September 29, 2005
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media
"What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never..."
Yesterday the CBS Building, the one they call Black Rock, was wrapped in yellow crime scene tape, a gimmick to advertise the popular crime scene show, CSI: NY, on CBS Wednesday nights. I was rushing by it on my way to a roundtable at the nearby Museum of Television and Radio. The roundtable was about Big Media, the Bloggers and where the two are likely to meet over the next few years of Web development and cultural change. Which is basically the subject of the book I am writing.
“The bloggers were the usual suspects who write about the issue of blogging, journalism and the media,” said David Weinberger, who was there. “The MSM folks were high-level execs at the usual suspect TV and print mainstream news organizations.” True. (We weren’t a representative group of bloggers, either. No one from the cultural right, no minorities, only a handful of women, no one in his or her 20s. Apply whatever discount rate you wish.)
I was 20 minutes late. As I slid into my seat it took time for my eyes to adjust to the room because they were still on the “emergency” yellow of the fake crime scene tape CBS had wrapped itself in. Black Rock looked sad to be dressed that way. Then I looked around the room and saw three “teams” sitting around in a big rectangle with microphones and a moderator. My team, Bloggers and Net Heads, had…
- Tim Porter (press blogger at First Draft, ex newspaper guy, thinks it time for journalists to wake up.)
- Jeff Jarvis (packs them in at Buzzmachine) future J-professor, ex-President of Newhouse Online, evangelist for citizens media.
- Dan Gillmor (who blogs at Bayosphere) once a top columnist and blogger for the Mercury News in Silicon Valley, quit Knight-Ridder for a citizens media start up.
- Susan Crawford, the law professor who blogs where intellectual property, technology and democracy meet on the Web.
- Debbie Galant (Barista of Bloomfield Ave.) pioneer in hyper-local blogging for fun, dollars and civic import in the middle of Jersey.
- Terry Heaton (POMO Blog) the television news director who got radicalized by the Web, and quit television to blog, write essays and consult on new media.
- David Weinberger (Joho the Blog) ClueTrain author, Web philosopher, Berkman Center Fellow.
- The author of PressThink.
- And Bill Gannon, who is not known as a blogger but is editorial director of Yahoo News, a company on the rise (with news about Kevin Sites and new columnists) and bigger than all the other firms represented by far.
The Big Media team was led by bosses, people who run news factories, including:
- Jonathan Klein, the President of CNN/US (who famously defined a blogger as some “guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas,” not that this is all he’s known for…)
- Andrew Heyward, President of CBS News, who has figured in more than one PressThink post during the saga of Dan Rather and the Killian Memos. (See this one.)
- Rick Kaplan, President of blog-crazy MSNBC. He formerly had Jon Klein’s job.
- Paul Steiger, Managing Editor of the (yes, we charge) Wall Street Journal.
- Alisa Miller, Senior Vice President for Public Radio International, a major distributor of programming to NPR.
Joining the Bloggers Corps (Bill Gannon included) and the Big Media Bosses was a third team: People actively involved in the migration of the old journalism to the new environment of the Web, including some bosses of the Web operations.
- Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of New York Times Digital, which just introduced TimesSelect. See my post about it, Charging for Columnists.
- Kinsey Wilson, editor-in-chief of USA Today.com, one of the highest traffic news sites.
- Bill Grueskin (see his Q and A with PressThink), Managing Editor, The Wall Street Journal Online.
- Stephen Baker, Senior Writer, Business Week, co-author of Blogspotting for Business Week Online.
- Vaughn Ververs, Editor of the new ombudsman-like blog, Public Eye, at CBSNews.com, where I guest blogged recently.
- Stephen Shepard, formerly the editor of Business Week, now the Dean of the new CUNY J-School who gets to create a Web era curriculum from a tabula rasa.
- Christy Carpenter, executive director of the Media Center project at the Museum, a convening body for the broadcasting industry, designed to help leaders come to grips with big issues. The Museum’s roots are in a one-to-many world, and the glamour of network television. But the world is changing, so the Museum has to reach out.
- Merrill Brown—who doesn’t blog, but should—wrote an influential report warning news executives that the world is changing, so you have to reach out. He was Editor-in-Chief at MSNBC.com, which he helped launch in 1996. Brown could have been on all three teams, which is probably why he was moderating.
