Posts from June 15, 2005

Is real estate real?

Is real estate real?

: Over at On The Media, Bob Garfield interviewed Daniel Gross about the purported real-state bubble. I have two quibbles:

First, Gross says (and Romenesko quotes) that real-estate editors won’t say bad things about real estate as if this is new:

Garfield: … At the risk of tossing you a softball, Dan, gee, why aren’t these stories on the real estate pages?

GROSS: Whether it’s subconscious or conscious on the part of the editors who run those sections, it doesn’t behoove you to speak ill of the product that your section is there to sell….

Uh, except, guys, in most newspapers the real estate “editor” isn’t an editor at all. Most real-estate sections — like most jobs and autos sections — are pure advertising sections not run by the newsroom or the paper’s editor and the content them is bought fluff. One can argue whether that’s right or wrong…. and come to a conclusion about the time print classifieds die anyway.

Second, in a show in which Garfield talks abouut the observer’s paradox — the observer having an impact on the observed — isn’t that true of bubble blather? Market prices are all about confidence and even mood and if you keep reporting that the mood is exhuberant and wrong and soon to burst, don’t you think that has an impact on that mood? Isn’t the cliched bubble-soon-to-burst story self-fulfilling reporting?

State of the art

State of the art

: So I just returned from a few days at the Annenberg confab on journalism, democracy, and all that, in a room fillled with smart and experienced people, journalists and academics, who care deeply about the country and the craft.

As usual at these things these days, I feel a bit like the stranger in the strange land — probably because I am strange — but it’s also worth noting that blogs are no longer treated like meteors from outer space at such gatherings.

A few random observations at the end:

: Our new world of weblogs and citizens’ media is all about possibilities — many of them unrealized, I grant — while the world of the big, old media is increasingly about worry: fretting over declining revenue, resources, audience, quality, trust. That is one good reason for big media to embrace the small, rather than trying to recapture the old: It’s optimistic, energetic, new, open, growing, and fun; it’s the medium in the better mood and that’s catching. In short: Bloggers make better barmates.

: Related: I sometimes hear a defeatism in journalism today — mixed with anger and defiance: We’re shrinking and can’t make money so we need to take charity or, worse, government help (which I certainly believe is dangerous).

What we should be doing instead is finding new business models for news. Those models can include nonprofit or public-supported journalism but they also should include new, profitable news businesses. But see the next related item:

: I mentioned it before, but I am shocked at the hostility to profit I often hear in some quarters at such gatherings. Perhaps we did ourselves a disserve taking the necessary wall between church and state and putting barbed wire on top, for it made journalists too purposely ignorant of business and the marketplace.

Just because we journalists don’t let ourselves be influenced by the advertisers and certainly don’t sell the ads, that doesn’t mean that we should be ignorant or, worse, disdainful of the business realities that pay the checks and support the journalism… or hurt it.

This institutional attitude has separated journalists not only from power over their products but also — more importantly — from the market, which is to say the voice of the public.

I’ve been there. When I launched Entertainment Weekly, I didn’t have the biz cred sufficient to argue how the circulation department was the one making $30-million mistakes and I vowed I wouldn’t be in that position again, even when editors lectured me that I should let the business guys worry about the business. Learning the business side is necessary to give us influence in the business side, in the creation (or saving) or our own products.

But it’s about more than money. It’s also about learning to trust the marketplace and thus the public. If we dismiss the will of the marketplace, we show a lack of respect for the wisdom and will of the public we are supposedly here to serve; we start to believe that “we” are smarter than “them” when “we” are “them.” And if you truly think that the public is stupid, then you should quit media and become a monk.

All this is why — especially now, as the industry changes — j-schools should be sure to teach courses in the business of journalism.

: I waited until the last hour to say what I thought might get me shot: that media consolidation is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Anger at big companies may, indeed, be a product of the journalistic nose-holding about business (above). But the economic, marketplace reality of it is that in many cases, consolidation is the act of dinosaurs huddling to stay warm in the face of their coming ice age. Without consolidation and the savings that come with it, I said, it’s quite possible that some news outlets could die. And how is that better? But nobody threw a pie at me. In fact, some acknowledged that big companies still have the resources and sometimes even the guts to try new things. We should remember that and remind them of that.

: Related: Some spoke of the need to strengthen government regulation, not only regarding ownership but also to revive the notion of the public trust in broadcast licenses. But I said that the best TV is coming out of unregulated cable today. Regulation is dangerous. Period. The last thing we of all people should want or need is government involvement in speech.

: You will be glad to hear that many people in the room at Annenberg, like me, swatted at notions about credentialing journalists. Some people want to credential those who are trained or adhere to a code of behavior. But, of course, that can also be used to try to exclude others from an alleged elite. It can be used against the credentialed when someone in power withdraws the certification and the rights that go with them. It can be used against the uncredentialed when, to paraphrase one participant in the room, a lawyer in a libel case can say, “what makes you think you can practice journalism when you’re not a real journalist.” And besides, who’s a journalist when anyone can commit acts of journalism? In a world where we want to try to expand by taking advantage of what the public knows, why close down the definition of journalist? Why not expand it by sharing our knowledge and training and experience generously?

