But is it journalism? (Damnit)

Four incidents of late challenge the very notion of journalism. Michael Arrington, Henry Blodget, Wikileaks, and TV’s Irene coverage each in their own way raise the question: What is journalism? And does it matter?

When Michael Arrington announced that he was starting an investment fund at Aol with capital from other VCs, Kara Swisher went after him for violating canons of journalism. Just one thing: Arrington rejects the title of journalist. At his Disrupt conference, I tried to get him to take on the mantle and alter it. But he sees nothing to aspire to there.

In Swisher’s case, one has to concede — as she does — the irony in riding the journalistic high horse from within News Corp., which is rapidly becoming journalism’s Death Valley. I asked her on Twitter what she had written about hackgate and she responded at length with multiple links in this thread. She has written about it and has been, as she says, more vocal than other Journal journalists. That’s what troubles me. I would have hoped that WSJ reporters and editors as a group would have spoken out against not only hackgate but also their paper’s anemic coverage of it and its humiliating editorial justification of its owners. Where are their standards?

What are the standards? Arrington, remember, started TechCrunch not as a journalistic venture but instead to gather and share information about startups and to promote himself as an investor. He is returning to his roots. Along the way, he created a media entity of value. I noted on Google+ that The New York Times Company invests in startups (including one where I’m a partner, Daylife) and starts them and still covers them. It will say it maintains a wall. Arrington, not so much. Neither church nor state, he’s not trying to be a journalist. He’s trying to get information. He does it well. He has covered startups better than any big paper; that’s why WashingtonPost.com publishes TechCrunch posts. Given his links to startups and investment, can we trust him? That’s what Swisher’s trying to make us ask.

Now look at Henry Bodget, another businessperson who creates a media enterprise around gathering and sharing information — which we journalists define as journalism … if it’s done to our standards. Jay Rosen challenges Blodget for using confidential sources in this thread: “I hate the way @BusinessInsider uses anonymity.” But Blodget has an answer: “Sorry, Jay. Sometimes (often) it’s the only way to get the real info…. In business, anyone who goes on the record has agenda.” Felix Salmon counters: “Anyone who goes OFF record has an agenda. And those guys are more likely to lie. I trust on-the-record more.” Blodget: “Then you’ve clearly never worked in business. On record is only propaganda.”

Note cultures clashing. The journalism tribe says that confidential sources and the journalists who use them are not to be trusted. I agree that journalists overuse them. That’s not reporting to our standards. But the deal-makers disagree. Blodget says, “My goal is to get to the truth.” Isn’t that journalists’ goal, too? How can he get there by a different route? Is that journalism? Who’s to say? The journalists? Perhaps not.

Now look at TV coverage of Irene. Complaints about it have been miscast as “overhyping” the storm. The storm was severe. My problem was instead the over-exploitation and under-reporting of the storm. They had “reporters” as cast members standing thigh-deep in the surf or even being covered in sewage not to impart information, not to get to the truth, but to entertain. How much better it would have been if even a few of them had been dispatched north the center of their universe, New York, to report the devastation that would come there. My problem with the coverage is that all it did was take information already available to us all and repeat it endlessly and theatrically, adding no value.

Wikileaks saw, for a bit, the ability of journalism to add value to the flow of information. Julian Assange went to the Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel to get their help redacting leaks to make their revelation — in the view of these participants — responsible; to add context and facts; to promote the leaks and get them noticed. Now these journalistic organizations are disavowing Assange as he releases unredacted cables and Assange is disavowing the Guardian for publishing what it thought was a dead password to the files (though who was responsible for the entire file being available is another question). Assange has called himself a journalist; now the journalists are rejecting him. They say he’s violating their standards, though there is no rule I know of that would cover these eventualities, except perhaps the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

What is journalism, then? I define it broadly — some would say too broadly, but I am always afraid my umbrella is not broad enough. I say that journalism helps a community organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself. I say that a community can now share its information without us, so we journalists must ask how we add value to that exchange. I use Andy Carvin as a model of adding value through vetting, questioning, challenging, and giving context and attention to the end-to-end, witness-to-world flow that already goes on without him. But he violates plenty of rules, passing on information before it is known to be true — so we can get closer to what is true.

