Keller responds

Bill Keller of the Times responded to my complaint about his speech and characterization of my views about professional, mainstream media and journalism and citizens. I’m glad we’re moving closer together but I still want to correct the record. The exchange. First, from Keller:

* * *


After reading your long response to my Guardian speech, I concede it’s time to push the Refresh button on my summary of the debate. It’s clear that you (and others I used to think of as blog triumphalists) have moved some distance from our 2005 “citizen journalist” exchange and from the day you lectured a New York Times offsite meeting about the certain doom mainstream media faced at the hands of amateur journalists (bloggers) and our own readers (Digg was big on your agenda that night.) I hope it’s clear — from what we’re doing on our website, and from that speech last week — that I’ve moved some distance in your direction. My respect for blogs as a tool of journalism is not the least bit grudging, and my conviction that professional journalists should collaborate with their audience is heartfelt. That’s especially true when you have an audience as educated and engaged as ours.

We may — I’m not really sure — disagree on the relative parts to be played by the amateur and the professional in our journalistic future, or on the pace of change. We don’t disagree on the value of what you call “networked journalism.”

My aim in the speech was not to demonize anyone, but to give heart to the many journalists and consumers of journalism who worry that quality journalism is endangered. For all the many things the new medium has brought, it has not supplanted trained reporters in the field, the discipline of good editors, or the backing of brave and independent journalistic institutions. And many mainstream journalists have proven themselves enthusiastic and agile practitioners of the new forms. The enemy, as I said in the speech, is not disruptive technology, not bloggers, not press-hostile government. It is the despair that derives from an inability to see the enduring value of the old and the promise of the new.


* * *

My response:


Thanks so much for the response. I’m delighted that we’re meeting on the road, even though neither of us is exactly sure where it will lead.

I’m particularly glad to hear you endorse the value of networked journalism and I eagerly await seeing collaborative efforts from the Times and its public. You do, indeed, have a very wise crowd and that is a mighty force waiting to be mobilized to serve journalism and society. If I may suggest, you might even want to ask them for collaborative ideas; I’m sure they will have many good ones.

I’m also eager to push that refresh button and move forward, not back, leaving this tiresome us-v-them debate behind.

But I can’t do so without still correcting the record. I’m afraid you misremember and thus mischaracterize my stand. And considering that I am teaching students bound for professional journalism at CUNY and that I write about this very topic for the Guardian, where you spoke, it’s important to me to be clear on that record.

I’ve never predicted and certainly have not wished for the doom of professional journalism. Quite the contrary, I have been arguing — apparently not clearly or forcefully enough — that collaboration among professionals and citizens is a key not just to survival but growth for journalism.

If you can show me a citation to the contrary, I’ll fess up to it. But I do not find the sentiment you refer to in our 2005 exchange. Neither did I find it in the presentation I gave at the Times offsite. I looked up that Powerpoint and it included these lines:

We live in a post-scarcity era
Q: How do you grow with a citizens’ media world that doubles every 5 months?
A: You share: content, training, tools, promotion, and, yes, revenue.

And this:

The crowd is wise.
How do we enable the people we called our audience to become our partners?

And this:

How do we break free of the shackles of our medium and our history and become enablers… aggregators… connectors… networkers… trainers… vetters… and members of our community?

At the end, I filled a few slides with ideas for collaborative, networked efforts with your wise crowd and ended them with this hope:

This is how we grow.

Bill, that doesn’t sound like the threat of a would-be conquerer or the schadenfreude of a blog triumphalist with a death wish for mainstream media and journalism. Because it’s not. I have been consistent in this: I argue that we need professional journalism and organizations to survive and prosper and I hope that one way, just one way, to help journalism — indeed, to help it grow — is to work collaboratively with the public because now we can. That was the point of my initial hubristic open letter to you that started our exchange. I want to see these worlds come closer together, not move farther apart. That is my constant theme.

So we agree that we need journalists trained and supported in reporting and neither I nor any blogger I read has ever suggested that they should be supplanted. They can, however, be complemented.

There is nothing to be served by continuing the us-v-them debate. It is unproductive and ultimately damaging and certainly has become boring. Can we mutually call it over? Yes, press that refresh button, please. Let’s talk instead about the new opportunities we have to support journalism — both the activities and the business of journalism — by using new tools, including those of collaboration. As I said in my blog response to your speech, I would very much like to hear your vision for that, your vision for the future we all want journalism to have.

Early next year, I’ll be holding a conference next door at CUNY on new businesses models for news. Let’s discuss it there.

As is my habit, I’ll be blogging this: a coda to our earlier exchange.


