Keller of The Times writes

Keller of The Times writes

: The other day, I wrote an open letter here to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, suggesting that we should get professional and citizen journalists, Timesmen and bloggers, together to find common ground. Mr. Keller responded.

Let me first confess that I’m late telling you about that response because, well, I’m lazy or busy (pick your excuse). I didn’t even respond to Mr. Keller for two days because I didn’t want to just dash off an email to the editor of the damned NY Times. He emailed me here and there wondering what had become of his response and my manners. So I apologize to him and you for not making it clear earlier that he responded promptly.

We had an enjoyable if sandy exchange of email. I said I would blog that we’d had that and wouldn’t say more yet because the exchange wasn’t over. He said I could blog as much of the emails as I wanted. He outdid me in the transparency derby and boy, am I embarrassed.

So here is Bill Keller’s email to me and mine back. Please turn on your [wit] and [satire] tags, folks, and don’t take Mr. Keller literally on everything he says; this is how newspaper folks talk to each other; it’s our way to be cool. In other words: Be nice. First, his response to me:

Dear Mr. Jarvis,

Thank you for your open letter. I admire the initiative you have shown in appointing yourself the representative of tens of thousands of bloggers in what you call “the citizens’ media.” (btw, why “citizens”? Isn’t that a little insensitive to stateless bloggers, or bloggers bearing only green cards? “People’s media” strikes me as more inclusive, and it has a pedigree. Just a thought.) I applaud your entrepreneurial spirit. When I was in high school, several classmates and I were assigned to represent Peru at a Model United Nations conference in Berkeley. One member of our delegation, who shared your gift for bold opportunism, proposed that when the gathering broke into committees to draft resolutions on the issues of the day each of us should walk to the head of our meeting room. Then we should casually take charge of organizing the selection of a committee chairman. Naturally, chutzpah was rewarded. We were all selected chairmen of our respective committees. Peru took over the United Nations. Well, it was only the MODEL United Nations, not a mighty engine of discourse like the blogosphere, but you take my point.

Sorry for the digression. A little case of blogorrhea.

Okay, enough Mr. Wise Guy. Mr. Jarvis, you and I have some things in common. We’re guys of the same generation who have spent most of our lives laboring in the MSM. We are both devoted to the cause of a well-informed citizenry. I suspect we both feel proud and humbled to play a part in that cause. We both understand that the media world is changing in profound and exciting ways — although you seem pretty convinced that you know where it ends up, while I’m not so certain of the trajectory. We should probably be on a first-name basis.

In your open letter you propose to lead a delegation from the citizen’s media to a kind of summit meeting with editors and reporters of The Times, where we would all “vent,” eat bagels, and then negotiate some kind of cooperation. I’m enthusiastically in favor of healthy dialogue among people engaged in a common pursuit. Jill Abramson’s presence at the recent blog conference in Cambridge demonstrates, I think, that I’m not the only one here who feels that way. At the same time, I’m not sure what you see as the possible fruit of a blog-Times meeting. Why would anyone who has the infinite audience of the Internet at his disposal want to vent for a select audience of MSM dinosaurs? And, in any case, what’s the point of negotiating a compact with an institution you — or at least your more theological brethren in the blogosphere — regard as irrelevant? And, finally, what, aside from a little creative friction, is wrong with the relationship we have? We can and do use blogs as a source of tips, course corrections, leads and insights without requiring a more formal collaboration along the lines you seem to be suggesting. In turn, our website is one of the, if not the, most linked news source for bloggers; we are a major supplier of news and conversation for the blog world, without anyone having to organize a meeting or negotiate a protocol. In other words, for all the talk of rendering us obsolete, and all your concern about MSM condescension (more perceived than real, I believe, but that’s easy for me to say), The Times and the blog world have an extremely robust relationship. Seriously, what does a meeting get either of us?

I’ll tell you what. Let’s dispense with the bagels and conference room (so Old Media) and organize a live chat on-line. I’ll take an hour off from my evil left-wing (or is it right-wing?) conspiracy to bamboozle the world, and we’ll swap thoughts. I’m bound to learn something.

Can I just state something for the record? While we probably have our differences on the role of the MSM (btw, I personally favor “elite media,” at least as it pertains to the NYT) I would like to make clear that I consider blogs relevant and important. I do not hold them in disdain, as you imply. I won’t risk embarrassing my favorite bloggers by identifying them (except to say that buzzmachine is bookmarked in my office and at home) but I find the best of them to be a source of provocative insights, first-hand witness, original analysis, rollicking argument and occasional revelation. As I’m sure you will agree, you can also find bloggers who are paranoid, propagandistic, unreliable, hate-filled, self-indulgent, self-important and humorless. (Just like people! See above, “people’s media.”)

