Journalism 2010

This afternoon, I’m moderating a “superpanel” on the future of news at the Online News Association. The folks up there: Susan DeFife, president and CEO, Backfence; Neil Budde, news director, Yahoo!; Robert S. Cauthorn, president, CityTools; Lockhart Steele, managing editor, Gawker Media. The agenda asks: “Will journalism be as relevant at the end of this decade as it was in 1910? If information is power, the answer must be yes. But will journalists be the innovators or the commodity?”

Well, of course, I’d argue that information isn’t the only power; relationships and trust are, and so we’d better figure out what our relationship to the public is again. And I’d argue that we shouldn’t be worrying about journalists but instead about journalism, since new tools open journalism up to anyone. But I’m only the moderator, so I won’t be arguing that (well, I’ll try not to), and I’ll choose to define “superpanel” as Dave Winer would: The whole room is the panel. Hell, the world is the panel.

So what do you think I should bring up before these machers of online news? When I asked this the last time, Hugh MacLeod gave me a line that I quote in every damned powerpoint I ever give (how newspapers should stop thinking of themselves as things but rather as places where people come together to do good things in their communities).

What do you want to ask or say to the machers of online news today about their tomorrow?

: WHERE’S THE PASSION? I’m very glad Rafat Ali blogged his thoughts from a conversation we had at ONA yesterday:

This is perhaps the most exciting time to be an online journalist, at the most exciting time in the media sphere. Yet, at ONA, where was the passion? Where was the excitement about working in the most innovative time in the history of media? In its place what I see is self-doubt, existential crisis, a siege mentality….

Above all, where’s the entrepreneurship? The Web 2.0 thing, while may have been over hyped, at least has something at the core of it: innovation, on the cheap, and available to all. These are people who believe, and believe me, that’s half the battle won. Why is that mentality not coming to journalism, and specifically online journalism? Why isn’t more startup culture being encouraged at media companies? Yes, they’ll start blogs on their site, but beyond that, what? Why aren’t journalists being encouraged to be entrepreneurs, and the other way around? When will we have our version of the young-out-of-school-entrepreneurs amongst us? Isn’t the passion of creation the most basic of drivers? Where is that?

Right. They took one of the single most innovative people in news, Adrian Holovaty, and had him explain RSS. That was my frustration the last time I attended, two years ago, when blogs were at best the subject of condescension. This time, they had a blogging 101 session. Aren’t they past that? I fear not.

What the ONA should be doing is inviting in all the barbarians at their gates inside to challenge them: all the bloggers and vloggers and programmers and 2.0 publishers. who are reinventing news. I don’t know why they’d bother coming but the online news machers should be begging them to.

At the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center event, the news executives lamented the lack of product development and innovation in their business. Rafat is seeing the proof of that. You’d think that ONA would be the showcase for the newest, the place where that cutting edge is honed, the place to come to have your brain exploded. It’s not.

I’m going to start today’s panel by reading excerpts from Rafat’s post. This is exactly the challenge the online news machers need.

  • Rafat Ali asks the questions in an excellent post this morning.

  • steve

    Is the clubby old-school journalism marketplace kaput?

    Given the incredible proliferation of so-called news outlets which have stated or explicit or at least obvious biases, do news organizations have any obligation to report on each other?

    In other words, back in the Cold War era, no one ever looked to the Soviet-era Pravda for factual reportage — but no one dutifully reported or repeated its contents, other than for an occasional chuckle or attempt to parse Kremlin org chart machinations.

    But nowadays Al Jazeera is never questioned, and its coverage is often simply reported and repeated, as if that information organization operated more or less like CNN or Fox News or Reuters. Ditto so much of what passes for journalism in (Communist? Post-Communist?) China. It’s as if the rapid proliferation of the tools of electronic media have also rapidly proliferated the basic tenets (flawed as they may be) of a Western-style “fourth estate.” But of course, that is not the case.

    So, do future news organizations have any responsibility to report on each other?

  • Jeff, tell them bloggers will liberate “paid content” if it’s any good.

    You can read Maureen Dowd in many places, including Taipei.

