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August 4, 2006

Nick Lemann's Amateur Hour

I’d like to personally welcome Nick to the idea that blogging revives a pattern several centuries deep. I joined up in August 2003 with the Introduction to PressThink, my first post. "The people who will invent the next press in America—and who are doing it now online—continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history."

Nicholas Lemann is a colleague, someone I’ve had lunch with, the Dean of the Columbia J-School, and the Wayward Press press columnist for the New Yorker. I am a fan of his writing, especially his profiles of political figures, and have followed his work since well before he got into teaching journalism or took on the press beat. I also admired his intervention at a critical moment to stablilize Washington Monthly magazine, an important institution in political journalism and today the online home of Kevin Drum.

I thought Lemann was an inspired choice for Dean at Columbia; there is no doubt that he is the key person in the future of that school, which makes him also a leading figure in the press establishment. The column he writes for the New Yorker was inherited from the great A.J. Liebling, a god to most press critics. What Lemann says matters, at least in my world and in PressThink’s. He represents one of the best claims elite journalism has to all around excellence. Plus, it’s his generation in charge during the great upheaval in platforms, and the game-changing Administration of George W. Bush. That’s gotta be tough.

In his recent critique, Amateur Hour, which is subtitled, “Journalism without journalists,” Lemann said a great many things I agreed with. I am quoted in the piece, and New Assignment.Net is described briefly.

About Net journalism: “It ought to raise suspicion that we so often hear the same menu of examples in support of its achievements.” It’s Trent Lott. It’s the big man, Dan Rather. It’s Eason Jordan. I’m suspicious of that menu too. And there’s this: “It sounds obvious, but reporting requires reporters. They don’t have to be priests or gatekeepers or even paid professionals; they just have to go out and do the work.” Exactly. I based New Assignment.Net on that idea.

Lemann, I think, was right to ask: “what has citizen journalism actually brought us?” When he warns, “there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing,” that is an apt warning. And he’s right to wonder: Does any of it compare to what the “old” press, even in its weakened form, does?

Yes, let’s compare, said Debbie Galant of Baristanet, whose site was unfairly trivialized.

My NYU colleague, the Net writer Steven Johnson, said most of what I wanted to say in reply to Lemann’s Amateur Hour. His Five Things All Sane People Agree On About Blogs And Mainstream Journalism puts it more crisply than I did in Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (Jan. 15, 2005), which he kindly mentions. Let’s stipulate…

1.) Mainstream, top-down, professional journalism will continue to play a vital role in covering news events, and in shaping our interpretation of those events, as it should.

2.) Bloggers will grow increasingly adept at covering certain kinds of news events, but not all. They will play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all kinds of news.

3.) The majority of bloggers won’t be concerned with traditional news at all.

4.) Professional, edited journalism will have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than blogging; examples of sloppy, offensive, factually incorrect, or tedious writing will be abundant in the blogosphere. But diamonds in that rough will be abundant as well.

5.) Blogs — like all modes of contemporary media — are not historically unique; they draw upon and resemble a number of past traditions and forms, depending on their focus.

I join fully in Steven’s proposal: “If you’re writing an article or a blog post about this issue, and your argument revolves around one or more of these points — and doesn’t add anything else of substance — stop writing. Pick a new topic. Move on. There’s nothing to see here.”

But I don’t think it will do any good. I made those points in lengthy inteviews with Trevor Butterworth of the Financial Times (“Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion?”) and Ryan Blitstein of SF Weekly, who wrote about Craigslist (“The much-loved Web site is taking millions from Bay Area newspapers and causing layoffs that adversely affect coverage. And its founder’s well-intentioned support of citizen journalism has a slim chance of fixing the problem.”)

Both were on a mission to debunk the extravagant claims being made for the Net and new media. They interviewed me hoping I would make some of those claims. When I didn’t they just pretended the interview never happened; I don’t appear in either piece. Blitstein, whose article on Craig Newmark ran seven pages, did write to me to tell me my quotes got cut out. Butterworth (who published 4,500 words) told me I had nothing insightful to say and didn’t deserve to be in his article.

About Johnson’s No. 5, “…not historically unique,” I’d like to personally welcome Nick Lemann to the idea that blogging revives a publishing spirit that goes back several centuries. I joined up in August 2003 with the Introduction to PressThink, my very first post. “The people who will invent the next press in America—and who are doing it now online—continue an experiment at least 250 years old,” I wrote, invoking the pamphleteers and Tom Paine.

Invoking the pamphleteers and Tom Paine, Lemann goes back further than I did, another 50 years or so, to Addison, Steele and Daniel Defoe, the Late Stuart period in England when new voices “entered a public conversation that had been narrowly restricted, mainly to holders of official positions in church and state. They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day. Then as now, the new media in their fresh youth produced a distinctive, hot-tempered rhetorical style.”

