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July 12, 2004

After Spin: Interview with Steve Rubel for Global PR Blog Week 1.0

"Public relations should first understand that to the extent that its art is a form of 'spin'--whether it's reasonable spin, accepted spin, good spin, bad spin, terrible spin--it is selling a service for which there is less and less value, and less mind is paid to it. Spin was possible in the era of few-to-many media, and a small number of gatekeepers who could be spun...."

Steve Rubel, who writes the Micro Persuasion weblog (“how blogs and participatory journalism are impacting the practice of public relations”) suggested an interview with me for his part in Global PR Blog Week 1.0, an online forum that debuted today with several pieces. I said yes and here are the results.

In connection with what I say here, see Trevor Cook’s kick off piece for the forum, Re-thinking PR. (PR today is “literally a mirror image of the mainstream media problem; which we might call the ‘restricted access’ problem.”)

Also published as Jay Rosen: PR Needs to Stand for Real Transparency at Global PR Blog Week 1.0. (Rest of the forum’s schedule is here.)

STEVE RUBEL: How would you define participatory journalism?

JAY ROSEN: Right now, by what people like Debbie Galant are doing— hyperlocal journalism, weblog-style. (“NOW SERVING MONTCLAIR, GLEN RIDGE AND BLOOMFIELD.”) But really there are hundreds more developments to illustrate. Ask someone like Len Witt of the Public Journalism Network (meeting in Toronto soon about participatory journalism): he’s one guy tracking the story as citizens begin to participate in journalism. Or follow JD Lassica, who’s not only on the story, but a driver of it with conference talks, articles, books, and a daily weblog— ideas for use, as this approach is sometimes called. Look at what Jeff Jarvis is up to in advising a team of students at Northwestern, who created this, and evangelizing at his weblog, Buzzmachine.

RUBEL: Is it more than just blogging?

ROSEN: Yes… it’s the spirit of participation, which means people doing things for themselves, taking action of some kind, where before they were attentive but inert, or out of it completely, and uninvolved. We have seen this force erupt many times in the modern world, a passion to participate.

There is every reason to suppose that it would come ‘round in journalism. Every journalist who’s any good will tell you that being a reporter is fun. Plus, a lot of people are fascinated by the news, and what’s wrong with it. There are smart people in every corner of this country, many without any professional standing or stake whatsoever—just citizens, right?—who are seriously frustated by the failures and flaws they see in the American press.

When those people find that the tools for doing journalism, or some activity interpretative of it, are within reach, it’s an ignition— a spark. Is it all about weblogs? No, participatory surges are common everywhere, especially in domains of information.

Take participatory medicine. You don’t have to squint very hard to see that it’s upon us now. People don’t just depend on their doctor’s prescription and “take” the drugs advised. They find out themselves, and the Interent lets them share and pool knowledge.

And so doctors, we know, are in a different position. A knowledge monopoly has collapsed, which is all part of the life cycle of media forms and their spinoff formations. Say you’re a profession, or a guild. You once had social possession of some knowledge zone. It was your zone. This became your source of authority. Then it became distributed. Can you adapt? Can your authority adapt?

How many times has it happened in human history? Thousands. It would be shocking if it didn’t happen in journalism. One can argue that it’s starting again now. People are flipping things around, because they now have the tools to “do” more and more with media. Some are tools only the pros had before.

RUBEL: What excites you about participatory journalism?

ROSEN: It’s democratic. I mean extremely so. There’s always been a lot of talent in this country. Now it can be told.

RUBEL: What concerns you?

ROSEN: Everything that could go wrong. Everything that’s wrong with the Internet. The problems and potential disasters in participatory media are the problems of having freedom.

RUBEL: Why is blogging not really journalism in your view?

ROSEN: Actually, that is not my view. It was something I wrote down, a phrase I employed in passing, or winding around to my view, which is that blogging doesn’t have to be journalism to be good. Sometimes it is journalism, of a kind, which often depends on the daily output of the professional and commercial press, in the way that a second wave depends on the first. Sometimes it’s just good information about a place— and that’s journalism.