What is journalism, really? Does it matter? I’ve long said — ever since I rejected my own use of the term “citizen journalist” — that is a mistake to define journalism by who does it, as anyone can commit an act of journalism. Anyone can share information. By that definition, Arrington and certainly Blodget are committing acts of journalism as they gather and share information quite effectively. TV news is less effective. Wikileaks is perhaps too effective.

So what the hell is journalism? Dave Winer says it doesn’t matter. “Journalism itself is becoming obsolete,” he argues well. Mathew Ingram recasts what Winer says, asking whether journalism is obsolete because anyone can do it.

In a wonderful email thread among the members of Journal Register’s advisory board (of which I am privileged to be a member), we debated about the Washington Post’s new social rules. Jay Rosen said, in the kind of essential abstraction I try to learn from him, that “the subtext of all such rule sets: ‘We’re in charge. Really…We are!'” Is that what journalists are doing when they set social rules or claim that Arrington or Blodget or Wikileaks violate journalistic rules (or when I claim that TV news does)? The rule-setters would argue that rules define what they do. Rules try to protect one from the consequences of bad judgment. Those subject to rules — or those we journalists would like to subject to them — would say that rules are a way to exercise power and sometimes to exclude. In the thread, I recalled the worst and best of my time at Time Inc., when I was saved not by rules but by one editor’s integrity, by the principles she maintained.

As I was trying to think through this post — a process obviously not over — I tweeted: “Information, more and more, comes from nonjournalists who’ve not signed the pledge.” To which Chris Tolles of Topix replied: “This is key. Journalism no longer the gatekeeper. Journalists’ protests about this are guild protectionism.” There’s the peril of setting rules: They are, in so many senses of the word, limiting.

Journalism is not defined by who does it and who does it does not define journalism.

So what is journalism, damnit?

I don’t know.

I know that people can exchange information and knowledge easier than ever. I believe there is a need for someone to add value to that exchange. I hope that “someone” can be journalists who will use precious resources only to bring value. I pray their efforts can be sustainable (that is, that they can eat; that’s why I do what I do in entrepreneurial journalism). But I think we need to question — not reject, but reconsider — every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner. These are the questions I see raised by Arrington, Blodget, et al. Do they matter? You tell me.

: YET MORE: Jay Rosen, as I’d hoped, abstracted the discussion including his abstraction. In the comments, he write: “The users don’t care about “journalism” all that much. That’s the name the producers of it have for what they do. News, information, “what’s happening,” accountability, staying in touch, alert system, “just tell me what I need to know…” Yes. The users care about those things. Journalism? Not so much.”

Right. The question of what is and isn’t journalism is one that journalists ask. It has nothing to do with the questions the public asks. And the journalist’s job, supposedly, is to answer the public’s questions. Disconnect, eh?

: And in the also-lively discussion on this post at Google+, David Sass has an interesting perspective:

I submit journalism was never more more than a academic concept – like Plato’s forms – that never really existed except as a vague concept in poly-sci textbooks. The reality is that I receive information from many sources – from direct observation, from friends, from entertainment, from politicians, from government, from media, from pundits/propagandist. Journalism is the naive belief that I should trust any one of these sources more or less than another. . . Information is not to be trusted from ANY source. To believe otherwise is to abdicate your individual responsibility to seek the truth.

  • http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/research/definitions-of-journalism.html

    For me growing up journalism aspired to keep public policy open and ‘honest’ and formed a vital part of any democracy. This link gives a wide range of views, I’m surprised how many define journalism without looking to place it into context of societies needs.

