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April 4, 2006

No End to Any Argument: Keller on Transparency

"To me it's entirely plausible that the editor of the New York Times could read Romenesko without getting lost for hours and hours in it, and I would hope that tuning out the daily conversation in his profession would not sound to him like a solution to anything."

(Originally published as The never-ending argument at the Guardian’s Comment is free… There are some slight changes in the PressThink version.)

New York Times watchers, a group to which I belong, recently learned something about executive editor Bill Keller, the boss. He doesn’t read Romenesko.

That’s the online gathering place for journalism professionals in the U.S., where news and views are exchanged daily, while trends get picked apart by an army of interpreters - including me. PressThink gets steady traffic from links at Romenesko, which is published by the non-profit Poynter Institute. It’s not a huge site in commercial terms, but well read among Keller’s peers and competitors, and feared by newsroom bosses because their leaked memos may wind up there.

It’s the closest thing to a living public square within the American news biz; Keller, of course, knows that.

By way of explaining that Bill Keller really, truly believes in greater transparency for the New York Times, Rachel Smolkin of American Journalism Review (April/May 2006) said he had become “a little more choosy about transparency” after experiencing life in the hot seat:

On the advice of managing editor, Jill Abramson, he’s mostly stopped reading the media blogs, including Romenesko’s influential one on the Poynter Institute Web site (he still finds Gawker hard to resist). “There’s nothing wrong with them, and I don’t object to their existence,” Keller says. “It’s just that they can lead to a tremendous and to a somewhat disorienting degree of self-absorption.”
My pal and fellow press blogger, Jeff Jarvis, who consults for the Times and writes a column for the Guardian, didn’t think much of Keller’s decision to end self-absorption by avoiding Romenesko and other media blogs. “I’d say that Keller thus forfeits the right to complain about or mock people - starting with the president - who say they don’t read newspapers, especially his,” Jarvis wrote on his blog, Buzzmachine:

What a foolish thing for a journalist to say. But I suppose it’s transparency of a sort, telling us what you don’t know, confessing your deafness and your prejudices. Or perhaps it’s just a game of snark-for-snark: the resident of what used to be seen as journalism’s throne looks out upon the masses, the bloggers, and sniffs, “I don’t object to their existence.” Let them blog cake.

I had a slightly different reaction. Keller’s term “self-absorption” - as the evil to be avoided - was an image I had seen several times in my Times-watching. Ken Auletta in the December 19 2005 New Yorker told how …

At a newsroom meeting at the end of November, Bill Keller, in a reference to the Miller case and attacks on the Times from bloggers, said that he was concerned about “orgies of self-absorption that distract us from our more important work”, but most of the questions directed at him did not deal with Miller.

That would be Judith Miller, the out-of-control reporter who had to resign in November. Most of the questions dealt with business prospects and Web strategy at the Times, about which the newsroom staff was anxious.

Last month Keller gave a speech in New York to College Media Advisers, a group for kids on college newspapers and the teachers who look over their shoulders. (See their blog.) In describing the intense scrutiny and round-the-clock bashing the Times gets, Keller told the group that “the relentless attention sometimes draws us into orgies of self-absorption that distract us from our more important work”.

Not just self-absorption but “orgies” of it. (Keller once told another group of students that some blogs are a “one man circle jerk.”)

In fact, ending self-absorption was high on the agenda when Keller’s regime was created. He took over three years ago from Joseph Lelyveld, an interim editor brought back from retirement after Howell Raines crashed. This is from the AP Account (July 14 2003):

Keller told the AP that a sense of stability had begun returning to the newsroom under Lelyveld’s interim leadership.

“The place has calmed down a lot,” he said. “It feels like a newsroom again. People aren’t so self-absorbed as they were, and they’re getting on with their work.”

Keller said he hoped his appointment “will accelerate that process”.

That would be the process of ending self-absorption at the Times. There were people in the building who agreed with that agenda, the AP reported. “This is the end of the self-absorption over Jayson Blair,” said Walt Baranger, assistant to the editor in the news technology department. “Bill will be a very steadying force.”

