An Oxford debate

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, gave a speech at Oxford promising to question some of the assumptions of the blogosphere and of online interactivity — based on their Comment is Free experience — and to salute the value of journalism, whether in print or online. The text isn’t is up online here and here, but here are some of the juicier bits and my comment on his comments on online comments (do you hear an echo?). [Full disclosure: I write and occasionally consult for The Guardian.] First, on the fate of newspapers:

On commercial grounds alone it’s easy to see why some people are predicting that newspapers will not be able to carry on in their present form. This is not to be over-gloomy. I’m one of those who utterly believes that there may even now be emerging an economic basis for what we do which will replace some, if not all, of the revenues we are bound to lose. On the Guardian we ignored all those who told us that we should be charging people to access our content online because we believed there was a greater prize to be won – both in influence and reach – if we built the best digital version of the paper we possibly could. …

The next few years are going to be formidably expensive for us all, as we try to sustain our print editions while simultaneously investing in the new world. It’s not clear that everyone is going to make it.

More on this in a later post. Now onto blogs:

The first thing I want say about blogging is that I’m overwhelmingly in the party of enthusiasts rather than the party of sceptics. The second thing is that it’s dangerous to make sweeping generalisations about the blogosphere. Every weblog has both a national context and an international presence. The national context is perhaps underplayed and underexplored in the sense that many weblogs seem to me to compensate for whatever is missing in their own domestic media and political cultures.

In countries with a restricted or unfree press that extends to breaking stories which otherwise would remain untold or be suppressed. In America there’s a free press – though one, it’s possible to argue, with a particular tradition of reporting and attachment to notions of objectivity which – to put it at its most modest – leave room for other forms of reporting. Similarly, the relatively narrow range of opinions found on many mainstream American papers – coupled with the decision of some major players to hide their commentary behind subscription-based firewalls – also creates a space which bloggers have been only to happy to occupy.

In Britain the press – while certainly suffering from weaknesses which many bloggers are keen to highlight and compensate for – has always been more polemical and argumentative. In America, France and Germany there is famously a much less dominant national press than in Britain. So my sense is that the blogosphere, while infinite in its reach, is inevitably influenced and shaped by a wide variety of local and national media contexts.

But, despite my overall fascination and enthusiasm for this exploding new and democratic medium I share the reservations many people have about some aspects of this emerging culture. What are these problems? Well there are the predictable ones of bad language, racism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, misogyny and other forms of hate or hateful speech. Those are troubling, but comparatively easy to deal with in the sense you just take them down the moment you become aware of them.

He is conflating the blogosphere — that is, posts written by bloggers — with comments on forums and blogs. I don’t mean to split hairs, but there is a difference: One is influenced by the pride of authorship, the other by the cloak of anonymity.

A more difficult area is the quality and tone of debate. In starting CiF we wanted to create an extension of the paper – where serious matters could be discussed in a reasonably serious way by intelligent people around the world. By and large that’s what we’ve achieved. If you doubt it, follow the discussions on the Enlightenment which Madeleine Bunting started. It’s difficult to think of another area of public debate where you could have so many startlingly well-informed people arguing in such an engaged and civilised way about such an important subject. One American web expert, familiar with the general tone of blogging in his own country said: “Believe me, your site is like the Oxford Union.” But it would be foolish to pretend that there isn’t a significant proportion of contributions which are dull, rambling, repetitive or plain silly… and a further proportion which are vitriolic, highly personal, offensive and needlessly aggressive.

What to do? Well, the old media response is easy: you edit it, stupid. That’s what newspapers do. You wouldn’t dream of publishing every letter you received. Why create a totally untended space where you have to wade through sometimes hundreds of comments to find the few gems? Who’s got the time?

The idea has certain attractions. But you know what the response would be from many, if not most, of the people who are currently coming to the space: they would say ‘that’s a typically old media solution. Face it, you want to stay in control. You can’t bear to let go. The web is not about top-down, it’s about bottom up. If you can’t bear the rules, don’t play.” We’d call it editing: they’d call it censorship – and many of them would decamp to what they’d consider a truly free space. You’d risk losing a community you value.

Those are the current conventions of this new world, I can see that. But it does lead me to wonder whether all the conventions which seem to have emerged among the early-adopters of this new medium will all survive, or whether they deserve to.

It’s a fair question: How will the blogosphere and the commentsphere around it evolve? How can selectivity, trust, and relevance enter in? And what is the fate of anonymous commenting? Rusbridger attacks that next:

Take anonymity – or, more accurately, pseudonymity – which is, on many sites, a sine qua non of participation.

Now, I can see the need for the use of pseudonyms in many parts of the world. If I was posting in China or Tibet or Zimbabwe or Iraq or Russia I might well feel comfortable about speaking openly only if I could hide my true identity behind a fictitious name – though it’s not clear that even that would protect me from the attempts of a resourceful totalitarian regime to hunt me down, perhaps aided by a craven internet service provider or two.

But why should most people posting perfectly legal – and, in most cases, unexceptional views – in Britain, or America, or most Western democracies, feel they have to have – or maybe even have a right to have – anonymity?
Again, it’s one of the first lessons of working on a local paper: no-one gets their letter published unless they’re prepared to put their name to it or unless they can persuade the editor there’s a really good reason for anonymity. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of an area of public discourse in this country where people demand the right to take part in public debate anonymously.

