Meeting of the minds

Meeting of the minds

: Just last week I finally got to meet Jay Rosen, head of the journalism department at NYU, patron saint of blogging with his students, and now a blogger himself with PressThink. We met over blogs, then over lunch. And we found journalist kismet because we both have aggressive respect for the audience and its power and potential in both media and politics. Jay comes at this via civic journalism; I come at it from pop cultural criticism and the web; we landed at the same public square.

So Jay thought it would be fun to interview each other via email — call it a New York interview, for every question was met with a question. We’ve each posted the results of Part I:

Rosen: In your career as a writer and editor and journalist, pre-Web, did you ever think about empowering the audience? Indeed, did you think deeply, searchingly about the audience at all? And in your Net life, when did it occur to you that the people “out there” are gaining power relative to the journalist?

Jarvis: I’ve always liked the mass audience but I didn’t come to fully respect them until I became a TV critic and found that I was defending their taste and intelligence as I defended the shows they — no, we — liked to watch. Even so, I still didn’t much want to talk to the audience (their letters often came in Crayon script) until I went online. That is what made me a rabid populist. The Internet is the first medium to give its audience a voice. And when I started to listen, I was amazed. In forums, users have compelling opinions; they share news and information; they are eager to help each other. In weblogs, they put their names behind what they write and their links bring the cream to the top. So now the audience has a printing press — history’s easiest publishing tool connected to history’s best distribution network — and the power that goes with it. They are using this to influence and judge media (reporters now read and quote them), government (there’s a reason Howard Dean is blogging), and each other. I believe that audience content is the most important, the most revolutionary development in media since broadcast. The foolish journalist will dismiss it; the wise one will embrace it.

Rosen: Now the audience has a printing press is a good way to put it. But my guess is that you thought you were in touch with the audience before the Net started changing things around, that you had a feel, kinda knew what people wanted, etc. This tells us that in journalism what counts as knowledge of the people “out there” reflects available technology for reaching those people — and for being reached by them. But equally critical is the available vocabulary for picturing those people, the words we use for them. I note that even you, Jeff, the populist, used the term “mass audience” in talking about earlier eras in your editorial life. It’s an accurate way of putting the attitudes that reigned then. But today online, the image of “masses” out there has gone into anti-existence; it’s melting away. Why? Because now the audience has a printing press.

Jarvis: Busted. You’re right: “mass audience” is essentially a “we-they” way to see this when it should be all “we” But then, “audience” and “populist” carry their own baggage of disconnection. So what do we call this new relationship? That’s for the next Q&A exchange, First, let me ask you: What is the impact of audience content on journalism education? If the audience can report, write commentary, and exhibit their news judgment (via their links), does that diminish the priesthood of the journalist? Or is there a greater need to set standards and to learn fundamental skills (and which skills are they)?

Rosen: Well, it makes me wonder about J-schools: who needs them? Who else, I mean. I know the proprietor of a business called DVDojo on the Bowery in New York. He’s Michael Rosenblum, who preaches the citizen revolution in TV and also makes it happen. Digital cameras and cheap, desktop editing systems have come within reach. Rosenblum attracts paying customers to workshops on how to shoot, edit, and prepare video documentaries, and he varies the course depth: four weeks, one week, just a weekend. He may be creating a new public for journalism education, the extension of our teaching to other audiences. Once people start acquiring knowledge of how to shoot, catalogue, and edit a piece of video, some are going to stumble into doing basic journalism, and we in the J-schools of America are supposed to know how to teach basic journalism. I don’t know what this all means yet, (we may stumble) but Rosenblum teaches courses for us, so we’ll be able to find out. Is the press priesthood diminished when audience empowerment gets in gear? I would say no, not diminished or demolished, but the terms of its authority are changing, as I argued in CJR this month. By the way, were you ever part of the priesthood of journalism? And what do you think it happening to it?

Jarvis: The danger is thinking you are in a priesthood. As more and more people learn how to do this — or simply how it’s done — the only thing that will separate the media priests from the commoners will be their collars — that is, the press passes around their necks that give them access everyone can’t have. But I’ll bet we’ll see more bloggers on campaign busses and at the conventions. But more important, we’ll see bloggers covering town meetings newspapers can’t afford to cover. And that will be good. More information is good. Isn’t that what we believe? Will they be better bloggers — and their audiences better served — if we can teach them some of the skills and tricks of our trade? I think so. But that’s a bigger topic; that’s worth lunch. Last question today: How do you think the priests of high media should relate to weblogs? Should they just read them or do them and why?

Rosen: I never tell the priests of high media what they should do. They get grouchy if you try that. In fact, one of them just said so this week, Jack Shafer in Slate: “The journalistic priesthood abhors advice.” What a grouch. But I can tell you what my hopes are. I would hope they would keep a careful eye on this experiment in journalism that keeps happening online, and learn something from it. Elite journalism is very much needed in this country. After all, it’s a country with an elite. It’s not clear (yet) how the New York Times should deal with the weblog form, and I would not expect a rapid plunge. But this week, the Los Angeles Times had cause to report that it currently has no weblogs, in an article about the Sacramento Bee, which does. I found that intriguing… for the priesthood.