: I sat there and wondered whether, 20 or 50 years from now, there will be similar confabs of citizens’ journalism with organizations and reports and academic counterparts and worries. I hope not. I hope that citizens’ media stays loose like fireflies that get away.

: But if you had sat there with me, I know that you would have been impressed with how much these people care. They care about the good of the nation, about informing the people, about quality journalism, about rebuilding trust, about educating children to empower them to run the world.

So I wish you had been there. Future journalism confabs should invite bloggers as proxies for the public both so the journalists can hear their perspective, but also so the bloggers can see the earnest desire to serve that you’ll see in these good and smart people.

Similarly, blogging confabs should make it a point to invite journalists to show how much bloggers care about the medium and the nation and about news…. and also to show how much fun we have (and so we can have somebody who can expense-account the drinks at the bar).

Speaking of which, I think both groups should also invite business people because if we don’t bring them along in trying to create new products and business models, we won’t support these new and better endeavors. Business people don’t have cooties. But they do have wallets.

Blog comment question

Blog comment question

: Quick question for a friend: Remind me of the names and addresses of external blog comment systems (that is, if you don’t have Movable Type and comments there you can use…..)

Investigate this

Investigate this

: Accepted wisdom in journalism is that investigative reporting is its highest calling and perhaps highest art. I just returned from two days at an Annenberg confab at which journalism educators lamented declining resource and dedication for investigative reporting. And last night, I appeared on MSNBC’s Connected, where two guests and the two hosts similarly lauded this kind of reporting and complained that not enough is being done (each end of the political spectrum wishing for more watchdogging of the other, naturally).

Of course, when feeling paranoid or pissed, you want somebody to probe the guy you don’t like and bring him down. And the prize economy in journalism is all about awarding big, expensive, long, and self-righteous indictments of the corrupt and nasty.

But I’ll be heretical enough to ask whether investigative journalism is what the public most wants from the press, whether chronic suspicion — as opposed to skepticism — can breed chronic cynicism, whether ever-sparer journalistic resources are best put to bringing down the bad guy or to helping us in our daily lives. What is the proper calling of journalism?

The Archbishop of Canterbury probes the probers today:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams will tonight launch an attack on the media, berating the “adversarial and suspicious” nature of modern journalism, which he says holds people “guilty until proved innocent”.

Dr Williams, who won an apology from the Sunday Telegraph in December after the paper erroneously said the Asian tsunami had led him to question his own faith, will say a far-reaching reassessment of the press is needed to raise “embarrassingly low levels of trust” in the journalistic profession….

While stressing that a thriving media is vital to a “mature democracy”, Dr Williams will also tell his audience the way news is packaged inhibits the public from becoming engaged with issues and understanding them fully.

“There is a tension at the heart of the journalistic enterprise. Its justification is that it promises to deliver what other sources can’t – information that is needed to equip the reader or viewer or listener for a more free and significant role as a human agent.

“But at the same time it is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity.”

We love that line. Ironically, though, investigative reporting is one element of journalism that resists commodification and that’s why journalists love it: They get scoops, they get bylines, they get the thing the other guy doesn’t have.

Dr Williams will say the central task of the media is to “nourish the common good” of society, and praises the courage and commitment of many journalists.

Is that the task? There was a lot of talk at Annenberg about how journalism’s duty is to create an informed democracy. Is that more about education … or investigation … or communication?

However, he will add that “some aspects of current practice” are “lethally damaging” to the profession.

“High levels of adversarial and suspicious probing send the clear message that any kind of concealment is guilty until proved innocent. That is a case that needs more than just assumptions to be morally persuasive.” …

There, too, I’m not sure Williams is on the right track. Concealment does not equal guilt. But it does yield suspicion. Or to put it another way: Transparency, we now hold, is a virtue.

Still, Williams has a point.

The cliche is true: The watchdog role of the press is a vital check on the powerful in a democracy. But does every investigation serve the public interest or is it a gotcha moment that serves the ego of the reporter and his institution? Is it good to bring down the powerful or does the constant dogging of the powerful only divide us and sour us? Is it better to trap a lying politician or to bang the heads of our leaders to make them stop yelling at each other — on our cue — and start working together to make them fix health care?

And what role can citizen journalists play in this? Are we unleashing watchdogs on the unwatched — our local school boards, our heads of public works — or are we starting an epidemic of rabies? Are we the watchdogs on the watchdogs or merely growlers who don’t understand or appreciate the value of shoe leather?

These are not idle questions as the news business faces its economic crisis and restructuring, as they ask where to put their resources (task force or hyperlocal), as they grapple with the lack of trust in journalists (could it because we fostered that by trusting no one?). So what are your answers? Is investigative reporting journalism’s highest calling and highest art?