ONA: A lesson in journalism

The last panel at Online News was supposed to be about new frontiers in technology and news. I was on it and for the first time talked publicy about Daylife, the soon-to-launch news company I’ve been involved with. I joined Mike Davidson of Newsvine (doing very interesting work in reputation systems), Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, and Adam Yamaguchi of Current.

But the event quickly turned into a circus — and, I hope, a journalism lesson — when Arrington launched attacks on news media, contending that journalists will be losing their jobs and that reporters are fools if they don’t quit and start blogs. He then tried to sucker-punch The New York Times, arguing that the only reason the paper could have written a favorable story about the startup Inform was if the reporter or editor had ties, financial or otherwise, with the firm. I challenged him immediately, saying that this is a grave charge and that he clearly had no facts to back it up; he said as much. I also made it clear that Inform is, in some ways, a competitor with Daylife and that Arrington is also an investor in Daylife. It didn’t stop him. He repeated this attack, among others, on The Times. It was most uncomfortable, even embarrassing. I couldn’t sit there letting his attacks go unchallenged (all the while needing to be transparent myself about my consulting relationship with NYTimesCo). But challenging him, I found myself descending into some two-bit TV shout show, which got me accused of joining in his blowhard game.

Now The Times is frequently the punching bag of convenience for people who want to complain about any generalized sin they see in the news business; this, apparently, is the price of publishing from the top of the heap. I’ve been at plenty of events like this when darts are thrown at The Times, and Timesmen, as a rule, sit stoically and don’t rise to the bait. But I am very glad that Jim Roberts, former national editor and now continuous news editor of The Times, rose to the microphone and called bullshit on Arrington, demanding an apology. As Staci Kramer reports at PaidContent, Arrington backed down immediately, as bullies do. He said he was just trying to be provocative. He admitted he had no facts and apologized.

The stinky-cheese irony of this is, of course, that even as he tried to cast aspersions on The Times, he only succeeded in shooting his own credibility — and with it, likely, the credibility of fellow bloggers — in the foot.

This comes at the end of a conference where I was delighted to see, as I wrote over the weekend, that the wars seemed to be over. I saw no print v. online, no amateur v. pro, no blogger v. journalist. I saw constructive, imaginative efforts to share success stories about 24/7, omnimedia, cooperative, imaginative journalism. But all it takes to ruin things is for one guy to pull out the mortars. The ballroom in D.C. suddenly looked like Lebanon.

Now there was a bit of personal irony in my role here. At last year’s conference, I moderated, if you can call it that, a similar panel and pushed the crowd to stop being so mopey and get to work graspking new opportunities for news and online newspapers. I was supposed to provoke and I did. Some liked it; some didn’t. This year, many noted after the panel, I was the conciliator. But not really. If I was trying to defend anything both times, it was the growth of journalism. I keep harping on the notion that anyone can commit an act of journalism, that we must embrace new partners in our enterprise, and so it is in all our interests to see journalism not only grow but improve. But what happened in this panel did little to improve things.

Arrington does, I think, care about journalism. He works hard for his scoops. All this comes the day after he broke the big scoop that Google was negotiating to buy YouTube and, as Steve Rubel points out, other media picked up the story and credited him for it. Of course, he wants to be right. Before the panel began, the two of us talked about how to handle one of his stories; it was a journalistic discussion. So at the panel, why did he then chose to show so little respect for facts? I don’t know. Perhaps it was just to be provocative, as he said, to entertain. But the entertainment comes at a price.

Part of the problem is that it’s just too fun to maintain the fight story; it’s unproductive and damaging, but it’s a weakness in journalism’s character. So we had Mark Cuban poking the media business one day and the would-be Cuban Jr., Arrington, lobbing bombs the next. At least Big Cuban is charming. When he was booked for the panel, there was no predicting that Arrington would go ballistic. Oh, some might stay we should have known; he blogs, after all. But truly, blogging itself brings no baggage; it’s only a tool. Just as print confers no authority, blogging confers no disrepute. The tool is as good as its craftsman.

In any case, far more valuable than any of these speakers, present company included, was a panel of teens brought in to tell us old media farts how they really interact with our products. Hint: They don’t watch live TV. This made me think that every newspaper and network and station should invite in a panel of young people to scare the bejesus out of the staff and then make them want to find new ways to do their jobs.

And far more valuable than continuing this old fight is finding ways to work together to expand and improve journalism. We can’t afford the fight anymore. And beside, the fight is old news. So give it up. Move on.

: Here is Arrington’s take on the session. He says it was a waste of a weekend.

I could have, and should have, sucked up to these people. Others at the conference were. They still command a lot of traffic and a link thrown our way is always helpful. But I didn’t do that. I never do that, and I’m told that its bad for my career. I made enemies this weekend. Most of those people will never look at TechCrunch without thinking about the things that I said, and judging me for those statements.

Will I do this again if invited? Yes. But I will make sure that I prepare my statements in light of the fact that mainstream media is not prepared to discuss their shortcomings. That’s the path that other new media representatives took at the conference, and is obviously the way to win the game. Tell them what they want to hear, even as they lie dying on the hospital bed.

He misses the point and, sadly, the lesson. I criticize these companies plenty and came back for another round and I now find them quite eager to discuss their shortcomings and figure out what to do about it. The problem wasn’t criticizing them. The problem was ignoring the facts.

Mike says in his comments that he and I agree abot much but say things differently. We do agree about much. But I think that in a crowd of journalists, the way to win is to commit better journalism than they do. That, I’d hoped, would be the lesson learned.

: Chron.com’s Dwight Silverman reacts to Arrington:

Don’t be surprised if, when you start throwing bombs, your targets pick up the explosives and hurl them back at you. Arrington said things that have been said umpteen times at other conferences — most notably by Jarvis — but they were said more thoughtfully and with more respect for the immense job journalists have for navigating a major sea change in their industry.

Arrington in his post accused journalists of not having a thick skin. But it sounds like he’s the one who can’t handle it when his insults and contempt aren’t accepted with gratitude and graciousness.

By the way, the last person to suggest he’d “dissolve the company and return what’s left to the shareholders” [which was what Arrington said about the Times and Post] was Michael Dell, speaking disdainfully of Apple in October 1997. And we all know what happened there . . .

: Dave Winer says:

…nothing is accomplished by prolonging the animosity between bloggers and pros. There was a time when the bloggers wouldn’t throw any punches, I’m sorry that this time, apparently (I wasn’t there) it was a blogger that provoked a fight. We all can do better, that is inclusive of both pros and amateurs.