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January 26, 2005

Big Wigs Confer, Part Two

John Palfrey: "I left thinking that the change is truly historic; its direction is not yet set; and shame on us (all of us) if we don't get into the fray and make the most of it, for the public interest. I didn't learn much about credibility online."

Snowbound in Boston, I wrote a “request from a blogger,” and sent it to all the participants in the Blogging, Journalism & Credibility conference, asking for “one thing you changed your mind about” or just learned.

(AP report, for those catching up. Technorati tag is webcred. Part One of this post, “Big Wigs From the Blogging & Journalism Conference Say What They Found,” is here. It has my intro. Part three on the Wikki buzz is here.)

I changed my mind about how expansive this transition — from the historical mode of production and dissemination of news to a more distributed, multi-channel, multi-lingual, at once global and local, interactive mode or series of modes — could be. I came in thinking that it was a big and important and emerging shift, one that we’re studying closely. I came out with my mind hurting from the implications.

Why? It was the energy of the thing, raw and divisive at times, collaborative and productive at others. It was Rick Kaplan, President of MSNBC, saying that he didn’t think anyone in MSM was getting it yet but that his organization saw it (whatever it is) and is working hard at making it happen.

It was Jill Abramson, managing editor of the New York Times, looking for ways to extend the reach and mode of operations of one of the world’s papers of record — and getting a copy of David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined (the intro about linking alone will change anyone’s mind, if it’s not changed yet).

It was Jimbo Wales and the sheer magnitude and reach of the wikipedia experiment; and Brendan Greeeley and Dave Winer on the podcasting implications. It was Jeff Jarvis and many others suggesting that there is a business model in there somewhere that there are serious spoils — of many sorts — to the victor.

It was the BusinessWeek duo who made plain that they were starting to blog and that the cost of personnel at a big news organization is possibly less than 25% of the cost of running such a publication.

It was rethinking for myself, in the context of what everyone was saying and not saying, the implications of RSS, of syndication and aggregation, of micro publishing, of micro-production — fundamentally, of sorting out how to make the most of those many people out there with something to say and how to make the most of the 15 minutes those same people give to considering news and ideas each day.

I left thinking that the change is truly historic; its direction is not yet set; and shame on us (all of us) if we don’t get into the fray and make the most of it, for the public interest.

I didn’t learn much about credibility online.

Though new to the Blogosphere, for many years I have been a news source for the mainstream media on blacks and the Republican Party, and black politics in general. I expect to have the same credibility with my online community of readers.

The discussion about vetting and credentialing missed the point. Credibility will not be conferred by the imprimatur of a new elite or a group of self-appointed gatekeepers. Instead, bloggersí credibility will be established by the market. If readers find us credible, they will come. If not, weíll be left with a community of fifteen people.

Bloggers define themselves as the antidote to journalism in some ways. I think they have more in common with old media than they realize. I donít know of any journalists looking seriously at journalismís or the Webís future who think of blogs as a threat. They are a complement to journalism, to the conversation among citizens, to consideration of the public square.

Apathy, poor education, triviality, banality, commercialism, the culture of spin, phony astro-turf groups that pose as grass roots, conglomerationóall these in different ways pose more of a risk to democratic society, to bloggers and to journalism. I suspect bloggers are some of journalismís best customers, and vice versa, and I suspect in a few years we will see ourselves much more as allies (strange bedfellows. perhaps) than bloggers sense now.”

I came out thinking that the essential difference between bloggers and the mainstream media will be their role in determining what is the news.

The New York Times seeks to be credible not only in its individual articles, but in its choices of what to print— and as importantly, what not to print. At the conference Jack Shafer pointed out that the National Enquirer is rigorously fact checked. While its stories may be true, its choice of what to cover makes it a very different source of information about what you need to know. (Frank Rich has an interesting and related piece about this topic this week)

Bloggers tell their readers what they think is interesting or important, but there is no attempt at comprehensiveness. I’m not sure you could have a newspaper of bloggers. Even if you figured out the governance issues (a collective editorship?) who wants to cover the story about sewer contracts in New Jersey? Bloggers are independent because they want to write about what they see as important; the mainstream media needs to hire reporters because there is a larger definition of what is important. Not everyone gets to write about Iraq, the tsunami or the inauguration.

