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December 29, 2004

Top Ten Ideas of '04: News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation

"People who have lots of choices, who can 'roll their own' (as Dan Gillmor says) don't care to be lectured to. Just by staying the same news sounds today more like a lecture because it gets compared to stuff that doesn't sound that way at all. You know sometimes a crisis in authority is tonal..."

Background is PressThink’s Top Ten Ideas for 2004. (“The year in press think, as it were.”) I’m explicating them. Here I am on Number 5. Number 4, about open source journalism, is here.

5. News turns from a lecture to a conversation. “Newspaper people (especially) still have the mindset of putting out the edition and then they’re done with it,” complains Glenn Reynolds. “We used to think that the news was finished when we printed it,” says Jeff Jarvis. “But that’s when the news now begins.”

Let’s excavate their claim. Accounts of the world that are in a state of permanent revision stand a better chance at truth than a series of “finished” accounts, each claiming enough accuracy not to need revision. One of these (the state of permanent revision) is more native to blogging, while the other (the series of snapshots) is more characteristic of news in the mainstream model.

Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for “news as conversation,” more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry’s internal dialogue. Whenever that happens to a claim that’s “been around,” it is because something changed in the world to make it more vulnerable to the extant thought.

Ten years ago scholars Rob Anderson, Robert Dardenne, and George M. Killenberg published The Conversation of Journalism. (With a subtitle, “Communication, Community and News.”) Today the demand for a more conversational style is being driven by a shift in power, and a decline in traditional news authority that weren’t so evident back when that book was written.

The shift in power is putting more tools, more choices, more media capacity overall in the hands of the people formerly known as the audience. The decline in authority goes hand in hand with that, since people who have lots of choices, who can “roll their own” (as Dan Gillmor says) don’t care to be lectured to. Just by staying the same news sounds today more like a lecture because it gets compared to stuff that doesn’t sound that way at all.

You know sometimes a crisis in authority is tonal. The answer to that is a shift in tone.

Journalists and even news executives are starting to understand. Here’s my No. 5 idea—news should be less of a lecture, more of a conversation—from the head of the Associated Press, Tom Curley, who was addressing the Online News Association, an industry group, in November. Notice where he starts:

That’s a huge shift in the “balance of power” in our world, from the content providers to the content consumers. “Appointment-driven” news consumption is quickly giving way to “on-demand” news consumption. And, as we’ve seen so clearly in the last year or so, consumers will want to use the two-way nature of the Internet to become active participants themselves in the exchange of news and ideas. The news, as “lecture,” is giving way to the news as a “conversation.”

Now here it is in 2003, from that Newhouse executive, Jeff Jarvis, at Buzzmachine, his blog. Notice how he begins:

Bloggers are merely citizens with printing presses. This gives them new power.

They can, in the words of blogger Ken Layne (at “fact check your ass.” They can report news. Bloggers have posted eyewitness accounts and photos about news events ranging from fires to political conventions and they are beginning to help newspapers get more local in their coverage.

But most important, these people can simply tell us what the people are thinking. They can turn news from a one-way lecture into a two-way conversation.

And here’s a former TV news director, Terry Heaton:

There’s a new movement underway today that says relevant journalism could be — and perhaps should be — a conversation, not a lecture or the squawk and noise that comes when journalists talk to each other, and today’s media, with a little modification and a new point of view, could provide a forum for such conversations.

The essential conflict between the old and the new in journalism is the belief by those of the new breed that ongoing feedback — and interaction with that feedback — advances a story. It does so by moving the assumptions of the original piece in directions unknown, and this frightens the mainstream press, who insist that journalism isn’t journalism without the editorial process and, by default, editorial control.

Heaton adds some necessary realism. It’s not just lecturing (bad, bad) vs. conversing (good, good); it’s who has control. And who no longer has exclusive control. The news media could at one time control whatever corrections and revisions were made to its accounts. Is that the case today?

Self-evidently it is not. And 2004, let’s remember, was the year of some very big corrections. Dan Gillmor, interviewed by Heaton: “I like the idea that people are watching what I say and correcting me if I get things wrong — or challenging my conclusions, based on the same facts (or facts I hadn’t known about when I wrote the piece.) This is a piece of tomorrow’s journalism, and we in the business should welcome the feedback and assistance that, if we do it right, becomes part of a larger conversation.”

Yes. But “conversation” is not just about getting things right (important as that is.) It’s also about making things more democratic. In 1991, James W. Carey of Columbia University put the goal of conversational journalism this way (the piece is not online, sorry.) The italics are mine:

Republics require conversation, often cacaphonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone. Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us… The task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture, not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar.

Supply it with information as a seer from afar. For journalists, that job isn’t available any more. And that’s why we heard this year the head of the Associated Press say to colleagues: can we stop lecturing people, please?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions and Links

Also see PressThink: Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds. (Oct. 23, 2003) “Weblogging is an inconclusive act— which is different from having no conclusions or firm conclusions.”

Arguing with a Phantom. No time to comment on this now (New Year’s eve) but this is an important exchange on blogging and Big Media: Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit. On first read I give the nod to Reynolds.

UPDATE (Jan. 1): Okay, I went over this in more depth. Farrell did something I have seen many journalists (Nick Coleman is one) do: refute an argument that isn’t out there about blogging and Big Media. I’m sure someone somewhere has said something like it, but it is extremely rare to encounter any regular observer of the scene, blogger or not, right or left, who thinks the major news media’s army of reporters is about to be “replaced” by bloggers. I just don’t find anyone claiming that, probably because it’s an absurd and overblown idea that falls apart after about a minute of thought.

