Pay no nevermind

Bill Keller won’t read this.

The executive editor of The New York Times has stopped reading media blogs, says Rachel Smolkin’s story about transparency in American Journalism Review:

But Keller has become a little more choosy about transparency. On the advice of Managing Editor Jill Abramson, he’s mostly stopped reading the media blogs, including Romenesko’s influential one on the Poynter Institute Web site (he still finds Gawker hard to resist). “There’s nothing wrong with them, and I don’t object to their existence,” Keller says. “It’s just that they can lead to a tremendous and to a somewhat disorienting degree of self-absorption.”

Well, I’d say that Keller thus forfeits the right to complain about or mock people — starting with the President — who say they don’t read newspapers, especially his.

What a foolish thing for a journalist say. But I suppose it’s transparency of a sort, telling us what you don’t know, confessing your deafness and your prejudices. Or perhaps it’s just a game of snark-for-snark: The resident of what used to be seen as journalism’s throne looks out upon the masses, the bloggers, and sniffs, “I don’t object to their existence.” Let them blog cake. It’s all really quite unbecoming. We are not amused.

But he’s not dismissing rabid bloggers. He is dismissing rabid readers. He is not listening to the public he is sworn to serve. This, I’ll argue, is an attempt to turn journalism back into a one-way wire, AC to DC.

Smolkin continues:

He’s also gotten more selective about granting interviews and about the questions he feels compelled to answer. “It was time-consuming and distracting,” Keller says of his early transparency efforts. “Some of that time was well spent, but not all of it. Also, I think, there’s a danger that if you spend too much time explaining yourself that you become defensive rather than authoritative.”

So how should the Times decide when to respond to critics, and when to stand resolutely – and silently – behind its reporting? “I guess I’m in the process of learning that still,” Keller says. “I think we’re all trying to strike the right balance between transparency and accountability on the one hand, and defensiveness and self-absorption on the other. It’s a little harder at the Times because we are the Times. We attract a more intense curiosity.”

But it’s not mere curiosity. That implies that the reliablity of the product and the process of journalism are unchallenged and that we, the people, are merely nosey tourists wanting to have a look ’round the factory, just curious, not questioning. No, we’re asking more than that. We deserve more than that. And The Times, because of that special position it holds and the privilege and access and attention it receives as a result, owes us more. It continues:

Keller says he hasn’t “boiled this down to a set of rules or a formula about what you answer and what you don’t. I don’t feel readers are necessarily entitled to sit in on the editing process or to eavesdrop on our decision making. We’re not obliged to account for every step on the way to publication, or non-publication, for that matter. Some stories we don’t publish because we don’t know enough. They don’t meet our standards yet. They need to be thought through a little better.”

He’s right about not revealing speculation: An editor in a news meeting talks about a story they’re looking into that never pans out and that rumor or speculation should not be published via the open door. That is the complication with opening up the process.

But to say that readers are not “entitled” to view that process is, to me, a claim of ownership over the news. Journalists came to believe that they owned news because they owned distribution or were granted special access. But they don’t and never did. The public owns the news. It is ours. And the public has a perfect right to judge the stewardship journalists exercise over news.

When then-Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail to protect her source and then came out of jail after 85 days, Keller felt readers were entitled to know some of the back story. A team of Times reporters produced a tough, 5,805-word piece revealing that neither Keller nor Sulzberger asked Miller detailed questions about her interviews with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., who was then the vice president’s chief of staff. Keller says assigning his own reporters to the story was “the right thing to do,” but “I’m not sure we should have spent as much time as we did talking to everyone else who wanted to compose the back story…. The Judy Miller episode writ large consumed a lot more energy than it needed to and probably made us look unduly defensive.”

I will leave that straight line to others. Over to you, Arianna.

But Keller acknowledges that a more transparent era is upon us. “We’re clearly past the day when, even if we wanted to, we could do all of our work behind a kind of cloak of mystique,” he says. “I know there are a lot of people in our business who feel nostalgic for the days when you weren’t called upon to justify your reporting methods or defend a line of reporting, but we are past that. I do think it’s important for us, and it’s good for us, more than that. It’s not just an obligation; it’s a healthy thing to let readers know how much work we put into things to get them right and to get them fair.”

I can’t argue with that. Too bad that Keller is arguing with himself, though.

By contrast, hear Steven Smith, editor of the Spokesman Review and a deacon of the temple of transparency:

Smith says community newspapers such as his operate in a different sort of environment than national papers like the Times, a reality that makes their efforts to be transparent more manageable and more civil. “I think when people have to sit down across the table from you face to face, it creates a different kind of dynamic. In an ironic twist, the visitors to our newsroom are less confrontational than if they were communicating by phone or e-mail,” Smith says, adding, “We still have a couple of wackaloons, don’t get me wrong.”

I think he’s wrong that The Times is different. It’s still a newspaper serving a community and it must find ways to both meet and converse with that community. Giving blogs to staffers is, I suppose, a start, though it’s really just using another publishing tool to publish. Revealing the links to your stories is a good move; the The Times has started doing that via The Annotated Times (The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Comment is Free are using Technorati to do this with fewer filters). I will say, though, that this still communicates the message, ‘But enough about you, what you do think of what we said?’ But I don’t want to minimize the importance of this reverse flow: AC on the wire.

When I met Keller online, I had the hubris to write an open letter to him urging that he and his journalists meet bloggers face-to-face, so that both tribes would realize that they share goals and motives; they both work hard in the service of a better-informed society. A long and public email discussion ensued, which you can read here, but I never convinced Keller to have that get-together.

Based on what I read in AJR and on the bad advice he is following, I will renew my suggestion that Keller and company make it a point to get out and meet the bloggers. He and his colleagues are operating now under a fear of unknown. And if you stop even reading bloggers, then they become only more unknown, more fearsome.

The other day, I met with a reporter who wanted to talk about the blog backwash regarding a story he wrote. It was a good conversation about the impact and issues of all this change on the news. He asked me not to blog it and I’ll respect that. But I told him at the end that we should find a way to have that conversation in public. Both sides will be better off for it and the sides will come closer. In fact, there shouldn’t be sides at all. It’s not about the journalists v. the bloggers. It’s about both against secrecy. It is, indeed, all about transaparency.

[Full disclosures: I consult for The New York Times Company at and have given occasional advice on blogs. I have had one meeting with Keller and have spoken at an event for Times management. I know a few Times reporters, not through the course of my consulting but as a result of blogging. I buy The Times — yes, the paper Times — to read on the train every day.]

: I should add that Rachel’s article is good. She uses provocative rhetorical questions to try to cover the sides. I make a brief appearance at the end as the radical transparcy advocate (I wish I could turn that into the name of a religion: I am a Transparist?). I only wish that she had gotten to more of the people who demand and practice transparency — that is, bloggers — rather than staying inside the echo chamber that is big, old media. Nevertheless, I recommend the piece.