Product v. process journalism: The myth of perfection v. beta culture

An alarm went off on some desk at The New York Times business section: Oh-oh, time to slam blogs again. But the latest assault reveals as much about The Times and the culture of classical journalism as it does about bloggers. Like the millennial clash of business models in media – the content economy v. the link economy and the inability of one to understand the other – here we see a clash over journalistic culture and methods – product journalism v. process journalism.

In The Times, Damon Darlin goes after blogs for publishing rumors and unfinished stories, calling it a “truth-be-damned approach” and likening it to yellow journalism, the highest insult of the gray class. He hauls out the worst example again – just as bloggers trying to go after MSM reporters do: the Steve Jobs heart attack rumor and Times WMD reporting (or Jayson Blair or Dan Rather), respectively.

Darlin leads with TechCrunch and Gawker sharing bogus rumors of Apple buying Twitter. He acknowledges that TechCrunch said in its post that it could not confirm the story. But still, he uses it to jump to the first of his broad-brush generalizations: “Such news judgment is not unusual among blogs covering tech. For some blogs, rumors are their stock in trade.” Couldn’t one say the same thing about political reporters who spread rumors and trial balloons, knowing they are just that, or business reporters feeding rumors and speculation about mergers or firings? Blogs are hardly alone in scoop mentality. Newspapers invented scoops.

When I tweeted about the story, calling it a slap to bloggers, Times Sunday business editor Tim O’Brien – who’d just issued his customary long string of tweets flogging his stories, including this one – responded: “isn’t about ‘product vs. process’ or ‘old vs. new’. it’s about people publishing things they don’t believe to be true. standards.”

One word: standards. But which standards? Whose standards? The Times’ standards, of course. They set the standard, don’t they?

Well, yes, they do, sometimes. Just not all the standards all the time. At my school, we say we teach what we call the eternal verities of journalism. But I also try to make sure the students are open to new worldviews and new methods and means of journalism. Those can come from bloggers and from the public we serve.

Darlin touches on one such new view when he writes:

[TechCrunch founder] Mr. Arrington and the other bloggers see this not as rumor-mongering, but as involving the readers in the reporting process. One mission of his site, he said, is to write about the things a few people are talking about, “the scuttlebutt around Silicon Valley.” His blog will often make clear that he’s passing along a thinly sourced story.

To quote Gawker founder Nick Denton, when we put up “half-baked posts” we are saying to our public: Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, what do you know. I believe it is critical to clearly label that, giving caveats and context. The same is true of 24-hour cable news, where the viewer must become the editor, understanding the difference between what is known now and what what can be confirmed later (see: the West Virgina mining disaster). In short: We who publish must learn how to say what we don’t know at least as well as we say what we know.

This is journalism as beta. I make a big point of that in What Would Google Do? – that every time Google releases a beta, it is saying that the product is incomplete and imperfect. That is inevitably a call to collaborate. It is – even from Google – a statement of humanity and humility: We’re not perfect.

Ah, but there’s the problem: journalism’s myth of perfection. And it’s not just journalism that holds this myth. It is the byproduct of the means and requirements of mass production: If you have just one chance to put out a product and it has to serve everyone the same, you come to believe it’s perfect because it has to be, whether that product is a car (we are the experts, we took six years to tool up, it damned well better be perfect) or government (where, I’m learning, employees have a phobic fear of mistakes – because citizens and journalists will jump on them) or newspapers (we package the world each day in a box with a bow on it – you’re welcome).

The posse of pros who jumped on me in Twitter this morning will say that they do make mistakes and corrections but first they always try to get it right – perfect – while bloggers instead spread rumors. But that’s where the fundamental misunderstanding comes. It’s a matter of timing, of the order of things, of the process of journalism. Newspaper people see their articles as finished products of their work. Bloggers see their posts as part of the process of learning.

I believe the contrast in methodology will become even more stark as we start using tools such as Google Wave to create news collaboratively in present-tense.