Let’s say, and we know it’s possible, that a story can be “kept alive” because bloggers keep it from disappearing in the news tide. The Trent Lott Lesson. That’s like a second action, a “holding” of the story up for inspection. It happens just after the first news wave and follow up stories are done. Many of the political blogs have this character: a second army pours over the dispatches and conclusions of the first, interpreting it.

But this is not the really new thing. The new thing is how, in the online space, bloggers knit the news together with their views and views arriving from elsewhere, and then manage to embed into the Web this second imprint, upon the items that originally struck us as news.

And so you have the first wave (also called a news cycle) and a second that embeds it further into the Web, with interpretations adding to a web of other notes and reactions. How is this possible? Because the bloggers know how to link, and quote, and entice you to look elsewhere, zap around. They’re way ahead of the journalists on that. If people in the press would just understand that one fact they would grasp what weblogs are about, and why they’re being talked about at all today as “journalism.”

RUBEL: What about those who are empowered to blog by established media outlets, are they more like journalists than the rest of us?

ROSEN: Good question. I think these people—any journalist empowered to blog, as you well put it, by a mainstream news outlet—will be the ones in the best position to change journalism from inside the traditional firms. Will they? I have no idea. But if you are interested in the press, it pays to watch this one unfold.

I try never to make predictions. But I do place bets. If there’s gonna be a carrier class for changed notions of what it means to be a professional journalist, within the body of the mainstream press, it will probably be local writers and reporters on metropolitan newspapers (or public radio stations or maybe weeklies) who learn to blog really well for their communities, which means digging into their communties, embedding themselves in the information flow— and in public conversation.

Here I would compare a weblog to a community switching station. When professional journalists get the hang of that, they will become quite good at it. This form of publishing was made for people with journalistic skills. A growing number of people are realizing that.

When I say it “probably will” be them I only mean: I’d bet on them. “Those who are empowered to blog by established media outlets,” in your phrase. (And if I were a young journalist on the way up, I would hunt down this assignment: to blog in a newsy way, day-to-day.) These people—young, old or in the prime of their careers—are inevitably going to bring radical ideas and questions to the table within newsrooms.

We’ll have to watch what happens when bosses and peers meet up with this. How will they react? Of course it’s already happened. Witness the live issue: Can reporters have their own blogs? Freedom of speech for journalists is a freedom of press issue for publishers and journalists.

If you separate for a moment the weblog authors, as they have emerged so far, from the weblog form and its online sphere, then it’s clear that the blog software and the liveness of the Web connection it promotes are possible boons to any solid news franchise, and in particular to individual journalists— reporters with a beat, columnists with an urge to prove themselves.

They can use the tool now called weblog to fine tune their informational “fit” with a live public of users who talk back—indeed, write back—and are thus able to locate stories, or define their significance. To have to deal with a writing readership is of inestimable value to a young journalist. And as Dan Gillmor always says: My audience knows more than me. A weblog teaches you that.

A lot depends on the terms of empowerment for journalists who blog, and of course on the wit and talent of the professionals involved, plus the crash and thud of events. But I like what Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post said in OJR recently: the Internet demands voice. Liked it so much I’ve quoted it three times. And I admire what the Spokesman Review is up to. They’re trying stuff, which they feel free to abandon. Often the best approach.

RUBEL: Do the majority of established journalists fear participatory media/blogging or do they embrace it?

ROSEN: The majority do not understand this new formation out there, so no, I would not say your typical journalist fears anything special, except more information pollution from unreliable, attention-seeking amateurs who blog. Nor has there been a general “embrace.”

Rather, something else is going on, far more significant. Some journalists (numbers are not known) are reading blogs. Not all have the time, but many realize they can be worth the time once you develop a feel for what I call the “second wave” effect.

