The one-sided conversation

No single group sends me more email marked “not for blogging” than reporters and editors at The New York Times. I don’t mean email that comes in the course of my consulting for other parts of the company or from people I know there. It’s always in email that comes in response to my blog and things I say about Times’ reporting. I respect their wishes and sometimes end up having coffee with them to discuss what they want to discuss. They’re smart and caring people and I enjoy talking with them. But 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. A one-way conversation is no conversation at all. But it always ends the same way: with reporters, of all people, wanting to stay off the record. I really don’t know what the root cause of this institutional false modesty and faux shyness is. I don’t think it’s as simple a diagnosis as fear. It’s something more complex and cultural than that.

Jay Rosen takes on that culture, from the top, at Comment is Free. He strings together quotes from Times Executive Editor Bill Keller about how he doesn’t want the paper to be self-absorbed. In his latest pronouncement, Keller said he said had stopped reading Romenesko, the American media Bible/blog (for which I took him to task here). Jay writes:

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…. Keller did say 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…. but what you may not realise 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 it would be proper to correct. It’s endless.

That’s part of what it’s about: control. Joining the conversation means losing control. Publishing is having the last word. And Jay says that Timesmen — not by any means alone among journalists — think there can be a last word and that they can have it. Jay then responds to what Keller told me in a lengthy blog/email exchange we had last year:

“There seems to be no end to any argument in your world” [as Keller said] 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 globalisation as found in the Times news columns? Do they end?

Right, they don’t end. They mustn’t end. The endless back-and-forth of conversation is not merely an interactive nicety — patting the heads of us darling readers out here, if you even deign to do that. The conversation is a necessity to get to the truth and set the agenda and inform the democracy. The conversation is the journalism, damnit.

So Jay pushes The Times to follow the examples of The Guardian‘s editor’s blog and CBS News‘ transparency blog — not to mention humble, local newspaper editors’ blogs in Greensboroand Tacoma — and start a blog himself.

Then he could return to the public conversation about journalism, in which the editor of the Times has a rightful and important place.

This has been suggested before, inside The Times itself, when the newspaper’s post-Jayson-Blair-scandal Siegal Commission recommended:

The Web should also explore the possibility of creating a Times blog that promotes a give-and-take with readers while satisfying the standards of our journalism.

So let’s get blogging, guys.

As is my obnoxious habit, I’ll take it farther — and farther than most in my shoes would — and suggest that news organizations should be encouraging strongly — one step short of requiring — journalists, including editors, to blog. Here is The Times’ blog policy (search for “blog” in the long document). As is the unfortunate habit of newsroom policy statements, it talks about what blogging journalists should not do: On personal sites, they should “avoid topics they cover professionally” (which seems absurd — don’t you want the music critic blogging about music?); they should not be intemperate or shrill or humiliating or intolerant or take stands on divisive issues or link to bad stuff.

Note that the blogging policy does not say what they should do when blogging. Nor does it say they should blog.

I just spoke with a German reporter writing a piece about big-media blogs. He wisely separated out legitimate news uses of the blogging tool to, for example, publish news updates or to publish journals from the field. That is using the blogging tool as content-management tool rather than blogging-as-blogging. Then he challenged me to sum up why reporters should blog. I said it is 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.

But even if they don’t blog, they shouldn’t be afraid to get into conversations with bloggers, aka readers. In fact, they should be encouraged to do just that.

  • http://marginalizingmorons.blogspot.com/ CaptiousNut

    Very lucid analysis.

    Good luck convincing the exalted NYT staff that there should be any form of parity or conversation with the lumpen masses.

    It will be interesting to see at what point you admit that the NYT’s creed is fundamentally indefensible and can only be articulated in monologue form.

  • DC

    What’s your take on the redesign Jeff?

  • http://dylko.blogspot.com Ivan Dylko

    Some people never learn.

    If there was a (real) blog with a senior editor in charge of it – Jason Blair thing would never have happened. It’s rediculous to suggest that blogosphere can’t provide valuable insights and criticism of the NYT journalists’ work. Just the opposite – blogosphere can provide the best critique – definately the most timely and often better-researched than critique through any other medium.

