Posts about Weblogs

Tearing down the news-opinion divide

Nick Denton — who’s doing his best to destroy all journalism, of course — goes after the most sacred of cows (at his most profane website) arguing that it is time to for The New York Times abandon the false divide between news and opinion.

What’s really happening at The Times, in my view, is that its blogs have been a Trojan horse for the invasion of voice and opinion into the news columns. I say it’s a most welcome shot of blood into those old, gray veins. Nick gives plenty of examples, starting with:

When Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo fell through, hotshot reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin produced a scathing analysis of the deal-making skills of the Redmond software giant’s boss, Steve Ballmer. ‘Microsoft has tried to spin its reversal as a show of “discipline” and “self-control.” But what it really shows — painfully — is Mr. Ballmer’s indecisiveness about this deal.’ Ouch! And fun! But you won’t find Bill Keller and his fellow editors boasting about Sorkin’s punchiness: because they’re still in denial about the blurring of news and opinion, and so much else.

I’ve also valued finally getting Saul Hansell’s opinions (call it analysis, then) in the Bits blog. And I like hearing the voices of the other writers in the other blogs. This, as Nick points out, is one way for newspapers to battle the commodification of news: “An intelligent or provocative slant is one way that a newspaper can differentiate its story from the thousand other rehashes of the same information. British hyper-competitive newspapers have made an art of such spin; as America’s media becomes more competitive, outlets are following Fleet Street’s example.”

So opinion crosses a media divide: How can you write a blog without a human voice? And once you import stuff from that blog, even a Times blog, into print, you’ve brought in a human voice — that is, one with a stated perspective — into a publication that has prided itself on having no perspective. Heh.

There’s another divide to consider here, an organizational divide. Don’t forget that at The Times and many American newspapers, there’s a wall between business and editorial and another wall between the newsroom and the editorial page. The silly conceit of this is that opinion can be relegated to and imprisoned in the walls and pages of an editorial department: They own opinion and nobody else is allowed to have any — and that is the inoculation that has, historically, preserved the news department’s own conceit that it is objective: See, we don’t do opinion, those people over there do.

So one has to ask what the difference is between Andrew Sorkin and Paul Krugman except that Sorkin is paid to spend more of his time reporting with more sources. So — no offense to Krugman; I just picked the most convenient beat — but what whose opinion/perspective/viewpoint is more useful? If we take the argument that newspapers make against blogs — they just have opinions; they don’t report — that would give the contest to Sorkin, now that he is allowed to have opinions. So what’s the point of having opinion-page columnists? Why not just have reporters who can also share their perspective?

There’s another opinion divide to consider: inside v. outside. What about those bloggers? As newspapers get relationships with them — The Times has taken Freakonomics under its wing and the Washington Post today announced it is syndicating TechCrunch onto its side (as it syndicates my PrezVid) — one need wonder about their opinions. They have them. Michael Arrington certainly has them — including opinions about mainstream newspapers, we should remember. So how does that fit with the news-opinion divide? I was surprised to learn recently that Freakonomics is under The Times’ Opinion section. Why? The Post put TechCrunch stories on its technology news page. What’s the difference: prissiness, as Nick says, or turf battles? (And by the way, in all these cases, I think a network relationship is smarter than a syndicated relationship — but that’s the subject of another post another day.)

Nick concludes:

You know what? Screw the news-opinion divide. When the Times was still pure, reporters would simply trot out some tame expert to give the story the slant they planned; it’s less convoluted–and wordy–for writers like Sorkin and Stanley simply to express their own views. Readers can get raw information from wire services and press releases; the only value the Times can add is time-saving summarization–and attitude.

The Times is the closet-case of newspapers. Everybody knows that the political bent is liberal; that the newspaper’s reporters have opinions; and that they’re hungry for a juicy story, even if the rush to publish can introduce mistakes. None of these are crimes; they only become embarrassments because of the paper’s official position. Bill Keller needs simply to come to terms with the nature of modern newspapers. He and his colleagues will feel so much lighter if they do.

Of course, I agree. But I think The Times will be the last to admit it’s human. So if I were the editor of another paper in the U.S., I’d take down the divide and say that we’re all about our perspective with facts; that’s our value. The check on us is you and your opinions out there in the public, now that they can be heard (if the paper will listen).

More Dell blogging

Dell has started another blog with execs and employees talking about personal technology. It’s called Your Blog but I’m not sure why; it seems to be their blog or, from their perspective, our blog even if they invite people to send them messages atop the front page. And that’s fine; I’m merely puzzled about the name. What’s good about this is that it is Dell people talking as people more than as a company, even if it is around technology, not their cats. This follows Chris Locke’s precept in Gonzo Marketing that companies should want their employees to show their public that they share the same interests.