A little orchestra of interpreters instantly comes along and does something to journalism, plays back its significance, but first editing out all the noise. It’s like a reply. Smart journalists are tuning into that because its an intelligent use of their work— and a departure point, a place where criticism flashes. Sometimes what they are reading surpasses their work.

Ask these journalists about blogs and you get a totally different answer . It embraces a user’s more intimate knowledge, and that’s what counts.

This will all be talked through in Dan Gillmor’s book, We, the Media. He is the one mainstream newspaper columnist who is totally in tune with both worlds. (Hype alert: I have blurbed his book and I am quoted in it.) Part of the reason Gillmor wrote We, the Media is to teach his profession to be more open. We’ll see if it works. (See his note: Dear PR People.)

RUBEL: How are j-schools changing to equip students who are entering the
journalism to handle these changes?

ROSEN: J-schools change even more slowly than the profession. However, students will change what J-schools are doing if the programs can attract the right bunch, and set them to work doing interesting journalistic things.

Cablenewser is a weblog written by Brian Stelter, an 18-year-old sophomore at Towson State University in Maryland. Right now, he might be the most effective journalist of his generation. Keith Oberman might e-mail Cablenewser with views on things so he can talk to his own industry, a mini-public that “meets” at the weblog. (See “Olbermann Calls FOX The “Worst Winners TV’s Ever Seen” Only on CableNewser…)

I’d hope J-schools would find that interesting. I do. But I’m confident that students will push this form forward, not only in weblogs but in web zines and specialized reports, or college newspapers on the Web. The question for my fellow deans, chairs and directors (worldwide) is: will the forward ones be journalism students?

We may be on the verge of an entrepreneurial “moment” in journalism, in which case the challenge to J-schools would be: can we nourish experimentation, entrepreneurship, team work in building something from scratch, or one-person operations in, say, the I.F. Stone (but also the Brian Stelter) tradition. That’s not an approach journalism schools are accustomed to taking.

RUBEL: Does disintermediation threaten PR? How should the profession react to the changes in how consumers get news?

ROSEN: I think public relations should first understand that to the extent that its art is a form of “spin”—whether it’s reasonable spin, accepted spin, good spin, bad spin, terrible spin—it is selling a service for which there is less and less value, and less mind is paid to it. Spin was possible in the era of few-to-many media, and a small number of gatekeepers who could be spun.

There are fewer who listen (or have to listen) and more who hear only dull propaganda, witless repetition, one of the many forms of mindlessness to which citizens are subjected. Spin is also comedy to Americans, and John Stewart speaks with authority on it. PR does not because it believes, on the whole, in some right to spin— all exceptions cheerfully granted. Plus, there’s what Doc Searls once said to all the “pound the message home” pros, in any field: there is no demand for messages. Factor that possibility in if you want a bright future in any media field.

Today many knowledge monopolies are breaking up, and this corresponds with what the British media scholar Anothony Smith once identified as a shift “in the locus of sovereignty over text,” a shift toward the public. We could say “toward consumers,” but what Smith meant is that more power has fallen into the hands of the people who were mere receivers before. They are more sovereign— as consumers, yes. But also as producers of their own media. Pickers and choosers.

My advice to PR people is to help citizens become more so— more sovereign over information goods. Spin is not a good. Neither is a brick wall, or a blatantly one-sided story that cleverly coheres because it leaves out every single inconvenient fact. Public relations, if it wants to do good, should stand for real transparency in organizations, and genuine interacivity with publics. Want an issue in corporate PR? Freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of interaction for company bloggers: how do we make it a practical reality?

RUBEL:: Recently you told Bill Gates: “cure your blog of public relations, every hint and drop, or don’t do it at all.” What advice can you offer to PR pros who might be involved in helping their companies blog?