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. The Jayson Blair embarrassment was followed by far greater controversies over faulty coverage of the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq and then the Miller trauma.

What Keller means by self-absorption is related to another idea: that it is futile to respond to most of the criticism that gets flung at the press, and specifically at the Times. You can hear it in the speech to college media advisers:

In the past few years the business I work in, and the paper I work for, have been written about more copiously than many of the celebrities whose crimes and indiscretions pass for news in America. We’ve had it from all directions - right and left, high and low - especially right, and especially low. We’ve had it from the bottom-feeding gossip columns of our hometown tabloids and from the high-minded authors of books no one reads. We get it from the bloggers and the shouting heads on cable TV, we get it from a whole new claque of media vigilantes, and we get a fair amount of it from the best informed and most demanding critics of all, namely the readers of the New York Times …

Keller acknowledged that criticism helps keep the Times honest. But saying “we get it from everywhere” is not an attempt to understand what you are getting. Nor does self-examination have to end in self-absorption. There are other stops on that train. To me it’s entirely plausible that the editor of the New York Times could read Romenesko without getting lost for hours and hours in it, and I would hope that tuning out the daily conversation in his profession would not sound to him like a solution to anything.

Still, I can see what he’s driving at. Keller’s point is, it’s easy to say things like …

… but what you may not realize is that by committing yourself to the dialogue you rapidly lose control of your time, as each answer brings six new charges and four new questions, plus three new misunderstandings about the Times it would be proper to correct. It’s endless, and the errrors are endless. Keller complained specifically about this to Jeff Jarvis in an extended exchange of letters (March 3 2005):

My study of the blog culture is, I readily admit, very cursory and incomplete, but it’s striking that there seems to be no end to any argument in your world. Every grievance is recycled endlessly, not necessarily spiraling up to a higher level of enlightenment but starting over and over from scratch. It’s Groundhog Day.

“There seems to be no end to any argument in your world” is quite a complaint for a newspaper editor to make. Do arguments on the opinion pages normally “end?” How about arguments about higher taxes, racism, war or globalization as found in the Times news columns? Do they end? For Keller this also means there’s no end of Arguments About Keller in which he might feel the urge to participate. And he does want to participate in “live” discussion online. Or at least he feels the pull. As he told Jarvis:

The thing that struck me during my week or so of very elementary and intermittent bloggery is that it is very seductive. (It also helps overcome byline withdrawal.) It would be easy to shirk my job and swap thoughts with you and yours, and the time flies by and at the end we’ve generated an exchange that will be skimmed in haste by some number of people, to what end?

From Keller’s perspective the demand to “explain” decision-making at the Times may commit you to a fool’s dialogue with well-informed nutcases who will not be satisfied with any explanation. You may be writing for grazing netheads who skim in haste and click on. It’s easy to say “engage your critics”, but there’s things you cannot tell them because of confidentiality, which is like fighting with one hand bound. The full facts are never on the table. That’s one of Keller’s complaints about the web (“this particular, wonderful, but sometimes infuriating, medium.”)

It is massively inclusive but everyone brings to it an individual appetite and a sense of entitlement, regardless of whether they have done the homework. You can join the discussion from a position of raw, opinionated ignorance. Sometimes the result is less a conversation than a clamor.

True, but what is the difference between that clamor and the great clamor of democracy itself? Keller talked of his frustration at seeing “thrice-removed versions of something I said” spread across the net for purposes of Keller-denunciation, which “bore no relation to anything I had actually said or thought.” (An entirely plausible description.)

Your solution, if I get your drift, was that I should go blog-to-blog, dropping in and conversing, winning friends and setting the record straight. Easy for you to say, since you seem to live without sleep.

Actually the suggestion Jarvis had was a good deal more sophisticated than that. Don’t go blog to blog, dropping in and conversing. Not practical. Read what they’re saying at Romenesko and Memeorandum. When you have a reply, say it once, your way, at your blog, at your length. Lots of bloggers, including opponents, will link to it; they’ll spread the word for you. Your post is going to come up higher on Google; that way you influence future discussion. When reporters from the mainstream press call for comments often you can refer them to the blog. By only posting when you have something important to say, you make what you post there more important. Without obsessing you can be effective.