The ground rules prevented quoting without permission, a condition I don’t like and would never request, but some of the big executives need the cover, so we do it that way. You have the cast of characters. Here’s what I heard:
- I didn’t sense any sign of panic from the bosses or the migrating pros. They’re cautious in making statements about the future, but pretty confident they’ve got a handle on the Web. They enjoy reminding each other—and you—about the illusions that spread during the first Net boom (1995-2000), implying that a similar fever has overtaken some people now.
- The advertising picture is the same one we have heard lately: rapid growth in Web advertising, but from a small base, which is not enough to catch up with the looming fall off in other ad revenue for the big news and information companies. Classified ads are the best example of “fall off.” But it’s known that product manufacturers may find new ways of reaching people without traditional media as the connector at all. No one has an answer to this. The advertising market is in flux. Where it will wind up is unclear.
- Therefore no one really knows what will guarantee into the future the big capital expense of a fully staffed newsroom. This is what worries Big Media people, and they argue that it ought to worry us. They have most of the rest figured out, they believe. But not how to fund the newsroom. As David Weinberger wrote: “They’re facing the possiblity of genuine discontinuity.”
- No one doubts the news business will eventually migrate to a new platform on the Net. In the meantime, the traditional model—including trucking the newspaper to people—is a big business with sound cash flow. It’s foolish to think it will soon expire. Yes, a new foundation is emerging. For now, the old structures remain because they bring in the money the Web cannot. This isn’t like the tech industry where market position can melt away in a year if you don’t innovate.
- Still, it was agreed: Big Media does not know how to innovate. What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never. Do these firms attract designers and geeks who are gifted with technology? They don’t, because they don’t do anything challenging enough. (See this guy’s testimony.) They don’t innovate, or pay well. So they can’t compete.
- In competing on the Web, the bloggers do not alarm big media. It’s people like Bill Gannon. Yahoo worries them, with its surging revenues, huge traffic flow, and recent moves in news and editorial that involve original content. The portals attract talent, and with their billions they can fund innovation, and roll out new products. This capacity dwarfs what the old line media companies can do, even if everyone on the editorial staff became a Webbie overnight.
- There is an awareness—or a belief—that technologies not visible yet, ranging far beyond the model of blogs and RSS, may come along and transform the business even more dramatically.
- Weinberger: “The bloggers didn’t have to spend half the morning explaining that most bloggers aren’t journalists, that bloggers are in conversation.” Blog literacy is up, that’s true. And there’s more respect. Jeff Jarvis in his write-up: “The tone has changed. There is no dismissive huffing from the big guys about blogs.”
- Big Media sees bloggers as better tuned to conversation about the news than news producers. Bloggers are more connected to “what’s bubbling up…” Therefore they have to be watched; they can’t be dismissed. There was loose talk about “leverging the power of the blogosphere” that probably originated in this sense of bloggers being closer to public chatter.
- Media people still look at blogging and demand to know: “where’s the business model?” half expecting bloggers to have the answer, half satisifed when they don’t. Jarvis wrote down my comment: “There is no law of God that there needs to be a business model for everything. There may not be a business model for the Internet. The Internet may just be part of life.”
- Paul Steiger of the Wall Street Journal: “Whatever the business model, in order to keep getting paid, people in the blogosphere or traditional media would need to do at least one of two things very well: either provide uniquely broad credibility, which will still have value even in this revolutionary world, or uniquely exciting argument.”
- Media people want to believe in the figure of the “who cares if its true?” blogger, the one who will run anything, who has no editorial standards, who can be duped or dupes others. The image still tends to dominate their imagination, perhaps because it puts the most distance between what bloggers do and what they do.
- I discussed an example of collaborative, open source journalism-by-blog. In November of 2004, Josh Marshall got mad when Republicans voted to change ethics rules to benefit their Majority Leader Tom DeLay: (“There was a vote. It wasn’t recorded. There’s no official tally. But everyone who was there was asked to say yea or nea. Why shouldn’t they be willing tell their constituents what they said?”) So he asked readers of his blog who live in Republican districts to call their Congressperson, as a constituent, and try to get an answer: was it yea or nea on the rules change? If you get a reply or a clear refusal to say, e-mail us, Josh says. We’ll make a list and tell everyone else. And by such means—distributed fact-collection—he and his readers tried to get the vote recorded.