Birthin’ Barista’s babe

I’m proud to say that this is one of the outcomes of the Networked Journalism conference at CUNY last fall:

exploremontclair_headlineimage.jpgBaristanet and the Star-Ledger are joining to create a cobranded print guide to the Barista’s turf, Montclair, NJ, with content from both partners, Star-Ledger distribution, and shared effort on the advertising.

So a blogger and a newspaper are making business together. Bravo.

Debbie Galant announces the birth today:

Baristanet is again making news in the media world. This time, it’s our partnership with the Star Ledger (yes, the Star Ledger!) to create a print guide to Montclair. Last week, Baristanet founder Debbie Galant and Star Ledger editor in chief Jim Willse spoke about the partnership to a group of newspaper and web editors from all over the world.

The official matchmaker was new media evangelist Jeff Jarvis, who suggested the partnership during his Networked Media Summit in New York last October.

The co-branded 36-page “Explore Montclair” guide will have stories by Baristanet and the Ledger, and even a special Montclair crossword puzzle by Tony Orbach. It goes out to 70,000 readers on May 15. If you’re not a home subscriber, you’ll be able to pick it up at the Montclair Public Library and many other locations (more on that later.)

The ad reservation deadline is tomorrow. If you want to underwrite history, let us know right away.

I did suggest the partnership as I played Oprah during Q&A in a session at the conference. But Debbie and Jim Willse both rejected the idea of starting online. They came up with the idea of a print guide with Barista’s cool attitude and the Ledger’s stores of information.

I am delighted that they recognized their complementary assets and goals. Barista has its unique local knowledge and voice as well as its reputation in town and online (including with hyperlocal advertisers). The Ledger has the power of its infrastructure — printing, distribution, ad sales — and its reporters and archives as well as its brand and reputation. To compete would be silly and destructive. To cooperate, they can build something together they couldn’t build as well apart.

This is thinking like a network.

(Disclosures: I also sat in on their meetings. And I used to work for and still work with the Ledger’s parent company.)

Rules for journalists/bloggers/witnesses? A Guardian debate

Here’s a debate that just went up at CommentIsFree (please go comment there; the discussion’s already underway): me vs. Michael Tomasky, the Guardian’s man in Washington, over whether, as he has said, bloggers should operate under the rules of journalism…..

Editor’s note: Earlier this month Barack Obama’s election campaign was shaken by a report that Obama had described rural, white voters as “bitter”. The news was broken by a “citizen journalist”, Mayhill Fowler, and was carried on the Huffington Post’s politics blog, Off The Bus. Last week Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky argued on CiF that Fowler’s reporting raised serious ethical questions and argued that blogging, like journalism, needed rules. CiF commentator Jeff Jarvis responded on his blog Buzzmachine that openness, not rules, was demanded in the era of the internet. The answer? Bring the two men together to thrash it out, right here.

Jeff Jarvis to Michael Tomasky:

I believe the rules you long to carry into the new world are inherently corrupting for journalism: We journalists have long traded in the currencies of access and exclusivity with the powerful. But the price we pay is complicity in a system of secrecy. That’s what off-the-record talks and unnamed sources add up to: secrets. As journalists we should be allergic to the idea of helping public officials hide anything from the public.

And as journalists, I’d have thought we’d be rejoicing in the idea that witnesses can now share what they hear from public figures. Openness is our cause, transparency our goal, no? Yes, we may lose some exclusives – but exclusives now have the half-life of a click. With more openness and more reporting – by all – we will end up with more stories, the public will get more information, and politicians will learn that anything and everything they say and do can (and should) be reported.

You want transparency from the citizen journalists. I agree, but I’d expand that: I want transparency from all journalists, and not just about donations but also about influences, especially in the US, where claims of objectivity have lately become a cloak for partisanship. That’s the simplest rule: openness for all.

I think we should be applauding and supporting Mayhill Fowler. Her reporting of Obama’s “bitter” remarks – in spite of her support of his candidacy – is an impressive act of intellectual honesty. She knew those remarks would be newsworthy. She knew they could hurt him. But she opted for openness, directly to the public, around campaign spin as well as press filters: the witness reports. I’d say she showed veteran journalists how to operate under new rules of her own that, in this case, were superior to the old rules of conspiratorial secrecy.