That is what Jarvis was telling him. Here is what Keller heard:

By the same standard, I could probably win friends for the Times by going door to door in Queens, extolling and explaining the paper to prospective readers, but is that the best use of my time?

Against that absurdism, I would place the Editors’ blog at Comment is Free. It has an author, Murray Armstrong, and it’s about editorial judgment at the Guardian. When other editors have something to say they can guest post. No one seems too self-absorbed. At there’s Public Eye, which examines decision-making at CBS News.

The Times could easily create a similar blog, and the structure to keep it from consuming Keller’s time. Then he could return to the public conversation about journalism, in which the editor of the Times has a rightful and important place.

Finally, I think Keller’s alarm about self-absorption is actually about something else that worries him: the authority of the New York Times is changing form. It’s not that people don’t respect the newspaper or trust it; thanks to the internet the Times has more readers than ever. It remains a powerful - I would say indispensible - institution in American life.

But the New York Times no longer has the kind of power that permitted it to remain aloof and non-communicative about itself. Keller is a complicated man, and I don’t pretend to understand him. But I do know this: though he might like to go back to the stoicism of an earlier era, he understands it’s over. If you don’t explain yourself, you just invite others to do the explaining of you for you.

What bothers him is the “no end to any argument” part. And in this respect we must say to him: welcome to our world.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Gawker comments: “Bill Keller is overly absorbed with questions of self-absorption, says Jay Rosen.”

Jeff Jarvis keeps the argument going—and responds to this post—with The one-sided conversation. He begins with an observation: “No single group sends me more email marked ‘not for blogging’ than reporters and editors at The New York Times.” I have had the same experience: Times-people will only speak off-the-record. (One exception.) It’s consistent and after a while seems bizarre. These are, after all, journalists.

“I always end up lecturing them about why we should have these conversations in public, how those will be better conversations for it, and why others should hear what they have to say,” says Jeff. “A one-way conversation is no conversation at all.”

I really donít know what the root cause of this institutional false modesty and faux shyness is. I donít think itís as simple a diagnosis as fear. Itís something more complex and cultural than that.

Jarvis links to this portion of the Times Company ethics manual on blogging. (“B5. Web Pages and Web Logs.”) He says “it talks about what blogging journalists should not do… the blogging policy does not say what they should do when blogging. Nor does it say they should blog.” Asked by a German journalist why journalists should blog, Jarvis does not hesitate:

…to bring back the humanity of journalism; to restore the credibility we thought we protected but in fact lost when we insisted that we could and should be objective; to break down the wall we built separating ourselves as journalists from the members of the public we serve; and to join the conversation that is happening without us.

Read the rest.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon, responding to this post: Welcome back, my friends, to the argument that never ends. About “self-absorption” as code he writes:

This term is closely related to navel-gazing, and somewhat more distantly, to “inside baseball.” These are all terms journalists use when they fear that shop-talk and meta-conversations about their profession will bore the readership. (Sometimes they also fear that such “self-absorption” might lead to embarrassment, loss of authority or a little too much light shed on the profession of light-shedding.)

True. Accurate to what I have heard. Then he shifts into gear…

I think Rosen has missed one central element of the “no end to any argument” argument, and that has to do with the matter of who gets to say when an argument is over.

Because, until quite recently, for most of the career of the editor of the Times, or any other leading journalist today, it was the newspaper’s editors who nearly always got to say, “This argument is at an end.”

Exactly. And it’s hard to believe that such a perogative can disappear on you. “When such an editor surveys the blogosphere, he hears a multitude of voices who do not operate in such a zero-sum world— and who stubbornly refuse to give up talking about this issue or that story even if the cycle has rolled on. For the old-school editorial mind, engaging with such voices isn’t just an exercise in futility — it’s an act of self-torture.”

Read the rest because Scott has it nailed.

Steve Lovelady, the boss at CJR Daily, recounts a story in the comments: He wanted to send a reporter to sit in on the daily meeting at the New York Times where section editors pitch stories for page one. Fly-on-the-wall style. Getting an answer takes three weeks and a new Times committee, and the answer is “NO.”