- I told them this story. They liked it. It made “citizens journalism” a lot less abstract. And they insisted that Josh’s callers would be less reliable than journalists. Blog readers wouldn’t know when they were being fed a line. Because they’re partisans suspicious of DeLay, they would hear only what they wanted to hear. Dan Gillmor tried to inform them that Talking Points Memo was widely read on Capital Hill. Staffers for a Republican Congressman would know if Marshall had screwed up. They’d fire off an e-mail right away to correct the record. This information made no visible dent. Big Media was adamant. One could not trust information gathered by amateurs.
- Stephen Baker wrote about it today at his Business Week Blog: “But how reliable was the reporting, media execs asked. Who were their sources? How about if one of the citizen reporters had it in for one of the Republicans? I didn’t add my two cents on that point at the meeting. Here it is now: As a reader, I’m happy to look at that citizens’ reporting. It’s additive. There was nothing. Now there’s something. True, the anonymous reporters are not accountable for their work. So I wouldn’t cite it, journalistically, as evidence that a certain Republican voted one way or another.”
- But the exercise Marshall and crew undertook wasn’t designed to answer the question: who voted which way on exempting DeLay? That information was lost to recorded history. Marshall said so at his blog. He was asking: was there pride in the vote? (“Why shouldn’t they be willing tell their constituents what they said?”) In his scheme, Congress people and their staffs are met with a second decision: what to say to constituents about the first? Who’s willing to stand up and be counted? The object was to re-establish accountability—and minimal transparency—after the majority party put them on holiday. I thought it was great journalism.
- There wasn’t time for me to explain my suggestion for a next big project in open source journalism— a blog-organized, red-blue, 50-state coalition of citizen volunteers who would read and attempt to decipher every word of every bill Congress votes on and passes next year.
- As Susan Crawford wrote after; “The emotional energy that filled the room when the print guys started decrying the ‘potentially deadly’ inaccuracy of bloggers was remarkable. We Are The Truth, they seemed to think — We Have Standards.” “Bloggers ran with pre-mature exit poll data!” was still rattling around for them. (See this about it.) And you could hear the sarcasm in their voices when they discussed the alleged fact-checking powers of the blogosphere, summarized as: “throw it out there, and we’ll figure out later what part is true.”
- The blogosphere tends to be seen as a collection of individual blogs, each unedited, each without “standards” (although some are very good.) Therefore the ‘sphere as a whole is weak on verification, and so Big Media retains a crucial advantage. (Says Big Media.) Other attempts to explain how open source methods can be highly effective—Wikipedia for example—do not seem to have made any impression.
- Even so, Big Media knows it has to change. To stand pat is not a credible position. The market will not be there. Lots of experimentation is going on, or due soon as Web intergration becomes more of a reality. Paul Steiger in his closing notes: “The world has really, really changed and will keep changing and we in mainstream media may not like it but it’s a fact and we have to embrace it or we will die.” (Link.)
- Terry Heaton writes: “Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, noted three areas where his thinking has been changed.” 1.) Heyward talked of a breakdown in newsroom formulas influenced by bloggers and the power of their conversation. 2.) The illusion of omniscience is hurting news. “That’s the way it is” journalism isn’t credible anymore. 3.) Therefore point-of-view has started to become more acceptable because it seems more inevitable. This was probably the most significant surprise of the meeting: an actual shift in press think. At the top, no less.*>
Oh, and everyone said nice things about my weblog.
: Notes, reactions & links…
Lisa Williams, who blogs at H20town (Watertown, MA, is her home) says in comments:
I beat my local paper all the time. It’s not because I know things first; it’s because I hit Enter first. But at H2otown, I rarely point to articles in the local paper. At first it was because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do better than simply rehashing articles in a paper whose very understaffing was the main reason I started H2otown. After some months, I noticed I didn’t even think about the local paper very much anymore. I had my own sources, my own beats, and a growing community, blogs launched on H2otown by local politicians, including the President of the Town Council.
Lisa to Traditional Media: I’m just not that into you. Sorry — you’re a great guy and I know there’s someone out there for you. Somewhere.
