrier to entry here that is any larger than the already-established vehicles for voice. Because that just ain't so. This is the best we've got.
Hey Jay. Now that I've taken up residence over here, can you buy some oreos? I have specific snack food needs.
You say: But why that movement, into the interior, the author's identity-- as against editorial motion of some other kind? Seems to me you have a silent premise in there, and I want to know what it is.
This is something I should think about before writing, but why start now?
Revealing what is human about the writer--or writing from (not necessarily about--this is often confused) places of human emotion (pain, joy, rage, etc.) is one of the things that makes this space so very different from traditional journalism and other forms of public communication.
Because of the movement, the fluidity, from post to post, there is tremendous space, tremendous opportunity to reveal who we are in our writing. Perhaps not in every post, but within the totality of our blogs for sure.
It is the subjective vs. objective difference. Risking and daring to show one's private self publically makes bloggers who do so a different kind of animal. Privacy, identity, truth, facts, objectivity, all of the so-called "predictables" of other online (and offline) forms of writing/publishing are OURS to do with what we want here. Throw them against the brick wall and watch them burst apart, watch the red trickle down the channels in the mortar.
blogging done right is inherently risky, and that makes it beautiful, and blogging done wrong is inherently safe, and that makes it boring.
But I think both the notion of fluidity from post to post--and the room that fluidity gives us to reveal what's human about us--AND the perceived risk and reward in revealing ourselves are very important themes.
More to come when I think about it, I think.
I do, I do!
April has to decide why she's doing what she's doing. If the goal is readership, then she needs to do some promotion and give some thought to your point, Jay, about where the connection with readers is shorting out. That assumes, though, that she's willing to change what she's doing, or at least how she's doing it, for the sake of numbers and whatever numbers represent to her.
Promotion is pretty easy, really. Dropping in on sites like Press Think with thoughtful comments is one way, writing the occasional freebie for a well-populated opinion site, most of which have no budget for writers and an insatiable need for content, is another.
Changing what she does or how she presents herself may not be so easy. Most high-traffic blogs are short-format deals; you rarely find anything longer than a few hundred words. If April wants to write long pieces read by many people, she'll probably need to work her way into a more formal situation, which happens: Kevin Drum (CalPundit) has done, as has Matthew Yglesias. If April's as good a writer as you describe and she's willing to persist and able to pester people who publish people like her, she'll get there if she wants to.
Ultimately, though, she just has to figure out why she's doing what she does, and that'll probably offer her enough direction to move along or not, as she pleases.
Jeneane, should you read this - I generally don't like reading really personal blogs because it's so hard to weave the personal in with the topical, and anyone good enough to get away with that or with the strictly personal ought to be writing novels or doing a Joan Didion thing, and most truly revealing blogs or journals or diaries end up being a train wreck or a soap opera or some combination thereof.
My sentiment is that people can get to know a writer through the writing, or at least construct a personality around it (which is at least sometimes more interesting than the writer really is, as a person). Just sticking your neck out is pretty risky, and anyone who actually does get a lot of readers will eventually do something horribly embarassing, or at least something that feels horribly embarassing.
The fear of risk oughtn't to dictate one's style but embracing it doesn't automatically lead to good results, and people who play their personal lives close to the vest can still do brilliant and compelling things.
I say this, of course, because I'm one of the latter (close to the vest, I mean, not brilliant, and I'm not fishing).
But back to April: we probably need to find out what sorts of snacks she likes before we can really make a diagnosis.
Listen, I should no sooner wander into this comment space at 11:30 p.m. after two days of horrifically mind-numbing writing of a solutions section of an incredibly uncooperative product website, then building two four-page press releases that have no right to exist in the first place, than I should attempt brain surgery at this particular juncture.
But here I am anyway.
Weldon, you continue to make much sense. And so I'll read you, because we met here, in an only semi-related comment box, not because of what you write *about* but because your voice resonates with me. Are you going to say you probably won't read me? I bet you will. You'll see.
Another wrinkle in blogging - how and why we read one another.
About the self-stuff and personal blogging, I'm not talking about personal blogging in the manner that most people do. I'm talking about writing *from* those inside places, not necessarily about them.
Personal bloggers who write about themselves from the outside in post after post run the same risk as topical bloggers who go on and on about the same topic post after post. It's where we write from, isn't it, that gives us our inflection, that determines how well we resonate and with whom?
