Posts about journalism

Viral bullshit as the new classifieds

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A very well-done post about viral bullshit on Gawker (et al) by Mathew Ingram really comes down to this: Journalism used to be subsidized by classifieds and fluff, now it is built atop viral bullshit. The argument: Sure, we serve crap — or cats — but that’s what brings in the traffic for the good stuff.

Quoting Gawker’s editor in chief, John Cook: “Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Of course, that is a bankrupt model, for soon it becomes impossible to find the diamond in the sewage: the one decent, worthwhile, true report buried amid native advertising, viral bullshit, trolls’ comments, breaking rumors, and staff’s snark. Soon, the brand’s value is nil — but, hey, the traffic is humongous. And the advertisers still pay because we gave them a home for their bullshit and the faint though fraudulent promise that we can make them viral, too.

I think a new business model emerges from the swamp: the news outlet that tries, at least, to deliver the truth. That’s what all journalism fancies itself to be, of course, but the field would suffer in an audit of how much of that claim is true. I’m biased, but I’d say the Guardian is one outlet that is trying to live by that goal, though many will quickly point out that it won’t live if it can’t also have a goal of making profit.

At my journalism school, I was having a discussion about an unrelated matter the other day and as I railed on about a certain faux-news outlet that appeared to be all offal, a colleague smiled and said, “I love it, Jarvis, when *you* launch into a conservative rant about journalism.” Yes, I’m known as the guy who wants to open up media to the world to hear more voices and the cacophony of democracy, to equip anyone to commit an act of journalism, to confess our fallibility and admit that news is always in beta.

But I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

In the earlier days of the web, I’ve argued that many made the mistake of thinking of the net as a medium and so whenever they saw a comment or mistake from a civilian, they thought the entire enterprise had been ruined as if The New York Times had published porn. No, I said, don’t expect the web to be a medium that’s published and packaged and polished. It’s just another streetcorner. At Broadway and 40th, you might overhear an idiot or see a drooler but you don’t propose to reject all New York because of that.

Too many would-be journalistic outlets today are making the mistake of thinking that they want to *be* the web, to hitch onto every speeding meme, riding it to … where? I think we can see where: to the oblivion where memes go to fizzle and die. Journalists would make a fatal mistake to think that they are viruses when what they should be are the leukocytes that kill them.

Protecting journalism v journalists

The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton draws attention to the knottier issues around a proposed federal shield law for journalists and urges critics to be included in the debate about whether it is better to have a constitutional or merely a legislative protection.

I believe a shield law that protects job descriptions is fatally flawed. At a Knight event in Washington last week, investigative journalist Scott Armstrong argued strongly that the government will slice out exceptions to protecting national-security reporters. “More cases are emerging because it’s never been easier to leak or investigate leaks,” Newton writes. “Reacting to a new generation of digital whistleblowers, like Chelsea Manning, Armstrong said this administration began to treat all leaks ‘as if they were espionage cases.’ There have been seven leak cases under the Obama administration, and only four in all of history before; Savage called challenging informants the ‘new norm.’”

I worry that by requiring the journalist to work for a news organization or freelance for them or be a journalism student, many will be left out. But arguing to add more categories of people to the definition isn’t the answer.

The answer is to protect not the journalist but the act of journalism: that is, revealing information that is in the public interest.

Oh, yes, I know that would then include Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, and Daniel Ellsberg — none of whom would qualify under the proposed law but every one of whom has revealed information of vital public interest, fueling the debate that democracy should welcome.

Until we are ready to stand behind that broad principle of information in the public interest as our definition of journalism, then I come to see that I stand with the shield-law critics Newton cites. For we do have a shield. It is the First Amendment. Asking Congress to modify and limit it is short-sighted and too much an act of self-interest by journalistic organizations eager to be protected themselves.