The woman speaks truth, writes beyond well, knows her community, and is totally tech aware. What else can be asked? Check out the rest of her comment and follow her progress.
With Lisa’s H2Otown and Debbie Galant’s Barista.net we see how blogs are taking over in journalism, not by encroaching on the territory of Big Media, but by entering a territory in journalism where Big Media is nowhere to be found.
Mike Phillips, editorial development director for Scripps-Howard Newspapers, in comments here:
There are days when I’m tempted to gather a few friends, move into a nice town with a newspaper run by one of the slower-moving publishers, start up something that’s digital and citizen-driven and make a nice living picking the big guy’s pocket. If you want to convince them, take a bite out of their revenue.
Yep. I definitely think someone will do that within the next few years. It’s only a matter of where it will happen and when. Scripps-Howard owns the Ventura Country Star, a blogging-friendly local news site. See an earlier letter from Phillips to PressThink: “We need to get serious about Web-centricity.”
Brian of mgoblog—it’s about the University of Michigan Wolverines—comments on this post, in particular: trust and the single blogger:
A blogger is not a message board poster, largely anonymous and indistinguishable from the rest of the chatter on the board. I have a reputation—a brand even—that goes under that banner at the top and whatever trust I have I had to earn by not being completely useless and have to maintain by not slandering people…
Boi From Troy sent out an email soliciting ideas about how bloggers can get the same sort of access that your mainstream media types do. I realized that I didn’t want access…. I’d hear the same things, be denied the same interviews, and sit in the same press conferences. I’d also write the same articles, because access corrupts…
Since I don’t have access, I’ve got to come up with another selling point, a way to differentiate myself from the rest of the Michigan sports media world. This is venting and snark in some portion, but not in whole. It appears that it’s mostly bigass tables… bigass tables that you’ll never see in a newspaper because instead of seeing with their own eyes they’re listening to what someone else tells them.
“I’m not a journalist; that’s the point,” he says. By “tables” he means posts like this, charting the performance of Michigan football. When you really want to understand the game, you go to Brian. This is exactly what Big Media misses with the iconic figure of the “don’t care if it’s true” blogger.
Since I don’t have access, I’ve got to come up with another selling point. Exactly, Brian.
Absolutely brutal interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show between Hewitt and Brian Montopoli of CBS’s Public Eye blog, formerly of CJR Daily. At issue was this list Public Eye posted, A Guide To The Journo-Blogs, which Hewitt thought slighted right-of-center journalists. Here’s an excerpt:
HH: You’ve got 30 different blogs listed here. 25 of them are center-left or hard left. You’ve excluded obvious center-right people like Jack Kelly and Michael Barone. I don’t think intentionally. You’ve designed the rules to exclude people like me and Michelle Malkin, because you don’t like us, and then you purport to be objective…
BM: You’re on our blogroll, Hugh. How do you say we don’t like you. And another thing. I e-mailed you, asking you to do a critique of our website. We have this outside voices feature. Jonathan Last is doing it. You never got back to me.
HH: I don’t want to do anything for CBS. You guys are like…you’ve got the Plague.
BM: Well, at the very least, you could have written me back. Here I am on your radio show.
HH: I might catch what you have. If you have…If I end up working for you, I’m going to end up being identified with CBS, which has a terrible reputation, because of punk stunts like this, Brian.
The rest. And here’s an e-mail exchange between Hewitt and a mystified CBS News.com editorial director Dick Meyer. Blogger and journalist Lex Alexander of the News-Record in Greensboro in comments: “This is the behavior of someone who’s looking to score cheap points in order to reinforce the myth of the Big, Bad Liberal Media Conspiring to Shut Out Right-Wing Voices.”
Ed Cone in CIO Insight (Ziff-Davis), Rise of the Blog: “The tide of simple, low-cost publishing and collaboration software is rising within companies, whether technology management is ready or not.” (April, 2005)
Michael Conniff in Online Journalism Review: Just what is a blog, anyway? “Defining this variable form is not easy in the highly opinionated blogosphere - nor is it simple in the increasing number of newsrooms that are in embracing blogging.” But he gives it a shot.