  • gregorylent

    my fave quote about “journalism” came from maharishi mahesh yogi … it is “a tool of the devil”.

    years later, i still agree.

  • Regardless of what Arrington said in your May 2011 interview with him, he has identified himself as a journalist elsewhere. Specifically, he has listed himself as a journalist on Quora.

    The debates about “What is journalism?” and “Who is a journalist?” have been going on for quite awhile, and we won’t be able to answer the question. Frankly, it’s irrelevant.

    Instead, people should be judged by their work. Being an entrepreneur and a journalist aren’t mutually exclusive. However, labeling oneself as a journalist in some contexts and then denying it in others is just dishonest. And pretending that dishonesty never happened hurts the credibility of others.

  • Sling Trebuchet

    I think that the problem for someone who wants to be a Journalist is that there is a huge demand for entertainment.

    Wikipedia (which as everyone knows is never wrong and never lacking) defines Journalism as:
    “A journalist collects and disseminates information about current events, people, trends, and issues. His or her work is acknowledged as journalism.
    Reporters are one type of journalist. They create reports or articles as a profession for broadcast or publication in mass media such as newspapers, television, radio, magazines, documentary film, or the Internet. Reporters cultivate sources for their work, their reports can be either spoken or written, and they are often expected to report in the most objective and unbiased way to serve the public good. A columnist is a journalist who writes pieces that appear regularly in newspapers or magazines. A polemical journalist combines reportage with personal opinion.”

    By that definition, just about anybody is a journalist. It’s so general at the edges that one could probably obtain a software patent for it.

    Maybe the best journalists should aspire to be reporters. – “they are often expected to report in the most objective and unbiased way to serve the public good. ”
    With the word “often” deleted, we have something that sounds good and noble. More people should try it.

    The Wikipedia definition seems to allow a Journalist to stray from the righteous path of the (word-“often”-deleted) reporting and varnish the story with opinion. This is probably acceptable if the opinion is explicitly labelled as such.
    The people writing for the Guardian on the Wikileaks issue, for example, are certainly nor reporters. It’s even a push to call them journalists. I’ve seen better ‘reporting’ by trolls in blog comments.

    For me, a true journalist of the reporter inclination has a valuable role to play in the modern world where everybody can broadcast opinion and hard facts can be hard to come by.
    Research for facts. Report them without bias. Find a way of trading that for the necessities of life – and hopefully a few luxuries.

    I wonder if is possible to work for a major ‘news’ organisation and still be a real journalist?
    Research takes time. The facts may be unwelcome. The facts may not be entertaining.
    If the editors and owners are insisting on a certain line or on entertainment, there may not be many options for journalism.
    Perhaps a true journalist has to stand alone, and use the power of the Net to find an audience.
    There used to be this romantic notion of an artist starving in an attic room. I’m not sure how attractive the reality might be. Maybe true artists have to know starvation a bit.

  • Journalism is a response (and not the only response) to people’s desire to know what’s happening and what’s true, to understand meaning and to work on collective issues. It might be a service, it might be actions that add value, it might be an interface. It wasn’t invented by news companies, nor is it owned by them. I agree with Jeff’s argument for setting aside assumptions and looking at what people need and how journalism adds value — but I also think it’s worth asking people outside the media discussion, and listening to what they say, about journalism’s necessity and value.

  • I’m tempted to say “journalism is what journalists do” but don’t want to seem snide in response to a good thoughtful essay. Nonetheless I think it has more than a little truth in it so say that journalism is a guild and its standards and practices are largely taught by observation and apprenticeship rather than by an externally codified body of knowledge or rulebooks.

    (Came here because +Dan Gillmor linked to this in G+)

  • Shane Snow

    Awesome read, Jeff. What’s your take on brands producing nonpromotional editorial content, like Amex Open Forum?

    • Shane Snow

      … and more precisely, is it journalism?