So, you can tackle PR and marketing on your blog, and that's fine if that's what you care about (I have shifted to using myself as an example--can you tell?), and you can also write from that little-girl-of-six place, with your left foot on the top step of what will become the longest staircase in the world because when you get to the top step you find out your father is dead; and you can write from that space in your own baby's hospital room, her screams over the Potassium IV ripping you apart like a bedsheet, and you can write from the place of hiding from the alcoholic rage in your house; and you can write all of that WITHOUT writing about it, and you can write from those places WHILE you're writing about marketing and PR, because, if you are a good writer, and if you throw objectivity to the wind and decide that bias is your friend and you have no boss, and you can say whatever the hell you want to say, then all of those places can inform your writing.
And that's not old-school journalismm, and that's not a journal, and that's not a novel. That's just good writing.
Now, if we just went through four dozen comments only for me to make the non-astute observation that it all comes down to good writing, I'm taking my Pringles and going home.
Interesting too is how webloggers are being nudged into the journalist role whether we like it or not. It has happened over time in ways that are both subtle and not so.
Blogging is the perfect model for PR to pimp to. You have writers in a public forum with no responsibility to anyone but themselves (and if they care, their readers).
I've found myself (literally) in the middle of this....I wouldn't call it a dilemma really because I don't take it too seriously...so let's just call it a conundrum.
I posted last september about it here in my blog.
It clicked for me when I started getting pitched by PR people, specifically tech and healthcare PR people, via email, and I innocently (and wrongly) guessed, that they must either somehow remember me from Ketchum or some PR colleagues, or maybe they actually read my blog, although I can't say I write about either tech or healthcare *that* much, unless I'm bitching about COBRA premiums.
But I digress.
Imagine my surprise to learn, along the way of providing PR writing services (just one of the little things in my bag of tricks) during this last year of indie life -- which led me to spend some time back on my old friend Media Map -- that indeed my blog was listed in the media outlet category aptly called "blogs."
When I left last April, blogs weren't a "media" outlet in Media Map. But, they are now. In fact, *unbeknownst to me*, HERE, ladies and gentlemen, is what I report on:
Sessum covers topics related to healthcare, public relations, technology and blogging, communications, general business topics, and race issues in her blog. She can be contacted by e-mail. See the outlet overview for complete blog details and pitching tips. Topics covered - Advertising, marketing, and PR; Business; Communications, technology; Healthcare; Internet; Social issues; Technology.
Yes, you may rightly conclude, I get pitched by PR folks. More than I'd like. Pitch and be pitched. The land of weblogs and crossover communication identities.
What all of this means, I don't know. But as I said in my post, "In answer to the question that I so hate -- "Are Bloggers Journalists?" -- we may not be allowed the power to answer that for ourselves in the end. We may just start getting pitched. And some of the stories will be interesting. Some may be so interesting that we bite on them. And then what are we?"
food for thought. maybe.
We can and do compete with pros
Jay, I started blogging in the mid-90s because the professionals covering my profession weren't doing their job. I figured I could do it for them. It worked. We got a lot of new stuff done, and we can do more.
I'm one of the technologists who, like Lessig with lawyers, tells users not to listen so much to the technologists, instead look at how we've used the Internet, and see if it can't apply to your profession. Look at how the Internet has been applied to real estate, travel, employment, even love and sex, just to name a few endeavors that have been streamlined and enhanced because people are able to do more for themselves, without requiring intermediaries to do it for them.
The Internet was designed to be the weblog medium, the more I learn about it, the more sure I am of this. So I encourage you to start there. People will be writing. Now how does that impact journalism?
For a smart journalist, no matter what medium he or she uses, this means that sources will be available in new ways. You used to have to network over the phone to find out who's authoritative in an area, and that led to a concentration and relatively closed working group in any area. Why does Markoff quote Paul Saffo all the time? One would thnk Saffo was a thought leader in this area but I don't hear much from him outside of Markoff's pieces. Once the authorities are writing publicly, and in some areas lots of them are, a reporter can turn to a search engine or a blogroll for ideas on who to speak with. And a reporter that uses just a few sources stands out more, as Markoff does now (even though virtually everyone would return his call).
Recently a Wall Street Journal reporter asked me for a reference to a real user of RSS technology, someone who isn't a techie. I decided to try to find some fresh blood for him, and also demo the power of weblogs. I put up a query on Scripting News, and got quite a response (lots of people would like to tell their story in the WSJ). So a good blog is also itself a research tool, a way to draw the information and people you want to you.
