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December 26, 2004

PressThink's Top Ten Ideas for 2004: Introduction

These are my top ten ideas for the year 2004. The year in press think, as it were. I chose not the "best" ideas, but the ones most useful to me in figuring out what's going on. They weren't necessarily born in '04, either. But they emerged this year. Some have authors; usually it is many authors. Ready?

Here they are: (The first three are discussed in this post.)

1. The Legacy Media.
2. He said, she said, we said.
3. What the printing press did to the Catholic Church the blogging press does to the media church.

4. Open Source Journalism, or: “My readers know more than I do.” (Dec. 28)
5. News turns from a lecture to a conversation. (Dec. 29)
6. “Content will be more important than its container.” (Jan. 1)
7. “What once was good—or good enough—no longer is.” (Jan.4)
8. “The victory of affinity over geography.”
9. The Pajamahadeen.
10. The Reality-Based Community.

Now if I were Time magazine, this post would be called Idea of the Year, and I would unveil one as the “winner” right now. There is a certain temptation in that. But somehow I feel a top ten list is an established gimmick, “okay” if you do it well. Picking Person of the Year is an extreme gimmick. It falls into this dead zone between journalism, and hype. (See Time’s managing editor James Kelly try to manuever in the zone: “I think it’s very problematic to do God. Partly because I suppose you could do God every year.”)

This post is about ideas 1-3 on my list. Number 4 is here; number 5 is here, while 6 is right here and number 7 is here.

1. The Legacy Media. The initials made famous this year were MSM for “mainstream media,” but there’s no idea there, just a category— mainstream, as against “alternative” or “Web.” Calling the same complex the legacy media makes more sense. And there is an idea there: inertia can be fatal.

The “old” media (CBS is a good example) hang on to their legacy. Also called reputation, credibility, “brand,” or tradition, it is the probably the biggest asset CBS News, the division, has. But there are legacy costs, too. It’s hard for legacy firms to re-organize and re-tool themselves for the Net era. People at the top of their game are slow to see it when the status of the game itself changes.

“It’s as if you owned an electric utility and suddenly everyone could generate electricity and send it through the air,” writes Douglas Fisher at Common Sense Journalism. He was talking about newspapers and their assets, but the point holds for the legacy media generally in an era of exploding supply. “Those billions and billions of dollars of plant you own suddenly might be worth only millions.” But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is overcoming denial, admitting your world has changed, and taking the write down on assets.

“Like most monopolists, they’ve spent so many years enjoying their position and not worrying about quality that they’re left floundering now that competition is exposing their faults.” That’s what Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, said during the thick of the 2004 campaign. “Whoever winds up in the White House next year, the position of these traditional media outlets (or ‘legacy media’ as some call them) continues to decline.”

In the airline industry, the “legacy carriers” have been given up for dead. It’s not just the costs of their union contracts. Its the legacy of thinking “hub and spoke,” or the legacy of trying to be all things to all people. Legacy companies are often the ones that cannot adapt to changes in a world they once easily dominated.

The world that is passing not only made fortunes for the big players, it made status and it made sense for the smaller players— the professionals who operate Big Media. Take the journalists at CBS. Their professional routines were formed under one-to-many conditions. The very language they speak at work assumes a one-to-many, broadcasting-forever world. But they no longer operate in such a world.

Many people at CBS News—including, unfortunately, the President of the division—did not know that a story based on questionable documents could be taken apart in hours on the Web because of the Web’s ability to mobilize distributed knowledge. The Web to them was Matt Drudge, a factual Wild West— no laws, no rules, no reliability.

That it might in certain circumstances be a more powerful truth machine than CBS News was inconceivable at CBS News during (and after) the Memos mess this fall. In September, I wrote a post with the title, “Did the President of CBS News Have Anyone in Charge of Reading the Internet and Sending Alerts?” By asking people who work there, I have since determined that he didn’t.

Will the legacy mind adapt? We don’t really know. And for that reason the legacy media may yet prevail. Trust, reputation, authority, brand, tradition… if these are not entirely durable, they are certainly preservable across platforms. The legacy media could re-gain the initiative, but it will not be because denial “works.” It will be because denial ends.

A final word to users of the shorthand, MSM: You can’t keep calling it the mainstream media if one of your major points is how out of touch liberal journalists are with the mainstream. I think you mean legacy media. (It seems Roger Simon does.) And I wouldn’t dismiss that legacy just yet.

See PressThink: Stark Message for the Legacy Media (Sep. 14, 2004).

2. He said, she said, we said. This is simply the argument that journalists ought not to allow things to remain at the level of “He said, she said.” It’s hard to say why—exactly why—but in 2004 it became clear to the clearest-thinking journalists: Leave the field when there is a head-on collision between incompatible truth claims and you are being neither responsible nor fair.