I hope you will accept this in the same constructive spirit as your open letter. And if not, I hope you will have countless hours of fun fly-specking it for evidence of bad attitude and hidden agendas.

Best regards, Bill Keller

And here is my response, in turn:

Mr. Keller,

I apologize for the syncopated converation. I’ll blame the delay on the needless insanity that precedes vacations: Yes, even bloggers and online guys get busy; hell, every minute of every day is a deadline for us. I’ll also blame not wanting to dash off a reply to the editor of the NY Times.

I’ll digress…

My college Model UN team from Claremont (Len’s alma mater) was Romania. Exhibiting, as you put it, bold opportunism, I practically led a world takeover. Good thing (a) it was only the model UN and (b) I didn’t stay at Claremont with all the conservative poli sci majors and plot a real world takeover or at least an invasion of Iraq. I went into journalism instead.

I like the name “people’s media.” I briefly called it “populist media” but was quickly convinced, by Jay Rosen, that that brought along as much baggage as a Delta flight. Anything is better than “blog,” don’t you agree? And, by the way, it’s not just tens of thousands of bloggers; it’s 8 million bloggers (about half active) with 32 million readers, rapidly growing (says Pew). And that doesn’t count

As for “MSM,” I object to the view that established media is mainstream. You’re right — it’s elitist. It’s the blogs that are the mainstream. I prefer to call what we do in suits big media.

But I’ll stop digressing.

So let me begin by making this clear: I love The Times. I have funny stories about applying for a job there when I was a news nipper (one involving Sidney Schanberg, the other involving a family friend who spotted me in the newsroom and told me to get out before it was too late). I respect, admire, cherish, and yes, love The Times. It’s tough love, though. It’s creative friction, as you say. It’s about the conceit of thinking that the best can be even better.

So, yes, I go to The Times before any other news source and I’m sure I link to The Times more than any other source (including my employer’s). But in some recent stories (the story in question, Sarah Boxer’s on the Iraqi bloggers, and a few others), I have sniffed an air of disdain for bloggers. I am not saying that you yourself hold bloggers in disdain or that The Times does or that most reporters do; I’m saying that I have found it in certain quarters, exhibited in certain stories.

And my greatest hubris in this is not to represent bloggers but instead to think that I can defend bloggers to journalists and journalists to bloggers. You see, I’m not a world dominator. I’m something even harder to bear: a polyanna. I do earnestly believe — as someone who straddles both worlds: mediaman by day, blogboy by night — that we must work together to improve news, inform the public, and even save journalism. It’s about changing the relationship of news to the public — getting past the idea that news is done and fishwrap when we’re done with it and realizing that publishing is the start of the conversation, for that is when the public corrects us and adds information and perspective we did not have. It’s about extending the newsroom in ways we cannot afford to do, as our revenue shrinks. It’s about recapturing credibility, respect, and humanity for journalism. It’s about changing news together (and, no, I don’t know where this trajectory takes us, but we both certainly know it’s not going to stay the same). When bloggers hold journalists in disdain, I scold them and remind them that they would be nothing without reporters; they are not Danny Pearl, sacrificing his life to find the truth, and they are not the Wall Street Journal, supporting him in that quest. And when reporters disdain bloggers, I remind them that they are dismissing the public they seek to serve.

I wrote up a proposal for a (pardon me) Citizens’ Media Center and damned near got funding for it…. The goal is to teach journalism students how to recast their relationship with the public via this medium, to teach bloggers the skills and standards of professional journalism, and to teach big media how to interact with the public in new ways via this medium. One of the deliverables (as I’m told one says in grant proposals) is to bring together bloggers and reporters — that is, citizen journalists and professional journalists — to build understanding, to show that we’re not enemies, to demonstrate that we share a common goal to inform the public, and to demonstrate that we can better do that together.

(I warned you that I’m harder to take than a world dominator. I’d far rather have a drink with Donald Rumsfeld than Dr. Phil, wouldn’t you? But I fear that right now I sound like Dr. Phil and that frightens and horrifies me.)

That is the basis of the open letter to you. I knew that bloggers would object to that story in The Times, as I did. But I decided to try a positive spin, to argue that we have to get past these misunderstandings and find common ground and agenda. I also knew how powerful it was for Len [Apcar, editor of] to come to Bloggercon and for Jill [Abramson, Times managing editor] to come to the Harvard confab. These events were exercises in bridge-building (even if over the River Kwai). And so, I believed that the best response to the latest Times blog story was not to load the snark gun but, instead, to play the Coke commercial.