Michael to Jeff:

Well, sometimes the rules I “long” for (what a word!) are inherently corrupting and result in secrets being kept from the public. But sometimes, indeed more often, it’s just the opposite. Sometimes, only the protection of anonymity will ensure that a source with important information about powerful people comes forward. In this way, the public has learned about a million things, from the Pentagon Papers to the less alarmist intelligence assessments about Iraq before the war. You know that.

And very few journalists I know would favour “[hiding] anything from the public.” They would, however, favour not publishing something until it’s verified. That’s scarcely complicity in secret-keeping. That’s just being responsible. I’ll tell you what. Let’s go ask Alan Rusbridger the following: One of his reporters hears from one source (unwilling to go on the record) that David Cameron praised Oswald Mosley in a private talk. Should the Guardian publish on the basis of that alone? I’m guessing that Alan would prove himself to be “old-fashioned” on this point, and properly so.

But none of this has to do with what Fowler did. To recap: She got in the door because she donated money to Obama’s campaign. This is something no beat reporter would or could do. Then she was able to take advantage of that situation. She “showed veteran journalists” nothing, because “veteran journalists” would not have been allowed in that meeting! You write as if these “veteran journalists” would have heard Obama’s remarks and kept them secret. But the point is that veteran journalists would never have gotten through the door in the first place.

So fine; call them “witnesses” and drop the whole conceit that they’re journalists. And I’m glad you agree about listing witnesses’ donations. Will you take that message to Arianna Huffington and Jay Rosen [the co-sponsors of the Off The Bus citizen journalists' blog]?

Jeff to Michael:

Well, I think you’re mixing apples and kumquats into a bit of a rhetorical fruit salad. There’s quite a difference between hearing a tip from a whistleblower and recording a presidential candidate speaking at a forum. There’s also a difference between verifying such a tip with reporting – which we’ll all agree is necessary – and playing that tape-recording, which itself was the verification anyone needed. Obama’s words and voice spoke for themselves. So I don’t see the connection you make between keeping something off the record and verifying it; the former does nothing in the interest of the latter in this matter.

To make your hypothetical case consistent with the discussion at hand, if the witness who heard David Cameron praise Oswald Mosley put a video of it on YouTube for all to see, I imagine that you and the Guardian would deal with it at face value. You would, as reporters did in the Obama case, report further – you’d put an oyster around the pearl. But these witnesses are the ones who now start the story.

Now let me extend your hypothetical: let’s say that a reporter did get in the room with Obama and had made a pledge to keep it off the record. But a donor – any old donor, with or without a blog – had recorded the session (as Fowler says many did) and put that on YouTube. Does it now matter that there was a journalist there? Who is serving the public better? I say the journalist should be delighted that word got out and that demanding such off-the-record pledges is now fruitless.

This is a crucial element in a new architecture of news: when witnesses share what they see publicly we need to figure out how to integrate that into our journalism. It will become even more complicated when they share what they see live with their camera-phones, as technology allows today. Veteran journalists may be nowhere near that news – because, as journalists, they had not been allowed in the door or merely because they had not arrived yet – but they will depend on such reporting or witnessing, call it what you will. It will still add up to journalism in the end.

As for your challenge on disclosure, I’ve done more: I reveal my politics on my blog’s disclosure page, including my vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. I’ve blogged my expectation to see similar behaviour from bloggers and journalists alike. I went so far as to ask my readers recently whether, having revealed my preferences anyway, I should put my money where my mouth is and donate to Clinton’s campaign. Their view (like mine) was mixed. But it’s worth asking: if I’m going to be a citizen journalist, shouldn’t I act like a citizen?

Michael to Jeff:

You make a fair point in the bulk of your third and fourth paragraphs, but then you end, for me, on a false note. I suppose Fowler served the public interest in the sense that, sure, those remarks of Obama’s were revealing of something or other. But I still say it’s a little sneaky and sleazy to be a citizen for the purposes of making a donation, and then getting to be a journalist for the purposes of writing it up. There is a certain duplicity there, Jeff. Let citizens or witnesses videotape and audiotape to their hearts’ contents. But no, it doesn’t add up to journalism. It adds up to recording, or transcribing.

As I said in my original CiF column, I overwhelmingly embrace the blogosphere, and I like most of what I’ve read under the Off The Bus rubric. (I felt you didn’t acknowledge this in your original Buzzmachine post, which practically made it sound like I have a Linotype machine in my basement to which I pay secret ritualistic obeisance.) But I admit that I’m a little less persuaded that it’s such a great and necessary thing that we know every single word public people utter. People say dumb things and things they don’t really mean. They misspeak. Whether constant recording of such missteps, and the inevitable intense fixation on them, will over time serve the public interest and help voters make more “informed” decisions is not yet settled in my view.