– jeff

* * *

LATER: Keller responded to my email and I to his, both below. I don’t intend to make this a Dickensian serial as was our last exchange. But I’ll share the latest. From Keller:

It’s nice to renew the conversation, and thanks for clarifying your views on the coexistence of professionals and amateurs. Whether or not you intended to come across as a blog triumphalist and prophet of mainstream media doom, that’s certainly the way your audience — at that Times event — understood you. Perhaps it was in the ear of the beholders. In any case, I’m happy to be corrected, and will be careful to credit your good sense and good will when this subject comes up again.

And my reply:

Oh, doom is still possible if mainstream stewards do not care for their charges. We agree that the collapse of professional journalism would be tragic. I warn against that. But then, as I demonstrated with the slides I quoted in my last email, I try my best to suggest how that doom might be averted — and I’m glad to see the Times taking some of those steps. Does that make me an advocate of doom? Hardly. A prophet of doom? Not even. An ally in the race against doom? I’d hope so. I think this is a case of what I heard from the natives when I lived in California (and one also hears from veterans of therapy in New York): You and your colleagues may be “projecting.” I suggest that the paper’s management should stop seeing enemies at every corner and start seeing allies, even colleagues. That’s my point.
Onward. I’m eager to hear your ideas for collaboration with citizens and see these ideas in the paper and online.

* * *

Meanwhile, friend Jay Rosen sends this wonderful example of the potential for mobilizing citizens in acts of journalistic collaboration from — cough — the Washington Post and Dan Froomkin, writing at, HuffingtonPost, and Neiman Watchdog (now that’s thinking distributed):

Bloggers and other citizen journalists have a new and exciting opportunity to find and shed light on stories the mainstream media are missing – by combing through transcripts of recent Congressional oversight hearings. Without any fanfare, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has started posting preliminary transcripts of many of its hearings on its Web site, giving everyone a chance to pore through testimony and find news the MSM may have overlooked.

After four years during which virtually no administration officials were called to Capitol Hill to explain themselves, the new Democratic majority in January revived the tradition of closely examining Executive branch activities, with House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman leading the charge. But with a few exceptions, you wouldn’t know it from reading the paper or watching the news. One of the dirty little secrets of Washington journalism is that very few news organizations assign staff to cover anything but the most high-profile hearings and debates on Capitol Hill. As a result, few if any reporters show up for oversight hearings – and those who do tend to leave early. . . .

This is a great opportunity for citizen journalists to become Washington reporters. If you find some overlooked news in these or other transcripts, e-mail me your blog posts or your findings, and I’ll try to make sure that they aren’t overlooked as well.

  • Walter Abbott


    You’re wasting your time with Bill Keller and his soulmates. He lives – and will die – in a world of command information. “That’s the way it is, December 4, 2007,” and suchlike. His entire working career was devoted to it. It represented tremendous power and his type will NEVER relinquish that power willingly.

    I’m a lifelong conservative media watcher and I read your blog every day. Not because I agree with your politics, but because you have figured out that the day of “command information” is forever gone. Gone with the wind.

  • Jeff, I have tremendous respect for you and your blog, but I predict the time is coming soon when you will find yourself having to decide whether you are truly committed to going wherever technology and the marketplace take us, or remain loyal to a close variant of the Modern Journalism practices of the NY Times, which are less than 100 years old and are now being tested. There is an awful lot in mainstream journalism that is simply not worth preserving, including the objectivity model that the British never accepted and the false claims of verification. I hope you will join those of us who are untethered from the legacy of Walter Lippmann’s scientific journalism and wish to make news what Thomas Jefferson really wanted it to be “a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.” (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • Bill Keller says, “That’s especially true when you have an audience as educated and engaged as ours.”

    Educated and engaged?

    His readers seem to be *dis-engaging* more each day. The NYT stock price is dropping faster than a Jersey girl on prom night. Keller’s sure doing a wonderful job!

    As for how *educated* his audience is…I must say that biggest dolts I know personally get up every morning and inhale NYT tripe.

    Bloggers would hardly exist if *professional* journalists were faintly acquainted with the notion of objectivity.

  • Steve,
    I’ve talked and written about that many times. Why do you think I’m teaching in a journalism school?

  • tom botkin

    i applaud the generousity of spirit captured by keller’s remarks. it’s what i have come to expect from the nytimes. sadly, you don’t find anything of the sort in abbott’s (hey, abbott!) sour commentary posted above. the times is working its way into the digital era and, happily, is going to be around for quite a long time.