Is this all journalism? I suspect that when this all over, probably long after I'm dead, no one will remember how the NY Times used to work before the Internet, just as the students in the anthropology class had never heard of Jack Benny. Our cultural memory is getting depressingly short. The Times didn't become a television station, but it will become a blog, I'm sure of it. I'll be happy to take challenges on this in the closing Fat Man session, much as I've made a bet with Martin Nisenholtz on the relative power of blogs vs the Times in 2007. It's a friendly bet, btw (much to the consternation of the Long Now people).
Disclaimer: Seth Finkelstein thinks I'm a dreamer, and it's sad that's it's not true, yadda yadda yadda. It would be nice for him to recognize that despite his protest to the contrary, he is indeed being heard. ;->
Disclaimer #2: This is a comment on blog post, not spec text. I reserve the right to change my mind about anything herein.
Dave Wilner, thanks for returning to the question of what a journalist is, or what constitutes journalism.
I've been thinking about that during the past few days, and it struck me that many of the writers I've enjoyed over the years were journalists in the traditional sense, not the reportorial one; more diarists than anything else. It's certainly possible to combine the two roles, but there's still a distinction between them.
That's why we have journals. The Weekly Standard could hardly be called a news magazine, other than when Doug Feith is leaking classified memos to them, but it's filled with journalism.
Journalists are interpreters, not necessarily to the world at large but at least to themsleves, sometimes of the events taking place around them, sometimes of the internal and sometimes both. Journalists have an obligation toward the factual if they represent themselves as factual rather than fantastic, but they're still journalists whether or not they ever uncover a single piece of news.
Journalists can be synthesists too. Jay's metaphor about the tree falling on a house applies to reported stories as well. Sometimes news isn't news until someone establishes a relationship between one story and another, or several.
That's one sort of journalism for which blogs are ideal. I've been working on a piece involving people who have been in the news and locations that have been in the news. I've found articles about the people I'm interested in, and articles about the locations I'm interested in, but nothing telling me what people are in which locations, and that's where the story really lies. I won't be producing anything that hasn't been already reported, but with a bit of luck it'll be a new story because of the linkages between the parts: a BTC News exclusive, only not made up.
It's something that takes more patience than resources, thanks largely to Google and other free tools. Or rather, it takes patience and the resources other people make available.
Bloggers can do that. Jay has an interest in community journalism; bloggers can do that too, although it usually requires more hands-on involvement, particularly if you're trying to set the agenda rather than just report and comment upon it. And, as you noted, bloggers such as Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias have parlayed their blogs into reporting/journalism gigs.
Atrios, if he had the time and the inclination and a less keen desire for anonymity, could be the reporter sort of journalist. All he'd have to do is ask for sources because he has a large enough readership to get some good ones. The same is true of several other bloggers. The biggest barrier, apart from inclination, is the initial commitment of time and energy.
But what Atrios does is chronicle events, offer his opinion on some and, more recently, muster the resources of individuals, as with his fundraising activities. I guess that would be activist journalism.
I don't know whether the web might have ruined Anaïs Nin or the Samuels Pepys and Johnson or other noted journalists if it had been around when they were teenagers, but it surely would have presented them with more (possibly too many more) options. Probably would've helped Johnson with the dictionary, at least.
Anyway. That's my take. All reporters are journalists - except maybe the Jack Kelleys and such - but not all journalists are reporters, and blogs shouldn't be consigned to one species or the other, and the synthesists and interpreters and activists are at least potentially as important in the long run as the reporters.
Gee, I see that a lot has happened here while I was away.
I also see that nobody has really taken up some of the points that I have made -- perhaps less popular points and ones that we might not want to think about, such as
1. While bloggers might think they know good reporting when they see it, the problem is that they might not know bad reporting when they see that too.
2. We can surmise that bloggers find blogging meaningful and democratic if we want. Nevertheless, the possibility exists that the blogosphere is filled with mini-despots, people who want to create their own self-contained versions of the world and then project that for others to see or emulate.