Let’s remember that ultimately, it’s not the journalists we are seeking to protect but the sources of that information. Now that those sources can share directly with the public, with or without journalists as mediators, then we must protect them as journalistic actors.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

I wrote this for the Guardian, where the discussion is quite lively, approaching 1,500 comments. I’m posting it here a few days later for the purposes of my own archive.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

Is this really the legacy you want for yourself: the chief executive who trampled rights, destroyed privacy, heightened secrecy, ruined trust, and worst of all did not defend but instead detoured around so many of the fundamental principles on which this country is founded?

And I voted for you. I’ll confess you were a second choice. I supported Hillary Clinton first. I said at the time that your rhetoric about change was empty and that I feared you would be another Jimmy Carter: aggressively ineffectual.

Never did I imagine that you would instead become another Richard Nixon: imperial, secretive, vindictive, untrustworthy, inexplicable.

I do care about security. I survived the attack on the World Trade Center and I believe 9/11 was allowed to occur through a failure of intelligence. I thank TSA agents for searching me: applause for security theater. I defend government’s necessary secrets. By the way, I also defend Obamacare. I should be an easy ally. But your exercise of power appalls me. When I wrote about your credibility deficit in the Guardian, I was shocked that among the commenters at that great international voice of liberalism, next to no one defended you. Even on our side of the political divide, I am far from alone in urgently wondering what you are doing.

As a journalist, I am frightened by your vengeful attacks on whistleblowers — Manning, Assange, Snowden, and the rest — and the impact in turn on journalism and its tasks of keeping a watchful eye on you and helping to assure an informed citizenry.

As a citizen, I am disgusted by the systematic evasion of oversight you have supported through the FISA courts; by the use of ports as lawless zones where your agents can harass anyone; by your failure on your promise to close Guantanamo, and this list could go on.

As an American often abroad, I am embarrassed by the damage you have caused to our reputation and to others’ trust in us. I find myself apologizing for what you are doing to citizens of other nations, dismissing the idea that they have rights to privacy because they are “foreign.”

As an internet user, I am most fearful of the impact of your wanton destruction of privacy and the resulting collapse of trust in the net and what that will do to the freedom we have enjoyed in it as well as the business and jobs that are being built atop it.

And as a Democrat, I worry that you are losing us the next election, handing an issue to the Republicans that should have been ours: protecting the rights of citizens against the overreach of the security state.

Surely you can see this. But you keep doubling down, becoming only more dogged in your defense of secrecy and your guardians of it. I don’t understand.

The only way I could possibly grant you the benefit of doubt is to think that there is some ominous fact about our security that only you and your circle know and can’t breath or the jig will be up. But I don’t believe that anymore than I believe a James Bond movie or an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory. You can’t argue that Armageddon is on the way and that al Qaeda is on the run at the same time.

No, I think it is this: Secrecy corrupts. Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. You have been seduced by the idea that your authority rests in your secrets and your power to hold them. Every attack on that power, every questioning of it only makes you draw in tighter, receding into your vault with the key you think your office grants you. You are descending into a dark hole of your own digging.

But you know better, don’t you? In a democracy, secrecy is not the foundation of authority; that is the basis of dictatorships. Principles and their defense is what underpins your office.

First among those principles is the defense of our freedom. Security is only a subset of that, for if we are not secure we are not free. Freedom demands the confidence that we are not under attack, yes, but also that we are not being surveilled without our knowledge and consent. The balance, which we are supposedly debating, must go to freedom.

Transparency is another principle you promised to uphold but have trammeled instead. The only way to assure trust in your actions is if they are overseen by open courts, by informed legislators, by an uninhibited press, and most importantly by an informed citizenry.

As political and media attention turn away from you, you have an opportunity to rise again to the level of principles, to prove that your rhetoric about change was not empty after all, to rebuild your already ill-fated legacy, to do what is expected of you and your office.

You could decide to operate on the principle that our privacy is protected in any medium — not just in our first-class letters but in our emails and chats and calls — unless under specific and due warrant.