  • Dontcareanymore

    Mr. Jarvis’s optimism and enthusiasm never fail to inspire. How he can continue to care about journalism, as dead as Latin, baffles. Even as it’s his bread and butter. I hope his heroic efforts to revive it through reinvention succeed.
    Sadly, journalism died somewhere around the time more people looked to TV than the newspaper for news. The few remaining priests are drowned out by the ubiquitous advertainment.

    • EB

      Advertainment is a good word for it, like infotainment. When NBC bought the Weather Channel it got silly, but more entertaining. (for some). The weather weenies who go outside to be blown about in the wind vs. The weather nerds (like Brendan Loy, the weather nerd blogger) sum up the difference for me. But unfortunately one makes a lot more money than then other. The journalism debate microcosm.

  • Try this definition — I’ve tested it in multiple public forums and it seems to hold up pretty well:

    “Journalism is (trying to) deliver an accurate and timely account of some event to some public.”

    I don’t really care whether Arrington hangs a “journalist” badge on his own lapel or not. By any reasonable standard TechCrunch is delivering journalism, and Arrington created TechCrunch. It has many strengths and many weaknesses all based on Arrington’s personality and career. (It’s no surprise that he should have wound up discontented with AOL as his master.)

    I do think it’s reasonable to say, “Read TechCrunch with your eyes narrowed — it covers a scene that it also participates in.”

    • No, I don’t think it’s an event. It could be a question for the powerful, a trend uncovered, news in data, and so on.
      And I’m trying to push past the idea that we journalists define something as journalism because it looks and smells and tastes like it and then hold it to our supposed standards.
      I’m trying to ask: what if there’s another way to look at this?

      • Well, a definition needs to have *some* boundaries if it’s going to be of any use.

        “Event” is shorthand for “something that happened.” Those “questions for the powefful” and “trends uncovered” and data-dives are all in the service, ultimately, of trying to assemble an account of something that happened. The assembly can take place conventionally (by the producer of a traditional journalistic product) or unconventionally (in all sorts of fun ways). But somehow it’s gotta happen.

        If what you have is an account of something that didn’t happen, it’s fiction — a fine calling that’s at least as valuable to the species as journalism is. But a different thing, no?

      • The definition I’ve always used is that journalism is the collection, filtering and distribution of accurate information. The only problem I’ve ever had with this is that it bleeds into history – but journalism, I’d argue, is the first attempt at writing history.

        I think it’s important to ask that question “what is journalism” or “but is it journalism” – I don’t think we ask that enough and often the definition is circular ie: journalism is something produced by journalists or published in journals. This just makes me want to slap myself.

        Again – for me journalism has always been a ‘process’ – and it’s by defining that process (collecting, filtering, distributing) information that we can determine if something is journalism or if somebody committed acts of journalism (willingly or no).

  • I think @arrington @hbodget are following a model not very different from the myriad organizations that now create content in the name of news, education, or whatever but mostly with an eye on advancing their brand within a group of people they care about.

    But when I look at ad supported media I have to ask – is this very different from what came before? I mean, should I expect a good critique of cpg or telecoms or pharam companies from those that need them for revenue?

    A the same time this might turn out to be positive. Interested in climate change? Well who really really needs to understand this? Seems like reinsurance (I like swiss re for example) companies have quite a bit to gain or lose here – guess what? lots of great research and content on the subject. Entertainment this is not. But quality “reporting” on the issues? I think so.

    The bottom line appears to be the bottom line. Just like pharma cant make money from asking us to eat better to cure what ails us, so much of journalism needs to entertain to drive cpms in an ad supported environment. But the flip side may also be true – who really benefits from knowing or covering a specific subject?

    Is it journalism? I’m not sure. Is it viable? Seems this is driving new models to get at the truth. Do I want more data and less opinion? Not enough for a Bloomberg terminal, but enough to take the time to build a curated list of people and organizations to follow to try sort out fact from fiction. Problem is, there are many issues that may lack a counterpoint with enough self interest to fund investigations and questioning.

