What he says

In the comments below, Howard Owens responds to the LA Times in the conversation started by its editorial about GoogleNews new comment feature. Jon Healey of the Times worried that flacks and spinsters will use Google to flack and spin without reporters there to filter it. Howard advises:

I don’t think you get it, Mr. Healey.

Let’s say company X stonewalls, and then comments as you say … well, why do you think that ends the conversation. Company X just made news by their comments, not matter how untruthful. Your story just got better. The reporter goes and writes a story about the comments and debunks them. More truth is illuminated. Readers are better informed, and they have a clearer picture of who company x really is.

This is better journalism. This is better civics.

Google is HELPING you. And us. If it works (and I’m not sure it will, but I appreciate the effort).

One of the main things that really bugged me about the LAT piece, and I still don’t think you get based on the above, is that you think readers are not smart enough. That’s the common journalistic hubris. If we aren’t there to guide readers and make sure their information is properly filtered and balanced, they won’t really be able to figure out things on their own and separate fact from spin, etc.

But, how good has journalism done at that over the past couple of decades anyway?

First, readers are smarter than most journalists give them credit for; Second, thanks to blogs and such, they’re getting smarter. The thing about the new information economy is we all have to be smarter, and that’s happening, because we’re largely on our own for filtering news and opinion. I, for one, thing that’s a good thing. It’s actually BETTER for democracy.

Sometime you might want to walk across the hall and have a long conversation with Matt Welch about all this. It would help a lot.

I emailed Matt — one of the first people to teach me how blogs and links and the distributed conversation work, back in the day — in the midst of all this when I wanted to see whether my take on the editorial was wrong. Matt was just returning from book leave (he’s about to come out with a book on John McCain) just as this kerfuffle was fuffling. But he did tell me that the Times is about to enable response on the opinion pieces his department produces. The bigger question, I think, is how to link a paper and its journalism into the larger distributed conversation in comments, links in outside blogs, and responses at GoogleNews. If someone responds anywhere, as Howard points out, the reporter should be ready to jump on that and do what reporters do: add journalism.

  • Eric Gauvin


    You’re right. The ability for readers to comment on news stories will be soon be the norm, but I don’t think it adds as much value as you predict. I read sfgate.com quite a lot and it has this feature, and I can’t say it plays out anything like what you describe. It usually seems like a place for people to let of steam, make off topic statements, make insults, argue amongst each other, show their stupidity, etc. Theoretically there could be someone with enough facts and writing ability (let’s face it most average people don’t have these skills, that’s why we value trained journalists) who can build on and extend the reporter’s work, but more often than not comments come in the form of attacks on the reporter’s skill, credibility and relevance, with the assumption that the reporting system is bogus, and flawed in the first place. I don’t think the kind of facts, corrections, counterbalance and perspective you describe will be produced.

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  • http://blog.syracuse.com/newstracker Brian Cubbison

    In Syracuse, we don’t get the CEOs commenting, yet, but we get the families of crime victims expressing their grief and the families of the suspects begging for understanding. It’s a different dimension to crime coverage.

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  • http://opinion.latimes.com/bitplayer Jon Healey

    It’s usually safe to bet that I’m not getting all or part of whatever I’m writing about, but I don’t think I’m quite the mossback I’m being made out to be here. I’m just pessimistic, based on a lot of years as a reporter, that Google’s move will yield the suggested results. I see it more as a tool for PR than anything else. Remember, Google isn’t providing a platform for lots of back and forth among readers; it’s just giving space to “participants” in a story. That means the follow-up has to happen elsewhere, in sight of fewer readers (by definition; everyone has fewer readers that Google, no?). I agree that the future of news is distributed and atomized, with readers immersing themselves amid multiple, changing sources. Still, it seems odd and unfortunate to me that Google is providing such a restricted platform, open only to a select few speakers and resistant to correction — unless, as Mr. Owens’ counter-example provides, those speakers are foolish enough to lie in a detectible way, instead of just spinning.
    I also agree that we at the Times should be providing a better forum for discussions about the news we publish, and we’re going to get there. Not as rapidly as we should have done, obviously, but it’ll happen.

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    Well, damn, I wish I had taken the time to proof read …

    After I posted this and jumped in the shower … I thought more and wish I had also said …

    It’s also not just up to the Times’ reporters, or other professionals to be vigilant for spin, lies and obfuscation. Bloggers are in the game, too.

    And that, I think, acts as a great check on what Mr. Healey fears.

    I’m still a big believer in Ken Layne’s “now we can fact check your ass.”

    That doesn’t just apply to politicians and slimy journalists/pundits. It applies to corporate CEOs, too.

    Mr. Healey, you may have more years in a newsroom than I, and involved more in direct news gathering than I have been in years — I don’t know, but I don’t think my credentials in that regard make me any kind of slouch or amateur either.

    Still, I have great faith in the conversation.

    Fact checking and truth telling is no longer a journalistic monopoly. We all get to play the game. I just think that’s a damn good thing.

    Google’s comment system, however it ultimately works, is just one slice of the conversation. It will never be the whole conversation.

    In another post, I see Jeff makes reference to trying to organize this conversation, but as anybody who has been in a group setting with a bunch of smart people, and maybe one or two dumb ones, there is no good way to organize this. Organization would kill it. Let the conversation be free. That, I think, serves democracy better.

    In the age of distributed media, citizen media — transparency is required. Those who try to hide their vileness will usually be found out.

  • http://opinion.latimes.com Matt Welch

    Howard — Wait, you people take showers?

  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    It’s something we started after leaving California … had to get more civilized.

  • http://www.planetabell.com John C Abell

    “Let’s say company X stonewalls, and then comments as you say … well, why do you think that ends the conversation. Company X just made news by their comments, not matter how untruthful. Your story just got better. The reporter goes and writes a story about the comments and debunks them. More truth is illuminated. Readers are better informed, and they have a clearer picture of who company x really is.”

    But does this reporter counter-punch go along with the original story and company x comments? And per Google rules does the reporter get to comment on the comment (he or his publication being cited in the rebuttal)? This is about proximity. If the conversation doesn’t continue in the same place it looks like the commenter has the last word.

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