That it will lead to more “gotcha!” moments on the campaign trail as candidates are caught saying naughty things isn’t a particularly stellar claim to make for the blogosphere, which actually does far more important work in the areas of media-monitoring and community-building. What I like about the blogosphere is that, at its best, it elevates the debate. Mainstream journalists would think I’m out of my mind to say that, but it’s true – there are, for example, all manner of policy experts with blogs who shed real light on substantive questions, or bloggers with the intellectual chops to make really interesting and important observations about something happening in the news. Or look at what FireDogLake did during the Scooter Libby trail, which was awesome. All those things are great. Catching pols putting their feet in their mouths may make news, but it’s not exactly why John Peter Zenger went to jail.

Jeff to Michael:

I don’t think this is really about bloggers. It’s almost coincidental that Fowler had a platform at Huffington Post. If she hadn’t, she’d still have found the way to tell her story, if only on YouTube. This weekend, at an open house for students at the City University of New York graduate school of journalism, where I teach, I spoke with a potential student who has been volunteering in the Clinton campaign and she has a great story to tell about the reaction she has gotten, as an African-American woman, from Obama volunteers. Now the fact that she’s a volunteer is not just something to be disclosed, it’s at the heart of the story. Hers is a great story that is revealing about the campaigns and, more so, the country and the times. I urged her to start writing and said she should pitch it to a magazine. Or better yet, wouldn’t the Guardian like to see it?

I think this discussion is balancing on what will add up to journalism and who all does that adding. I believe that coverage of stories and topics will, more and more, become molecules that attract all different sorts of atoms: a bit of reporting – and, yes, it’s reporting – from witnesses; reporters’ work adding balance, depth, vetting, answers to questions; editors packaging and adding links to background and source material; readers and bloggers adding – as you indeed point out – corrections and context; sources having the chance, at last, to respond in kind. Journalism becomes less of a product and more of a process. When I was at the Guardian a few weeks ago to talk about its new newsroom, this notion was at the centre of the discussion. What you’re really talking about, I think, is not rules but is a new organizing principle of journalism.

I’m glad that Fowler had her recorder and shared what she heard. That, I believe, is the seed for journalism and we in the business and in the society will benefit. And so, in the long run, will politicians, once they learn the benefits of living and working more transparently. Will we have silly gotcha moments? Sadly, yes. But sadly, we had those long before bloggers were born. Was what Fowler reported a gotcha moment or a revealing one? Well, that’s where our perspectives – and our transparency about them – come into play. I thought it was revealing, but I’m a Hillary voter and you’d be within your rights to judge what I say accordingly. You have been laudably open about your preference and so it’s right for you and your readers to wonder what impact that might have. This becomes one more ingredient in what it turning into a bigger and bigger pot of journalism stew.

Michael to Jeff:

Regarding your last paragraph, I already said that Fowler served the public interest. I think the quote was revealing of something; at the least, the fact that Obama has comparatively little direct experience dealing with and talking to white, rural working-class people and not enough familiarity with their way of life. So that’s a fair knock. It’s just that these things do get blown out of proportion, and it gets comical (or sometimes worse) watching millionaire pundits natter on about “elitism.”

I’ll just end where I started. I still say she came by the quote at best surreptitiously because she got in the door as a citizen (via her donation) and then became a journalist when that was handy, a contention you haven’t seriously refuted except to say (1) that’s the way it is these days, and (2) okay, then, let’s drop the word journalist from our description of Fowler et al and just call them witnesses. That’s my claim, and you haven’t said anything to dissuade me from sticking to it. On all this other meta stuff, we don’t especially disagree.

Thunderstruck

The amazing Gary Veynerchuk, the most digitally savvy retailer anywhere, has now parleyed his wine vlog into a wine book.

: LATER: Further testimony to the power of Gary’s vlog: The book is ranked 101 (yes, that’s kismet) on Amazon.

Guardian: The value of this blog

For my Guardian column this week, I put a price on my blog:

* * *

Some people think I’m nuts for blogging when I could be doing real work (as if writing newspaper columns were the only real work). They ask me how much money I make directly from my blog and the answer is: not much. But to me, the blog is worth a million dollars – or more – for it brings me value in many other ways. So I thought I’d give you an accounting of that worth.

Last year, Buzzmachine.com, which has been in business, loosely speaking, since 2001, made $9,315 (£4,655) from two blog ad networks, $1,866 from ads on my RSS feeds, and $2,674 from Google ads, for a total of $13,855. Though I’ve written many a blog post and column lamenting that there aren’t better, richer ad networks to support grassroots media, when I add that up, I’d say it’s not too shabby. Nonetheless, you’d still be forgiven for thinking I shouldn’t have quit my day job.