Tim Porter wrote a pre-Roundtable post, which gets lyrical:
When I think of the blogosphere, I recall the colorful world maps that hung on the wall of my high school geography classroom. On them, curved arrows and various shapes and sizes depicted the swirling rivers of ocean and air currents that move endlessly, seamlessly around the globe. The Jet Stream, the Gulf Stream, the Alaska Current. The blogosphere is the same — The Thought Stream — moving across geography, beyond nationality, node by node from one individual to another, tying people together in a swirling current of ideas, debate and interaction.
“The national conversation is gone,” says Porter, “replaced by the global conversation.” Porter After digs out some lines of his from two years ago to illustrates another handicap:
To produce newspapers in this manner requires efficient, repetitive action - papers are scripted in advance, before the news happens; reporters are told how long to write, before they cover the stories; photographers are given dimensions of an illustration, before they take the pictures. This way of working discourages innovation and encourages rote behavior.
Yes, and it’s efficient, repetitive mental action he’s talking about too. Like group think, press think is rote behavior.
Bill Quick at Daily Pundit read these notes: “The Lords of Media today are the monks toiling away in their cloistered monasteries, illuminating one manuscript a month, and scoffing at those rat-beggars with their crude printing presses. ‘Can any of those printers illuminate parchment as beautifully and meticulously as we can?’”
Do see Peter Daou, The Triangle: The Limits of Blog Power. An essay reflecting on his time as John Kerry’s point person for “blog outreach” during the 2004 campaign.
I had to improvise my way through the election, trying to reconcile two distinct worldviews. I felt the disconnect keenly. I alternated between informal conversations with a small blogger brain trust—Kos, Atrios, Digby, Steve Soto, Bill of Liberal Oasis, Dave Johnson, among others—and meetings with Beltway stalwarts such as Bob Shrum, Tad Devine, and Joe Lockhart. I attended communications strategy sessions where veteran consultants presented one set of ideas, then plunged into Democratic Underground’s forums to read thousands of impassioned arguments to the contrary….
Daou found two obstacles: The Internet was so effective at raising money that it wasn’t seen as good for anything else, and “the natural antagonism of the old guard toward the new” led to marginalizing of the “Net roots,” as he puts it. Some of the comments are interesting too. Read it.
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 29, 2005 10:48 PM
I run a local news weblog and community site, H2otown.info.
I note how the conversation is centered over the area where blogs and major media overlap in terms of topics. In this area, bloggers do do a lot of pointing to the MSM, and they don't work the way the MSM does.
But doesn't keeping the frame of reference this way tip the balance in favor of the MSM?
Don't get me wrong -- I loved it when bloggers covered the 2000 political conventions, and I raised my mouse in the Blogger Power Salute when FishbowlDC got credentials for the White House press room.
But the measure of the blogosphere will not be how well it apes CNN.
It will be in how it covers things that nobody bothers to cover today, by people who go to the web first, not last.
Major media treats the web as a dumping ground, someplace to throw content once it's used up; the last dusty depot on the content train.
The conversation is also centered over the blogs and bloglike entities that have the business model that is closest to their own -- they pay attention to blogs sponsored by newspapers, or by blogs that have an ad-supported model. Efforts that don't fit this model seem to sit in a huge blind spot for them.
I beat my local paper all the time. It's not because I know things first; it's because I hit Enter first. But at H2otown, I rarely point to articles in the local paper. At first it was because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do better than simply rehashing articles in a paper whose very understaffing was the main reason I started H2otown. After some months, I noticed I didn't even think about the local paper very much anymore. I had my own sources, my own beats, and a growing community, blogs launched on H2otown by local politicians, including the President of the Town Council.
Lisa to Traditional Media: I'm just not that into you. Sorry -- you're a great guy and I know there's someone out there for you. Somewhere.
Your blog is a treasure, one of the few places in cyberspace where it is sometimes possible for literate partisans from both sides of the culture war to pause a moment, listen to another perspective and decide whether to reach across the divide to pursue higher truths, or descend into battle. All too often the choice is the latter (Kilgore, Lovelady), but more and more I get a whiff of the former. (Jenny D., Mark Anderson's heart-felt post on Dowd from the prior thread).