You could decide to end what will be known as the Obama Collect it All doctrine and make the art of intelligence focus rather than reach.

You could decide to respect the efforts of whistleblowers as courageous practitioners of civil disobedience who are sacrificing much in their efforts to protect lives and democracy. If they are the Martin Luther Kings of our age, then call off Bull Connor‘s digital dogs and fire hoses, will you?

You could decide to impress us with the transparency you still can bring to government, so that the institution you run becomes open by default rather than by force, as it is now, under you.

You could decide to support a free press and stop efforts — here and, using your influence, with our friends in the UK — to restrain their work.

You could decide that whether they are visiting our land or talking with our citizens by email or phone, foreigners are not to be distrusted by default.

You could try to reverse the damage you have done to the internet and its potential by upholding its principles of openness and freedom.

You could. Will you?

Prof

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I was just notified that I’m now a full professor at CUNY. I’m well aware that one could substitute faux for full as I’m not an academic; I’m a professional. So I’m all the more humbled by the title. I’m grateful to my deans — Steve Shepard and Judy Watson — and my fellow faculty and the trustees for it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through the process but I enjoyed it. Writing statements about my teaching, research, and service required me to think again about what I want to accomplish. Here is my personal statement.

I am grateful to our school for many things but mostly for this: freedom. CUNY has given me the freedom to explore ideas about journalism, the freedom to take on a new career in the classroom, and most of all the freedom to speak. Some may say I say too much, but it is thanks to this freedom that I am able to research, experiment, theorize, practice, and provoke and take part in debates about the future of journalism. And, yes, I most certainly believe there is a future (or else why would I be here?).

In his memoir, Deadlines and Disruption, our dean, Steve Shepard, tells the story of my first day on the job and the rather accidental path that led to my primary concentration at CUNY: entrepreneurial journalism. When Steve and I started discussing his plans for the school, I thought my main role here would be to teach and proselytize new forms and tools for news: new media, online news, digital media, interactive journalism; I’m still not sure what to call it.

I also had an idea for a class that would teach students the business of journalism because I believe our professional disdain for the commercial side of the industry as inherently corrupting helped make us irresponsible stewards of our trade. When I launched Entertainment Weekly, I found that I didn’t have the knowledge and experience necessary to protect my magazine from bad business decisions — only some of them mine — and I vowed I wouldn’t allow myself such ignorance again. Cleaning out our attic recently, I came across a 1993 job evaluation by my editor at TV Guide. It said, “Jeff’s enthusiasm for the business side overwhelms him and he wants to get involved in an area that is not compatible with his editorial role.” I ignored that advice. At that rapidly shrinking magazine, at the bankrupt Daily News, and then at Advance.net, where I spent 12 years before coming to CUNY, I schooled myself on every angle of our business that I could.

At CUNY, I wanted to teach students about the economics of news companies and the dynamics affecting our industry, helping them to find opportunity rather than dread in the profound disruption news was undergoing and to become the leaders who would build journalism’s future. I had the idea of teaching that worldview through exercises in inventing new products — a pedagogical device, really; I don’t think I imagined then that students would be so intent on starting their own businesses. The prelaunch curriculum committee shelved that course in favor of teaching more tools. But Steve and Judy Watson resurrected it and promised I could teach it. That was the first of innumerable times when our deans acted to encourage my work and thus challenge me to explore unfamiliar frontiers.

I am indebted to them both for their leadership, support, guidance, and mentoring. But this is a bittersweet moment as our leader, Dean Shepard, announces his well-deserved if nonetheless lamentable (for us) retirement. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein charged Steve with building one of the top journalism schools in the country and if we do say so ourselves, he succeeded. Now begins a search for new leadership. As much as I trumpet the virtues of change and the opportunities presented by disruption for our industry, I will confess that personally, uncertainty unsettles me. Yet I hope this moment of change will prove good for us, as we continue to constantly question what we do and how we do it even as we validate — in our new strategy statement — the vision the dean laid out when he founded the school. I have faith that we will come through this transition because this is a school built for transition. From the moment we eliminated required media tracks, our faculty has demonstrated the courage to face and cause change. As our strategy document says, our school was born of disruption.

