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January 29, 2005

A Jack Shafer Problem

Let me ask you something...

If you were the author of this, and a foil for the author of that, what would you do?

I tell you this de-bunking business gets tricky.

In Slate this week, Jack Shafer ridiculed the participants in the recent conference of Big Wigs on Blogging and Journalism—naming me, Jeff Jarvis and Dave Winer—because they spoke with such “fervor” about “transformation” and “revolution.” They promised too much to blogging, he feels.

He writes: “In language only slightly less fervent than Shamberg’s, conference participants declared blogs the destroyers of mainstream media.” Actually, that never happened; it’s a canard. And unfortunately Shafer didn’t provide any quotes to show that it happened.

But the rhetoric of transformation by Web—and of the Internet revolutionizing journalism for the better—isn’t really foreign to Jack Shafer. Not long ago, he was speaking it. So let’s study what he said (April, 2004) for clues to how he felt:

From a tiny point on the Internet just 10 years ago the Web has spiraled out to assume the central position in journalism for both news consumers and journalists. It’s also my assessment that Hearst would agree with me that the Web’s spinning into control has been beneficial to the art and business of journalism. Now, I know that these excited views about the Web and journalism may make me sound like an infotopian barking in the pages of a 1995 issue of Wired magazine. While preparing this talk, I walked around the house repeating my mantra that the Web has revolutionized journalism.

So then it’s okay to risk hype in describing the effects of the Web, and even tell people it’s changing everything. Jack does that, knowing he may “sound like an infotopian barking in the pages of a 1995 issue of Wired magazine.” Which, I have to admit, is a pretty honest statement. And what is it saying?

Don’t mistake me for someone who’s always going ga-ga over things. Cuz I’m not. But this change (the Web for Journalism) is big. Pay attention please.

I think it is correct to describe this as a moment of vulnerability: don’t mistake me for… (Handled gracefully, too.) And it is a moment of vulnerability, in his speech, when Jack Shafer says: “I walked around the house repeating my mantra that the Web has revolutionized journalism.” He doesn’t want to sound like a nut, but… has something to tell people. It’s about the Unstoppable Web.

What makes the Web so unstoppable-and I’m indebted to media scholar W. Russell Neuman for this insight-is that it’s become the uber distribution channel. In the old analog days, magazine distributors, newspaper distributors, music distributors, and movie distributors never bumped directly into one another. But during the past two decades, all the analog media-photographs, audio recordings, videotape, newspaper and magazine layouts, movies, radio, telephone, and television-have gone digital. The practical effect of this transformation is that every digitized media can flow through the Web into homes and offices. So when I say the Web has become central to journalism, I’m also saying that practically all old media has become-or is in the process of becoming-Web media. Newspaper reporters and television producers may think they’re still newspaper and TV guys, but if you dissect their work they’re really Web journalists.

Jack Shafer, Spinning Into Control: The Good News About the Second Generation of Web Journalism (April 2004.)

And I think that is a very good analysis. It’s the analysis of a revolution. It could sound like hype to some. This, I feel, is a constant vulnerability in writing about the Web and what it’s doing to something like the news business: there are the dangers of hype and ga-ga-ism on the one side, but there are also the dangers of complacency, and lack of imagination on the other. One gets excited. One also wants to remain grounded.

And you’re trying to pick the right words. (Spinning into control is a great image, by the way.)

So here is what I want to say to Jack Shafer: When I walk around the house repeating my mantra that the Web has revolutionized journalism (hey, same mantra!) I don’t want to sound like, or be made to sound like, an infotopian barking in the pages of a 1995 issue of Wired magazine, EITHER. Can you relate to that?

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links

Read Ed Cone’s column on the conference from the Greensboro News & Record— “Making the inside of the newsroom as big as the outside.” It’s thoughtful and it tells what happened. Bonus: No mention of Rosen or Shafer!

Dave Pell at The Blog Blog: “The battle of blogs vs. mainstream media played out in the virtual pages of Slate Magazine last week wherein the author managed to seemingly create a battle royale by first defining his opposition (bloggers) and then dismantling the version of reality that he himself had created.”

Tom Watson: “Shafer’s point is this: modern journos are - in general - incredibly blog-savvy. Sure, they get busted by bloggers; but the good ones use the blogosphere as a Candyland of rumor, data, and story leads.”

David Weinberger, who was there: “Jack Shafer’s piece in Slate misrepresents what went on at the WebCred conference.”

Len Witt: “And my guess is that when he writes about bloggers his readership goes up. So in this case it pays to bite the blogs that feed him.”

Ezra Klein: “Jack Shafer’s decided to take on the dicks who tout the blogs and I, as a blogger, could not agree more.”

Jeneane Sessum on the Harvard blogging conference: “The frightening thing is, they have no idea how ridiculous they look to the rest of the world.”

Doug Fisher: “I don’t read Shafer as saying those who say blogging will radically change things are a bunch of loons. What I do hear him saying, and I think rightly so, is that if you spend too much time reading your press clippings, while you’re not looking, the folks who wrote those clippings will move on and find a way to co-opt your vision.”

John Robinson, editor of the News & Record: “I understand where the traditional journalists are coming from. I was in that place a year ago. Some of the folks on my own staff are worried that blogging will hurt their credibility because it will require them to opine on the news. That’s far from the truth… You simply need to learn about the possibilities of the form, and there are many.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 29, 2005 7:48 PM