Posts about Weblogs

Meanwhile, back in Jersey

Compare and contrast this with the Cleveland kerfuffle (in which a blogger who contributed to a campaign was called unethical and the blog was killed, below):

At the Star-Ledger’s version of Comment is Free/Huffington Post, NJVoices, Gov. Jon Corzine’s former girlfriend, Carla Katz, a union official, went on the attack against a Ledger reporter who has been dogging her.

Editor & Publisher, sadly, is confused about the paper having Katz blog: “So it seemed at least a bit odd when The Star-Ledger of Newark, the state’s largest newspaper, gave Katz a blog this past summer as part of its new NJ Voices program, which offers blog space to non-newspaper people.” I don’t see anything odd about it at all. Isn’t this somebody you’d want to hear from? Isn’t it the paper’s job to find a way to have her be heard? Isn’t the blog a new opportunity to do that? Doesn’t this break open the closed control of the presses? And what the hell, it’s fun when something erupts:

:But last Friday, the blog burst forth with controversy when Katz took on Star-Ledger reporter Josh Margolin, one of the paper’s top statehouse scribes. She wrote that he was “downright obsessed” with covering her and attacked him for stories such as his recent article about dissident union leaders filing charge to have Katz ousted for allegedly misappropriating funds.

“…no other union leader’s or union’s internal local drama (and trust me, we all have internal drama) gets consistently and continuously plastered across the pages of the Ledger, almost all with Josh’s byline,” Katz wrote. “It is more than slightly disconcerting to see the comparatively normal internal drama of our local covered in the paper with the same intensity of the Yankees recent quest for a new manager.”

Katz eventually asked readers to send her stories about Margolin, who was among the reporters honored in 2005 when the paper received a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of former governor James McGreevey’s resignation.

“So, I was thinking that if the Ledger is going to write soooooo much about me and the Local that I should even the playing field and, well, write about Josh. The Josh chronicles,” she stated. “So folks, send me your best Josh Margolin stories. I’ll keep them anonymous unless they are Pulitzer material. And I promise, I won’t hold a grudge.”

Margolin told E&P he has no problem with Katz having a blog or criticizing him: “Once anyone is given the space to blog, the call is clear, they have the right to say what they want to say.”

Star-Ledger Editor Jim Willse said he had invited Katz to blog on the site because “she has opinions about a range of matters just as her fellow bloggers do that are of interest.” He said the Margolin posting was not edited, although he expressed it made him “a little uncomfortable.”

“It is a bit of uncharted territory,” he admitted. “But if you are going to invite someone to write commentary on a blog, you have to let nature take its course.”

Compare that with the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s attitude toward an open conversation, quoting their ombudsman, Ted Diadiun: “This is a story about how The Plain Dealer got itself spattered by some primordial ooze last week.” Bloggers being the ooze. They see this as a story of control: “[Political blog] Wide Open debuted in September, and [Plain Dealer online editor] Dubail sat back to watch the fun. For his trouble, he wound up being called a “moron” in his own brainchild the second day out, when one of his bloggers linked to an unflattering story about the paper that had been in one of the city’s alternative weeklies. But in general, the blog did what he wanted it to do.” He concludes:

But that’s the way things work in the blog world: “Yellow Dog Sammy” [the blogger ejected for contributing to a candidate] rejects the ingrained ethics of the newspaper world, preferring to read editors’ minds and create his own reality. Other bloggers pick that up and repeat it as gospel, and suddenly we begin getting questions from all over the country about why we’re letting Steve LaTourette run the newspaper.

No, that’s the newspaper imposing its view on the public, calling bloggers unethical and refusing to acknowledge their ethics of involvement and transparency. The paper’s refusing to learn anything new, to see other worldviews. Primordial ooze, indeed.

(Full disclosure: I worked with both papers as president of Advance.net and still consult for the Ledger , where I pushed the start of NJVoices.)

Off with their headlines

The Cleveland Plain Dealer didn’t know what it got when it hired four local political bloggers to collaborate on a group blog at Cleveland.com (which I oversaw when I was at the parent company). They got citizens with opinions. You’d think that would be obvious. In fact, you’d think that was the goal.