I guess I would be classified as a neo-conservative, but I live in the SF Bay Area, and the majority of people I know are somewhere between Left and Far Left. They are usually very thoughtful humans, and as I avoid political topics unless we are well-acquainted, by the time my friends realize where I stand in terms of political philosophy, they have grown to trust my views in other areas and we develop a level of mutual respect. In such settings I have the most delightful discussions where I think both parties evolve in their thinking. I have helped some people acquire nearly libertarian views regarding taxation and healthcare, and I have learned to see value in thier views on collective energy policy, ecology and private property issues. I feel I have matured as a result. I can only hope my liberal friends feel the same way.
All too often, this wonderful blog has been hijacked by partisans from both sides who come to shout, but never to listen -- they must have it all figured out. So much certainty, so little human decency.
Keep the faith Jay, I suspect many like me are lurking and observing, thinking & learning, pulling occasional nuggets of gold from the rich seam of diverse commentators who post here.
As a convicted news junkie (and a professional marketer), I find the accelerating pace of disruption in the "channel" to be fascinating, so the story you are tracking holds my attention. The wide distribution in percpetual understanding across this field is typical of professions undergoing revolutionary change.
Please stay on the case Mr. Rosen, do not let those who have cast aside learning bring you down....
Terry Heaton: "Standards don't produce trust, only the illusion of trust. This is the great lesson of the personal media revolution."
Let's recognize, Terry, that this lesson is totally counter-intuitive in professional journalism, and most professionals on hearing it would think you've gone nuts. They would say you no longer know a thing about the news business. You have got post mod brain rot. Of course standards produce trust. They're all we've got! "All we own is our credibility."
Why do you say standards make for the illusion of trust? I have my own theories about it, but I'd like to know what you mean. Please advise. And it was great meeting you, too.
My idea is: standards make for the illusion of trust because it's a lot harder to maintain trust (which involves you in the minds and hearts of the people out there) than it is to maintain standards, which are simple, static, impersonal-- and of course can be routinized. People can't.
Newsroom logic is: Standards produce trust, so if we always follow professional standards we will always have their trust, right? That's how you get the people who are the public out of the trust transaction. But of course newsroom logic is limited, and you can never get the people out.
If you have the wrong truthtelling standard (because people changed, or you, or the world did), but yet you meet it day-to-day, then by maintaining your standards you lose trust. And you're not likely to know it: thus, the illusion of trust.
If on the other hand you do realize it--we have the wrong standards, it's killing us!--and you try to change it, what's the first thing they're going to say about you? He's abandoning our standards!
Lisa Williams: That is one beautiful post. So witty, so apt, so true. I added it to the "After" section.
Evor: Thanks, that was encouraging. I would like to add: the comments are monitored and edited (by me) not primarily to benefit the participants, but to benefit the readers who are looking in and "following," the great majority of whom do not participate. Even in a thread with 200+ comments, it is common that 90+ percent of its readers are watching, not playing. I try to remain aware of this at all times.
Pretty often readers will say to me: "Your posts are wonderful of course, Jay, but I often spend more time with the comments because they're so..." and the adjectives vary from there.
Catching up lately on Jay Rosen posts, for which thanks. He tries to go deep. But I wonder if he’s feeling my frustration.
There was another blogging panel discussion in NYC last week, sponsored by Newhouse School and New Yorker mag. Ken Auletta moderating Ana Marie Cox, Jason Calacanis, and Arianna Huffington’s business partner, whose name I’ve forgotten. Huffington herself canceled at last minute. (Nora Ephron posted about it at the Huffington Post.)
To be sure, the talk Rosen describes sounds more substantive than what I sat through. Also to be sure: Newhouse discussions are usually fun, smart, and provocative. But the whole blog-panel thing seems stuck in a rut.
Media people dedicate way too much energy to debating whether blogs are (good) journalism. Can we finally stipulate that each side pretty much understands the other? That the truth (if that’s what we’re after) is in the middle?
It’s taken on the feel of a show fight … At my event, we actually had to sit through happy talk about bloggers working in pajamas… Am I the only one who’s reminded of the “great taste/less filling” ads?
“Echo chamber,” someone above commented. I agree.
Rosen’s roundtable notes most intrigue when they hit on core paradoxes all media confront these days in tuning up their business models. (Would the whole blog topic excite even half as much interest were it not for the general commercial pressures big media feels?)
