Online Schmooze Association

Online Schmooze Association
: I got a call yesterday from the executive director of the Online News Association, Dianne Lynch, who bravely walked into the lion’s den (and stuck her head into the cursing lion’s mouth) regarding my pissy complaint about their invitation to speak at a conference panel, for it came with a bill to pay for admission to said conference. I vented. She explained. No change. But I give her credit for facing the beast and being very nice about it. She didn’t create the policy; a committee did (of course). It’s still a brain-dead policy.

But it’s brain-dead for a far more important reason than the immediately obvious (that is, because it’s rude and greedy to ask people a favor and then charge them for it).

No, here’s why it’s really brain-dead; here’s the bigger problem for this organization and the industry it wants to represent…

: In a word, the problem is insularity.

As it turns out, the the reason the committee decided to charge panelists to register is that most of the panelists are also members of the organization who otherwise would come to the confererence and otherwise pay (and they didn’t want to give up that revenue).

But don’t you what that really means? It means that you’re just talking to each other, mirror to mirror, online newsperson to online newsperson.

In my phone call with Ms. Lynch, I said that what makes these industry organizations worthless to me — the reason I have maintained a hermit’s distance from them — is that they are usually just newspaper people talking to newspaper people. And that may be fine for newspapers (that’s for them to judge) but it’s not for this new medium.

What an “Online News Association” should be doing is expanding its worldview to incorporate and learn from new definitions of news and new challenges to old views of how news is gathered and how it is used. Journalism schools should be doing that (that’s why I praised NYU for its blogging). Industry groups should be doing that. Because they’re the ones with the time to think.

If they want to talk about blogs, this group should have invited the most opinionated and curmudgeonly, the least-old-school-journalistic, the most hostile-to-media bloggers they can find. Now that would be enlightening.

And they should have bloggers on their board.

And they should be redefining what news is and should be and can be now that we have all these great new online resources for information and perspective and witness.

But instead, it’s just (online) newspaper people talking to (online) newspaper people.

: And then I read their mission statement, including this:

EDITORIAL INTEGRITY: The unique permeability of Web publications allows for the linking and joining of information resources of all kinds as intimately as if they were published by a single organization.

Stop. Quick, somebody pass me a Strunk & White. Can anybody translate that mishmosh into English, please? Ah, authorship by committee. I kept going:

Responsible journalism on the Internet means that the distinction between news and other information must always be clear, so that individuals can readily distinguish independent editorial information from paid promotional information and other non-news.

Stop. The line between “news” and “non-news” is hardly drawn with a straight-edge anymore, folks; that’s just wishful thinking, it’s old-school thinking. Is the New York Times news when Jayson Blair writes it? Nope (a cheap shot, I admit). Are The Star and The Enquirer news even though they’re tabloids? More and more, yes. Is the Today show news when it’s flacking for Dr. Phil’s new diet fllimflam? God, no! Is FoxNews news? Absolutely. Is a weblog news even though it may not be written by a professional and may include opinion? If it’s reporting something worthwhile, of course. Is a forum post that reports the scores from last night’s Little League game news? To its audience, you bet it is. Is a picture taken at a news event by a witness news? Yup.

News — and the definition of news — are no longer owned by the newsmen.

: On the one hand, the real impact of linking is that news becomes more and more of a commodity. Everybody can know as soon as anybody knows it when an event has occurred or someone has said something; we can all look at the source; we can all link to it. Today, everybody has news.

And everybody can publish. The reason I relish this little tiff with the Online News Association is that it is a great object lesson; it shows that the audience has power now; the audience is a publisher, too. In olden days, when a reader had a complaint with a news organization, he or she should send a letter to the editor and that was that. Now, the reader can go on the web and tell the world, as I did (kicking up a little dust in the committee, I hear). The power shifts. The audience owns this medium; the publisher doesn’t.

So what’s the role of an online news organization? Well, that requires more discussion than a mission statement about upholding principles of news would indicate.

: But look at this another way: This explosion of weblogs and forums and moblogs and all that means that there is an explosion of information and perspective from new sources — from the audience itself. That is valuable. So the question should be: How can we jump on that bandwagon? And that doesn’t mean just adding weblogs to news sites. It means embracing the weblogs that already exist, out there.

It’s an all-the-more-vital question these days, as the Internet proves to be a disruptive technology to the business side of our news business (there are lots more places to advertise now; there are lots more ways to communicate with a constituency; there are lots more ways to sell things and that has an impact on retail, which has an impact on advertising). We need to find new ways to get information to our audience. Weblogs can help. OK, so they are not the product of trained journalists who have signed the blood oath of the professional pledge. Fine. The audience is smart about that. But they have valuable information we cannot possibly afford to gather and information is good. So maybe we should stop calling it news — just for this discussion — and instead look at all the new ways that information can be gathered and spread. That’s going to happen with or without us. So let’s ask how it can happen with us.

: Mark Glaser at OJR asked me about news sites linking out to other sites on the Internet, including even competitors, and I said I was all for it. I hope he won’t mind my obnoxiously quoting myself and the fuller reply I gave him (and if he does, well, I’m still pissed at him for not considering me an online pioneer; this week is my ninth anniversary at doing this full-time and my beard is [prematurely] gray; if that doesn’t make me a grandpa in this business, what does?). Anyway, here’s what I said:

We have all learned lessons from weblogs that should apply to news sites.

First, the web is more about packaging content than creating original content and weblogs do a great job of packaging; they find the best of the web and save readers the trouble of having to find it themselves. News sites can and should provide a similar service.

Second, weblogs piggyback on the content of others; they do not create — and cannot create — the best content but instead, they find the best content and they get credit for linking to it. News sites would be wise to do the same; if someone else creates a great package and news sites point to it, they have helped their readers and get credit for that.

Third, we have learned that when we link to others, they tend to link back to us. What goes around, comes around.

In a time of new economics for news, these are also important business lessons. If we can learn from weblogs and use links wisely to provide the fullest content and service while also saving money, then everybody wins.

We need to have faith in the ability of the audience to discern the credibility of sites to which we link. If we link to an established news site, then, clearly, there is no issue of credibility. If we link to a source site (e.g., government), then the audience understands what they are seeing. If we link to the site of a witness to news (such as Salam Pax’ site or the many Iranian weblogs), the audience will find a new perspective but will also understand that this is a limited perspective. If we link to an opinion site, the audience understands that. The audience is smart and we should give them credit for understanding what they are seeing; links are not endorsements and the audience understands that.

: Sorry for the long screed, but this is what comes from a week’s worth of stewing over the Online News Association.

News is being redefined and that is a good thing. We need to embrace that as we embrace and respect our audience. We need to find new ways to serve that audience. We first need to find new ways to listen to that audience. We shouldn’t just be talking to each other.