Why get together? Why not? We’re journalists. We’re curious. And the editorial “we” in this case refers both to professionals and bloggers. The more contact there is right now, the more conversation, the more understanding, the better. It’s not about writing a compact; it’s about talking eye-to-eye. But that’s me: a representative of the MODEL UN.

I’ll accept any invitation you offer. I’d be honored to.

But I think this isn’t about me. I’m already MSM (hell, I worked for People and EW and TV Guide… I’m all too MS). I already fancy myself a citizen journalist, too. I’d suggest that this isn’t about you, either. It’s about the rank and file of both worlds understanding that they’re colleagues, not enemies (as I fear each is too often portraying the other). If that quest is full of crap, then fine: nothing ventured, nothing lost. But if there’s benefit in some smart folks who care about the same things from different vantage points having a bagel or coffee or cabernet or chat together, then I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

So I’ll obnoxiously throw the potato back in your lap: Want to do a chat? Great; count me in. Want me to propose a more representative blogger or bloggers to do it? Eager to help. Want to break bagel together? Wonderful. You name it.

My goal is to get bloggers off their disdain for The Times as the poster parent for mainstream media and to get Times reporters, as the role models for all others, to get past their isolated though still sometimes evident disdain for bloggers.Or maybe I should just butt out and let nature take its course.

And, yes, Bill, I’d be honored to be on first-name basis.


– jeff

Speaking of letters to and from The Times…

: Dan Okrent today wrestles with questions about letters to the editor at a paper. And I’ll once again have the hubris to suggest a few solutions.

I rarely read letters to the editor because I find them so leached of opinion, humanity, blood, and context that they’re boring. I do read them in British papers, which often celebrate the scuffle, and local papers, where I can sense the humanity behind them.

Okrent says The Times damned near has a policy against publishing letters that attack the paper. When you think about that, it’s amazing. The column should be called Letters The Editor Picked.

The letters department receives 1,000 messages every day, and publishes 15. Beyond that, many of the paper’s readers find certain practices and policies regarding letters either dumbfounding or objectionable. Chief among these is the paper’s general hesitance to publish letters that make accusations against The Times, criticize writers or editors, or otherwise call into question the newspaper’s fairness, news judgment or professional practices.

Dan has some suggestions. He suggests putting letters about stories with those stories (though that becomes useless once those stories shift to a paid archive, eh?). He suggests moving letters in the paper up into the sections to which they pertain; agreed. He also wants to see the letters reporters write to readers so they are not squandered on an audience of one.

Of course, I’ll suggest that weblogs are a better solution and I’ve made these suggestions to other media execs who’ve asked:

: Next to every story, list the links to that story (via Technorati, PubSub, and trackbacks). Of course, that’s frightening to an editor; it so uncontrollable. But it’s happening anyway: When Okrent wrote his first column, I sent him its Technorati Cosmos with a note that said, “Your reviews are in” (and he loved it). People are looking up the links anyway. I’m sure there’ll soon be plug-ins for browsers and RSS readers letting you see all the links to the thing you’re reading. It’s obvious that these are external; the paper didn’t write the blog posts. So why shouldn’t the paper enable the conversation? Of course, this works best when every story — in newspapers and from TV and radio — has a permalink.

: If reporters and editors wrote blogs themselves and engaged in the conversation there, editors seem to fear that the talk will be about them, not about the stories. I’ve argued with editors that the opposite will happen, for the audience will no longer be speculating what the person thinks; they’ll know and then they can go on to discuss substance. This serves to advance stories. This also serves to solve Okrent’s problem: A letter written to an audience of one is not an efficient means of publishing.

: Why not start a forum for corrections to stories? Well, I can answer that question: Because it might well devolve into the Viotriol Corner. Papers will want to control that to the extent that they weed out attacks for attacks sake rather than arguments for substance’s sake. OK, then edit it still, but don’t be constrained by the space on an editorial page: Put up all the letters and emails and posts that pass the simplest test of civility. We believe that more information is better than less, right?

: They could even encourage the conversation by adding a “Blog This” button to stories.

: And I just saw that Rebecca MacKinnon has similar ideas.


: On the email exchange above, Hoots says:

Jarvis posts both billet-douxs this morning so we can see how high-profile people compete to out-casual one another, without giving an inch when engaging in a polite power struggle. (Takes a bit of reading between the lines and drawing unsupported inferences to work that out, but the emails can be read at several levels.

And Tom Watson says:

New York Times editor Bill Keller fisks Jeff Jarvis big-time (and with some style and humor) and Jeff – to his infinite credit – reports the entire thing.

Oh, I wouldn’t call that a fisking. I’d call that amiable tweaking and I liked it. You should see the emails that go back and forth between me and one of my mentors in the business, Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse; we all think we’re writing emails at the Round Table.