But apparently not, for when one liberal bloggers was found to have backed and contributed to a candidate, he was fired. Then the other liberal quit. Then the paper shut the blog. E&P has the story. Here’s the explanation from the paper’s assistant managing editor for online, Jean Dubail:

As most readers are no doubt aware already, Jeff Coryell is no longer blogging on Wide Open. The reason is simple: When we learned that he had contributed to a particular political candidate, we asked that he refrain from writing about that candidate and his opponent on this blog. Our concern was that since Jeff and the other Wide Open bloggers are paid, his views might be taken as those of the paper, which could raise legitimate questions about our fairness. Jeff was uncomfortable with that restriction, so we felt obligated to end our relationship. It goes without saying that Jeff did nothing wrong. His contributions to Wide Open were first-rate. But clearly I should have anticipated this potential difficulty when we set up the blog, and avoided putting him and us in this position. In that sense, the fault is mine.

Well, indeed. The logic of all this is baffling. The paper knew it was hiring opinionated people. But it didn’t want involved people. That is a “difficulty.”

What we’re really seeing is the view of journalism from inside the cloister of the newspaper: Once you take a dollar from the paper, once you take its communion, you are transformed: You take a vow of political celibacy. You have no opinions and if you do, you hold them to yourself, like impure thoughts. You don’t participate in your community but stand apart from it. And you don’t mingle with those outside the walls who speak the vulgate, blog. So the priests of the paper said that the bloggers were sinners. And they were excommunicated.

Perhaps, having heard Luther’s tap-tapping at the door, the paper would have been wiser to reexamine its own assumptions about its world. Perhaps it should have had a discussion about discussion. Wasn’t there value in bringing in the voices of active, opinionated, caring citizens? Wasn’t that why they did it? Wasn’t the transparency and involvement of these people worth examining and perhaps learning from?

Apparently not.

Here’s a telling line from Dubail’s pronouncement on the blogo closing the blog (pinned with Luther’s nail):

We still believe that newspaper and newspaper Web sites need to engage the new media. Our first effort in that direction obviously didn’t fare well, but it would have been a still greater mistake not to make the attempt.

They think this is “new media.” And they think that’s something they need to try. (I would have hoped they’d have come to that conclusion about 12 years ago.) Of course, it’s not just new media. This should be a new relationship. It should be about discovering and joining in a conversation. I saw another sign of this at the BBC the other day when staffers kept fretting about filling a blog, as if it were a show rundown or a blank page. I told them to stop looking it that way and instead to take the advice I’m giving my students: Find the conversation. Join in. Contribute to it — indeed, contribute journalism, answering questions, finding facts, fact-checking the ones that are there. But to do that — beware — you have to talk at a human level with other humans with opinions (who don’t want to talk to a closed door).

So perhaps what the paper should be doing is not trying to impose its definition of “journalist” on any who receive its dollar but instead rethink that definition themselves.

: See also this post from a year ago contemplating this from the other perspective: what’s the line (if any) between activism and media?

Beeblogs

After starting yesterday with great conversations at Sky News, I traveled more than an hour on three trains to get to the BBC. It’s as if they tried to find locations that would put them as far apart as possible.

Robin Hamman invited me to be part of a session on blogs with BBC staff and it started off with Hemma Kocher of Headshift sharing lessons from a study of the Beeb’s blogs. The numbers aren’t final, so I won’t share them. But I was fascinated with what they studied: how many posts — and how many per blogger — on how many blogs at what average length with how many comments and how many links to BBC sites and to the world outside.

: At the end, Richard Sambrook — who may just be the highest ranked journalistic blogger, as measured by both size and title — talked about his blog:

Closing the day, I mentioned a colleague who loftily declared that anyone who blogs is merely engaged in an act of narcissism. Some truth in that of course. But it overlooks some more interesting reasons.

