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April 16, 2004

Brain Food for BloggerCon

Here's my Introduction, take two, for the Saturday morning session at BloggerCon. Let's start by separating two things. Blogging is not journalism. But if each imagined itself as the other, some good might come of that.

On March 25th, I posted “No One Owns Journalism,” a background essay for the BloggerCon session I will be leading tomorrow. (Schedule here, participants here.) The work of the session began when I drafted my first answer to the question that Dave Winer had assigned me and the participants: What is Journalism?

Not sure, I said, but no one owns it. Journalism is always up for grabs, because it only exists in a free society, which is free to redefine itself and always does.

The session continued its work after March 25 in 120 or so comments at PressThink and BOP that covered a lot of ground and involved some 50 different writers lending data and perspective— many with well thought-out and multiple posts. Some are beautifully written. I urge you to scroll down and see.

Rather than try to summarize all that, I am going to tell you what I learned, and set up the closer on the team. That’s the people who show up in Cambridge. Let’s say there’s 100 bloggers and writers, with a few academics, some business people, some journalists. All can pitch.

In my first try at framing the subject, I had a number of things wrong. My questions were pedantic and abstract. (So I ditched them back of this post.) I wrote too much on the practice of journalism, in order to “open” it to webloggers, when I should have been writing on the practice of blogging, to see where it opens on journalism, here and there threatening to change it.

To me—but then I’m a professor of it—journalism is always up for grabs. That’s a principle and it needs to be maintained. But to many people I have been reading and arguing with in my head, this is true only abstractly. In reality, journalism is the opposite of “up for grabs.” It’s the Establishment. A closed profession. Or worse. Journalism, for many who blog, is one thing they are blogging against. Or instead of. (Or are they blogging “over” it? Could be.)

So what is journalism? Not sure, they say, but someone else owns it.

Something puzzled me as I tracked the discussion of blogging and jounalism elsewhere in the sphere. I kept hearing people say things like, “Well, I don’t think blogging is journalism.” (Or: gimmee a break, all blogging isn’t journalism.) Kevin Drum, formerly CalPundit, now at Political Animal, and one the bloggers said to be most like a journalist, told me in an email: “I don’t think much of the blogging as journalism meme.” Kaye Trammell says bloggers may perform “random acts of journalism,” a statement she can live with “because it does not insinuate that all bloggers are reporting all the time.”

But who ever said—and who believes it now—that “all” bloggers are reporting all the time? It’s a pretty farfetched claim, even for insinuaters. “Blogging is journalism or it’s nothing” doesn’t survive an hour of clicking ‘round the sphere. I looked and found no links to categorical statements like that. (I’m sure they will turn up, somewhere.)

I asked around, left comments at blogs. Zip. When there are many debunking the claim, and it’s hard to find any bunkers out there, something is up with that claim and you have to drill in. In fact, “blogging only counts if it’s journalism” is not being stated by anyone. But a great many bloggers think it’s implied in subtler ways, (perhaps the journalism track at BloggerCon is one) and they react to this. Why?

Part of it is the frontier-to-civilization cycle. Big Journalism is a Back East thing. (And journalists in the West are driven crazy by this.) It’s all rules and “shoulds.” But blogging is virtually rule-less, and open to so many shoulds that none can gain status as standard. Some of the suspicion I found also has to do with professionals coming toward an activity that, long before the pros even knew about it, was not only open to amateurs—people volunteering their time—but had been invented, developed and first popularized by them.

“This is ours, not theirs” explains, I think, why some bloggers say of journalism: that’s theirs, not ours. “Mavericks are notoriously resistant to being told what to do,” writes Rebecca Blood about the blog tribe. It took me a while—and some extended correspondence with Rebecca—before I understood this puzzle and what to do about it Saturday morning. So here’s what I am going to do about it. Quote Jimmy Breslin, from a portrait of the columnist in the New York Observer (April 16, 2004):

For his part, Mr. Breslin, who prefers to think of himself as a reporter and writer—”Don’t call me a journalist, I hate the word; it’s pretentious!”—doesn’t take too well to questions about the place of columnists in today’s culture.

Then there’s this, from Dean Landsman, in comments at the mother ship: “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.” (So Breslin thinks we’re pretentious in this session, while Landsman says we’re sexy. But it’s happening at Harvard, so what did you expect?)

And this, from Rebecca Blood: “So, when I say weblogs and journalism are fundamentally different, one thing I mean is that the vast majority of weblogs do not provide original reporting—for me, the heart of all journalism.”

Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is “the story.” Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access— as in getting your calls returned. Blogging counts because it a very good way of doing what the prophets of IndyMedia said we should do: become the media. (See Anarchogeek, here.) Bloggers are speakers and writers of their own invention, at large in the public square. They’re participating in the great game of influence called public opinion. And they’re developing, mostly through labors of love, what I’ve called an extremely democratic media tool.

Big Journalism frustrates and matters for the same reason: it’s an institution, with the machinery set in place for extracting, checking, editing, packaging and distributing news and information over earthly expanse. By maintaining this machinery through time, and disciplining themselves with a code, the big organizations involved create an asset—trust, reliability, credibility, visibility, brand, icon—that is very hard to match or overcome. (Which is not to say it will endure forever in its present form.)

Blogging is not journalism. When we separate these two things, we honor both. Then we’re prepared for the real work of the conference, which is to arrange more imaginatively, in sentences newly drawn, our two key terms— and to do this not once, but as many times as we can in 90 minutes of conferencing, plus the refelections after. Here’s a bit of what I mean:

Okay, so here’s Blood again in a newly published piece, using her imagination to set these two terms in proper relation. If you’re trying to find journalism, she says, don’t look at the people, look at their practices:

When a blogger interviews an author about their new book, that is journalism. When an opinion columnist manipulates facts in order to create a false impression, that is not. When a blogger searches the existing record of fact and discovers that a public figure’s claim is untrue, that is journalism. When a reporter repeats a politician’s assertions without verifying whether they are true, that is not.

Believe it or not, the question, “what is journalism?” is supposed to be practical. The purposes of BloggerCon—that pretentious, sexy and democratic thing—are to advance the weblog form and develop its nascent sphere. If that’s the practical task, then how is journalism best defined and understood? But in arguing about this, we cannot look only at the journalism we have, and have come to expect. Also in the room tomorrow should be the journalism we need, and a definition of that will prove just as valuable.

Blogging is not journalism. But if each imagined itself as the other, some good might come of it. Journalism that is more conversational, blogging that is more reliable. These we can certainly imagine. But what else can be demanded of the two forms, when they are thought about… together?

The philosopher Sheldon Wolin once said that we need vision in politics because when there is vision, things appear “in their corrected fullness.” At the high end of my hopes for this event, one is able to picture journalism in its corrected fullness. And that’s when we’ll find a vision of it from which webloggers can draw as they develop the form, improve their own sites, and strengthen the sphere they share with members of the press.

Aftermath: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Obviously, the bar is open and comments—post-conference—are welcome.

James Fallows in the New York Times on what’s different about weblogs: The Twilight of the Information Middlemen. (May 16, 2004)

From OJR: Columnist Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post on lessons to be learned from blogs for mainstream print journalists: “The most successful blogs all have something in common. Their authors are unashamedly enthusiastic about the topic at hand. (Often, of course, they’re outraged.) The lesson: There is no virtue in sounding bored online. Online, journalists should not conceal their fascination for the topics they cover. They should not hide behind the traditional bland construction of news stories. They should still be fair, of course, but they should also have voice and passion — and sometimes even outrage.”

CableNewser, a lively and newsy blog about the cable news biz (3,500 readers a day and many fans in the industry) turns out to be written by an 18 year-old college sophomore in Maryland. See Baltimore Sun article, “Writing beyond his years.” (June 2, 2004)

Reflecting on the BloggerComn session, Micah Sifry writes Bloggers are editors, not journalists: “bloggers who write about current events and culture (as opposed to people who are mainly focused on their inner world or their personal spheres) aren’t getting attention and adding value to the democratic discourse so much because they’re behaving like journalists, it’s because they’re behaving like editors.” (April 23, 2004)

Geoffrey Nuremberg has original things to say in Blogging in the Global Lunchroom, a commentary on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross (April 20, 2004).

The fact is that this is a genuinely new language of public discourse — and a paradoxical one. On the one hand, blogs are clearly a more democratic form of expression than anything the world of print has produced. But in some ways they’re also more exclusionary, and not just because they only reach about a tenth of the people who use the Web.

Amy Langfield offers an outstanding analysis, complete with predictions, pros and cons, legal questions and a conveniently prepared nut graph (April 19):

Newspapers will add blogs to their Web sites first with their existing columnists, through frequent community op-ed writers the paper has come to trust and through occasional “event” blogs related to things such as an election or major natural disaster. The two things that must happen before newspapers move beyond those steps are that the legal liability must be made clear through litigation and the economy must improve enough for them to hire more people to implement the blogs.