In my statements in this document, I will try to focus more on the future than the past, on the challenges I face and the opportunities we will see together. But in this personal statement I suppose it is appropriate to reflect for a moment on my past and my career, on how I got here.

I was planning to go to law school but in my freshman year at Claremont, I thought better of my ability to say “yes, your honor” and mean it. Searching for a new path, I realized that I enjoyed reporting and editing for my high school and college papers and thought that could make a fine career. So I transferred to Northwestern and then the Medill School of Journalism.

On the way there, in 1973, I started my first newspaper job for a suburban Chicago weekly, the Addison Herald-Register, and continued working full-time in the business until the day I quit to come teach. I was lucky to get my dream jobs early in life and lucky at each of them to have a mentor. I wish to credit them: Howard Spanogle (my high-school journalism teacher), Christie Bradford, Jennie Buckner, Milton Hansen, Jim Willse (at three companies), Jim Houck, Pat Ryan, Anthea Disney, Steve Newhouse, Judy Watson, Steve Shepard.

I worked at The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, as part of Medill’s Teaching Newspaper program — a great experience and the reason I was enthusiastic about our internship program from the start. I next interned on the Detroit Free Press in what was still called the women’s section. As I finished my last courses at Northwestern, I got an internship and then a job as a rewriteman — we still called the post that — and energy reporter for Chicago Today, covering the ’73 oil embargo, a great story. Today died a year to the day after I’d arrived. It was “the paper that has no tomorrow,” a heartless flack said to me as we worked on our last edition, even while our heartless owner, Tribune Company, was prying the nails out of our city desk. I caught the lifeboat to the big paper on the midnight shift. While waiting for shootings and fires to cover, I started playing with these new-fangled VDTs that dotted the newsroom. I was the kid who wasn’t afraid of this strange new technology and ended up training much of the newsroom on it. Little could I know how much technology could come to guide my career.

I became an assistant city editor at age 21 — dayside was the fringe benefit. Then I left for the San Francisco Examiner, where I edited the Examiner’s half of a combined Examiner-Chronicle Sunday paper and was plucked out to write a six-day-a-week column (the publisher liked a caption I’d written — such was my luck). After that same publisher and I came to disagree, New York beckoned and I went to People as a writer and then TV critic, which inspired me to write a memo proposing Entertainment Weekly six years before it eventually launched in 1990. In the vast entertainment choices brought to us by our new cable remotes and VCRs, there was confusion, and in that change I saw a need and an opportunity. I was inexperienced as a magazine editor and was able to bring EW to the market only with the help of amazing partners, including Joan Feeney and Peter Hauck (I’ve had the privilege of working with each of them again and both have been friends of our program at CUNY). EW went through a rough and notorious launch, but that’s a long story better told over beer.

I left over true creative differences and was hired by Jim Willse at the Daily News as Sunday editor, just as an ugly strike was about to begin. “Man,” said city desk wag Hap Hairston, “you jumped from the frying pan into the microwave.” After the News went bankrupt, I left for TV Guide as critic, also working on development projects. Then — after a very brief detour at News Corp’s fledgling internet acquisition, Delphi — I followed Willse again to Advance, just as this thing called a browser was released commercially. There I oversaw the content, technology, strategy, and launch of Advance’s 10 newspaper-affiliated sites (including NJ.com. NOLA.com, and OregonLive.com) and helped on the launches of its magazine-affiliated sites at CondéNet (including Epicurious, Style.com, Concierge, and others no longer with us). I also worked on projects at Random House, before Advance sold it, and Brighthouse Cable.

