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February 1, 2005

David Akin of CTV in Canada: It's Not the Blog. It's the Net.

How has doing a weblog changed you as a journalist? "It hasn't, I'm afraid to say. What has changed me as a journalist is the Internet." Akin has covered the tech biz. This week he shifts to politics in Ottawa. Not ga-ga over blogging. Not dismissive. Instead, precise.

David Akin, who has an elegant weblog, was, until recently, the National Business and Technology Correspondent for CTV News in Canada and a Contributing Writer for The Toronto Globe and Mail’s business section.

Yesterday he shifted beats from the tech biz to Ottawa and the Parliamentary Bureau of CTV National News. (He’ll no longer be with the Globe and Mail.) “My beat responsibilities including covering the Conservative Party of Canada (currently the party that holds Official Opposition status in Canada’s Parliament and whose politics would be roughly analagous to a liberal Republican) and the Supreme Court of Canada.”

For a beat reporter, that’s a dramatic shift in perspective. Like leaving Silicon Valley for Capitol Hill.

I met David Akin at a conference on participatory journalism in Toronto, put together by Len Witt and others. He moderated part of it. Extremely well-informed about Net developments and the media business in Canada and the U.S. Not ga-ga over blogging and not dismissive of it, either. He stands for blog realism in the press.

For Akin, blogging is normalized practice, and that is how he speaks of it. He’s a television reporter, primarily. But he keeps a blog for a reason.

Before the recent meeting of Big Wigs on blogging, journalism and trust, I asked him some very basic questions about those three things. I was trying to find out if being a blogger made a difference to his journalism. As he pointed out, my questions often contained an assumption that didn’t hold.

Why do you have a blog?

David Akin: It seems wholly unremarkable to me that I’m blogging. I’ve been online for more than 15 years and reporting on the Web for almost 10. Whenever a new tool pops up to let people communicate, I jump in. That’s my job. Whether it’s Napster or blogs or IRC — if people are using some new social software tool, I ought to be using it, too, if I’m going to report intelligently about that tool and the communities it helps to create.

So how has doing a weblog changed you as a journalist?

David Akin: It hasn’t, I’m afraid to say. What has changed me as a journalist is the Internet.

And I think it’s important to realize that, as you and others try to end that irrelevant bloggers vs. journalists debate, the Internet is really the thing that has changed everything. (Scott Rosenberg suggests this too. ) It’s the Internet that has empowered citizen journalists.

Before we had blog publishing systems, we had relatively easy-to-use Web page creation tools—anyone remember Tripod?—and listservs and chat rooms. The blog form, of course, is a tremendous improvement on many of these tools. But, really, the challenge that many bloggers believe they are taking to mainstream media were challenges that predated the blog form; they were caused by widespread use of the Internet.

Let me take that a bit further. The so-called blog challenge to mainstream journalism could not have existed without Archie and Gopher and all the depositories of online artifacts of the early Internet. That’s because the blogs that are challenging mainstream thinking are blogs full of links. Someone had to create those things to link to. (Oddly, most often, they are links back to mainstream media.) The best blogs link to primary documents and primary sources. But most bloggers (and many journalists, for that matter) have trouble distinguishing primary sources from secondary sources.

E-mail, the Web browser, and always-on, wireless high-speed Internet connections are doing way more to “change me” as a journalist. With those tools, I can find new voices and new sources faster and that, I’m sure, improves the quality of my work.

Okay. It’s the Internet that’s changing journalism. If that’s the case, why blog?

David Akin: The blog is an increasingly important tool for newsgathering and for maintaining a connection with the community or ecosystem of those that you report on. That last part was the bit that surprised me as I started blogging. It has made my print reporting interactive.

I write; I publish. And that used to be the end of it. Now, I write, I publish and a community of people who have special knowledge or who are deeply interested in the topic amplify, correct, modify, or extend the reportage. For a beat reporter, this is fabulous, because I now have more knowledge about my beat.

I haven’t seen this work for my television reporting and I think there are a couple of reasons. First, blogs, like newspapers, are a logocentric medium and TV is not. Second, you can’t easily link to TV pieces or “quote” TV pieces or respond in the same way as the original piece, that is, with video.

If blogging is good for maintaining a journalist’s connection with a news “community,” does that build trust?