3. Blogs are soapboxes. (Maybe blogs are just on-line diaries, some more high falutin' than others).
When paid-journalist-bloggers write about blogging, they might be applying a kind of journalism paradigm over the activity. I'm not convinced that bloggers who do not make their living by being journalists see blogging in this manner. We can believe that blogging creates a landscape by which readers create stories, at the risk of lapsing into reader-response criticism, I might add. However, I see blogging as more like social networking. Bloggers make blog-friends and blog-cliques. Bloggers refer to each other. Sometimes they swipe from each other, but that kind of blogging definitely can get you alienated from a group rather quickly. Blogging is as much about process as product (I think Peter Elbow would like that -- probably Kinneavey would too).
Blogging isn't necessarily about "the story"; it's about the process, itself, creation of community and blogger identity (even if that identity is anonymous). If it were just about "story," then the personality and "voice" of the blogger wouldn't matter so much. Really, in the world of blogs, almost any story will do, as long as the conversation continues in a way that people (or, at least, the blogger) enjoys. Perhaps blogging is more like conversation with an imaginary audience -- Walter Ong would love that, I think. Or, maybe blogs are just grown-up versions of teenage diaries.
By the way, nobody's mentioned teenage blogs. Are you going to alienate them entirely from the blogosphere? You know, most blogs are operated by teenagers. Some of them do a great job, spending tons of time on layouts and avies, even if they do spend most of their time writing about their favorite tunes and their recent crushes. Some teenage blogs are quite philosophical. Are we all being too snooty about what blogs really are and turning them into what we want them to be instead?
It has been said the Journalism is whatever the New York Times says it is. This is a flip answer with some utility. However, it leaves us no room to criticize the New York Times while opening the door for some wag to say that Journalism is whatever the National Enquirer says it is. Besides, we’re trying to define Journalism in a way that is useful to a new generation of publishers with opportunities and constraints different from newspapers.
Journalism is the publication facts, analysis and opinion concerning topics of current interest.
Fact: The house across the street burned down.
Analysis: The number of houses burned down in this city so far this year is twice that of last year at this time.
Opinion: There is a hate group burning the houses of people who have immigrated from Oz and the fire department is not doing enough to stop it. We should recall the mayor!
Publication makes this material available to the public in printed (newspaper, magazine, book, broadside, bill, handout, direct mail) or electronic (radio, television, cable, e-mail, web page or weblog) form. So clearly, what a blogger does can be Journalism.
The BlogerCon session on Journalism should cover the differences between Fact, Analysis and Opinion as well as what obligation the blogger has to make sure facts are checked and true. The blogger as journalist must clearly differentiate between fact and opinion.
Almost as important as getting the facts right is having standards for acknowledging errors and publishing corrections.
Philip Graham said, “Journalism is the first draft of History.” What we publish is important -- it is more than an e-mail to a friend. We are publishing for the world to see, read and save. A weblog has the potential to make an impact today and influence what, generations from now, will be called History. We mustn't "just do it". We must do it right.
I dare not presume to speak for others, and am reluctant to define blogging as anything other than a varied form in which writers post to sites. Sometimes this is in search of readers, sometimes it is a form of closure, in some cases, perhaps, simply a substitute for (or perhaps tantamount to?) climbing onto a mountain and yelling. In urban cases, that might be rephrased as hopping onto a crowded subway car and hollering.
Some blog for purpose. Some blog to, for, and about a given community or topic area.
Some blog, as said above, for the opportunity to be a self-published pundit. To some, the actual act of blogging is an entertainment form, in and of itself. Me? I blog because I love to write, and early on I discovered that via links and friends and a developing (and ever expanding) on-line community, that having something to say and a place to say it was great fun. It satisfies the love to write and have interaction based on the writing, or sometimes just reaction without any further or continued interaction.
Early on in this discussion I steered clear of the topic, fearing this would be an attempt to define and declare a certain degree of the high brow, an elitism, the glory of those who blog. This strikes me much as private clubs struck Groucho: if they'd have me then it would be beneath me to join.
I see, in the comments above, both some spirited discussion as to the why and what of blogging, as well as some high brow and low brow commentary. Of course, I have no idea what constitutes low brow, it is purely a turn of phrase.
30+ years ago, as a college student, our second semester Freshman English Professor asked a few of us to stick around after class, for a special assignment. Great, I thought, extra work. Feh. It turned out just the opposite. Professor Duncan (the Ichabod Crane lookalike of my Freshman year) had selected six of us from the group as those whose writing he particularly enjoyed. He noted that we took to writing assignments well, and were always spirited and abundant in our prose. This, he noted, unlike the majority of the students in our class and in classes past.