Highly Recommended: Vin Crosbie’s sharp narrative that puts the “What is Journalism?” discussion at Harvard into sequence with three earlier moments when the two tribes—bloggers, journalists—met. Is Blogging Journalism? (Rounds 1-4).

Do read Nico Macdonald in The Register (UK) on the Future of Weblogging (April 18): “This weekend the best and the brightest in the blogosphere will schlepp their WiFi-enabled laptops to the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass….” Also:

The “blogerati” rightly present Weblogging as opening up writing and communication to the masses. However, this populist and laudable attack on the mass communication sector disguises an elitist tendency at the centre of the blogosphere. This tendency is most obvious in the habit of using first names only (or even nicknames) when referring to fellow Webloggers. For a movement that aspires to (and has achieved some) intellectual leadership, this is inappropriate.

An interesting point about a habit that always bothered me, too.

Blogging from Prague, Douglas Arellanas reflects on tech hurdles for newspapers that want blogs (April 20).

Chris Geider, Blogging as Journalism: a Defense (April 19): “The Internet and blogs, in their way, are the best hope for the success of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ for which First Amendment advocates have so long fought. Why would some want to cut it short now?”

Jeff Jarvis posted his notes from the BloggerCon session: “What is Journalism?” (April 17)

The New York Times covers the “blogging as a business” session that Jarvis ran. (April 19)

Betsy Devine’s top ten quotes from the session: “What is Journalism?”

Here are Jack Hodgson’s journalism session notes from TECHpopuli (April 17).

Velveteen Rabbi (Rachel Barenblat) summarizes well the religion and blogging session at the Con (April 19).

See Rebecca Blood’s fine essay: “A Few Thoughts on Journalism and What Can Weblogs Do About It.” (April 15)

When bloggers link to conflicting or contextualizing material, smart reporters will further research and verify promising leads, and credit the bloggers who uncovered them. Participatory media and journalism are different, but online they exist in a shared media space. There are tremendous synergies possible between the two. I have no desire to conform my weblog to journalistic standards, or to remake journalism in my image. I want to find ways to leverage the strengths of both worlds to the mutual benefit of both.

An April 15 radio segment about Blogging on Australia’s Radio National with author Rebecca Blood, Jay Rosen and Lee Rainie, of Pew’s project on Internet and American Life. Listen here (requires Real Player.)

Tristan Louis had a long and interesting take, prior to BloggerCon: Thoughts Before BloggerCon II— Blogs and Journalism.

Ed Cone comments on this post: ” if my newspaper column on a lazy Sunday is about my dog, is that journalism? Is it journalism if columns about my dog inevitably draw more comment from readers than columns about Iraq, gay marriage, and the local economy?” (April 16)

Dave Winer responds: Jay, I didn’t ask if blogging is journalism. (April 16, see comments too)

J.D. Lasica comments on this post. “I think what really set me on edge was the notion that we should return to the days when only big-J journalists practice journalism and bloggers, well, whatever they did, it certainly wasn’t journalism.”

Sheila Lennon comments on this post: “Journalism is a discipline. — who, what, where, when, why. Get it right, dig, tell a story, publish it. What you type into a blog might be journalism, might even be ‘news’ or it might be blowing smoke.”

Doc Searls comments. “Three degrees of mediation.”

Some great background to these issues is provided in this report, We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information. Written by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, edited by J.D. Lasica. Recommended.

Newsweek on Ohmy “Is This the Future of Journalism? Oh Yeon Ho’s belief that ‘every citizen is a reporter’ has changed journalism in South Korea—and now he’s aiming for the world.”

South African Andie Miller, If Kapuscinski had a weblog. “Whether we call them journalists or not, what bloggers invariably possess – that much of journalism with its deadlines and word-counts has killed in its reporters – is an enthusiasm for telling the stories. If a young Kapuscinski was starting out today, and publishing his writing on a weblog, perhaps we wouldn’t call it journalism. Perhaps we would call it “literary reportage”, as Kapuscinski himself describes his writing. But whatever we called it, we would be richer for his desire to experience the world, and his passion for sharing those stories with us.”

See Jeff Sharlet’s pre-conference set up (and comments) for the Religion and Blogging session at the Con. Jeff is the editor of The Revealer, where faith and journalism collide.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 16, 2004 10:24 AM