At Advance, I had the privilege of working for Steve Newhouse, who is unsung in our industry as an innovator and true believer in interactivity. It was Steve who taught me the value of opening up to conversation with the public. Steve schooled me in understanding the fundamentals of our business. He later tolerated my blogging and outspokenness. He also made it my job to seek out, learn from, and negotiate with entrepreneurs and technologists. One of them was Nick Denton. We invested in his company, Moreover, where I served on the board, and Nick also got us to invest in and save a mortally challenged startup with the silly name Blogger.

I clearly remember the day Nick demonstrated blogging to me. I confess I didn’t comprehend the big deal. But that changed after September 11, 2001. I was on the last PATH train into the World Trade Center as the first jet hit the north tower. To my wife’s continuing ire, I stayed downtown because, after all, I am a journalist. I was about a block from the south tower when it collapsed, thrown into utter darkness in the cloud of destruction. After taking shelter in a Chase tower, I walked to Times Square and wrote my story for online and print. Days later, I had more to share and so I started a blog, honestly believing I’d do it for a few weeks. Then two bloggers in Los Angeles read what I’d written, wrote about it in turn, and linked back to my blog. I wrote in response and linked to them. And that was my career-altering *ding* moment: Thanks to the link, we were having a conversation but in different places at different times. I began to see in rough form a new shape for media. I will admit that I thought this notion of news-as-conversation was fresh, until I had the privilege of meeting Columbia’s Jim Carey, who told me he’d built his career and scholarship around this idea.

To this day, I marvel at the power of the link to disrupt what we do, changing our relationship with the public we serve (who are now, to name one role, our true collaborators); the form of news (for example, isn’t a link often better service to the reader than a background paragraph — and once we start unraveling the article in such a way, where does that lead?); and the business models that sustain our important work (is it time to serve people as individuals rather than as masses and doesn’t that, too, require that we reset our relationship with the public?). Those are the themes I am pursuing in my work now: new relationships, forms, and models for news.

There is the education of a would-be educator. The threads that make me who I am are obvious in hindsight: finding opportunities in technology and disruption, questioning orthodoxies, benefitting from mentors’ guidance and collaborators’ help, facing business challenges, and embracing every opportunity to join a startup — like our school.

Patches

Tim Armstrong says he will close, sell, or find partners for 300 local Patch sites to reach profitability.

I have a fourth option, Tim: Invest. Set up independent entrepreneurs — your employees, my entrepreneurial graduates, unemployed newspaper folks — to take over the sites. Offer them the benefit of continued network ad sales — that’s enlightened self-interest for Patch and Aol. Offer them training. Offer them technology. And even offer them some startup capital.

You could end up better off than you ever were by being a member of an ecosystem instead of trying to own it. It can grow faster — just look at how Glam became gigantic: by supporting a network.

I still believe in hyperlocal. You’ve always believed in hyperlocal. I don’t want to see retrenchment of Patch give the naysayers as chance to nya-nya us.

So please consider another path: shrink the company but grow the network.

Jeff’s Post problem

One issue I’m surprised I haven’t seen discussed regarding Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post is what his tenure will mean to local advertisers.

They don’t like him. He’s helping putting them out of business.

Haven’t you seen: retail is in the tank. Stores have become showrooms for Amazon’s sales. Looking at the golf club? Go to the pro shop and try it out and learn about it and get advice about it, then go to Amazon and buy it for a better price.

Amazon is going into local markets with experiments in same-day delivery. He will do that in competition with local merchants.

eBay, on the other hand, says it will serve local merchants and help them with same-day delivery and online sales. Google is looking to test same-day local delivery and I would imagine it, too, would work with local businesses, who are its advertisers as well.

The New Republic wondered whether Bezos wants The Washington Post’s delivery trucks. I doubt that. Though as I remember, the Post was one of the first papers in the country to shift from large-scale delivery to small-scale (trucks to station wagons), the system is still not set up to do what a UPS truck does.