    Who will make this work viable?

  • Carlson

    Journalism is the collection & distribution of TRUTH about significant new events.

    Truth is the central core of journalism… and truth is totally objective, by definition. If it’s not verifiably true– it is not journalism.

    Conjecture, opinion, speculation, and unverified data/information/reports/quotes/press-releases/etc are not journalism.

    Choice of “significant” new events (news) is largely subjective, guided by the intended audience. This is the largest source of bias in reporting… but is heavily constrained by truth requirements in Journalism.

    Truth-telling identifies genuine journalism and journalists… and easily eliminates the other 99% of poseurs in the American media.

    • Ah, so columns aren’t journalism then?

      • Again – I’d say the barrier is “accurate” over “truth.” I think columnists are journalists if they are accurate. But “Truth” with a capital “T” just feels so philosophical.

  • The users don’t care about “journalism” all that much. That’s the name the producers of it have for what they do. News, information, “what’s happening,” accountability, staying in touch, alert system, “just tell me what I need to know…” Yes. The users care about those things. Journalism? Not so much.

    • +1

    • I don’t think this is universally true.

      In my experience, anecdotal though it is, plenty of users have been “infected” with the idea that this is journalism and that isn’t. For instance, you often see comments on newspaper stories chiding the reporter for being “biased” or not telling the whole story. They are being admonished as journalists. I get the distinct sense that if the same story was written to these people in, say, an email from a friend of theirs, I don’t think they would apply the same standard.

      Granted, I think this attitude is slowly going away but it’s still very much there for the moment and as we all know, many high-profile journalists are still perpetuating it.

    • Andy Freeman

      > In my experience, anecdotal though it is, plenty of users have been “infected” with the idea that this is journalism and that isn’t. For instance, you often see comments on newspaper stories chiding the reporter for being “biased” or not telling the whole story.

      You’re ignoring an important detail. US news media claim to tell the whole story. They claim to not be biased.

      > They are being admonished as journalists.

      That’s because it’s the label that you’ve chosen, the label that you’ve said has certain properties. What would you have us call you when we find that you’re not living up to your claims?

  • George Mason

    Superb Jeff essay and comments but, hey, we can all relax. On his final (July 31, 1970) broadcast, Chet Huntley lectured us with, “I might also remind you that American journalism, all of it, is the best anywhere in the world.” Presumably he or one of his journalists checked it out — but only after David “news-is-what-I-say-it-is” Brinkley told them what to look for.

  • Interesting reflection, Jeff. Users don’t care at all about whether journalism is any longer a term with meaning, but that doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. What is happening is a chaos of ideas. That, in case anyone is wondering, is a good thing.

    Here’s a quick shot at defining four things that journalists might do that could benefit from specific skills and experience: verification, sense-making (analysis, context, judgement), eye-witness and investigation (specialised inquiry, hard targets). You’ll notice I don’t include news, among other things. Longer version of this argument at http://www.scribd.com/doc/28560140/George-Brock-Is-News-Over

  • Journalism is to provide service (news) to society to encourage better. Journalism is no use in society … It’s clear.

    • journalism is to benefit society, not to use it (the previous translation was wrong)

  • Isn’t journalism really about standards and expectations from consumers? I think there is an expectation of fairness and context that people have…that the news source is trying to both inform and be fair and accurate in doing so. It’s why we traditionally separated journalism from opinion, which is more about trying to influence. We have had a much harder time keeping to these standards in a world of shrinking lead times. The expectation of how fair we can be or how much context we can add is naturally challenged when the time we have to think about a story is reduced to seconds from hours and days. So one of our problems is that we haven’t articulated how we are dealing with those new conditions.

  • Carlson

    Journalism = News (process & product) = Truth + Significance + New

    Lots of people collect & distribute “information” and tell us ‘what’s happening/happened’: historians, school teachers, accountants, real estate brokers, advertising copy-writers, postmen, bookies, etc, etc. But journalism denotes a much different process/product.