David Akin: Trust is the most important thing for any journalism outfit—big or small—to create because if readers, viewers trust you, they’ll keep coming back. And that, of course, is a big problem for mainstream media nowadays. Fewer and fewer people are coming back.

Can blogs help with trust? They can, but if I was a newsroom manager, getting blogs going would be a low priority for trust-building (but a high priority if I wanted to increase circulation or viewership because I think they’re good for building brand and loyalty, something different than trust).

Trust is lost by a newspaper when it spells names wrong. Trust is lost by a network news program when it can’t afford to send a camera crew beyond major metropolitan areas. Trust is lost by reporters who push people around in the name of newsgathering. And, of course, trust is lost when news outlets lie. Trust is not being lost because we don’t blog.

And trust won’t be regained just by blogging. In fact, it’s my sincere hope that newsroom managers never learn of this conference for fear that they will believe that through blogging lies their news organization’s salvation. It does not. People trust people they meet. And that means news organizations ought to spend more on reporters and tell their reporters to get out of the office more!

What changes, for a journalist, or looks different, when a journalist blogs?

David Akin: Well, again, I don’t think bloggers deserve the privileged attention that such a question affords them. It’s really the Internet that has made things look different. And don’t forget, while the Internet is the conduit that carries blogs, the Internet is also the conduit, in many cases, that carries the raw news data that the mainstream media processes and feeds to the blogosphere which, in turn, modifies it once again.

At CTV, IP-based networks are carrying digital video from around the world. Globe and Mail reporters from all parts of the world are contributing to the paper in near real-time thanks to IP-based networks. What raw data, if you will, are bloggers putting into the system? Where is the reportage? I say that knowing that there are some perfectly excellent examples of this sort of ‘raw media data’ — from tsunami video footage to eyewitness accounts of bombs falling in Baghdad.

But it’s so rare that bloggers create real ‘value’, that a blog post becomes a primary document. Bloggers will tell you they are witnesses. I don’t think so. They are lawyers trying to convince you of a case. Well-trained, top-flight reporters are witnesses (See this from Akin’s blog.)

Let me ask it another way. If you cross the room and stand with the bloggers and look “back” at Big Journalism, what does it look like?

David Akin: Swap out bloggers and replace it with, say, environmental activists. Or “Republican Party members”. Or “University professors”. The answer will not change no matter who is ‘looking back” at Big Journalism. Big Journalism just looks plain weird to all of them!

Why are some items in a network newscast and some are not? Why did the newspaper devote 100 column inches to that story and not to that one? Why do those journalists ask such stupid questions?

Bloggers say they are now in a position to challenge that weird-looking MSM. Fair enough. It’s clear bloggers are doing just that. But environmental activists, the Republican Party, and university professors have also been doing a fairly decent job for years challenging mainstream media. Why are bloggers so special?

Maybe they’re not. But would you—David Akin, journalist—describe blogging as a professional challenge?

David Akin: One of the reasons I blog is because I seek out and look forward to readers of my blog challenging my work.

I’m one of those who doesn’t believe “objectivity” is possible or even that it is an appropriate goal for journalists. I do believe, though, that it is a noble goal for mainstream media to be accurate (above all else), to be fair, and to be honest about its own shortcomings. To be honest about your own shortcomings, blind spots, assumptions, one ought to be challenged and challenged often about ‘the text’ one creates (or fails to create) every day.

If you commit yourself as a journalist to accuracy and to fairness in your coverage, then, by implication, you commit yourself to challenges of your work. That can sound scary, I suppose, to some journalists and perhaps that fear is at the root of the some of nervousness in MSM to bloggers and online media. It’s not scary, of course. The challenge has always been there —whether it’s been from letters to the editor, academic papers or, in a rather bizarre way, Fox News!

What’s different about the challenge to our work from blogs? The velocity.


Jay Rosen comments: Akin’s grasp of blogging, journalism, and trust is the opposite of evangelical. It’s practical. I heard these main points:

Right. You need an idea.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

New PressThink (Feb. 3) The Befuddling Complexity Defense. “Sarah Boxer’s article about Iraq the Model was really about the Net and how you can’t trust anyone or anything that originated on it.”

David Akin’s blog: Working notes by a Canadian politics reporter.

And here is his post about our Q & A. “I can no longer use the excuse that Iím just fiddling around here so I can be a good tech reporter. Iím now doing this because itís become part of the core communications tools, along with the phone, e-mail, and early morning breakfasts, that help me do my new job.” A blog is a central tool of Akin’s journalism, as e-mail is.

