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January 26, 2005

Big Wigs From the Blogging & Journalism Conference Say What They Found

Request from a blogger to the people who were at the Harvard conference on journalists, bloggers and trust. "Send me one thing you changed your mind about." Or at least learned. "You have 24 hours," I said. This is what they told me. (Broken into three posts.)

For example, before the conference I was pretty sure that the open and free archive for news content was going to be a tough struggle. Those who are for it—as I am—would probably lose in the end, I thought. Now I believe it might win out after all. (The AP report on the event, for those catching up.)

Dan Gillmor, conference participant, says, in a key posting, that someone will try it. That’s exciting. The closed, gated, over-priced, and under-served archive is the signature policy of the old regime (still in charge) in Web thinking for news. The idea of a new regime got injected into the conference, as we’ll see. (Also see Mark Glaser in OJR on it, Feb. 1.)

Writing at his Links and Comment page during the conference, Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of Salon and a journalist who speaks with some authority about the evolution of the Net, said the group in Cambridge was going over old ground:

It continues to amaze me how much of this debate is a retread of the mid-’90s, when journalists first moved online and discovered that the Web moved really fast, had different norms, gave their readers new voices and made their own voices sound stuffy and institutional. First I think, “Come on already!”; then I think, “Oh, it’s okay.”

But it’s more than okay. It’s what we should expect. The curve of discovery is the same at any point where you enter. If Scott Rosenberg took a moment, I bet he would say that he wasn’t amazed at all. Experience with the Web is what changes a journalist’s outlook on how different a platform the Web is. Arguments have comparatively little effect. Someone else’s experience from ten years ago? Zip.

“The world of professional media has experienced such changes” as we’re heading into now “only across the span of a century,” says Rosenberg. (And it is a crucial point.) But in the tech biz the life cyle of forms is different. “Dominant companies rise and fall, new technologies change the rules of the game, and habits of doing business get tossed in the trash every 10-20 years instead of every 100-200 years.”

The Credibility conference (also called webcred) put the “rules of the game change every hundred years or so” people—traditional journalists—into sharp dialogue with the “platforms shift every five, ten years” crowd. In this sense it was bloggers and journalists synchronizing their watches, trying to tell each other what time it is, about now.

“As a lifelong professional journalist who jumped headfirst into the tech-industry world a decade ago, I’ve made my choice,” said Rosenberg. Change for the people in journalism is only going to speed up and get bigger, he predicted. “Wouldn’t it be fun to do things differently?” The title of his post: Change is gonna come.

That seemed certain to almost everyone who joined in the conference. Big Journalism was going to experience the shock of the new very soon, or had already been “shocked” by contact with the Web and its extensions. Some got the shock at the conference itself.

“I would talk in terms of epiphanies,” said Lee Rainey of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Susan Tifft said her mind “was not just changed, it was blown” by what she saw demonstrated in the way of citizens media. (It was also a lesson in why you read blogs. You see “RSS” coming up again and again and you’re more likely to find out what that is. )

Other themes:

In this post, first of three, everyone is looking ahead to a media future where professionals and amateurs, big newsrooms and solo bloggers, can and will mix in unknown combination. And where disruptive technologies will disrupt.

It is my belief that at this moment of confusion, between platforms, and in a sense between worlds, the thing “journalism” falls open to re-definition and public enlargement. There is an opportunity to rethink its politics too, and to zero base the news concept itself. Derive “quality journalism” out of better principles, better arguments, better facts, a better grasp of the Internet in American Life, and of life across the globe.

“It’s an exciting time in journalism,” I wrote in my pre-conference post. “As the great social weave from which it arises changes form, the thing itself comes up for grabs.”

And I think you will hear some of that…

Neither those of us from the mainstream media, especially print, nor you in blogworld, have figured out a business model on the Internet that could pay for and sustain the kind of deep, global news-gathering operation with highly experienced, trained reporters that is the lifeblood of the Times.

That there is not as wide a gulf between bloggers and journalists as I thought going in, although there are obvious differences, and ones that need to be respected by both worlds. The things that divide us are not all bad. There is no one better model for sharing information and informing the public.

The conference left me with a greater appetite than ever to figure out ways that a place like the Times can capture some of the vitality and energy and voice that makes so many blogs so readable and useful, without completely sacrificing the standards that guide our news reporting and editing.

And, finally, while I still have a huge amount to learn about blogs, I wish you guys would try to learn and understand more about traditional journalism— like calling anyone named in a story in a prominent way for comment (even when you are sure your facts are right.) You can be accurate and unfair. I don’t ever want to impose our standards on blogs, but I wish you all at least knew the walk we walk.