So how will Bezos finesse this? He’s not big on finesse, Jeff. He could come and find ways to reassure local advertisers. He could involve them in his local delivery scheme, just as he handed over his sales and technology platforms to more merchants. He could shrug and not worry about retail advertising since he’s killing retail anyway.

As with all speculation about the Bezos era in journalism, we’ll just have to wait and wonder.

Hot off the presses

Screenshot 2013-08-05 at 6.25.08 PM

Some quick thoughts on Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post:

A reporter asked me whether this was “an act of philanthropy.” Probably yes, but I hope it is much more than that. I am glad Bezos is using his wealth to save a great and necessary American institution. But I hope and pray the real value he brings is his entrepreneurship, his innovation, his experience, and his fresh perspective, enabling him to reimagine news as an enterprise.

I’m ready for folks to cry for joy that Bezos knows how to sell content. He’ll know how to build pay walls, damnit! But I don’t think that’s his key value here. He knows how to sell and deliver unique not commodity content: entertainment mostly.

No, Bezos’ key competence is in building relationships. This is wishful thinking on my part, as I have been arguing that we in journalism need to stop thinking of ourselves as manufacturers of a mass commodity called content and start understanding that we are in a service business whose real outcome is informed individuals and communities. Thus we must be in the relationship business.

I have been arguing with newspapers lately that they must gather small data about their individual users — where they live, where they work, what their key interests are — so they can serve people with greater relevance and value. I hope that skill — building profiles and using them to improve relevance — is the first that Bezos brings to the Post.

I have one fear of Bezos: his secrecy. A news organization must be open (there I’m a disciple of the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger). I also want to see innovation and experimentation at the Post done in the open so the rest of the industry can benefit from it. Then perhaps Bezos can save more than one newspaper.

I do trust the Bezos understands the value of the Post and the necessity of — using my CUNY dean’s phrase — journalism’s eternal verities. I also trust that Don Graham would not have sold his family’s jewel to anyone who did not understand that.

Now mind you, Bezos also invested in Henry Blodget’s Business Insider. I’m a fan of Henry and what he has done there, but he is controversial in the halls of journalism schools. Bezos praises the Post for waiting to get things right. Henry is rather quicker on the trigger. I’m glad Bezos has an interest in both models; I think each can learn from the other.

Bottom line: I’m hopeful.

I am left with tremendous admiration for Don Graham, whose family not only built the Washington Post into its glory and protected it from political pressure to serve the people. Today, Don Graham made no doubt the toughest and bravest decision of his life: He admitted that he did not have the strategy to save his newspaper so he found someone he believes will. That takes courage.

What is journalism, redux

The Guardian asked me to respond to the issues raised in Yochai Benkler’s testimony at the trial of Bradley Manning about the definition of journalism. I’m cross-posting it here for archival purposes. To comment, please go to the Guardian.

When Bradley Manning‘s defense attorneys wanted someone to explain journalism (pdf) to the court (pdf) trying him, they did not call on a journalist, they called on a legal scholar and expert in networks: Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of The Wealth of Networks.

For as Benkler explained to the court, journalism is now a network – a “network ‘fourth estate’”.

In this network, there are many roles that can be linked together: witnessing, gathering, selecting, authenticating, explaining, distributing. Each can be an act of journalism. Each can be done by someone else, not necessarily working in a single institution. “Journalism,” said Benkler, “is made up of many things.”

Those actors can now include not just the reporters and editors in newspapers, and not just bloggers working alone, but also other, new players: witnesses who share what they see on the streets of Cairo, Rio, or Istanbul; witnesses or whistleblowers who share what they discover in their work (see: Manning or Edward Snowden) and organizations that aid one function or another (see: WikiLeaks). As Benkler went on to testify Wednesday:

One of the things that’s happened is people realize that you can’t have all the smartest people and all the resources working in the same organization. So we have seen a much greater distribution in networks that even though they use the internet, what’s important about the network structure is actually permissions, who’s allowed to work on what resource or assignments of work assignments.