    The obvious ‘jour’ in journalism is day/daily… requiring a currency about new & refreshed factual information of significance. Old, predictable, or routine information is not the object of journalism.

    Most data and most information is not news.. nor the object of journalism.

    Most who claim to perform journalism– do nothing even close to it… they are primarily in the marketing, entertainment, and political propaganda business. Facts are extremely scarce.

    This agonizing over the substance of ‘journalism’ is really just subjective angst over “advocacy” — what one would prefer others to know & value.

    The urge to blend advocacy into journalism is overwhelming… some correctly feel quite guilty about it… and mistakenly focus on the mere definition of journalism to soothe their angst.

  • The one big problem with the new journalism is that many writers do not feel compelled to get both sides of the story. Everyone is after sensationalism. Everyone wants to be the one to break a story without the responsibility of fact checking. I was a b2b journalist for 11 years and we were held accountable for every word. Today it is one big free for all.

    • Andy Freeman

      > The one big problem with the new journalism is that many writers do not feel compelled to get both sides of the story.

      Another big problem is that journalists are prone to making serious logic errors, such as assuming that there are “both sides” to a story.

      Another one is implicit in “I must have gotten fairly close to the truth because both sides are mad at me.” (Different groups being mad at you says nothing about how close you got to the truth.)

      Another one is that “journalists” seem to think that money is the most corrupting influence when it isn’t even in the top 3.

  • Morgan Warstler

    Noise and noise.

    What you call journalism, I call a bunch of liberals without a pot to piss in all bending reality to make themselves more powerful.

    The god awful triumvirate of Journalism, Bureaucrats, and Education all prop each other up so you don’t have to get real jobs and deliver a product people want to buy.

    Jeff, people buy what they want to hear. Period.

    What they want to hear is by definition the hegemonic influence that you would set journalism up to fight.

    There is nothing noble in not earning a profit. Profits are noble, they meet the man where he is, they come from delivering what the man wants.

    People are not sheep. And journalists are ALL biased.

    When 50% of journalists vote Rick Perry and you are HAPPY about it, you’ll have worthwhile opinion of journalism.

  • The issue is less about what is journalism, and more about the quality of the thing, whatever you call it. I.e., here’s journalism, and then there’s good or bad journalism. Journalism makes the distinction between reporting (which requires fact-checking) and opinion (which should be so labeled). Good journalism explores all aspects of something and attempts to come up with the truth… and the most interesting good journalism often requires a combination of reporting, analysis, interpretation, skepticism, enterprise….and (often missing these days) clear writing/illustration.

    Like everyone, journalists have biases. They should disclose them and attempt to overcome them – but in the end, they should give readers enough info to judge for themselves.

    • Ah, but Esther, I’d have thought you might broaden the definition to include platforms. That’s where I see great potential to expand journalism and make it more efficient and sustainable. In response to Tom Watson elsewhere, I brought up Ushahidi, which enables a community to gather and share and organize and act on its information. Creating that platform is a highly journalistic act in my definition. It involves fact vs. opinion (is the pothole there, or isn’t it?). It may or may not require and inspire added value (the litany you give). What I am trying to do here is to get people — starting with my students — to break out of their old assumptions about a community’s information resources and needs and find new (entrepreneurial) opportunities there. Where do you see such opportunity?

  • It is true that most people don’t care *what* journalism is, and that they do care about what it does – inform, motivate, entertainment etc.

    I think what Jeff is really framing is a discussion around what the profession (or semi-profession) of journalism is – and what those practitioners who believe in the “Church of Journalism” with its codes and baptisms are willing to endure in the name of reform and change.

    In truth, this codified journalism isn’t a particularly ancient sect – it’s very recent (in the independent ‘view from nowhere’ professional American form, really post-WWII) and because of its decentralized nature and the effects of technology on production and distribution, wide open to quick evolution.