The “we said” part is partly a response to spin artistry and its intensity, as Campaign Desk’s Susan Stranahan wrote in May. “Given the amount of spin this election year, the old rules don’t apply any more,” she said. “Campaign Desk herewith proposes a new ground rule: ‘He said/she said/we said.’” Under this system, reporters are expected to do the required research and “draw an independent assessment on any given day of who is right, who is wrong, and in what way.”

There were many variations on this theme floating around in 2004. But they all involved the journalist’s authority to make judgments, which was to be re-claimed. (“Reportorial authority,” the Desk called it. See this review.) Vaughn Venders in the National Journal said that the major news organizations “need to take a bigger step forward and establish themselves as the places that validate the news. Don’t just report the ‘news’; define the accuracy of it.”

Steven R. Weisman, chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and former editorial writer once explained why it matters if you take that step into we said,. as he did when writing editorials. “If you have to decide who is right, then you must do more reporting,” he told Brent Cunningham of CJR. “I pressed the reporting further because I didn’t have the luxury of saying X says this and Y says this and you, dear reader, can decide who is right.”

That word luxury is well chosen. Daniel Okrent, public editor of the New York Times, noted that the Wall Street Journal allows its reporters “far more authority to make assertions in their own voices than most American dailies,” while at the Times “some of the very best journalists in the country keep what they know off the page because they’ve been tied up by an imprecise definition of objectivity.” By imprecise he means “he said, she said” and the impression of balance it’s supposed to leave.

I wrote this in June about “we said,” trying to explain why a standard like that is a big deal: “Conclusion-avoiding and offloading judgment to experts and partisans became a craft norm in political journalism— the gods of credibility had decreed it. If there is now more credibility in coming to judgment (when you have the goods) that is a big change, as well. It means new gods are rumbling under the press room.”

He said, she said, we said had its own controversy this year, when Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News, told his troops: “current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.” This was the we said part, making its appearence in a communique. Halperin caught hell for it from some. It was thought by observers who supported the President to be a blatant admission of bias— or a declaration of war. (Powerline: “ABC News’ Political Director Mark Halperin has directed the ABC News staff to support John Kerry.”)

I think Bush supporters knew that “he said, she said, we said” was a consequential idea.

See PressThink: He Said, She Said, We Said (June 4, 2004).

3. What the printing press did to the Catholic Church the blogging press is doing to the media church.

Here it is from Belmont Club: “for good or ill, the genie is out of the bottle. Before the Gutenberg printing press men knew the contents of the Bible solely through the prism of the professional clergy, who could alone afford the expensively hand copied books and who exclusively interpreted it. But when technology made books widely available, men could read the sacred texts for themselves and form their own opinions. And the world was never the same again.” (Aug. 24)

Here it is again from Doug Kern in October: “Then as now, a new technology gives ordinary people unmediated access to the truth. The Western invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century and the subsequent dissemination of Bibles written in the vernacular gave lay believers the opportunity to read holy writ and draw their own conclusions about it — just as the Internet gives ordinary people direct access to facts, information, and commentary. The Gutenberg Bible was the first hyperlink.” (Oct. 5)

And here it is a third time from Steven Den Beste: “Technological change has always had profound social consequences, but few inventions in history have caused more political and cultural change than movable type printing. Before Gutenberg, ‘truth’ and ‘history’ were largely properties of the Christian Church (and there was only one Christian Church, then). Movable type printing took away control over ‘the truth’ from the Church and placed it in the hands of a secular elite. Now the Internet is taking away that secular elite’s control over ‘the truth’ and giving it to the broad populus.” (Oct. 23)

Movable type: it was always a brilliant name for blogging software.

See PressThink: Journalism Is Itself a Religion (Jan. 7, 2004)

Still to come: Posts about ideas 7-10 on my list. So far:

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links

Overheard in the commentslegacy (adj)— A pejorative term used in the computer industry meaning “it works.”

A isen blog (David S. Isenberg’s musings about loci of intelligence and stupidity) he notes my refusal to name an Idea of the Year and does it himself: He said, she said, we said… is his winner, followed by Pajamahadeen.

David Brooks picks “The Hookies,” his best political essays of the year— with links to them. (Sign of the times.)

Philip Meyer, one of the sages among journalism academics, with an essay in CJR. Saving Journalism: How to nurse the good stuff until it pays.

Decline and fall: Dallas Morning News presents this news on the front page: Elections over, blog popularity wanes: “Politically oriented sites lost cachet (and cash) once campaigns ended,” says writer Colleen Nelson.

What was hot in the blogosphere in 2004? BlogPulse scoured a year’s worth of blog posts, links and trends to create a year-in-review feature.

Terry Heaton, 10 Questions for Ed Cone. A Q & A about the Greensboro blogging culture and what’s been happening there of late. Useful. Cone is concise.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 26, 2004 10:21 AM