    If Keller has no time to read blogs – it’s his business, he’s a busy man (it’s still strange). But, why not create a blog with an upper-level editor supervising it and engaging in honest two-way conversation with readers full-time? They don’t want it for fear of too much feedback?! What a myopic and narrow-minded position.

  • http://www.wingercomics.com/ Carson Fire

    Some revealing comments by Oliver Stone today: lecturing the press for not supporting celebrities better when they speak out against leaders, and accusing everybody of slander for trying to counter their views. To Stone, celebrities have the right to speak out against leaders, but *we* don’t have the right to speak out against the rich and the powerful, when the rich and powerful are on Stone’s team.

    It’s that same control, the same desire to keep the privileged, one-way conversation. Nobody ever denied the Dixie Chicks the right to bloviate about Bush; they (and their supporters) just don’t want other people to have the right to bloviate about *them*. It’s about all about the conversation, until the conversation starts going in the direction you don’t want it to go.

  • Kat

    Who in the hell cares about Martin Sheen’s idiotic conspiracy theories or what any other celebrity thinks. If it comes out of the mouth of a celebrity I am less likely to believe it.
    Celebrities like Harry Belafonte and that fatboy slob of fahrenheit 911 fame make me puke. I have more respect for an amoeba than I do for most celebrities…bunch of hollywood leftwing nutjobs preaching to the masses.

  • http://www.spikeyem.com Emily Sweeney

    I am a reporter and I’ve been blogging since 2001. I keep several personal blogs….LiveJournal to keep in touch w/ my friends, a wedding blog because I’m getting hitched in July, and a video blog.

    I can’t imagine not blogging. And as a bonus, I’ve found them to be amazing reporting tools. I can’t tell you how many sources, news tips and story ideas I’ve gotten thanks to my blogs.

    The way I see it, as long as journalists blog the truth (i.e. using accurate facts and being honest about your opinions) — I don’t see what the big deal is. That’s what journalism is all about – the truth.

    On the other hand, I can also understand why newspapers — and other kinds of companies — have concerns about their employees blogging.

    From what I can tell, media companies have two main fears: 1.) they’re afraid of losing credibility and 2.) being vulnerable to lawsuits.

    But the thing is, even if my paper had no policy on blogging, I would never post things online with reckless abandon. That’s just how I am…I’m a journalist…I’m wired that way.

    let’s say, for example… a journalist posts their opinions in a blog…their newspaper might fear that their stories could lose credibility. but the way I see it, from a reader’s perspective– well, I’d rather know where that reporter stands than not know anything at all.

    Hopefully more papers become more comfortable with that notion, trusting that their employees will engage in public discussion in a responsible and truthful way.

    Of course they still might be afraid of lawsuits…I’d be interested to know how realistic that fear is…how many libel lawsuits have been filed against writing in blogs, and how much legal protection blog disclaimers can provide. (Any lawyers here? I’d love to find about more about that…)

    But I think it’s inevitable — as time marches on, I think all kinds of media companies will evolve and become more and more transparent.

    But it may take time, especially for larger companies, which are typically slower to change. And the culture of many newsrooms will take a while to evolve, too….which is understandable, because these issues are relatively new territory…totally different stuff from what we were taught in J-school.

    Emily Sweeney
    Society of Professional Journalists
    New England chapter president

  • http://www.ditisberry.nl Berry

    Hi Jeff, the link to Romanesko lacks the http:// part :-)

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  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    ” Then he challenged me to sum up why reporters should blog. I said it is 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.”

    There are plenty of people in journalism who have neither got what they like nor quite grown to like what they get.
    They write pieces they do not much enjoy writing, for papers they totally despise.
    That in my opinion is where blogging comes into the picture..
    The blogging-journalist is partly in the entertainment business and partly in the advertisement business.
    Advertising either goods or a cause, or a government.
    He just has to make up his mind whom he wants to entertain and what he wants to advertise.
    The hypocrisy of the Press begins when newspapers pretend to be “impartial” or “servants of the public”.
    This only becomes dangerous as well as laughable when the public is fool enough to believe it, which is very often the case.
    Blogging spares the journalist the need to be a slave of hypocrisy, since it spares him the need to make money out of it.