Does it matter? I think so: for two reasons. The first is to do with transparency and accountability – two qualities, ironically, which the usually anonymous bloggers endlessly accuse old mainstream media of lacking. The one occasion when we published something anonymously on the Guardian website – something not terribly flattering about bloggers, as it happened – the bloggers reacted furiously – apparently deaf to the irony that most of their own fury was expressed anonymously. . . .

Overwhelmingly, old media journalists and columnists put their own name to what they say, and the same is true of 99.9 per cent of letters published. Knowing who said what is the first step to assessing what they said.

I do agree with him here. I have said often on this blog that I trust and respect comments made under the names of their authors — and I have inevitably been attacked for that view by people commenting behind a nom de snark. I think it is a very good point to argue that we cannot demand of transparency of professional media without matching it with our own.

But next, Rusbridger defends those who don’t want to interact and there, I disagree with him. As he says at the end of this bit, the bullies tend to back off when face-to-face with the people they criticize. I will defend some of the snarky because they have felt for years that they have shouted at brick walls. When they are not heard, no matter how loud they shout, they will tend to pick up the spray-paint can and do some mischief. We have to understand that perspective. But once we come out from behind the wall to actually interact — not just allow people to leave comments but to talk with them — the level of discourse improves (except for those folks who are missing their meds).

I have some sympathy with my colleagues who are reluctant to take part in debates with external critics nearly all of whom – whether out of shyness, cowardice or convention – won’t themselves break cover.
And that leads onto the second reason it matters: that, often, anonymity encourages people to write or speak in a different way then if they knew they would be held accountable for what they said. The quality of debate can become cruder, more aggressive and more personal than it would if the world knew the writer’s real identity. The reverse is also true. Quite often, if a journalist does respond personally and reasonably to these anonymous flame throwers they will melt into much more moderate language and discussion.

The lesson: interactivity is the responsibility of both sides.

Next, Rusbridger takes Dean Esmay to task for taking rusbridger to task for saying in an earlier speech that he hears no bloggers volunteering to go to Iraq. rusbridger said he saw no names. Esmay listed three: Michael Totten, Michael Yon, Steven Vincent. I’ll add Christopher Allbriton. This back-and-forth on the facts would be best served with reciprocal links; that is part of the infrastructure of interactive news that needs work. rusbridger acknowledges the work of Iraqi bloggers but then raises the old saw: Blogs are not a “substitute for the mainstream media if you want a rounded view of Iraq, including the daily atrocities, the geo-politics, the local politics, the military and intelligence aspects of the conflict and the human rights implications.” No one — or next to no one — says they are a substitute. They are complementary (as we discussed at the hyperlinked-society conference last week and at the earlier Museum of Television & Radio Media Center confab — see Jay Rosen in the last paragraph here). It is time to get past the us-v-them red herring and to start working hard to see just how complementary these camps can be. rusbridger concludes:

In a rapidly converged world newspapers will probably have to ask themselves whether they remain a purely text medium. And, as if this weren’t enough, they are going to have to face the fact that younger readers, especially, are questioning previously accepted notions of journalistic authority, that audiences are fragmenting and that many people are increasingly finding non-conventional news sources a valuable addition, if not a ready substitute, for mainstream media. Newspapers have to decide how much they embrace these new forms of discourse and dissemination or whether they stand apart from them.

I think they must do both: embrace the good stuff and stand apart from the bad stuff but don’t make the mistake of excluding any form of expression.

And the bloggers, in turn, must embrace the good stuff from news organizations.

Between them the Guardian, Observer and Guardian Unlimited – our website – employ more than 600 journalists, more than two dozen of them based around the world. There’s no internet start-up on earth which would ever contemplate such an investment in people. The Yahoos and Googles of this world are explicit: they have no interest in creating content. . . .

Millions of websites will aggregate what we do, syndicate it, link it, comment on it, sneer at it, mash it, trash it, monetise it, praise it and attempt to discredit it – in some cases all at once. But no-one will actually go to the risk and the expense of setting up a global network of people whose only aim in their professional lives is to find things out, establish if they’re true, and write about them quickly, accurately and comprehensibly.

Actually, I know of a few efforts around the world to do just that: to bring together journalists and their work in new forms. I have no idea whether they will succeed, but it’s not impossible.

The blogosphere, which is frequently parasitical on the mainstream media it so remorselessly critiques, can’t ever hope to replicate that. It can do lots of things better than we can’t currently do – including fragmentation and connectivity and community. It is wonderfully enabling, intoxicatingly democratic, exhilaratingly anarchic. And – to return to the ironic title of this lecture, we’re in at the birth of blogging rather than the end. But blogging of itself isn’t going bring about the end of newspapers.

No, blogs will not. I agree. If anyone brings about the end of newspapers, it will be the newspapers themselves. Near the end now:

The newspaper of the future may or may not look like a newspaper – it could be printed on paper, on a screen or exist in electronic ink on a sheet of plastic. But it will behave like a newspaper.

And now, it can also do more. That is the real opportunity.