So he asked us to write for him a brief -he stressed brief- essay. "Why I Write" would be the title. And, he added, it was our choice to complete this assignment, or just ignore him. Fact was, he said, he wondered what it was that made this little group write, want to write, and write so much. He was curious.
This was way before blogs, mind you. The IBM Selectric was about as electronic as any of us were lucky enough to get in those days.
I will spare you the righteous and dramatic flair with which I responded to his request. I was, after all, a teenager and a college kid. Passion oozed from me. Those were the days.
What surprised me, though, was that my answer was actually very brief. In short, then, as now, I write because I love to write. Even now, composing and posting this in the middle of my business day -- it feels a little bit like cheating. Should I not be working, slogging away at my business pursuits?
Others might play a game of solitaire, or go grab a cigarette outside (as is the case in NY office buildings!), or just have some water cooler chatter or call someone on the phone.
Writing (note carefully chosen word usage) is a joy. Stolen moments, here during my workday, writing. Writing! Blogging is, well, to me, for one, a vehicle and platform for writing.
Journalism is a mighty sexy, attractive, and powerful word to use, when discussing blogs and blogging. Writing, I think, is more the issue of note.
Literal guy that I am, I think of Journalism in a traditional sense. Ira Apple is a Journalist. Peter Kihss was a Journalist. Even Dave Barry, a creative writer, might qualify, as he is published in what strikes me as a the environment of Journalism. This might also go for Jimmy Breslin, or an essayist such as Bill Safire.
I worked in Broadcasting for 30-some years, and dealt with any number of self-proclaimed "Broadcast Journalists." Some of those BJs were nothing more than readers of wire copy. But they still felt about themselves a sense of "being in the great community of journalists." I thought they were ridiculously self-impressed and full of shit. Then there are those from what we used to refer to as the CBS School of Thinking. Some of the practitioners of news reading and writing also dabbled in Journalism. Think Murrow, Sevaried, Trout. To this day, on the remains of the CBS Radio Network, Cahrles Kuralt and Dan Rather (et al) practice Broadcast Journalism. Paul Harvey (he of the ABC Radio Network) has been doing this for longer than most bloggers have been alive.
The odd thing about blogging as Journalism is that some bloggers do little more than aggregate interesting links and present them, and not even with comment in all cases. These are certainly entertaining and can be informative. But this is pass-along journalism, if even Journalism at all. Does this demean or relegate such bloggery to a lower echelon? Not in my book (of course, I don’t have a book, but I am taking journalistic license). If I did, indeed, have a book and it had power, I would revoke the license Bill O’Reilly gave himself, with the assistance of the people at his network and his publishing house.
Blogging may be an extension of existing Journalism, it may be a newfound place for efforts that qualify as Journalism.
Then again, there exists Xanga and LiveJournal, two vehicles (perhaps among others, I don’t know), which are home to many personal journals. If I knew how to make a word bold and have underscore in the MT Comments, then “journals” in the prior sentence would have both.
Is a personal journal what one would refer to as “Journalism?’ In my very literal sense of things, there is upper case Journalism, and there is lower case journalism. Upper case is for news and comment, in a broad and mass-directed (or narrow target by topic or focus) manifest. Lower case journalism is for personal journals, and maybe also for those journals kept by Accountants and Bookkeepers. According to Merriam’s Webster, that is purely my spin, and not the official definition.
The Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (the very one, hardback, that’s been at my desk for what seems as many years as Paul Harvey has been a Journalist) defines journalism (lower case, btw, not a proper noun) as: 1 a: the collection and editing of material of current Interest for presentation through news media; b: the editorial or business management of an agency engaged in the collection and dissemination of news; c: an academic study concerned with the collection and writing of news or the management of a news medium. 2 a: Writing designed for presentation in a newspaper or popular magazine b: writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation c: writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest. 3: newspapers and magazines.
Dictionaries and definitions are dynamic, they change with the times. Journalism, too, certainly must change, as well.
I remain reluctant to put any sort of high or low brow spin on the art, craft, hobby, or just plain pursuit, of blogging. By all means, one can find journalists and journalism in blogs. My own experience is that it is a forum, a place to write, and a wonderful entity in the big world.
And now, with a teeny smidgen of guilt, I must get back to writing a very official memo and doing the other sorts of things that help pay for the electricity that enables me to enjoy the pursuit of blogging.