I don’t think the conference changed my mind about anything inparticular, except maybe the potential value of podcasting to a site like mine. What I was most struck by, I guess, was the amount of passion generated by the topic of blogging per se, as opposed to the philosophical and partisan controversies that are the main subject matter of blogs like mine.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise, given what we’ve seen about the power of the medium over the last couple of years, but still, it was very interesting to see partisan divisions more or less overwhelmed, for a couple of days at least, by different fault lines: our attitudes toward the medium, and its relation to traditional media.

Before the conference, I thought much of the blogosphere had more in common with shout TV or all opinion all the time programming. Some of it is that, of course, but what cheered and surprised me was how many core values those around the table shared: accountability, a passion for news (which Dave Winer described in evangelical terms), an understanding of the link between transparency and credibility, the need for verification.

Like the mainstream media, bloggers are going through what might be called a market sorting process. The “best”—meaning the most credible, reliable, etc.—have found a sustained audience and can point to situations where they have had an effect (Rathergate being the latest example). The “worst” have an audience, too, but just like down market tabloids, they aren’t likely to be widely believed. This will work itself out in time, much as it has for the mainstream media.

Second point: I’m embarrassed to admit it, but before the conference I had never heard of podcasting. So, big learning curve there.

Finally, an observation. There was a lot of talk about the “community” that blogging fosters. I was bemused, therefore, to look around the room and at any given time see a third of the participants staring at screens and tapping on keyboards, presumably communing with others while those in the room were speaking. (Some were monitoring the webscast, I know). Much has been said in these posts about the enormous value of being with people this weekend, face to face. I agree. Which is why it was interesting to witness the art of being together, and apart, at the same time.

My change of mind was that the Media Bloggers Association ought to be more ambitious and explore taking on a number of the issues/challenges raised at the conference.” Like… (taken from Cox’s post) legal defense for bloggers, insurance, training and education, standards, bandwidth, protection from government, new tools for bloggers and archiving.

Cox later explained by email how he sees it working:

The “big idea” behind MBA offering CARR (computer-aided research and reporting) training is the potential for “distributed blogging”; bringing together, say 1,000 bloggers - trained and organized - to analyze a complex government document like the Federal Budget and produce a detailed analysis of the report within a matter of hours and then disseminate that information to tens of millions via a network of blogs. If you think CBS News did not like the treatment they got by bloggers, imagine how Congress will feel when they realize every bit of pork they to slip into the federal budget is going to be broadcast worldwide by an army of bloggers. Now multiply that for state and local budgets, government departments and so on.

By Day 2 of the hostage crisis the Stockholm Syndrome had set in, and I now agree with my captors that transparency, in some settings, has some virtues. My ethical framework still requires that I attempt to be as objective as possible when working with the public, but I should reveal more of myself in my blogging and writing, if not in direct interactions with library users (can you see the New Yorker cartoon with the librarian saying to a confused user, “but let me tell you more about what I think?”).

I learned that the op-ed page of the New York Times may someday have room for bloggers. For some reason, of all the things I heard, this gave me the most hope. It’s been impossible to crack the hard shell of the Times on the editorial side (we’ve had considerable success with RSS, and their archive policy).

As Ed Cone points out, they still take cheap shots. This has been going on forever, with a few exceptions, here and there, and indicates fear, not reason.

How interesting that William Safire, a Republican columnist for the Times, is retiring this week. It was a good move when they brought him on in 1973 to diversify the editorial face of the paper. Now if the Times could accept a Republican in 1973, it could certainly accept a blogger in 2005. Someone who operates a blog now, and has for some time, and (key point) continues to blog on his or her own terms while writing regularly for the Times. This would be a big door-opener between the cultures, and would accrue enormously to the benefit of the Times, and probably to the blogosphere (maybe not). But I would support it, assuming they chose a blogger with integrity, inteligence, an idealist who never moves inside the Beltway, whose feet stay firmly planted with the people.

I would talk in terms of epiphanies, rather than a changed mind.

Epiphany One: I had read the thought before but didn’t quite get the wisdom of the notion until Jay said it: The difference between the mainstream media and bloggers is that reporters are edited before they publish and bloggers are edited after they publish. Bloggers have a lot to teach mainstream-ers about the virtues of opening up newsroom processes and making corrections/amplifications after publication. The mainstream media can offer bloggers some good lessons in why it’s often important — even if it’s time consuming — to try to get things right before they publish.

Epiphany Two: One of the new credibility/credentialing processes blog writers will endow to the creative world is the act of swarming. Another credibility enhancer is the notion that certain kinds of publishing ventures are best built around a shared commitment to what the wiki folks call Neutral Point of View (which is a nice refinement of what journalists call “objectivity.”)