For example: Rosen’s notes state: “No one really knows what will guarantee into the future the big capital expense of a fully staffed newsroom.” That’s a super-central question. And blogs, or the Web for that matter, (as many have noted before) play only a partial role in helping us answer it.
When the famously paid-subscription WSJ Online gets trotted out as a success story, nobody ever remembers to point out how much that site depends on the old media WSJ. It’s highly unlikely Dow Jones applies the massive expense associated with its newspaper newsroom (or its wire service newsroom, for that matter) to its online P&L. Yet that’s the content for which its famously-paying subscribers are famously paying!
Newhouse School Dean David Rubin asked the same question of the bloggers on his panel, but in a different way (I’m quoting from memory): “If newspapers go out of business, what will you all write about?” By the time he framed this interesting issue – just a starting point really -- the panel was over.
Currently, the most prominent features of the media ecosystem are enormous MSM news (and entertainment) organizations. Like polar ice caps or tropical rainforests. They’re eroding. Verrrry slowly. (Other stuff is growing elsewhere, too.) The rest of the discussion depends on your time frame. Near-term discussions are much different than longer term ones.
Some debaters will go this way: What will happen when icecaps/rainforests are gone? Are they really eroding slowly –or has erosion gathered speed? Is it our fault? Have we done something wrong as a society to bring this “disaster” upon ourselves? What will happen to the media? (Should we colonize the moon?) What will happen to the American free press? What will happen to capitalism and democracy in America? What will happen to capitalism and democracy in the world?
Others will go this way: How can I keep doing good work without being distracted by the jabbering on the sidelines? How can I position myself (whether I’m old or new media) as a trusted filter? How can I become self-sustaining?
The continuing shock(!) at the inaccuracy of some of the post-Katrina coverage borders on the disingenuous ("Your winnings, Capt. Reneau.").
My question to the people who still don't understand how the MSM (or bloggers... or the mayor... or the president... or the military) could have gotten this or that wrong is, "Have you ever had to pass along information in a confusing situation?" And if you have, and you've never gotten flustered, bamboozled, flummoxed or otherwise screwed up, I would like to offer you a job.
To put it bluntly, real-time epistemology is a bitch. Reporters and editors continue to bash their heads against it, but they're not the only ones. Stock brokers, marketing directors, military commanders, fire chiefs, SWAT teams, quarterbacks: If you're in the business of acquiring, communicating and analyzing any kind of information in real time, you've made mistakes and you'll probably make more of them.
One argument is that the media needs to show more restraint regarding the demands of the 24-hour news cycle. There's some validity to that, of course, but it's hardly a meaningful prescription for better journalism. One of the core values of information is its timeliness, and no amount of Monday-morning-quarterbacking is going to change that equation.
Critics who say "They shouldn't have rushed!" should be asked a follow-up question: What policy would you have us adopt that would prevent this from happening in the future? And if they say "You shouldn't rush!" then we should politely show them the door. Yes, we shouldn't rush. We shouldn't spell words wrong, either. But it happens.
I like the way Colin Powell put it back when he was actually a military commander. Powell said he liked to make his decisions based on acquiring 75 percent of the information picture (I'm sure he used a different term, but I'm operating from memory). If he went with less than 75 percent, he was guessing -- and if he waited around for certainty approaching 100 percent, the result was command paralysis (personally, I always wanted to know how he measured that 75 percent, but I guess that's where command moves from science to art). This is a decision-maker who includes the dynamic relationship between accuracy and timeliness in his thinking.
We like to believe that a great leader (or editor) can make that uncertainty go away, but that's wishful thinking. Human beings, including professionals, make mistakes. And there is absolutely no systematic way to eliminate that built-in imperfection. It's a logical impossibility.
The MSM now seems to define its brand as "Hey, You Can Trust Us Because We Actually Wear Pants." But for all the various systems that we mainstream guys create in our newsrooms to protect and enhance our credibility, there is no escaping error. We don't deal with that honestly in-house, because editors believe that this will send the message to their subordinates that errors are OK.
By making a fetish of perfection, we do a disservice to the goals of transparency and reliable accuracy. We wind up presenting an illusion of news as gospel truth, which our critics are more than happy to hang around our necks when some portion of the information we process turns up absurdly wrong.
