In a speech in London for the Guardian, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller says this about bloggers and this blogger in particular:
My friend Jeff Jarvis, a blogger of long-standing and professor of journalism at the City University of New York, refers to news bloggers as “citizen journalists”, which has a sweet, idealistic ring to it. Jeff, like many of the most ardent true believers in the blog revolution, suggests that the mainstream media can be largely replaced by a self-regulating democracy of voices, the wisdom of the crowd.
First, I have never said that the crowd of bloggers would replace mainstream media and professional journalism. That’s a red herring that is too often attributed presumptively to bloggers and their advocates. It’s never properly cited because it can’t be. Where’s the link to the quote with me saying that? It’s fiction. I don’t say that. I don’t believe that. Jay Rosen shot that fish in the barrel a year and a half ago when he responded to hearing it again from Keller’s deputy Jon Landman:
Jay Rosen says that no one is saying that news will be decided by poll. Nobody is saying that we don’t need reporters. Nobody is saying that you should stop reporting and just listen. But these things are being said: The audience knows a lot of stuff and if you don’t tap that knowledge you’re not keeping up with your craft. And journalism has become interactive and if you’re not interacting, you’re not keeping up with your craft. And, he says, trust isn’t made the way it was; the trust transaction is different.
So can we please can that talk and stop accusing bloggers of wishing to eliminate journalists? The problem is, it serves the narrative Keller wants — and he’s not alone in this: to make us make them the enemy. The image they’re trying to present is that we, the people, are at their door trying to bash it down when, in truth, we’re only knocking and offering to help. Which leads to my second objection:
I have long since recanted the use of the phrase “citizen journalist.” I did, indeed, use it in an email/blog conversation with Keller back in 2005 (read from the bottom up), in which he suggested:
(btw, why “citizens”? Isn’t that a little insensitive to stateless bloggers, or bloggers bearing only green cards? “People’s media” strikes me as more inclusive, and it has a pedigree. Just a thought.)
A year later, I wrote:
I carry some of the blame for pushing “citizens’ media” and “citizen journalism” as terms to describe the phenomenon we are witnessing in this new era of news. Many of us were never satisfied with the terms, and for good reason. They imply that the actor defines the act and that’s not true in a time when anyone can make journalism. This also divides journalism into distinct camps, which only prolongs a problem of professional journalism — its separation from its public (as Jay Rosen points out). In addition, many professional journalists have objected that these terms imply that they are not acting as citizens themselves — and, indeed, I believe that the more that journalists behave like citizens, the stronger their journalism will be.
A that moment, I turned to using the phrase “networked journalism” and explained why:
“Networked journalism” takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news. And it focuses on the process more than the product. . . .
In networked journalism, the public can get involved in a story before it is reported, contributing facts, questions, and suggestions. The journalists can rely on the public to help report the story; we’ll see more and more of that, I trust. The journalists can and should link to other work on the same story, to source material, and perhaps blog posts from the sources (see: Mark Cuban). After the story is published — online, in print, wherever — the public can continue to contribute corrections, questions, facts, and perspective … not to mention promotion via links. I hope this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as journalists realize that they are less the manufacturers of news than the moderators of conversations that get to the news.
Indeed, this led in a straight line to my application for a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and the hosting of the Networked Journalism Summit, which the aforementioned Jon Landman attended.
But Keller needs to set up his competitive straw man because he wants to calculate his value on what he controls more than what he enables:
It is certainly true that technology has lowered the barriers to entry in the news business. The old joke that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one is now largely inoperative. Freedom of the press now belongs to anyone with an Internet Service Provider. This is all unsettling to the traditional news business, but it is also an opportunity. In an easy-entry business, success goes to those who – and here you must supply those ironic quote marks – move up the value chain. That is, you succeed by offering something of real value that the newcomers cannot match.
As it happens, newspapers have at least two important assets that none of the digital newcomers even pretend to match. One is that we deploy worldwide a corps of trained, skilled reporters to witness events and help our readers understand them. This work is expensive, laborious, sometimes unpopular, and occasionally perilous. . . .
The civic labour performed by journalists on the ground cannot be replicated by legions of bloggers sitting hunched over their computer screens. It cannot be replaced by a search engine. It cannot be supplanted by shouting heads or satirical television shows.