When I did quit that day job – as president of an online division of Condé Nast’s parent company, which I left in 2005 – I got my next job thanks to the blog. If I hadn’t been pontificating about the state of the news in the internet era, I wouldn’t have come to the attention of the City University of New York, which appointed me to the faculty of its journalism school – a job I love. But I must confess that my teaching post pays a fraction of my prior salary. So you may still think me a fool.

To make the money I don’t make teaching, I consult and speak for various media companies and brands. The only reason I get those gigs is because companies read the ideas I discuss at Buzzmachine and ask me to come and repeat them in PowerPoint form and explore them with their staff. I’ve also been asked to teach executives how to blog (a class that should, by rights, take about two minutes). That work and the teaching get me to a nice income in six figures. So I’m not looking quite as idiotic now, I hope.

It was also because of the blog that I got this column. The MediaGuardian editors asked me to take some of the topics I write about online and turn them into columns; the newspaper is an aftermarket for the blog. It pays a bit, a few hundred dollars a column, but that’s not why I do it. I enjoy the discipline of taking the lumpy clay of a blog post and moulding it into a column. I like discussing column ideas with my community before I write them. And I quite like having you readers as an audience. So please don’t tell my editors that I like doing this so much I would do it for free.

I just got a book contract because of a notion that began in the blog and that I kneaded over and over for about a year. As I write What Would Google Do?, I continue to explore ideas on my blog, helping me to think them through. The US contract roughly doubled my consulting income last year; international contracts may add more.

If I add all that up over the past five years and the five to come, to me the blog is worth a few million (dollars, not pounds, sadly). But it’s worth even more than that. Buzzmachine has taught me about the new architecture of media; I wouldn’t have learned that without jumping into the new world myself. The blog has stoked my ego, getting me on TV and on conference stages to blather to audiences far and wide.

It has also checked my ego, as my readers never hesitate to challenge and correct me. It has forced me to be more open to new ideas. It has given me a second career playing with new toys; professionally, it keeps me young. Personally, it has made me countless new friends and reconnected me with old ones, owing to a blog’s ability to give a person a strong identity in Google searches.

People ask how I have the time to blog on top of everything else. But the real question is, how could I not blog when it leads to so much more? Finally, for a proper accounting, I should also give you the other side of the ledger: the blog costs me $327 a year for hosting. So this is one web 2.0 venture that is profitable.

Hothouse blogs

Whenever anyone doubts the potential of the web to grow new journalistic enterprises, I point to PaidContent.org. Rafat Ali and his colleagues have built an incredible venture that hosts more tenacious reporting than most any news organization I know. I check it more than any other news source I depend upon. Now they announce a bunch of big appointments with big talent. It’s an impressive path of growth managed with cagey strategic care by Rafat.

The other great example of the web as journalistic hothouse that I always point to is Brian Stelter, boy-blogger at CableNewser and now New York Times scribe. I praised his story earlier today but didn’t realize until I picked up the print edition that he got great Page One play. This from a young man who wouldn’t have stood a chance getting hired by The Times before the blog era. And The Times wouldn’t have discovered his talent without his blog.

Who says blogs don’t improve journalism. There are no better proofs than these that they do.

HuffPress

I commend to you Eric Alterman’s New Yorker piece on the state of newspapers. It’s a very good casting of the state of newspapers as a business, a technology, and a player in society. It’s also the beginning of a discussion about the resurrected debate between Walter Lippman and John Dewey almost a century ago over the proper role of the press, objectivity, viewpoint, and discussion in a democracy. The piece doesn’t advance that discussion greatly but I wouldn’t expect it to, given the venue. What it does, instead, is advance The New Yorker’s view of media and the world well past that presented there by Nick Lemann (here was my response to Lemann at the time). Alterman’s is, I believe, a superior piece of magazine scholarship and I hope and presume it’s the start of a new book — with an extended conversation about the role of conversation first.

In the piece, Alterman also reports that the Huffington Post sees itself as the new newspaper. I wonder why that would be their ambition. I don’t mean that as a crack about newspapers or an obit. Instead, I think we need to redefine the players in the press sphere and their roles based on new realities. (I’m working on a post about that; have to make some drawings to illustrate it first.)

Related: See David Carr’s funeral dirge for newspapers from yesterday’s Times.

(Disclosure: Alterman — with whom I’ve had my share of blog sparring — is a CUNY colleague.)