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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