    But journalism remains story-telling – and a journalist is someone who leaves the pack to gather some facts and ideas and data to bring a story back to the pack.

    • Well said, Tom. Except…. I’m not sure it’s necessarily story-telling anymore. Oh, yes, that’s part of it: it’s a tool to impart information. But Ushahidi is journalism, as far as I’m concerned: creating a platform that enables a community to share and organize its knowledge (and itself). But there’s no story, no narrative, just useful information. Andy Carvin never sits down and writes a story. He adds value to a stream that never starts and never ends, as stories must.

      The article (the form the story takes) is an artifact of the means of production and distribution, the need to fit information into a space and time and make it consumable. Again, there’ll still be articles. But that’s not all there is, I argued here.

      • Jeff – I’m not arguing for “articles” per se as much as a broader definition of “stories.” That’s what we need. There’s no doubt whatsoever to me that Andy C. is a born storyteller on Twitter. He absolutely tells a story through his curation and commentary. Ushahidi, I’d argue, is not journalism – it’s a platform (like Wikileaks could woulda shoulda been) – but what people do with Ushahidi, from elections in Kenya up to coverage of Irene – that’s gotta be considered journalism…and storytelling, right?

        • I think journalism must think of itself as creating platforms.

        • I’d agree Jeff: As long as those platforms are involved in the collecting, filtering and distribution of information. Hence: Everyblock is journalism – despite the lack of “storytelling” that we think of.

          As I’ve said earlier: Journalism (for me at least) is defined by a process, a series of things we do. Not by who does it or where it’s distributed (the NYT paper or my blog) – if it involves those steps above and the information is accurate.

          In the information age – mining data is like gold. The collecting, filtering and distribution of information that is accurate, even if it’s done by a platform, I’d argue is journalism.

        • I’m not sure I follow what that means Jeff. Are you arguing that WordPress is journalism?

        • Brian

          Journalism is writing down what you think about. That’s it. Adding branding to the mix (a reputable school, a newspaper, etc., all of which started out as someone’s simple idea) just makes the concept of journalism appear to be more than what it really is. If it was anything more than that, we’d have this perfect encyclopedia that has all of the “facts of existence” that never change.
          I’m not saying there’s no value in journalism – I’m just saying the concept is very simple. What people do with written information (i.e. create a textbook by gathering various pieces of journalism, or create a corporation) is the powerful part.
          Jeff, I think you’re doing a great job being a pioneer as far as figuring out how written communication can help get people on the same page (assuming that’s one of your goals), create new business lines, improve existing business lines, etc. – particularly with your WWGD book (that’s not meant to be a plug), but at this point in the world of “human civilization’s growth/experience,” I just don’t see defining what journalism is, as nearly as important as maybe creating mechanisms that build trust among and between communities that write down what they think about. Without trust, writing is worthless.

        • Brian

          One last thing – re your David Sass excerpt, I think he’s spot on except for the “don’t trust anything” piece at the end. That’s just pure incompetence. Trust is an assumption. Assumptions are required to live – otherwise you’d be tearing yourself open every second just to make sure everything was working correctly (as if you could tell).
          Our assumption/trust hierarchies vary – and they’re usually shaped by whatever we happen to value the most – which changes over time.
          Case in point: if we’re scared shitless of something hurting us (or causing us to lose money), the likelihood of putting any form of trust in it goes down. If we could care less, we’ll usually assume.

  • The 5 Ws and One H of what every journalist must do to remain objective:

    Who is it about?
    What happened?
    Where did it take place?
    When did it take place?
    Why did it happen?
    How did it happen?

    Further reading here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Ws

  • I’m surprised to read this, even though I shouldn’t be. It doesn’t matter what journalism is or how it’s defined?

    Does that mean that the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism lacks any real mission or identity?