However, I often come across arguments like Farrell’s refuting those who (allegedly) would “replace” the Associated Press with Atrios, Command Post and Little Green Footballs. It’s easy. After all, you’re arguing with a phantom. Now Henry is an academic and a blogger (as Reynolds is, as I am) so I am surprised that he committed another no-no in our game, which is to characterize a writer as holding a particular view, and attack that view as nonsense, but supply no links allowing us to see for ourselves what the writer said and verify: yep, nonsense. His original Dec. 30 post did that:

bloggers like Glenn Reynolds respond to their critics by saying that they can’t cover everything, and that they’re not providing a news service, only opinions. On the other hand, they seem to believe that blogs should radically change or replace the mainstream media.

Sorry, Henry: “Seem to believe” with zero links to the belief doesn’t cut it. Reynolds is a man with lots of opinions and three places (Instapundit, MSNBC and Tech Central Station) where he offers them. If you can’t come up with the links you don’t do the post; and in the back and forth after, where he has supplied some linkage, I have not found convincing evidence that any of the people Farrell mentions seriously put forward a “replacement” argument. (Especially lame is a “belief by association” link where Reynolds is simply nodding in agreeement with Peggy Noonan that pajama-clad bloggers “took down” the Big Media in 2004.)

What Farrell does show is that people he’s linking to think bloggers are “winning” and Big Media “losing,” a view so common I did a whole post with nothing but examples of it.

That’s not to say he has no case worth examining. Farrell, at bottom, is concerned about intellectual honesty: do you acknowledge facts and arguments harmful to your case? Adapted to a mega-blogger like Reynolds, this becomes: do you link to facts and arguments that undercut other facts and arguments you have been linking to a lot? A tricky question. Bloggers aren’t supposed to be “balanced,” but they aren’t allowed to be blind, either. Saying you’re an opinion blog just evades the problem. It would make for an interesting Crooked Timber post— with lots of links.

Reynold’s has lots of links to other bloggers commenting on this. And Hugh Hewett has also weighed in here and here. And there’s more ruckus in the comments at Timber.

Portland Communique blogger bix in comments: “Try to keep in mind that this is not merely about corrections… It’s about the publication of all the steps a story takes as it evolves, rather than waiting for some essentially arbitrary moment to take a snapshot that in form makes it seem as if the story has been told.”

“I’ve been waiting for #5,” he says. Andrew Cline at Rhetorica responds to and elaborates on this post, noting that in the traditional rhetoric of journalism “there exists a one-way communication from those who know (sources and the journalists who gather information from them) to those who don’t (the public).” Check it out, especially his notion of a “noetic field.”

Joe Gandelman of the Moderate Voice responds. “But we think the lecturing will continue.”

John Robinson, Editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, reports at his blog on a key step in the conversation his newspaper is having with the world. Lex Alexander’s report is done:

Lex submitted his memo and then skipped town. (He’d probably argue that he’s simply taking a well-deserved vacation.) Before he left he asked if he should post the report. I told him I wanted to read it first. (What can I say? I’m an editor. That’s what I do.) I’ve read it now. I’m still thinking through his conclusions and have some questions, but I like it. I think we can pull much of it off.

In any case, as soon as the Lexster returns next week, he’ll post his report on his site. And, of course, we welcome comments and suggestions.

Olav Anders Øvrebø of Undercurrent (about whom I wrote a post called Undercurrent: Nation, Region, Weblog, Home) did a scan of the Norwegian blog sphere:

I’m quite disappointed that none (forgive me if I’ve overlooked any) of our many good to brilliant media studies professors have taken up blogging (apart from those in the mentioned “new media” cluster). Jay Rosen’s example shows what a powerful tool it can be, especially for those labouring in media studies departments: Here’s a possibility to reach a wider audience than those reading scientific papers, without having to compromise on detail or style to get published in the media, and here’s a chance to establish a critical dialogue with the very same people that are the object of study - media professionals, readers, viewers.

Well, yeah, but you can’t lecture.

Nick Coleman: ‘Blog of the Year’ goes to extremes. It’s about Powerline. “They should call themselves ‘Powertool.’ They don’t speak truth to power. They just speak for power.”

Powerline: A Columnist Nips at Our Ankles. It’s about Nick Coleman. “Why didn’t you pick up the phone and call one of us? We’d have been happy to fill you in.”

Journalists: no tolerance for majorities? Hugh Hewett at the Weekly Standard: A Unified Theory of the Old Media Collapse: (Dec. 28)

By the time the new millennium arrived, legacy media was populated at its elite levels by as homogeneous a group of reporters / producers / commentators as could ever have been assembled from the newsrooms of the old Hearst operation. Big Media had hired itself into a rut—a self-replicating echo chamber of left and further-left scribblers and talkers and self-reinforcing head nodders who were overwhelmingly anti-Republican, anti-Christian, anti-military, anti-wealth, anti-business, and even anti-middle class. These new journalists had no tolerance for majoritarian points of view, and the gap between the producers of the news and the consumers of the news widened until the credibility gap between the two made Lyndon Johnson’s look modest by comparison.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 29, 2004 5:51 PM