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April 17, 2005

All Regimes Are Founded on Opinion: Two Letters to PressThink

A pastor in Ohio says that mainline churches have had the same model of professionalism that is causing such problems in mainstream journalism. A volunteer in Northfield, MN says that when public officials start weblogs, it makes local blogging more vital.

That all governments are founded on opinion is a famous maxim from the political philosopher David Hume (1711-1776.) Here it is in context (Hume’s essay “Of the First Principles of Gobvernment.”)

NOTHING appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.

Among those to discover the truth of Hume’s maxim, the most spectacular case in recent times was of course Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, whose power crumbed before his eyes. Bruce Nelan in Time magazine made note of it a week after Ceausescu’s execution on Christmas Day, 1989.

“A dictator falls when fear changes sides, when individuals coalesce into crowds and defy him,” Nelan wrote. “Emboldened by the discovery that they are not alone, they take to the streets and squares to protest, and they learn — though sometimes at great cost — that no tyrant can kill or arrest an entire nation.”

“Opinion” in Hume’s sense, which is not yet “public” opinion, was the decisive factor in the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, where the reluctance to attack one’s own people among policemen and soldiers—their opinion that this would be a terrible crime, and a stain on themselves that would last forever—led to peaceful regime change.

But it’s not just government. Bill Gates is speaking Hume’s language when he says that Microsoft is always three years away from extinction. As it was for the regime in Romania, so it is for the regime in Redmond, and so for the professional regime in journalism: it too is founded on opinion, in a far deeper way than polls can ever measure.

Yesterday I received a letter from Jeff Gill, a pastor (Disciples of Christ) in Granville, OH. It’s about how all newspapers—and all churches—are founded on opinion; when opinion shifts the foundations will rock. Those who have built their professional house on it may forget what the foundation is made of. They start to see themselves as the solid thing.

Gill is also a “Faith Works” columnist for the local daily, The Newark Advocate. He says, “As a pastor I have a very real sense of the importance of local dailies and even crappy ol’ free weeklies to build community, or foment division if that’s what clarity brings. Some regular platform for cueing the 20 percent of any town, village, or city that actually get things done as to what needs doing, or stopping, is incredibly important. I can’t figure out what that would look like in Midwestern communities without a newspaper, but I’m afraid that folks who are concerned about big-C Community had better start imagining, fast.”

Here’s his letter:

“There is no loyalty to the mechanism, not because loyalties changed, but because they were never loyal to the mechanism in the first place.”

OK, so i’m late to this party, but as a columnist in two papers and a 20+ year pastor, i couldn’t not share this thought with you after reading this quote from Matt Welch in your post, “laying the newspaper down” gently or not…
In case you didn’t notice, Shaw thinks he and his colleagues are “accurate and fair”…. This, I believe, is the nut of his real objection — that the weird, ahistorical 1960-2000 period of newspaper consolidation, and the “professionalization” that came with it, produced a monochromatic culture of trying-to-be-fair newsgathering that Shaw believes is basically the only legitimate form of journalism. It’s an incredibly conservative and arrogant view.

That, sir, is exactly what Mainline/Oldline Protestant Churches did in the post-WWII period; the huge influx of thankful vets and Boom Babies masked systemic problems that went back before even WWI, and as downtown churches and regional/national structures consolidated and calcified, they pushed aggressively a model of clergy “professionalism” that left them utterly unable to respond to the entreprenurial surge of untrained, personally motivated new start-ups of the Assemblies of God, COGIG, Vineyard, WillowCreek, and Saddleback approaches. The world they built was based on a “weird, ahistorical 1960-2000 period” and many national and regional structures still can’t comprehend what’s going on.

Add to that a recent uptick in bequests from dying WWII era folk that mask the final drawdowns on endowments, etc., and a new found appreciation for stewardship and tithing preaching from even liberal pastors, which has pushed per capita giving up enough to cover the decline in total numbers, and you have…

Well, it looks a lot like the newsprint and ink world to me. The core function of communicating to and between people is still vital and necessary, but when the mechanism for doing it breaks down, folk will find one that works, no matter what it looks like. There is no loyalty to the mechanism, not because loyalties changed, but because they were never loyal to the mechanism in the first place. Their connection is to the community that’s created, and the sentiments about the delivery mechanism were no deeper than, well, sentiment.