There’s no better way to understand the huge changes sweeping the media than getting your hands dirty online. It’s fallen to us to reinvent the industry and we won’t do it with heads in either the sand or the clouds…

Haunted blogs

Siobhain Butterworth, the Guardian’s readers’ editor (read: ombudsman), examines the expectation of blog readers not to be spoken to by ghost writers, contrasting this with newspaper readers, who, she says, understand that pieces by pols and sometimes witnesses are often known to be ghostwritten. She quotes me and here’s what I emailed to her:

I don’t define blogs as content. I prefer to define blogs as people in conversation. The link is what enables that conversation. The link connects people and what they have to say. So a blog is presumed to have a blogger behind it: a person, a human voice. Granted, many of those people are hidden behind anonymity or pseudonymity. But they are still people. So when we find out that the person we are talking with behind the curtain is not a person but a PR agent or committee, it immediately robs the conversation of credibility and trust. It makes a lie of the dialogue. It is an attempt to game us, to defraud us.

It is the belief of many of my friends in the blogosphere that what sets it apart is precisely that we are hearing authentic human voices and not ghost- and flack-writen spin and that we have the opportunity to converse with these people. The internet, after all, is a conversation.

I do think there’s a desire to put the ghost writer out of business. And I’ve done my ghostwriting myself. I wrote others’ first-person stories in magazines (as the “as told to” cloak) and every time I’m stuck writing a press release (something else that should be put out of business) I’ve had to make up quotes for folks. We may all know that this happens but it doesn’t mean we like it. And I do think blogs are a reaction to that false voice.

The problem with newspaper blogs is . . .

. . . they are on newspaper sites.

I’ve come to argue that newspapers should not be big brands but big collections of brands.

If I develop a relationship with a blog, I don’t go searching for it through the many layers of an adventure game that is newspaper-site navigation. I don’t treat a newspaper as a portal to my blog relationships. I don’t recommend a brand and address that has too many dots and too many slashes in it. I mostly find posts via links from trusted peers or through RSS subscriptions. Blogs spread not because they reside on huge sites but because they have relationships with people, because the are viral. And the way to be viral is to live at the same level as other linkers: blog to blog, brand to brand, person to person.

So I think that if newspapers are going to blog, they should have lots of blogs at lots of addresses, lots of people creating lots of brands. And this also means that they must be written in the human voice of the person, not the cold voice of the institution. And, while we’re at it, this means that they must join in and link to other conversations; that is they only way they will spread and grow, not because they live six clicks deep into a giant newspaper site. We are seeing the links and the voice. But the architecture remains a problem.

Choire Sicha at Gawker, a man who knows his blogs, highlights the problem at newspapers as he points to their ghettoization into blog sections, as if we come in thinking, ‘hmmh, I feel like some blogs today — a little sports, then some gossip and maybe some politics too,’ as if we are really at a Mongolian barbecue saying, ‘I have a hankering for some chicken and pork and sprouts and put that sweet sauce on it, please.’ It only highlights the broken nature of the newspaper navigation and the portal. Well, Choire would argue, I think, that it’s not broken: We still come to a newspaper and newspaper site wanting to get sports and business. But we don’t come wanting blogs. We either will or won’t build a direct relationship with those blogs and to do so we need to get to them directly.

Architecturally, this returns to the idea that news sites shouldn’t be sites at all but larger, looser networks and not just of stuff they make but also — who can afford to make it all — stuff others make. It also points to the problem of presuming that sites can and should still consider themselves destinations; this, I argued, is one of the lessons of the death of Timesselect.

Now having said all this, I am happy to see that newspaper bloggers are understanding the need for a new voice and a new relationship with others. Simon Dumenco at Ad Age pointed this out in a column that is now behind a pay wall (Hey, Ad Age, can’t you learn a lesson from the Times on this?). One of the best examples of the new newspaper blog voice is Saul Hansell at the Times’ Bits blog. He gets personal and opinionated and is certainly breezier than his print persona and he also makes artistic use of the link to bloggers’ conversations and competitors’ news.