    When your readers tunnel around you, try to outsmart you, that relationship is in trouble.

  • Mitchell Sperling

    I have noticed that that the blogs are fast and furious.

  • Jeff, you might want to look into the Semantic Web to get ideas for the conference (see the external links here.) You could work on the meta info that should accompany any article or podcast(audio or video) by a journalist. What are the common traits shared by all journalistic work?

    My point, come up with some standard tags for journalism that everybody can agree on so when I’m searching for articles with (Google is so 2004) I can type in “system:filetype:jounalistcontent + Zimbabwe” and only get articles submitted by journalists that have been tagged by the masses with Zimbabwe which I then sort by popularity. You can already do this for MP3s with Google can’t. What does the MP3 of journalism look like? An MP3 has metadata called an ID3 tag, it contains the genre, artist, year of release, sometimes even lyrics. The brains of journalism should be working on the ID3 tag for journalism.

    Now imagine a Flickr but comprised of articles submitted by journalists instead of photos. The number one photo(according the their interestingness system) on Flickr right now with the tag ‘dog’ is simply mindboggling. I want to be able find the same type of quality, pulled from the longtail with the help of crowd wisdom, except great articles instead of just great images.

    We need a Flickr for journalism. Whoever does it first(cough, Jeff, cough) should use for tagging instead of something closed and proprietary like Flickr’s system. It really wouldn’t be that difficult.

    Trust by association with a large organization isn’t always accurate (Blair, NYT).We’ll soon be able to extract trust information from the wisdom of the crowds using tagging and popularity statistics so that issue will resolve itself without topdown effort. It’s just a matter of timing and the critical mass.

  • Mike NYC

    I wonder what makes this a “superpanel?” I mean, besides ego.

  • Mike in NYC… Maybe it’s grade inflation.

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  • Hi Jeff,

    As you know, I helped organize the conference. One of the key differences between bloggers and MSM online newsies, of course, is the fact that bloggers are mostly outliers — sole practitioners — and the folks working inside the legacy shops (or even the “old” new media companies like Marketwatch or CNET) are saddled with the burden of an old-line corporate culture. From deep within our organizations, it can be a lot tougher to turn the ship.

    Moreover, we have the yoke of an existing business model that executives and Wall Street are loathe to give up (look at the airlines) and a 50-year tradition of journalistic practice that’s become an ethos not to be fiddled with. And there are good reasons why we wouldn’t want to rashly jettison either.

    There is some ignorance among those in our ranks — I’m just beginning to grasp the social tagging infrastructure of the blogosphere, for instance, and how we need to plug into that — because we’re forced to be the go-to experts on the entire panoply of new media developments at the same time that we are being asked to, as you noted, act as ‘change agents’ for people who aren’t inclined to change.

    No single person or small group can shoulder all those responsibilities while running a Web site that’s become for most companies a rather profitable side business.

    So our conference has sought to appeal to everyone. We want to attract the line producer who maybe repurposes content or oversees a channel and hasn’t bought an iPod, while also attracting a Web site editor who is simply trying to get his newsroom to write a 5 graph brief a couple times a day, a student, a blogger, an educator, a Holovaty, a Yahoo! Newsie and a multimedia visionary. We know there is not one single program that can do it all.

    But what we’ve found in our outreach is the denizens of the blogosphere tend to be unfamiliar with, uninterested or impatient with the rest of us — and that’s OK. Bloggers are, as I said, outliers. Or call them outriders. They’re better at going it alone, blazing a trail, and not required to collaborate, seek consensus, give a little to get a little — all the kinds of compromises that make up the life of an employee in a company environment. We need outriders or we won’t see what’s coming while we tend the herd we’ve got, but inside a company they’re liable to self-destruct even if they’re right about what they’re advocating.

    So I don’t think most of the folks on the inside don’t ‘get it.’ We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t enjoy the exciting possibilities that the future can bring. If we wanted predictability and stability, we’d be on the copy desk. It’s a mistake to say we’re primarily knee-jerk and defensive in what we are doing. Rafat was getting the wrong vibe if he felt no passion. But it’s also accurate to say we’re not outriders.

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