Epiphany Three: There is much more of a community identity among bloggers than I was aware. It will be fascinating to see if there is a community-based response to the inevitable tribulations that journalists, publishers, and other creators face: The first signature libel case in the blogosphere. A plagiarism scandal. A legal challenge to podcasters who pass along original or remixed video and audio files. The first legal challenge that pits a blogger against someone who feels that the blogger has egregiously violated his privacy. The first subpoena that requires a blogger to identify the source of information in a posting, etc.

Our discussions got me thinking differently about the archives that the mainstream media have kept walled off and pricey. To wit:

Given the importance of keeping well-reported journalism freely available — and given the possibility of some new ways of generating revenue from archives—maybe a new approach would work. I don’t know what your chances are of winning this one, Jay, but it sure is worth exploring. My going in thinking: Unlikely that news organizations would ever give up this revenue stream.

Early re-thinking, based on just a bit of reporting while snowed in Sunday: The range of news orgs generating significant revenue from archives with current biz models may be more limited than I had assumed.

All of which is underscored by this comment from Tom Rosenstiel: “I suspect bloggers are some of journalism’s best customers, and vice versa.” If that’s true, and I think it might be, what does that suggest about how news organizations and bloggers might collaborate on new approaches to archives?

It is vital that we continue to get bloggers and professional journalists together in the same room, preferably with a lock on the door and drinks in the bar. It is vital that these two sides discover they are not sides at all but share the same desire to inform the public and improve the nation and the best way to do that is to work together.

Now having had that Kumbya moment, I also saw that continued tension is a good thing, for it forces us from each perspective to reexamine how we think and view the world and do our jobs. That’s all the more reason to keep coming together in mixed company.

Second, I knew how much the blogging community values openness but I was surprised at the fervency of that belief, given the reaction of bloggers to being left behind the velvet rope before the event. Lesson learned, eh? And that’s a lesson not just for confabs, of course, but for all of established media: Take down the barriers or you’ll be sorry.

Third, I was surprised — and delighted — at the eagerness of established media—in the person of MSNBC’s Rick Kaplan—to embrace citizens’ media. Here, too, I knew that MSNBC was already blogsmart. But it’s clear that Rick came eager to make sure we got the message that he is ready, willing, and eager to play blog. Rick said that only fools would not see that. Sadly, I think there is still a good supply of such fools here and there. But in Rick and a few others like him, we have evangelists for the future who can convince their colleagues in established media that change is good, change is necessary.

Fourth: On trying to find business models that will support both the journalism of established media and the growth of citizens’ media… well, we couldn’t fix this in an hour! What did surprise me is how far we are from solving those issues in a world of distributed networks (that no one owns) replacing centralized marketplaces, a world with Wikipedia overtaking a $350 million enclopedia business and CraigsList vaporizing $65 million in classified revenue in just one market

So there’s the real surprise: The business crisis is worse than I thought and we’re farther away from answers than even I feared. Next time, we also need to bring in publishers, broadcast executives, ad sales people, and most important, marketers to wrestle with the hard questions and imaginative answers to support the best of both media worlds.

I had my mind changed about the level of interest that mainstream media has in completely rethinking its business models and willingness—nay, enthusiasm—to embrace change. I didn’t realize that so much constructive thinking had gone so far so deep so quickly.

1. Many of the values and innovations of blogging lend themselves to innovations that will almost certainly be adopted by the institutional media. It’s coming, and that is a good thing for journalism. It may not be such a good thing for blogging, because I think that the brand and distribution power of the mainstream media will be even more important in an increasingly crowded blogosphere.

2. The idealism and passion of blogging are its most precious qualities, and accountability and transparency are its core values. If institutional journalism can tap these qualities and values, journalism can be renewed. If blogging can maintain them, blogging will grow in influence and importance. These are both big ifs.

3. Open archives is a great idea! It makes moral and professional sense. But it also has great potential for building audience, especially at newspapers. All it would take is a successful experiment at a couple of respected newspapers that show the income from selling reprints could be matched or exceeded from advertising at a newspaper’s “old news” web site and from special services (for instance, tapping the desire for a momento by selling framed photocopies of actual clips). Result: win-win-win.

4. Despite the wonders of digital interactivity, sitting around a table face-to-face has special power. I already knew this, but it was dramatically on display this weekend.

Indeed, what a meeting. I felt this was a conference I would look back on in 5 or 10 years and say I was there when we learned about…”

First, scale: I didn’t know there were 6 million blogs, 35,000 new blogs per day, and 700,000 posts a day, and that all of this is doubling every 5 months; Much less what that can mean for citizen powered information.

I didn’t really know much about podcasting, and now I see all sorts of opportunities.