Well, blogs for an internal audience are one thing. I have no advice there. For the larger universe, I guess my advice would be: think of your bloggers as your organization’s ombudsmen over micro matters and the macro. With what guarantee of independence? is an issue for newspaper ombudsmen. It rises up here. PR might help make freedom of speech possible for speakers within the firm; it can highlight the benefits in this form of openness.

RUBEL: What other words of advice (if any) can you offer public relations pros who are coping with the changing media landscape?

ROSEN: Hmmm. One thing comes to mind, a kind of warning. PR could be to weblogs what spam is to email: death of a social advance, the ruination of a perfectly good public instrument. It’s worthwhile for professionals to imagine how it might happen. And I know there are some who sense what a disaster that would be. I hope we hear from them during Global PR Blog Week.

RUBEL: Recently you wrote about Karen Ryan, a PR person who got into hot water for “posing” as a news reporter in a VNR. This incident indicates that PR people are under increasing ethical scrutiny. What do PR pros need to keep in mind as far as ethics is concerned as they navigate the new personal journalism waters?

ROSEN: Well, I always found the boy who cried wolf is a good place to begin. Karen Ryan called “reporter here!” when there was no reporter. The ethical problem with that is obvious. Keeping the logic (and moral) of that fable in mind is wise.

Postscript July 14: “We need to change our mindset” Found it interesting that the part most often highlighted by other weblogs interested in the interview or in Global PR Blog Week was:

I think public relations should first understand that to the extent that its art is a form of “spin”—whether it’s reasonable spin, accepted spin, good spin, bad spin, terrible spin—it is selling a service for which there is less and less value, and less mind is paid to it. Spin was possible in the era of few-to-many media, and a small number of gatekeepers who could be spun.

(See Steve Rubel’s own blog, for example.) Others would know better—I am not, after all, an expert in PR—but what this says to me is: A possible split coming in the ranks of PR pros themselves, or maybe just a small faction reacting against the hardened practices of their peers.

For some, “spin” is indeed a dead end, but part of something larger and unsustainable, not dead yet but perhaps soul dead: the impulse to control the message, using experts in that art, largely through the media— free, paid and sought. This ultimately comes into conflict with another mission PR people feel they have: the timely release of public information.

Control-the-message public relations, which leads to spin, differs greatly from the “public information officer” model that some in PR favor, or perhaps have come back to. Today, however, it’s more like a public interaction officer they have in mind.

I’m not sure what to make of this. But with more and more people in PR talking about the need for transparency and genuine public interaction, and asking whether “spin” has seen its day, it is at least possible that a debate could break out— a split in the ranks on what is wise, responsible, effective and shrewd practice in a time of changing media platforms, vanishing knowledge monopolies, and shifting expectations. It would be natural for PR pros who blog to be out front on this.

Listen to Australian Trevor Cook talk this week about shifting media platforms:

For a long time, our democratic societies have been constrained by the fact that we have relatively few media outlets and that very few people ever have any opportunity to participate in the debates that go on in those media forums.

Public Relations, as we understand it today, has grown up in this environment – it is largely a by-product of it… We largely practice PR with the purpose of helping our clients get through those restrictions (with reputations unscathed), and to derive maximum impact from promoting their messages to the mainstream media’s ‘captured’ audiences (leveraging off the media’s authority to secure invaluable third-party endorsement).

But now, says Cook, “many of us in PR have grown tired of this insiders game.”

Tired is one thing. An argument that the world is growing increasingly inhospitable to the arts of spin and message control; that these are somehow incompatible with where things are headed today, and we should watch out— that’s another thing. “So, PR people,” says Elizabeth Albrycht at her weblog, “we need to change our mindset in order to join into that spirit of participation.”

I wonder, though, if it’s realized how big a change this is. Control-the-message practices arise from a “move the masses” mentality, and that is something far more deeply set. Corporate stonewalling—a softer form of which is spin—derives from an instrumental view of truth (like when only the convenient facts count) and that too is deeply set.