  • My take away from some of the things that you have written, Jeff, on networked journalism, is that the role of reporters is not only changed but diminished.

    I realize journalist ranks are thining — I’ve been in it nearly 30 years now — and I know what’s coming, what’s changing.

    But I feel that the very good qualities that make a good reporter, that make a really good reporter a rare thing, aren’t being examined, written about. You are in the position to do so.

    You have a tendency to reduce this business and your solutions to formula. It’s evident in your response to Keller; In parsing old statements it’s easy to miss new jumping off points and Keller offered you a very good one:

    “It is the despair that derives from an inability to see the enduring value of the old and the promise of the new.”

    I think Keller’s use of the word despair is perfect. It’s not the despair of someone who has given up hope, but the despair of people who feel that their value of what they have learned is being diminished.

  • There is also opportunity. Change brings not just despair but opportunity, if you’re willing to see it.

  • Paul Neely

    I am not surprised by Bill Keller’s impression from a couple of years ago that Jeff Jarvis was a blog triumphalist. There was a lot from Jeff then that was snarky and snide, but I’m sure not going to invest the time to go research chapter and verse, as I’m sure Jeff would challenge. Of course, one man’s snarky and snide is another man’s perceptive and sharp. Even so, I think Jeff rightfully takes credit for a certain mellowing and middle-grounding since then, so in that context maybe he has to admit that there was some rhetorical roughing, even on his side of things.
    In 1984, I wrote an article for the American Society of Newspaper Editors Bulletin proposing that newspapers should do away with institutional editorials and instead make their opinion pages into something more like a print-version Hyde Park, so I am not just a troglodyte former newspaper publisher (although the last three words are accurate). Still, I have to wonder if the demise of The New York Times and its brethren, or their conversion into common carriers of unvetted voices, would not diminish civic, and civil, discourse. (Just look at the tone of some rants above for evidence of the latter.)
    I am not sure that the babble of the crowd, even refined by a vast marketplace of ideas, is worth the demolition of authoritativeness (not authority), and under the progression of the current business model, I don’t see how traditional media can support the cost of that authoritativeness into the future. When the New York Times sent Bill Keller to Moscow as its correspondent, first they paid to send him to immersion language school. Who’s going to do that sort of thing ten years from now?

  • Jeff, Sometimes from reading your blog and the comments, and reflecting on my own experience, I get the feeling you are trying to do something that cannot be done — bridge two completely different cultures. If Keller is representative of senior management at leading newspapers, and I suspect he is, they are not open-minded enough about how journalism can be practiced to consider ideas like citizen/networked journalism. On the other hand, if you go to the blogosphere or Silicon Valley, they inherently understand that newspapers are archaic and will die soon, and would have to be convinced from the ground-up that mainstream journalists will have anything to do with the future of news. Given the difference in cultures, it’s hard for me to imagine mainstream outlets cooperating with you and harder still for me to imagine that they will emerge as leaders.

  • Walter Abbott

    Still, I have to wonder if the demise of The New York Times and its brethren, or their conversion into common carriers of unvetted voices, would not diminish civic, and civil, discourse. (Just look at the tone of some rants above for evidence of the latter.)

    Rant? Where? I’ve seen no rants in this comment section. Pointed comments, yes, but quite civil.

    This dismissive comment is typical of the attitude of the dinosaur media. They do not understand what they’re up against. Nor do they want to.

  • The whole concept of print journalism is based in a one way publishing system with the occasional reader letter thrown in. This gives journalists and newspaper a lot of authority.

    The Internet enables a two way discussion on each individual article. This is very scary for many writers, not just journalists. From my personal perspective, I bet you that for each topic that I personally have written about in the past, there is at least one person in the world (and probably far more!) who actually know the subject better than I do. This means that when I allow comments on my articles, I expose myself to getting comments from more knowledgeable people. In the scientific research world, this is called: “peer review”. Peer review is a brilliant way to ensure the quality of publications is as high as possible.

    However, with blogs, you have a different kind of ‘peer review’, let’s call it ‘crowd review’. Also: the review comes after you have published, not before. I think that most journalists and newspapers feel that ‘post publishing crowd review’ is beneath them. To paraphrase: “How dare these unprofessional people critique my work, what do they know!”

    I think this is at the heart of all these discussions. Crowd review dimishes the authority of the journalists and the newspapers, but it probably increases the quality of articles.

    I think this is where the battle lines are drawn. People like Jeff probably care more about the quality of journalism/ quality of articles whereas others care more about their authority.