I didn’t know about MSNBC’s use of blogs for interactive audience building.

I didn’t know much about Technorati, or the Wiki family, or so many other innovators, and now I do.

I knew about, but had not met John, one of the minds behind the blog; etc. etc.

My list could go on and on. It was a Web-world-opening experience for me and made me realize how much change is ahead of all of us.

Going in, amid the usual us-vs-them debate, I thought the conference had no chance to get beyond those arguments. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we did. The differences between reporting and blogging are now well-established. There is much both groups can learn from each other, and perhaps we’re a step closer. But there is so much more to discuss besides who’s credible, and we began to scratch the surface of those issues on Saturday.

The real “ecosystem” of news — with reporters, editors, bloggers and wikipedians — won’t truly flourish until we figure out how to support it. Can we provide services to each other, form business partnerships, generate mutual traffic benefits?

All these are topics for the next go-round. The good news is we may have broken the ice, amid the blizzard.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Here’s the rest: Big Wigs Confer, Part Two. Journalists and bloggers in fruitful combination. Big Wigs Confer, Part Three. The Wiki Buzz.

Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of Salon, reacts to this post:

When a New York Times Magazine writer declared last fall that “nobody reads” most blogs, he casually flattened the space between “mass or niche market” and “nobody.” This formulation shoves everything that falls below the threshold of media significance into the null void.

Pros — stuck on the understandable but by now, one hopes, discredited idea that blogging aims to replace journalism as we know it — often can’t kick the habit of valuing blogging purely as a business proposition. Some quotes from Rosen’s roundup illustrate this.

I highly recommend his post.

Item from the news: Senator Barbara Boxer joins the Daily Kos to post there a message of thanks to the Kos community for its help in applying pressure during the confirmation hearings for Condi Rice.

Conference participant Jack Shafer takes on “blogger preening,” a serious problem! Shafer writes at Slate: “the alleged divide between the old media and this new whippersnapper media of blogs has never seemed real to me.”

With the exception of the “metro” section reporter covering a 12-car pile-up on the freeway, I think most practicing journalists today are as Webby as any blogger you care to name. Journalists have had access to broadband connections for longer than most civilians, and nearly every story they tackle begins with a Web dump of essential information from Google or a proprietary database such as Nexis or Factiva. They conduct interviews via e-mail, download official documents from .gov sites, check facts, and monitor the competition—including blogs—the whole while.

And he ridicules the triumphalism bloggers allegedly showed at the conference.

Here is my reply.

Dave Winer also has some reflections.

Remarking on the Shafer column, Tim Cavanaugh at Reason’s Hit and Run has a point: “The bloggers’ own claims that they are transforming the media, empowering the individual, making the old fogies at the newspapers and TV stations quake in their boots, etc., are always taken at face value when newspapers or TV news shows do a blog story (and that kind of perfunctory reporting could itself be seen as a form of condescension if bloggers had a lick of sense.)”

Meanwhile Kevin Maney, who covers technology for USA Today, writes pretty much the same column. “Take a pill, all you blogomaniacs.”

Jon Bonné, conference participant, at “Blogging doesn’t merely add more voices to the dialogue. It is an essential tool in helping to translate the world. But at the end of the day, the challenge remains to squeeze a world of information into our very finite lives.”

AP account by Frank Bajak, Technology Editor:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.— The managing editor of The New York Times threw down the gauntlet as she stared across a big O-shaped table at the prophets of blogging.

Did they have any idea, asked Jill Abramson, what it cost her newspaper to maintain its Baghdad bureau last year?

The unspoken subtext was clear: How can you possibly believe you can toss a laptop into a backpack, head for Iraq’s Sunni Triangle and pretend to even come close to telling it like it is?

Note to conference planners…. This event showed that an invitation-only conference and a public weblog about it are in conflict. They don’t mix. You can’t be open to participation and invitation-only. At least, that is the state of our knowledge right now.

Going in, I thought the Blogging, Journalism, Credibility conference weblog was a good idea. Now it needs a re-think. More thought needs to go not into “branding,” but into naming such an event, along with explaining its genesis, who’s coming and why, what the point is, what the expectations are, and so on.

Nifty portal page: Founder Michael Schaefer e-mails: “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a quick portal where most of the respected bloggers, massive blog engines, and just plain good & well maintained blogs were easily found and accessed…so that tech blog readers might be encouraged to easily check out political blogs, or religious blog readers may quickly find contemporary cultural blogs and vice versa. A place where the guys and gals who helped invent and nurture the blogosphere are highlighted and where the big search directories for news and blogs can be accessed for current information.” Their goal: a one-page guide to entering the blogosphere.

This is a webcred “tag it and bag it” post.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 26, 2005 3:50 PM