What is absent from the vast array of new media outlets is, first and foremost, the great engine of newsgathering – the people who witness events, ferret out information, supply context and explanation. . . .
And the other is that we have a rigorous set of standards. We have a code of accuracy and fairness we pledge to uphold, a high standard of independence we defend at all costs, and a structure of editorial supervision to enforce our standards.
Again, I hear no one saying he wants that work replicated. But can’t it be complemented? Witnesses to events can now help report what they see and context and explanation can come from both journalists and the experts they quoted who can now also publish. That means more journalism. I see that not as a competitive threat but as a grand opportunity. Knock, knock. Someone’s at the door, Bill. Invite them in. I’ve been suggesting that since 2005. Perhaps you can even teach them about your standards. I’ll offer your my classroom next door at CUNY and I’ll bring the bagels. Perhaps you can leave not just with a mutual understanding and respect but even with some journalism you can do together.
Keller tries to issue a caveat. Some of his best friends are bloggers.
I am a convert to blogs, those live, ad-libbed, interactive monologues that have proliferated by the millions, with an average audience consisting of the blogger and his immediate family. The Times actually produces more than 30 of them, in which our reporters muse on subjects ranging from soccer to health to politics. Blogs can swarm around a subject and turn up fascinating tidbits. They allow you to follow a story as it unfolds. And, yes, there are bloggers who file first-hand reports of their experiences from distant places, including Iraq – and sometimes their work is enlightening or intriguing. But most of the blog world does not even attempt to report. It recycles. It riffs on the news. That’s not bad. It’s just not enough. Not nearly enough.
No one says it’s enough. Point me to the person who does. Cite a quote.
If I were a Times blogger, I’d be insulted by this from my editor. They don’t just muse. They do report. And they dig up more than tidbits; they are writing news that starts online and ends up in the pages of the paper. In just the last week, talking with news executives from other large institutions, I’ve been praising those Times blogs, particularly Saul Hansell’s Bits blog, Virginia Heffernan’s video blog, and the campaign blog, Caucus.
In the rest of his speech, the meat of it, Keller is meant to talk about the state and future of newspapers. I don’t hear a vision for that future from him. He is confident in print, at least for sometime, at least at The Times. He is proud, with reason, of the paper’s migration of content onto the web. He confesses that he doesn’t know they will get to the Promised Land or what that land is. Instead, he offers his defense of the Times and its verities and value.
That’s the part that scares me. I so want to hear a vision for the future because I, too, am not sure how we’ll get there, but I wish that people in a position to execute their visions were eagerly trying many things to find some way over the void. Says Keller:
And then there is the business of our business. As has been widely reported, many daily newspapers are staggering from an exodus of subscribers, a migration of advertisers to the web, and the rising costs of just about everything. Newspapers are closing bureaus and hollowing out their reporting staffs.
At places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is funereal. Editors ask one another, “How are you?” in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce.
What I wish they were asking themselves instead is, “What’s new?”
* * *
I’ll leave it to others to dissect Keller’s views in his speech on America today, the Times’ verities, and the Bush White House:
The Bush administration has merely fed a current of public antipathy that has been running against us for a long time, a consequence of our own failings and, perhaps, a tendency to blame the messenger when news is bad.
For those collecting them, here is Keller on the Times and the start of the war in Iraq:
Even with audiences like this one, who are presumed to be well read and world-savvy, I’m constantly surprised by the presumption of bad faith when people talk about our business. That is in some measure the fault of our own shortcomings, the well-publicised examples of journalistic malfeasance, the episodes of credulous reporting in the prelude to the war in Iraq, the retreat of some news organisations from serious news into celebrity gossip, and so on. It also reflects the fact that we live in cynical times, in a clamorous new media world of hyperventilating advocacy. And so I always feel obliged to pause and state what, to me and many of you, is obvious. . . .
At the other end of the culpability scale, I’ve had a few occasions to write mea culpas for my paper after we let down our readers in more important ways, including for some reporting before the war in Iraq that should have dug deeper and been more sceptical about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction. It’s not fun to take yourself to the woodshed, but it is essential to our credibility, and it is not something all institutions do. Come to think of it, we’re still waiting for the White House mea culpa on those elusive weapons of mass destruction.
: LATER: More comments over at Comment is Free.