Online, we often publish first and edit later. We do that on blogs. One could say that 24-hour TV news does that, though I rarely see the editing. Even a division of The New York Times Company – (where I used to consult) – does its work in that order. (That is why About had dozens of writers for every editor [I don’t know the mix today], while The Times has three editors for every writer. That level of editing before publication is what makes The Times The Times – both from a journalistic perspective and, today, from an economic perspective; it may be what makes a newsroom like that unsustainable.)

Online, the story, the reporting, the knowledge are never done and never perfect. That doesn’t mean that we revel in imperfection, as is the implication of The Times’ story – that we have no standards. It just means that we do journalism differently, because we can. We have our standards, too, and they include collaboration, transparency, letting readers into the process, and trying to say what we don’t know when we publish – as caveats – rather than afterward – as corrections.

The problem with this tiresome, never-ending alleged war of blogs vs. MSM (Arrington attacks The Times) and MSM vs. blogs (The Times attacks Arrington) – (Mark Glaser scolded me for rising to The Times’ bait – is that it blinds each tribe from learning from the other. Yes, there are standards worth saluting from classical journalism. But there are also new methods and opportunities to be learned online. No one owns journalists or its methods or standards.

Robert Picard writes that journalism

is not business model; it is not a job; it is not a company; it is not an industry; it is not a form of media; it is not a distribution platform. Instead, journalism is an activity. It is a body of practices by which information and knowledge is gathered, processed, and conveyed. The practices are influenced by the form of media and distribution platform, of course, as well as by financial arrangements that support the journalism. But one should not equate the two.

The pity is that there are Timesmen who already are using these new methods. I see bloggers there asking readers to help them with stories, admitting they don’t know everything yet – which means they are publishing incomplete news. I wish one of those people had been assigned to this story (if it needed to be written at all) and that such an open-minded, curious journalist could have seen and explained these different worldviews and how they are clashing as they also merge. But that, apparently, was not the assignment.

* * *

I addressed the myth of perfection in the foreword of Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error (now out in paperback):

Nobody’s perfect – not even journalists . . . especially not journalists.

Reporters and editors make mistakes. Indeed, they are probably more likely than most to do so. For just as bartenders break more glass because they handle more beer, so journalists who traffic in facts are bound to drop some along the way.

Yet too often, they won’t admit that. What is plainly obvious – even a matter of liturgical confession for people of many faiths – is heretical to the reporting cult: People are fallible. But journalists too often believe they are not.

I was one of them. We were trained to seek and attain nothing less lofty than truth. Accuracy. Objectivity. We were the trusted ones. Impartial experts. Fair and balanced.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of London’s Guardian, said at a 2007 meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen at Harvard: “Since a free press first evolved, we have derived our authority from a feeling – a sense, a pretense – that journalism is, if not infallible, something close to it. We speak of ourselves as being interested in the truth, the real truth. We’re truth seekers, we’re truth tellers, and we tell truth to power.” But then he quoted Walter Lippman saying in 1922: “If we assume that news and truth are two words for the same thing we shall, I believe, arrive nowhere.”

It is time for journalists to trade in their hubris and recapture their humanity and humility. And the best way to do that is simply to admit: We make mistakes.

Craig Silverman’s examination of the art of the correction in his blog and now this book could not come at a better time for journalism. For the public’s trust in news organizations is falling about as fast as their revenues (and, yes, those may be related). One way to earn back that trust is to face honestly and directly the trade’s faults. The more – and more quickly – that news organizations admit and correct their mistakes, prominently and forthrightly, the less their detractors will have grounds to grumble about them.

But for journalists, to admit mistakes is to expose failure; corrections, in this logic, diminish stature and authority rather than enhance them. . . .

But this discussion should be about so much more than just errors and corrections. This is about new and better ways to gather, share, and verify news. And it is about a radically different and improved relationship between journalists and the public they serve. These changes in the culture and practice of journalism will not just bolster journalism’s reputation but expand its reach and impact in society.