I’m also happy to see that the Times doesn’t think it has to produce all this bloggy goodness itself; that’s why it made a deal with Freakonomics. But the mistake, I’ve argued, was bringing Freakonomics into the Times’ site and navigation. I think that instead, it should have made it part of a larger Times network of content and ads. I should add that Prezvid, my other blog, was brought into syndication deals with the Washington Post and now CBSNews.com. This slurping-up of the content occurred for another reason (media lawyers’ fear of the copyright questions raised by news video on YouTube). And may be the idea that Prezvid’s posts can exist in four or five places is just a preview of a more distributed architecture for blogs themselves.

Still, I think Choire has important advice for newspapers. The blogs may be getting more plentiful and they are getting better. But now they’re ready to move out of the house and find homes of their own.

She’s baaaack. Bravo

Joan Rivers is back covering the red carpet, but this time for her own site: Emmys with Joan. It starts Sunday at 5p. Who needs a network when you have a blog? She and Melissa will be home live-blogging, live-vlogging, and all that, giving us the alternate soundtrack the awards show scene needs. No holds barred, my friend Fred Graver promises. She’s already blogging and its’ funny:

Hello, my darlings! Joan Rivers here, blogging for the first time in my short adult life.

I know what you’re thinking. “Why is Joan Rivers blogging?” Good question. My doctor told me blogging was what happened after eating too many bananas. But blogging is so much more — it’s sitting alone in a dark room, eating raw cookie dough out of the package while my dogs lick my bare feet, and wondering where my life has gone. Melissa, my daughter, love her to death, but the bitch never calls unless I threaten to update my will.

A game of wack-a-curmudgeon

Sometime ago, I tried to swear off commenting on linkbait that attacked either blogs or mainstream media. It’s just so tiring. Everything has been said. I feel the same way counteracting arguments against evolution, free speech, and television. I assume you do as well and so I don’t bother with the blog-v-MSM pissing matches. At the conference on networked journalism I’m holding at CUNY on Oct. 10, I’m thinking of having a gong on stage to bang if anyone even starts to head down that road. Enough already. Can we move on? Please?

So I was surprised when Jay Rosen bothered to snap back at Michael Skube’s contrarian-come-lately attack on blogs in the LA Times, just another in the apparently endless series of such screeds that pop up on op-ed pages like worms in the rain. In what was surely Jay’s shortest post ever, he told Skube to just retire: “I’m serious. You’re an embarrassment to my profession, to the university where you teach, and to the craft of reporting you claim to defend. It is time for you to quit, as you’ve clearly called it quits on learning– and reporting.” Here, here. That’s that.

But I should have figured that Jay was up to something bigger; he always is. He then turned around and asked his crowd to help him refute Skube and his crowd (once and for all, one would hope) with examples of these damned bloggers doing what Skube did not do: report. This then yielded a stirring and well-documented defense of bloggers’ journalism — beyond Trent Lott — as part of the Times’ lame new Blowback feature (a very controlling effort to add just a little bit of interactivity to its content, instead of just opening up to the discussion that is already happening all around them — see the post below). Jay ends:

No one owns the practice of reporting or assigns the right to do it. It’s a democratic thing to tell others what’s going on and “show your work.” Some people will not be deterred from doing that. Most of them don’t care what you call them. They do care if their story stands up.

I’ve said it before and I hope we can stop saying it soon, but this is not a matter of ‘or’ but ‘and': Rather than one tribe of reporters attacking the other, we can and should be working together to report more than ever.

Maybe if we just ignore the linkbaiters they will, like bullies, skulk away. Or maybe they’ll write books and we’ll be dumb enough to debate them and give them more attention. I prefer to just walk away from this game of Wack-a-mole now. I’ll consider Jay’s piece the definitive response to the professional curmudgeons and urge the rest of us to just move on and do something constructive. Like report.

Class dismissed

Neil McIntosh has damned good advice for journalism students, following up on a report about the state of j-schools and technology, below:

Again, for those at the back: if you think you want to be a journalist, I now don’t think there’s any excuse not to have a blog. The closer you get to looking around for jobs, the better it should be maintained. If you enter the jobs market without one, no matter how good your degree, you’re increasingly likely to lose out to people who better present all they can do, and have the experience of creating and curating their own site.