These are important comparisons. They help. “The more ambitious blogs, taken together, function as a form of fast-moving, densely cross-referential pamphleteering—- an open forum for every conceivable opinion that can’t make its way into the big media.”

In this sense it’s blogging that’s “traditional” and professionalized reporting that’s a rupture in pattern. (Which is an excellent point.) Lemann wants to preserve the reporter’s tradition, “by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience.”

I think that’s worth preserving too. So does ex-CNNer and Global Voices blogger Rebecca MacKinnon. She thinks Lemann may have ignored all the bloggers who agree because he was reacting to his encounters with Hugh Hewitt, who does say about the press establishment things like, “They cannot save themselves from irrelevance.” Though he is the closest thing we have to an avowed blog triumphalist, Hewitt isn’t mentioned at all. His triumpet is heard, however. A lot.

Mitch Ratcliffe thinks Lemann is mostly on the mark. “Yes, it’s easier to publish today,” he points out. “It was also easier at every point in history when a new technology for disseminating information has been introduced.”

The most recent example before the blog was the Web page, and prior to that desktop publishing “revolutionized” communication, giving everyone the power to layout a page without the extraordinary hassle of using wax to hold design elements in place on a board that could be photographed for use in a press. If we acknowledge that all of this is progress instead of declaring every new thing a revolution, we might actually make some solid progress as a species instead of insisting that all the old lessons aren’t of any value anymore.

That’s useful. But I don’t understand why we can’t have a picture with a lot of continuity in it and some genuine moments of rupture. How’s about one degree of complexity in this debate? Why does it have to be the newsroom reactionary’s “there nothing new under the sun…” or the Net revolutionary’s “…there’s never been anything like it?”

I try to stay away from these extremes but journalists don’t seem to want that. They prefer what Lemann terms “the most soaring rhetoric about supplanting traditional news organizations.” It’s the extreme claim that interests them. If they don’t have speakers to quote they just go without.

Look at how Lemann begins, “On the Internet, everyone is a millenarian.” Really? Here’s PressThink on it, October 17, 2003: “The weblog is continuous—not a revolutionary break—with five hundred years of print culture. It is the printed page, modernized, interconnected, made two-way, but still… ‘powered by movable type.’” (See Ten Things Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism.)

Here’s Ratcliffe this week:

I want us to think and debate as a society, and citizen journalism, especially when it learns from the standards of professional journalism, can help us do that. The more voices the better, but let’s set up the expectation that participation must be informed and rigorous in its self-criticism.

Here’s what I wrote March 25, 2004.

My own feeling is that amateur journalists, citizens, webloggers should take seriously the existing standard in the institutional press. They should understand what goes into meeting it, and even emulate professional journalism from time to time…

I was trying to set a high bar in 2004, just as I was stressing continuity with tradition in 2003, and attempting not to overdraw the claims for blogging in 2005. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Lemann’s piece is about journalism without journalists, a dubious development, he thinks. NewAssignment.Net is mentioned, which is good, but somehow he fails to mention that New Assigmment is not about “journalism without journalists” at all. It’s more the opposite: bring full-time reporters into productive alignment with smart mobs of citizens.

“I like Jay Rosen’s idea of, a swarm financing mechanism for citizen journalism,” says Ratcliffe, wrapping up.

But I think it is destined to fail for precisely the reason that it is aiming to do “stories the regular news media doesn’t do, can’t do, wouldn’t do, or already screwed up.” Why will that fail? Because the many people funding reportage are unlikely to agree on what is the “correct version” of facts and, so, are not likely to hang together to support the really hard tedious work of journalists, which has almost no flavor of immediate gratification.

Actually, the more who think it will fail, the better for New Assignment. So thanks, Mitch! Thanks also to Tom Foremski at Silicon Valley Watcher, who said about New Assignment, “This is not a solution for creating news on a daily, hourly, minute schedule. This is overly complex, it is news editing by committee, and the funders will likely always have agendas.”

Nick Lemann’s article will help if it lowers expectations for “amateur hour.” For I don’t think we know how to do users-know-more-than-we-do journalism… yet. My favorite moment was when he wrote: “Great citizen journalism is like the imagined Northwest Passage—it has to exist in order to prove that citizens can learn about public life without the mediation of professionals.”

That really made me smile.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Jeff Jarvis: “I’m sorely disappointed…”

I would have hoped for something more expansive, imaginative, open, creative, generous, constructive, strategic, and hopeful from the head of one of America’s leading journalism schools — from, indeed, the man hired to bring that school into the future — and from a leading light of American reporting.

Lemann wrote, “As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.” Jeff says: Okay, how? Then answers his own question in a second post, Bigger, better journalism.