    In my view, it is not that hard to guess who will win in the long run…

  • Paul Neely

    To suggest, as Jens does, that “crowd review” of The New York Times consists of “the occasional reader letter thrown in” — well, it fails to reach the reasonable middle ground that Jeff and Bill are seeking. A newspaper editor hears review after review, day after day, from readers, sources, experts and the subjects of articles. I always figured those reviews added to the cumulative stored knowledge that gave the newspaper expertise and authority. There is wisdom in crowds, but there is wisdom in experts too, and for those who favor the crowds to say that newspaper editors like Bill Keller just don’t get it is the kind of one-sided failure to grasp the broader picture that they complain of.

  • @ Paul Neely

    Ok, so you say that a journalist takes the middle ground, because they are exposed to so many opinions and because they are so professional. Fine. Let’s assume that this is true (I wish!).

    So what do they have to worry about then? If what they write is really high quality content, then they do not need to fear anybody – peers, experts, ‘the crowd’, their editor, anybody really.

    So what is the problem with other people commenting?

  • Colin Kerr

    Good quality writing is good quality writing, online or offline.

    Professional journalists should have nothing to fear from weblogs or other online media.

    The challenge is to produce the best content for both print and online.

    It shouldn’t be an either or situation.

  • Exactly

  • Jeffrey Dvorkin

    Jeff – A useful exchange between you and Bill Keller. I wonder though if Keller isn’t right in one important regard: the “wisdom of crowds” is a somewhat overstated and romantic notion. It might more useful to think of it as the “wisdom of communities.” The Times has a community, not a crowd, just as NPR does. What MSM and the blog-oisie have in common is their sense of community. For my money, the wisdom of crowds makes be uneasy since crowds are too easily manipulated and morph into mobs as the instigation of a talk radio or cable tv host.

  • I think you are still illustrating the finer points very well.

    Experience matters. If you are going to lead a print-based operation you will need a lifetime of unique experiences in how that world works and Mr. Keller has that – in spades.

    If you are going to lead an operation that is digital in nature – your leaders will need a much different background.
    But, money talks and print is making the money.

    The big picture for leadership, as I see it, is this.
    When publishers start making as much dough from digital as they do from print – who will they put at the helm?
    Will they hire an editor with a lifetime of digital experience or an editor with a lifetime of print-only experience?

  • Andy Freeman

    > But I feel that the very good qualities that make a good reporter, that make a really good reporter a rare thing, aren’t being examined, written about.

    I think that they are. (However, some of that examination is discovering that really good reporters are not necessarily professional journalists.)

    Something else is also happening. The world is discovering that the professional “not so good” reporters can be replaced by blogging hacks. Folks who used to get paid for that work are understandably upset, but why should the rest of us care?

  • Walter Abbott

    For my money, the wisdom of crowds makes be uneasy since crowds are too easily manipulated and morph into mobs as the instigation of a talk radio or cable tv host.

    Wow. Almost the exact same reaction the Tablet Keepers had to the invention of moveable type.

  • Guy Love

    This conversation is interesting in its attempts to bridge the established profession of journalism into the wild, wild, west of the future of journalism. While these philosophical debates go on, ever improving communication technology continues the process of creative destruction. It takes no sides and will continue to level the playing field. Technological displacements are ususally irreversible, journalists of the future will understand that and embrace the new ways of communicating with the average citizen.

    People embrace things that make their life better, and corporations will be forced to follow if they want to stay relevant. From a historical standpoint, this type of technological “leap forward” has happened to many industries and it is merely the media’s turn to go through this process. That perspective seems rarely mentioned by those still clinging to the way things were done as they wrestle with how to survive the transition period.

  • Guy Baehr

    Reading this exchange along with the comments, it occurs to me that there is a practical problem with tapping the wisdom of crowds — both for journalists and for readers. Despite technology (or perhaps because of it), it’s very time consuming to work one’s way through the material — exchanges, links, comments — to find the nuggets of wisdom.

    (This is especially time-consuming when the comments are as insightful, not to mention literate, as they are here.)

    One of the functions of traditional, one-way, journalism is to select and present information in a way that lets the “audience” pick out and absorb it quickly and efficiently.

    Turning the news into a conversation is a great advance in many ways — but the resulting exponential increase in both verbiage and information demands a corresponding increase in the amount of time required of both journalists and readers.

    As we all know, time is increasingly scarce and, so far, technology has mostly just allowed us to exchange more information more quickly, but has not offered similar help in the task of absorbing it and making sense of it.

    This may be a limiting factor when it comes to using the wisdom of crowds (or communities) and also a continuing reason why there will continue to be an audience for skilled journalists who are good at separating wheat from chaff and presenting it clearly and concisely.

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