There are limits to the improvements we can make to the news media, and when you grasp that concept it suggests an alternate course of action: Why not focus instead on improving the receiver's ability to evaluate the information we provide? Why not "show our work" so that the people on the other end of the information transaction have something more to go on than just our word?
That's an uncomfortable concept for us mainstream people, because it elevates the "audience" from passive target to active partner in the sending and receiving of information. It implies more two-way communication. It demands that we get down off our high-horses every now and then.
Our goal should be a system in which the errors that occur are honest mistakes which can be dealt with openly and without the kinds of histrionics that newsrooms and critics go through now. Wherever we are today, we're a long way from that.
You can find a dozen lists of standards of various news frats and corporations and yet you will also find trust in the people those organizations represent continuing to fall.
Agreeing to a standard of ethics doesn't make you ethical; agreeing to a standard of truth doesn't make you trusted.
In fact, I'll argue that the reliance on -- the hiding behind -- these standards is a major cause of the separation of journalism from the public that you've chronicled, Jay.
Standards are a fine thing if they are a guide, if they are part of education: Strunk & White & God.
But at the end of the day, ethics are all about the decisions you make and trust is all about how others judge your decisions. This happens at a human level: Each of us makes our own decisions. And this happens case-by-case, story-by-story.
If this were a religious debate, it would be about fundamentalism vs. relativism, wouldn't it? Some follow the letter of the law. Others say that decisions must be made -- and trust earned -- every day.
In the nascent Media Bloggers Association, I opposed the notion of setting standards of ethics and behavior precisely because weblogs bring media -- or what we used to call media -- back to the human level. At that level (apart from marriage, I suppose), we don't sign pledges.
I don't need to sign a pledge not to screw over my neighbor. My neighbor gives me the benefit of civilization -- not just about following the law, the written standards, but also about not being a jerk -- until I violate that. I think that is what has been lost by mainstream media -- the presumption of trust -- because, in their monopolistic isolation, big-time journalists didn't think they had to earn trust with every story. They said -- and say -- that they already had trust because they had the degrees, they had the standards. And that is why they are so shocked now when their standards and trust are questioned.
It occurs to me that journalists might do well to study the early days of the Royal Society; you know, Isaac Newton and that lot. The procedures they invented have stood us in good stead for several centuries now, and look like enduring for a while longer.
The basic rule is "Tell what you see, first, as completely and as honestly as you can, then whatever conclusions you draw from it."
The nice thing about that rule is that it's profoundly cynical at its base -- it assumes that both the observations and the resulting conclusions are wrong, but it gives a later observer a clue as to what to look for and how to investigate what corrections are necessary. Even if the observer isn't honest, and doesn't actually report things as he or she sees them, the act of complying with the rule gives later investigators a place to start.
Journalism today appears to me to have things back to front. Journalists seem to think that "honesty" requires them to inform us of their reactions to the visible events and the conclusions they draw from them. Along the way, they seem to have lost the notion of describing what they see.
Data is not information; data is what information is made out of. Informed opinion is useful as all Hell, even when I disagree, if and only if it's accompanied by the data from which it was drawn. If all I have is the opinion, without the data or with what I'm afraid, or convinced, is an incomplete subset of the data, I have nothing.
Journalists are losing trust because they aren't delivering the data. They aren't reporting. They're explaining to us what it all means without bothering to tell us what "it all" is in the first place. Don't tell me they're afraid they'll get it wrong. I know damn well that they'll get some of it wrong all of the time, and all of it wrong some of the time. But if they tell me honestly what they see before they start giving me their opinion about it, I have some basis for evaluating their opinion and the start of a way to check their "facts". Then I can give them "trust but verify". If I can't verify, I can't give trust.
Emotions are a different matter. Emotions are irrelevant. They're horrified by all the dead and dying. It's a cliche. Everybody is horrified by the dead and dying; the only data they've given me is that they're members of "everybody", and I already knew that. It may be "honest", but it's redundant and useless. Emotions can't be avoided, and I'm not recommending the Joe Friday approach, but the TV people (especially) seem to have adopted an "emotional reactions first" concept, and frankly it's not only useless, it's getting boring. To journalists: Yeah, it's horrifying and you're all broke up about it. Tell me what "it" is, dummy.