And don’t miss this comment at Buzzmachine: “I am a traditional and occasionally paid journalist who is a traditional professor who traditionally scorned the non-traditional world of blogs. Until I read them. And I mean read them so recently that my embarrassment requires me to use a pseudonym.” There is more truth in it than in fifty articles on bloggersandjournalists.

More reaction to Lemann’s “Amateur Hour.”

Nick Lemann’s profile of blogger Hugh Hewitt is not online. But here’s a pdf of it that Hugh posted. Hewitt in the Weekly Standard, The Media’s Ancien Régime. Subtitled, “Columbia Journalism School tries to save the old order.” Then see Chris Nolan, You Can’t Get There From Here on the exchange between Lemann and Hewitt.

Trevor Butterworth, author of the hype-busting article on blogging to top all hype-busting articles on blogging (it’s called Time for the last post and it’s from the Financial Times) takes issue with me over at Romenesko’s Letters. He says I have a persecution complex. I say Butterworth had his story and stuck to it. Enjoy. And here’s another exchange if you’re interested.

Daniel Conover in the comments: “Blogs aren’t changing journalism — they’re changing the context in which journalism occurs.”

Lessig gave the keynote address at the AEJMC convention in San Francisco. He called the changed context “read write culture.” Previously we had “read only” conditions, a very different context in which to be a professional journalist. (Ethan Zuckerman has a summary of Lessig’s talk to Wikimania, which sounds like it was the same talk.)

That’s what this whole thing is about. Journalists act out their anxieties about the change Lessig named by denying that they’re about to be replaced by bloggers or amateurs. No one said they were. But there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Just as there was nothing I could do to dissuade Trevor Butterworth from fulfilling his wish, and calling it reporting.

Lemann: none of what’s called citizen journalism “rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media—to function as a replacement rather than an addendum.” Andrew Cline concludes his reply this way:

Is citizen journalism where it wants to be? First you have to ask: Where does it want to be; what is the goal? And that’s premature because we’re all still trying to figure out what’s possible.

I sympathize with Lemann to the extent that some voices in the blogosphere are less than temperate (and less than intelligent) critics of journalism. And, yes, those of us interested in this medium are filled with enthusiasm for its potential (although we don’t really know what that is yet).

Come to think of it, being an addendum sounds pretty good for this early stage. It opens the possibility of partnerships between professionals and amateurs—something that’s already occurring, something that may lead to improvement of both the professional and amateur product.

Confused of Calcutta, a blog new to me, says it’s all about the changing terms of trust.

Trust used to be something that bound small groups together. Over time we tried to scale trust. It didn’t scale. And what happened instead was Big Everything. In an Assembly-Line meets Broadcast world. Big Everything broke trust. Big Media lied. Big Content Producer reduced our choices. Big Pipe and Big Device reduced it further. Big Firm wrongsized away. And Big Government did what it liked.

The anxiety in Big Journalism: Will we still be trusted when the shift to the Web is complete?

Craig Newmark: What I’m doing regarding journalism and why. Craig explains his various projects, including Daylife, “which is the effort by Jeff Jarvis and Upendra Shardanand to figure out new ways to aggregate new and present the better trusted versions of big stories.”

Margaret Simons, who is kind of the Tim Porter of Australia, says that NewAssignment.Net “relies on the insight that journalism and media are not the same thing. Media is the business of delivering eyeballs to advertisers. Journalism is enmeshed with and supported by the media, but has an older and more important purpose.”

When it comes to commissioning in-depth research, what will people want to know about? My guess is that the internal machinations between Howard and Costello won’t attract much funding. Politics as spectator sport won’t get there. Politics as the issues that affect people’s lives may well do so. Another question is whether the market in Australia is big enough to support a local equivalent of Rosen’s idea.

A possible New Assignment story? (From Tom Evslin.)

Karl Martino: Blogging, networked journalism, business models, contrasts.

New Assignment in proto form (from chartreuse):

I’m putting up $1000.00 of my own cash to send 2 people to New Orleans and the Gulf Region for a weekend to find out what’s really going on.

I’m going to supply you with a cool ass video/camera, a place to stay and a rental car.

Look at it as a vacation that matters.

See the follow-up post, which reports on responses. Very interesting.

Two posts (this one and that one) compare what I’m doing to Richard Stallman and his campaign for Free Software, which begat Eric Raymond’s campaign for Open Source software. Here’s an interview with Stallman and one with Raymond by journalist Richard Poynder, who also interviewed me in the same series.

Uh-oh… “The web is of course abuzz with speculation that the future of news is in not-for-profit NewAssignment, and the BBC remains shielded from commercial reality for at least another decade.” (Seamus McCauley at Virtual Economics)

Malcolm Gladwell: “When it comes to politics—and to some extent high culture and business and economics—it is quite right to argue that traditional print media like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal continue to set the conversational agenda.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 4, 2006 1:33 AM