Ed Cone in his reply to this post:

There comes a moment where a technology becomes so cheap and easy to use that it becomes ubiquitous, and that’s a new thing, a social change built on the original technology change. Think about the brick-sized car phones that were so amazing in the ’80s, versus the routine use of mobile phones now.

Blogs make personal publishing ubiquitous, and that is a huge new thing.

I think journalist David Akin, who makes the first point — the one about the net being the real revolution — …sets up the second point about ubiquity by saying, “It seems wholly unremarkable to me that I’m blogging. I’ve been online for more than 15 years and reporting on the Web for almost 10. Whenever a new tool pops up to let people communicate, I jump in. That’s my job.”

Right, he’s the guy with the brick-sized car phone.

Commenting on this Q & A, Mitch Ratcliffe goes big picture:

…it’s not just about the act of publishing or mode of transmission, it’s how people get the news that has changed, too. The organization of audiences, if you can call people who talk back an audience… has changed dramatically, perhaps evaporated into the social current.

Yet we persist in describing this in terms of the tools we use to create and present messages.

This is not a migration from print to Web, like the one we experienced from copying to print, it’s an evolution in the density and volume of information…

Now you have to read it a few times. But he’s saying our language for describing this shift is junk technology.

Jim Elve, the builder of Blogs Canada in the comments to this post:

Right now, there is a lively debate in Parliament on the same-sex marriage issue. (CBC account.) Canadian blogs are all over it. The blog coverage, however, is not news. It’s op-ed.

Bloggers who might like to cover Parliamentary debate will need to travel to Ottawa, somehow get into the Parliamentary chamber and then do their reporting. MSM reporters from Halifax to Vancouver will be sent to cover the debate. They’ll have expenses paid and they’ll have recognized press credentials.

Where David Akin responds:

Big Journalism has been rightly criticized for too much ‘institutional’ coverage, for putting same-sex marriage into the headlines only if the Prime Minister is talking about it. So when we get assigned these stories, the first thing Big J journalists do is find a way to describe in concrete specific ways how this legislation will affect Canadians. Blogs can help us find those real-life stories.

And if bloggers want to do what Big J journalists are doing when it comes to reporting on this debate, they don’t need a big expense account and a trip to Ottawa. You just need to ask your neighbour what’s going on!

Later… Jim answers himself.

Dan Gillmor: “…David Akin, who totally gets this stuff.”

Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation in comments: “Akins’ basic point - it’s the internet, not the blog - is true but perhaps not as significant as he seems to think it is.. It’s the blog that makes it possible via the internet to aggregate ‘the wisdom of crowds,’ to use James Surowiecki’s notable description.”

Bill Doskoch is a journalist who has a weblog, works for CTV online, and says this stuff about being challenged by readers at your blog doesn’t match his experience.

“The price of professionalizing journalism was the de-voicing of the journalist,” I wrote in Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over. Because it’s part of the “re-voicing” story, and because it’s a reply to this incident, a must read for PressThink readers is the first person account of Farnaz Fassihi, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal: Iraq Breaks From Past.

Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan, in announcing a hiatus from blogging in the “always on” position, says it was about having voice amid the news:

Five years ago, I wanted to prove that a lone writer could carve out a readership as influential as any political magazine, dispense with editors, and make a living. It took a while, but it happened. I also wanted to experiment with a new kind of writing-in-real-time— more free-form, colloquial, confessional and open.

And then he says it: “Blogging is indeed a revolution; and I am very proud to have played a part in pioneering it.”

Don’t say “revolution.” People start throwing things at you. In Greensboro at the News & Record, they just do things. It’s blogging as normalized practice, as I said in my post. Now they have letters to the editor re-born as a blog, with comments on the letters. This is just a step. Check it out. Lex Alexander at the Lex files. “As we continue to change our online presence from lecture to conversation…”

Meanwhile, a site that is potentially a rival portal to the News & Record, Greensboro 101, starts to appoint an editorial board, edging a little bit closer to being a journalism site. As Ed Cone wrote, “Online alt-media continues to define itself.” Ed’s closer to the situation than I am, but I don’t believe Roch Smith, Jr. thinks of his site as all that “alt.” (See my earlier interview with him.) Do, you, Hoggard?

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 1, 2005 1:30 PM