Permission is precisely what is at stake in Manning’s trial and will be if Snowden is brought to court: both men had permission to see what they saw. They did not have permission to share it. Or if they are deemed whistleblowers, do they? Well, that may depend on whom they shared their information with: a journalistic organization, perhaps. But is WikiLeaks such an organization? Or is it a source for “the enemy”?

That is an issue Benkler and attorneys wrestled with, as he argued that WikiLeaks was indeed seen as a journalistic organization – until Manning’s files became public (with the help of the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, el Pais and other clearly journalistic enterprises). From then on, Benkler said, WikiLeaks was demonized by American politicians in their “shrill” campaign against it. To use Benkler’s word, WikiLeaks was “delegitimized”. Its permissions were withdrawn.

All this matters to Manning’s defense because it informs the question of intent: did he intend to share the videos and files he found with fellow citizens or with the enemy? Was WikiLeaks a journalistic entity with links to the public or an enemy tool with a line to Bin Laden?

The exact same question is already raised about Snowden: did he intend to share with the public through this newspaper or with other governments in their airports? There lies a line between whistleblower and spy – or so the argument goes.

There’s another issue in play: the one around “a journalist”. Who is a journalist? For that matter, what is journalism? Those questions underpinned not only Benkler’s testimony, but also the debate buzzing around the head of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, as some colleagues in the field have amazingly questioned his role (his permission), and thus whether he should be arrested for aiding and abetting a criminal suspect.

They do that because Greenwald is an advocate and a journalist; while journalists – in the US, at least – have long believed that one must be a journalist or an advocate. Benkler told the court that one can be both. I argue that all journalism is advocacy even if it is simply advocating for openness and transparency, or standing up for the downtrodden, or believing that the public must be better informed.

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan tried recently (and for what must be the millionth time) to define a journalist. Senator Dick Durbin has proposed that the government should define who is a journalist.

But that would be tantamount to licensing the journalist. That is a permission government should not grant, for that gives government the power to rescind it.

Here’s the problem – the problem Benkler presents in his testimony: in a network, anyone can perform an act of journalism. Thus, I argue, there are no journalists. There is only the service of journalism.

At the Guardian’s Activate conference in London, this Tuesday, I asked Vint Cerf, a father of the internet, about the notion that journalists still think they manufacture a product called content (a noun) while Cerf’s invention and his current employer, Google, concentrate on making verbs: services that perform a function for people or society. Surely, as I’ve argued on my blog recently, journalism is such a service.

Journalism is not content. It need not be a profession or an industry. It is not the province of a guild. It is not a scarcity to be controlled. It no longer happens just in newsrooms. It is no longer confined to narrative form.

So, then, what the hell is journalism?

It is a service whose end is an informed public. For my entrepreneurial journalism students, I provide a broad umbrella of a definition: journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves.

So, anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism. Anyone can help do that. The true journalist should want anyone to join the task.

That’s not a complicated definition, but it raises no end of complications, especially in a set of laws that is built for institutions, not networks. What if Manning, WikiLeaks, Snowden and Greenwald all performed acts of journalism? I say they have, for they performed services in the name of an informed public. There is a role for the witness, the whistleblower, and the advocate in the “network fourth estate”.

And there must still be a role for journalistic institutions. For it is they that have the resources to perform many of the necessary functions that come after witnessing: selecting, authenticating, explaining, distributing. And it is they and their lawyers who can withstand the pressure that governments will put on them – witness the trial of Manning and the pursuit of Snowden – to forbid transparency.

In his testimony, Benkler warned the court of the precedents that may set:

If the threat to potential whistleblowers and leakers was as great as a death penalty or life in prison, [that would chill] the willingness of people of good conscience but not infinite courage to come forward and … [would] severely undermine the way in which leak-based investigative journalism has worked in the tradition of free press in the United States.