I e-mailed John Carroll, then the editor of the Los Angeles Times, and made the same request. In about 13 minutes, John responded, “Sure, come on out.” We did and it made an enlightening post for CJR Daily — an examination of how a great metropolitan newspaper made its news decisions on one day in particular.
Which management would you say is more “self-absorbed” — the NY Times, which apparently can’t decide to go to the restroom without forming a committee to worry the decision to death, or the LA Times, which invited us into the inner sanctum without a second thought?

Good question.

Tim Porter summarizes what he’s been saying for years in If Newspapers Are to Rise Again. “Reinvent or die. It’s that simple.”

Steve Rhodes (ex-Chicago Tribune) at The Beachwood Reporter asks, “Why didn’t newspaper companies invent Google?”

And why didn’t blogging come from newspapers? They employed thousands of writers!

And yet, newsrooms today still fear and dismiss the Internet, ceding the territory internally to their marketing departments and externally to tech companies and the “amateurs” whose energy is just what is missing in today’s papers.

“We are not going to settle our arguments,” says David Weinberger. “There’s enough room on the Web to permit that.”

From Too Transparent? by Rachel Smolkin in American Journalism Review.

“There can be too much soul-baring,” says [Geneva} Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington bureau and former editor of the Des Moines Register. “We need to be careful about covering ourselves just as we’re careful about covering other people.” Transparency is “not endless self-examination; it’s not navel-gazing; it’s not gossiping about ourselves. I think it’s essential, and I very much welcome transparency, but I think we need to recognize that we’re still getting our sea legs.”

Is there no longer an alternative to media transparency? Is there any place in this climate for a news outlet to ignore demands for answers, to assert, simply, “Our work speaks for itself”?

Probably not.

You can find PressThink’s version of the same discussion at two posts: “Iím Not Going to Talk About the Back Story” and Steve Smith: Fortress Journalism Failed. The Transparent Newsroom Works.

Neither was cited by Smolkin, whose mission is to be skeptical about transparency. Probably for the same reason that the writer of this piece on Craig Newmark, whose mission was to be skeptical about citizen journalism, interviewed me for an hour but his editor cut out all my quotes, and the writer of this piece, skeptical about blogging, interviewed me for 45 minutes and cut out all my quotes. If you don’t advocate what they think you advocate, they edit you out.

Back Seat Drivers, a press blog from Ireland, present some fascinating numbers in this post. First, circulation figures for the major UK papers:

Telegraph: 917,043
Times: 685,081
Financial Times: 441,840
Guardian: 394,913

Then, the most recent figures for page views at each paper’s website:

Guardian: 125,319,150 (Feb 06)
Times: 59,450,999 (Jan 06)
Telegraph: 46,626,144 (Nov 05)
Financial Times: 41,337,365 (Sept 05)

They comment: “In other words, on the web, the Guardian is punching well above its weight. And while most publishers will tell you they find it hard to make money online, the Guardian site made a £1 million profit last year. They’ve got to be doing something right.”

The Guardian’s readers’ rep reflects on the success of Comment is Free so far.

Hey, has a new design and look. Here’s Len Apcar’s letter to readers about it (April 2.) Bill Doskoch did a solid review of new features and functions. CJR Daily covered bloggers’ reactions.

And here’s a detailed interview with me by Richard Poynder that was supposed to be part of a book of interviews with Net thinkers. It covers a lot of ground. The book got cancelled when O’Reilly, the tech publisher, decided it couldn’t make money. That story is here. Poynder is publishing them himself, on the Web, and asking for donations. My favorite moment:

Newspaper companies, says Rosen, find themselves standing over a kind of canyon today. “Right now they have got to the lip of this canyon, and they are all looking at it, and saying: ‘I canít get across that. Can you get across that?’ But what are they going to do: go back?Ē

Here’s another from the same book, an interview with Eric Raymond, the co-founder of the Open Source Initiative.

Rejoice, city mouse and country mouse, for there’s now a Jay Rosen entry in Wikipedia. Check it out.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 4, 2006 5:12 PM