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.