This ties both newspapers and oldstyle programmatic, board/committee driven churches together, with Masters of Divinity/seminary trained pastors and J-school journalists in the same leaky boat. It’s not that they don’t “like” us or stopped “liking” us: they never “liked” us, they liked and even love the community we helped to deliver and maintain. Stop doing that, and they move to the light and warmth of company and community somewhere else.

And if you’ve read this far: what happens when advertisers stop believing that advertising works? When they realize that everyone else dumps the inserts and the bagpacks and the fliers in the trash first, just like they do? And when enough old hardbitten used car and appliance traders finally go to the internet and classifieds go entirely digital, won’t the Emperor catch a breeze in his hinder parts?

Jeff Gill
Granville, OH

Another letter came yesterday from Griff Wigley of, (Citizen Wig) who could have been featured in my citizen journalism survey post, Are You Ready For a Brand New Beat? He wrote to tell me about his nonprofit, which is trying to get the civic leadership in town to start blogging, under the theory that while having a few local bloggers and an aggregator page may not mean much, it starts to get interesting when the police chief, a member of the local school board, and a state representative, to name three, are actively participating. Even local governments, after all, are founded on opinion. A public official’s weblog is a recognition of that, but also a new way of imagining the job. Here’s Griff Wigley’s letter:

“We’re getting a view of these leaders in a way that’s not typical. And their blogging gives the citizen bloggers good stuff to blog about.”

I’m a volunteer for a community web site called in my hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. It’s run by a non-profit, Northfield Citizens Online. In late 2003, we started a Civic Blogosphere Project, where we began putting weblogs in the hands of the local citizenry.

A few months later, we decided to include local political candidates who were running for office in hopes that they’d continue blogging after they won. Our thought was that blogging which focused on leadership, problem-solving, and listening would be considerably more interesting and helpful than the usual campaign-style blogging. (It’s always bugged me when political candidates start blogs during election season but then don’t continue blogging when they win. It’s as if they’re saying, “I’m only interested in communicating with you, my fellow citizens, when I need your vote.” )

Having made the leap to politicians-in-office-as-bloggers, we also began trying to include others who we considered to be civic leaders. Our current crop includes a city council member, a county commissioner, the police chief, a school board member, a state representative, two planning commissioners, and several non-profit executives and board members.

Here’s what we’re learning about civic leader bloggers:

1.) They need help learning the technical skills of blogging while they learn the art of leadership blogging. We recently held a community education class for them, and continue to offer coaching via phone, face-to-face, and email.

2.) Their blogging makes our local civic blogosphere more interesting for the citizenry. We’re getting a view of these leaders in a way that’s not typical. And their blogging gives the citizen bloggers good stuff to blog about, in much the same way that mainstream media fuels the blogging of bloggers everywhere.

3.) Their blogging makes the whole project have more impact, influence, and relevance. A local blogosphere project that consists solely of citizen bloggers, especially one without a local news media partner, might take considerably longer to gain in stature in the eyes of the community.

This project has drawn the attention of government officials in U.K. who recently hired me to be the weblog coach for a local e-democracy project called ReadMyDay. I’ve been working with a dozen city councillors and senior-level city managers to learn the art of civic leadership blogging. (See this white paper about it, a pdf file.)

Griff Wigley, Volunteer
Northfield Citizens Online

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Education blogger Jenny D, an ex-journalist, writes in comments:

… public education is in the same boat as journalism. It’s an institution founded on opinion, rather than specialized technology of a profession. Thus, it’s under fire. Although educators rose to prominence in the Progressive Era, using IQ tests as their professional technology, rather than “objective” reporting.

Read about the rising demand for accountability in the PR world, another regime founded on opinion.

Greensboro News-Record Editor John Robinson on Welcoming the public policy makers to blogging.

My hope is that, as public servants, they embrace the potential before them, and they use their blogs to further the principles of democracy, and develop the sites as places to give and get information and knowledge. What a wonderful way, for instance, to illuminate the council’s thinking on a contentious issue or perhaps reveal some of the civic conversation that takes place behind closed doors.

Here’s the newspaper’s list of local politicians with weblogs.

Texas State Representative Aaron Pena (Austin area) has a blog, which recently linked to PressThink in a post about shield laws for reporters and bloggers.