    With supreme control of TV in the power either of multi-billionaires or a State Corporation, and the control of fewer and fewer newspapers being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the brain-washing of the public has increased, is going to go on increasing forever, and cannot be diminished.
    But it seems to me probable that the ingenious part of the human race still has some surprising cards up its sleeves.

    Those who find it hard to imagine that the big are not going to go on and on getting bigger, and the small smaller, and more helpless, that we are condemned, infact, to the “dull calamity” of a continous increasing uniformity, understimate the technical capacities of man.
    In terms of “real money” of comparative purchasing power as distinct from the nominal cost in inflated or depreciated currency, a good car today is dirt cheap.

    Similarly it is certain that in the near future technicians will find the way to produce cheaper and cheaper hardware.
    The “revolutionary change” which may be nearer than most people suppose, consists simply in the technical possibility of a reversal of past trends in the control of the “mass media”, the opening of opportunities for minorities to express their opinions, to show their capabilities.

  • protersre

    Maybe reporters don’t want to go on the record because they are afraid they will be deliberately misquoted and their statements will be twisted to mean what they didn’t say. Reporters might expect this to happen because they do it in their writing all the time.

  • P.

    As an editor and longtime observer of newspapers as institutions, I want to suggest another reason why it’s hard to start a conversation with newspaper writers and even more difficult to sustain an argument:

    Most of the good ones have enough on their plates. Consider what’s going on in a really intense personality who’s trying to a) extract candid facts from sophisticated sources who don’t want to be forthcoming; b) frame those ideas in a compelling story; and c) maneuver the piece past the boss and several other editors who will nit-pick it and summarize what THEY think is its main points for a headline. They do this all the while knowing that if they screw up, they’ll hear about it from somewhere high in the newsroom. Under the circumstances, any response is an effort — consider that a blogger might be one of many taking pot-shots. Considering the general hostility of the comments here, I’m not sure why a writer would want to reply, let alone reply pleasantly.

    Of course, you’re not required to sympathize. But by the same token, maybe you’re not entitled to a measured, thoughtful response.

  • http://www.newyorker.com/ The Ghost of A.J. Liebling

    Blogging is not the same as conversation.
    The time that the Times reporters spend griping about your obsessive coverage of the paper is time they could spend answering readers directly.

  • Patrik

    Leaker in Chief or Media as “Simon Says”

    The question is not why this president released information to support his reasons for going to war, which necessarily resulted in Americans dying. Rather, the question is: why would the Media assert that this is an example of this president “leaking” classified information, when clearly this is not the case and the Media knows it.

    Why are news headlines buttressed with phrases “leaker in chief”, “Bush leaked”, etc, when mere cursory review of the facts reveals that the president has the authority to “declassify” certain information and this is an instance where he has done so. How is it “hypocritical”, as suggested by the “talking heads” and other “nabobs…”, for the president to allow for the dissemination of certain information to the general public? When the basis for the president’s reasons to commit our forces to war is widely challenged, as has been the case in national publications that have paraphrased each other’s innuendo, why shouldn’t the president allow for the distribution of what information he can safely impart to provide some clarity?

    Indeed, it is incumbent upon the president to clarify his objectives, when they have been so challenged by a person of ostensibly “impeccable standing”, who, for partisan gain, politicized his accusations regarding this president’s “call” for war. After such criticism (which spread like a malignant wound) wouldn’t “inquiring minds” want to know, indeed, have the right to know, the basis for the facts the president used in such critical decision-making?

    Why does the Media purposely mislead the public with headline misnomers? To what positive end will we come to from “gotcha” journalism? What is the nexus in the media’s implication that since the president declassified certain war-clarifying information, which Scooter Libbey imparted to a journalist, the president also authorized the release of a CIA agent’s identity? There is no evidence to that affect. Since there is no one entity within the media to call his peers attention to these lapses, it is hard to see how this puerile and cliquish and gleeful vindictiveness by news commentary to stop?

    However, shouldn’t the “Simon-says” behavior of the national press be called what it is – misleading, dangerous and irresponsible?

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