The one-sided conversation

No single group sends me more email marked “not for blogging” than reporters and editors at The New York Times. I don’t mean email that comes in the course of my consulting for other parts of the company or from people I know there. It’s always in email that comes in response to my blog and things I say about Times’ reporting. I respect their wishes and sometimes end up having coffee with them to discuss what they want to discuss. They’re smart and caring people and I enjoy talking with them. But I always end up lecturing them about why we should have these conversations in public, how those will be better conversations for it, and why others should hear what they have to say. A one-way conversation is no conversation at all. But it always ends the same way: with reporters, of all people, wanting to stay off the record. I really don’t know what the root cause of this institutional false modesty and faux shyness is. I don’t think it’s as simple a diagnosis as fear. It’s something more complex and cultural than that.

Jay Rosen takes on that culture, from the top, at Comment is Free. He strings together quotes from Times Executive Editor Bill Keller about how he doesn’t want the paper to be self-absorbed. In his latest pronouncement, Keller said he said had stopped reading Romenesko, the American media Bible/blog (for which I took him to task here). Jay writes:

What Keller means by self-absorption is related to another idea: that it is futile to respond to most of the criticism that gets flung at the press, and specifically at the Times…. Keller did say that criticism helps keep the Times honest. But saying “we get it from everywhere” is not an attempt to understand what you are getting. Nor does self-examination have to end in self-absorption…. but what you may not realise is that by committing yourself to the dialogue you rapidly lose control of your time, as each answer brings six new charges and four new questions, plus three new misunderstandings it would be proper to correct. It’s endless.

That’s part of what it’s about: control. Joining the conversation means losing control. Publishing is having the last word. And Jay says that Timesmen — not by any means alone among journalists — think there can be a last word and that they can have it. Jay then responds to what Keller told me in a lengthy blog/email exchange we had last year:

“There seems to be no end to any argument in your world” [as Keller said] is quite a complaint for a newspaper editor to make. Do arguments on the opinion pages normally “end”? How about arguments about higher taxes, racism, war or globalisation as found in the Times news columns? Do they end?

Right, they don’t end. They mustn’t end. The endless back-and-forth of conversation is not merely an interactive nicety — patting the heads of us darling readers out here, if you even deign to do that. The conversation is a necessity to get to the truth and set the agenda and inform the democracy. The conversation is the journalism, damnit.

So Jay pushes The Times to follow the examples of The Guardian‘s editor’s blog and CBS News‘ transparency blog — not to mention humble, local newspaper editors’ blogs in Greensboroand Tacoma — and start a blog himself.

Then he could return to the public conversation about journalism, in which the editor of the Times has a rightful and important place.

This has been suggested before, inside The Times itself, when the newspaper’s post-Jayson-Blair-scandal Siegal Commission recommended:

The Web should also explore the possibility of creating a Times blog that promotes a give-and-take with readers while satisfying the standards of our journalism.

So let’s get blogging, guys.

As is my obnoxious habit, I’ll take it farther — and farther than most in my shoes would — and suggest that news organizations should be encouraging strongly — one step short of requiring — journalists, including editors, to blog. Here is The Times’ blog policy (search for “blog” in the long document). As is the unfortunate habit of newsroom policy statements, it talks about what blogging journalists should not do: On personal sites, they should “avoid topics they cover professionally” (which seems absurd — don’t you want the music critic blogging about music?); they should not be intemperate or shrill or humiliating or intolerant or take stands on divisive issues or link to bad stuff.

Note that the blogging policy does not say what they should do when blogging. Nor does it say they should blog.

I just spoke with a German reporter writing a piece about big-media blogs. He wisely separated out legitimate news uses of the blogging tool to, for example, publish news updates or to publish journals from the field. That is using the blogging tool as content-management tool rather than blogging-as-blogging. Then he challenged me to sum up why reporters should blog. I said it is to bring back the humanity of journalism; to restore the credibility we thought we protected but in fact lost when we insisted that we could and should be objective; to break down the wall we built separating ourselves as journalists from the members of the public we serve; and to join the conversation that is happening without us.

But even if they don’t blog, they shouldn’t be afraid to get into conversations with bloggers, aka readers. In fact, they should be encouraged to do just that.