And on top of that, sometimes experts and professionals will try to control the message, not because it works, or matches the public moment, but rather because it captures authority internally, makes someone an important player— with necessary skills that command a certain market price.

Thus you have Hollywood executives ordering script changes and making casting decisions, not because this way of movie-making works better in the marketplace— or produces hit films. It “works” internally by giving big shots a chance to make creative calls, while simultaneously downgrading the skills and creativity of eveyone else— writer, director, producer, casting agency.

The culture of control is about that, too—the insiders’ game—and thus cannot be dislodged merely by pointing to its failures. The only way to approach such a beast is to look carefully at what it succeeds in narrowly doing, even if it’s bound to fail on a beastly scale in wider arenas. Many irrational practices survive this way— not because the “control” regime works, but because its practices distribute control to the right players. (Those who have a view on all this, hit the comment button below and speak….)

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Elizabeth Albrycht, a public relations professional with experience in the high technology arena, writes at her weblog that “just a nifty tool” thinking doesn’t cut it:

While I agree that blogging is an important tool to be added to the professional communicator’s toolkit, as I have said before, I think there is something happening in the world of communications that is fundamentally different, and that is a change in mindset, from command-control to distributed participation, and that this is creating new roles for PR people. That is why I have proposed the Open Source PR Project.

A worthy experiment: The Seattle Times election 2004 Backyard Blog project

Are you interested in this year’s elections? Know your community? Like to talk politics with your friends, colleagues and neighbors? Want an opportunity to blog about your observations?

Apply to join a grass-roots campaign coverage effort by The Seattle Times. We want fresh thoughts and perspectives about the elections from places and people not often found in newspapers — your neighbors, your favorite cafes and other local hangouts.

On the other hand, there’s new word of how difficult the “experiment” gets. Blogger burnout (see Wired on it, July 8) is becoming an issue. Poynter’s Steve Outing on The Burned-Out Bloggers of Lawrence: (July 12): invites community members to write blogs for the site, and it’s been successful in attracting quite a few. The most successful in terms of audience was “Powder Room Confessions,” a blog written by University of Kansas student Sara Behunek, who was remarkably open about her personal and sex life. Controversial would be describing this blog mildly, and the writer routinely generated dozens of comments in the feedback area of her blog items. Behunek tired of the spotlight and the writing and retired Confessions last September.

Rob Curley, director of new media/convergence at the Journal-World, says he sees this a lot with bloggers. “If a blogger lasts longer than a month, we’re surprised,” he says. “The churn rate is very high.”

Portland (Oregon) Blogger Jack Bodansky suspends work on his site and writes about it: “My mid-blog crisis.”

In Online Journalism Review, The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin calls for a new round of conversations between online and print editors: (May 26, 2004)

When I went into the online news business eight years ago, I thought by now we’d own the Internet.

I thought that journalistic principles and abilities would be among the most prized commodities in a medium that requires searching and sifting. And I thought that journalism itself would evolve and grow profoundly stronger in a medium that magnifies our abilities to exchange information and tell stories with immediacy and depth.

I still think that could all become true. It’s just been slower than I had hoped.

Blogging the watchdogs, columnist John Leo of US News writes about clued-in-bloggers shaming the out-to-lunch Los Angeles Times on Paul Bremmer’s farewell speech to Iraqis, which the Times said never happened, though bloggers from Iraq and the U.S. were writing about it. Then the Times compounded the error with an editorial blasting Bremmer for giving no farewell speech, and it compounded it again with a lame and inadequate correction.

One blogger wrote: “Bremer’s farewell address had been common knowledge among readers of Internet blogs since at least June 30,” four days before the Times criticized Bremer for having given no speech. Apparently nobody at the Times reads the American press either. Margie Wylie’s Newhouse piece discussing the Iraqi reaction to the Bremer talk ran five days before the Times said the speech hadn’t been given.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 12, 2004 4:58 PM