“The boat may be leaking, but I prefer it to a cruise with Kathy Lee.” Jeff Jarvis’s sister, Cindy Jarvis, is a Presbyterian minister (here.) She had this reaction to Gill’s letter:

Utilitarian religion that “works” (meaning numbers—headcount plus bucks) has always had sex appeal… well, you know what I mean. The mainline churches have looked to the mega-churches for technique, forgetting “the substance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” that have, over the centuries, given people both a ground on which to stand (a perspective both complex and comforting) and lent to daily life a meaning that does not rise and fall with the NYTimes best seller list.

Given that people engage their minds in every other aspect of human existence, the guess that glitz and manufactured emotions will do for those matters of ultimate importance is a trend that will last about as long as children’s sugared cereal in the stomach of a seriously hungry adult.

Brother Jeff Jarvis says we’re at a tipping point with citizen’s media:

I know of the heads of at least three national TV news operations who are eager to incorporate citizens’ media; I know of more newspaper editors who are finally sidling up to the concept. I hear less and less of the dismissive jabs from big-time editors about small-time citizen journalists. Blogs are now a regular feature on MSNBC and CNN. Bloggers are getting quoted in newspapers and credited with big stories (Trent, Dan, et al). Newspapers are getting published with citizens’ news.

It’s spreading. It’s tipping.

Alan Mutter, at Reflections of a Newsosaur, on the big companies in the newspaper industry:

So, not only are credibility, circulation and market share crumbling, but stock prices are falling, too. Why?

The market moves for many mysterious reasons, but this one is obvious: Investors, who generally like to bet on the long-term upside of a company, are worried that the publishers don’t have a plan for the future of the newspaper business.

While existing shareholders for the moment may be comfortable harvesting the properties for profits, there is not enough new money confident in the long-term prospects for newspapers to lift the value of their stocks.

In other words, stock prices are founded on opinion.

Reporter Michael Liedtke of Business Week on the meeting of the Newspaper Association of America (publishers group):

“There are pockets of people within every (newspaper) who think we should be doing more on the Internet, but there are also other pockets of people who wish it would just all go away,” said Ian Murdock, senior vice president of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Not likely.

OhmyNews is going global. The citizen journalism sensation in South Korea “has started a citizen reporter login system where anyone around the world with an internet connection can participate,” according to this account in Editors Weblog. Equally informative is this interview with Jean K. Min, Director of OhmyNews International.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue—featured in Are You Ready…? — pointed me to Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, a sharp, witty and good-looking neighborhood weblog for the Park Slope area of the world’s most famous borough.

Eight is Enough. Copy editors, take note:

I think that’s enough for what was a pretty bad pun to begin with.

Jack Shafer writes in praise of Romenesko. Who am I to argue?

Terry Teachout is taking citizens media into the arts:

One piece of good news is that arts journalism is being transformed before our eyes by the rise of Web-based new media—and just in the nick of time. The old mass media were and are zero-sum operations, as advocates of literary fiction have been discovering to their dismay in recent years. Allocate more space (or air time) to one topic and you have that much less space available for all other topics: novels compete with memoirs, classical music with jazz, theater with film, indie flicks with special-effects extravaganzas. Now that most of us live in one-newspaper towns, and now that newspapers themselves are struggling for survival, that’s turned into an iron law.

The Web is different: it permits you to publish a “newspaper” or “magazine” of your very own without having to pay for ink, paper, bricks, and mortar—much less a graduate degree in journalism. What it doesn’t guarantee, however, is that such “newspapers” will ever be read by millions of people, or that their publishers will be able to give up their day jobs. Artblogging will never be a true mass medium because serious art doesn’t appeal to a mass audience. And what’s wrong with that? Bigger isn’t better, and the world doesn’t owe artists a living, much less critics and editors.

Read Teachout’s Eternally obsolete. It’s about art, technics, cultural shifts and what the Web has wrought in his lair. I love the way this discussion is exploding.

Via Ed Cone, this from Howard Fineman of Newsweek: “Professional journalist is an oxymoron.”

First the bad news from Howard Kurtz: Reporters are facing a “growing tide of personal attacks by bloggers and e-mailers.” Now the good news, from the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank:

Milbank says there are “nasties” on the left and right and during the campaign “both decided I was full of it and hopelessly biased. There’s so much noise that you have to tune it out.”

Right Wing News generates some news by asking “A List” webloggers on the Right side of things to name their own A List of Right side bloggers. Interesting, if you know the blogs…

I’ve said before that a weblog is a little First Amendment machine. This account from the New York Times, “When the Blogger Blogs, Can the Employer Intervene?” is all about that.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 17, 2005 10:57 AM