As the number of information sources proliferates and attention becomes an ever more sought-after resource, the role of being the guide to what is news is changing— but remains as important as ever, even if fewer and fewer people follow it. The key role of what we now call mainstream media will be in the determination of what is news.

One point that was really underscored is what a huge challenge still remains for many mainstream newsrooms in understanding the journalistic and economic value of blogging. Good news companies have learned to embrace radio, TV, and the Internet generally. Blogging is the next step, and the dire economic situation of many news organizations (not so much from blogs as from eBay, Craigs List, a post-literate customer base) should underscore the mandate to evolve.

I realized that journalists are more unaware (than they are unwilling to accept) how the open and decentralized concept of blogs can contribute to their primary goals. Therefore, we, as bridges between the new and the old media, should spend more time explaining to and teaching—without attitude— the public and the world of old media that our common causes, free speech and democracy, would benefit from the more open and decentralized style.

The conference didnít change my mind about blogging, it simply opened it to things I hadnít been thinking about or hadnít been aware of.

To me, the gift of the meeting was enabling mainstream journalists and bloggers to share their passions for what they do and to consider together the possibilities for how the creative nature of the blogosphere presents new opportunities for the traditionalists that will extend the lifelines of old media enterprises.

The traditional media has always been slow to catch on and adapt, but it eventually does, enabling it to preserve dominance in its markets and to sustain a business model that serves shareholder value through high margins and stock prices.

I was surprised at how warmly the media folks are embracing weblogs. I came away less certain than ever about what’s going to happen to the institution of journalism.

I’m concerned that blogs still look to the mainstream media mainly like a source of journalistic content, when I think they actually betoken a fundamental change in the notion of ‘readership.’ Reading is becoming a social activity.

I came in thinking that anything like a “blogger code of ethics” could not be useful because blogs are so varied. I left convinced more than ever that it’s good for bloggers explicitly to discuss our values and how we instantiate them. If I say that I support transparency and accuracy, what do I mean by that and how do I achieve it? (Journalists have worked through many these.) I can see a site that gives bloggers an easy short-hand way of announcing their policies, as does for content rights: “This blog supports BlogEthics R1V2N0…

One area of common ground that struck me was that both bloggers and journalists have obligations to the wider world. As bloggers come of age, so to speak, their increased visibility and viability means they are taking on more and more of the power to significantly affect all sorts of other people — particularly others outside their own core community — that journalists have long had. (And not just on the high-profile things, such as Trent Lott or Rathergate, but on a day-to-day basis with routine posts and commentaries.)

So far, bloggers are dealing with this responsibility primarily by emphasizing transparency, at least as I understand it; journalists deal with it primarily be emphasizing objectivity (which I agree is problematic, at least as typically enacted) and veracity or verification. Both are fundamentally important, and it will be interesting to see the ways in which these two different cultural approaches to exercising the power of information can continue to converge, evolve and ultimately strengthen both forms.”

Whatever his other manifold failures as an analytical thinker may have been, Mao Zedong was right when ruminating upon what he called “the untity of opposites.” He believed that there is a certain yin-yang unity to any contradiction.

What became more evident than ever to me in the short time I spent at the Blogging potlatch in Cambridge is that we are truly at something of a tipping point moment right now. To date, the mainstream media and the blogosphere have been two relatively parallel universes. (Although the blogosphere has fed off of the mainstream media, while the media has paid insufficient heed to the blogosphere.)

But the truth is that neither side constitutes the answer. The challenge for us is how to integrate the best virtues from each side of this currently rather yawning abyss.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links

Part One of this post, “Big Wigs From the Blogging & Journalism Conference Say What They Found.”

Part Three of this post on the Wikki buzz.

Online Journalism Review now has a blog, which somehow had escaped my notice. Also worth following is Morph, the blog of the Media Center at American Press Institute.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 26, 2005 3:44 PM