    Blodget and Huffington definitely help to share useful information and provide worthwhile points of view. But they also do little to foster thorough reporting and careful vetting in today’s changing media world. I’ve read several first-and second-hand accounts about Blodget and his employees failing to vet and verify information before posting it.


    We all know about the similar Huffington hiccups.

    Conjecture and misinformation are certainly the antithesis of journalism. Sometimes boundaries are hard to define, but if you compare a day at Business Insider or The Huffington Post to a day at Reuters or The New York Times you will visibly notice a difference. The first group incorporate journalism into what they do, the second group do journalism. It’s a very real thing involving in-depth phone conversations, boot-strap investigating and thorough research.

    • Damian,
      Any university should have a mission of questioning. I’m trying to get students, former student, journalists — and myself — to break out of old definitions to find new opportunities (entrepreneurially).
      I disagree about Blodget and Huffington; they do real reporting, a good deal of it. They also post information in process — just as NPR’s Andy Carvin does and he gets lionized (properly, I think) for it.
      There’s not only one way to do journalism. That’s the assumption I’m asking you to question.
      This is also about generosity, about not being a closed priesthood of journalism but about finding new ways to collaborate with the public you serve and serve that public better.
      This questioning occurs at a time of (1) huge business disruption that means the structure of the NY Times will not be sustainable in every city in America … we are certainly seeing that, and (2) huge technology change, which opens new opportunities to do journalism in new ways.
      I would ask you not to pull up the ladder behind you now that you have your journalism degree, arguing that only people with the mantle can do this work. I would ask you to think expansively about how to serve communities’ information needs in new, even better ways.
      I’m doing my job, Damian: asking questions. Isn’t that what all journalists and all professors and thus all journalism professors should be doing? There, that’s a question.

      • Your questioning is as engaing as ever. I think the underlying value that everyone who reads your post can agree on is truth-seeking.

        Jeff, I completely agree that journalism or, in it’s broader sense, truth-seeking is a job not only reserved for those who have several years experience and/or a graduate degree in the field. Anyone with the right sensibility, intelligence and commitment can break news, distill complex ideas and connect dots. There is no mantle in a meritocracy.

        But I also believe that people who want to pursue what we call journalism should earnestly learn the fundamentals that Larry Kramer, Melanie Sill, Carlson and some other people touch upon here (news judgment, balance and accountability, to name three). From my own six years experience in the field — predating my time at CUNY — I have come to witness many people who take on journalism or journalism-related careers to brand and market themselves for something else. This is a free nation and there’s nothing wrong with that; not to mention that everyone should have a backup plan these days. But all readers/consumers should be able to make the distinction when they follow a particular contributor or outlet.

        This comment from Shaun Abrahamson sums it up for me: “I think @arrington @hbodget are following a model not very different from the myriad organizations that now create content in the name of news, education, or whatever but mostly with an eye on advancing their brand within a group of people they care about.”

        What time will tell for anyone who who enters the field and makes a name for him or herself is whether truth-seeking was ever really the underlying intention. From my understanding of the TechCrunch ordeal, Arrington never pretended that was the case and that makes a world of a difference. Others are less clear about their intentions.

        In my honest opinion, Huffington and Blodget are in the field, in part, to celebrate having reinvented journalism. I hope the next wave of journalists and CUNY students continue to challenge them and their approach to generating news — as well as valuing it.

        • Damian,
          Well said. You know that I hold to CUNY’s teaching of the eternal verities. What it takes to be right and trusted is unlikely to change, though much changes around that.
          Much of my point here is that information is being exchanged with or without us. That is a new reality and it doesn’t do much good for some to lament reality. Instead, I hope, our journalists and entrepreneurs will find the need and opportunity there. Now that there is information flying by and it doesn’t need us to distribute it what *does* the public need? Where can we add value? That’s a changed relationship with information and with the public.

  • As a young journalist, I define journalism as the practice that infuses balance and perspective to information. Anyone can chronicle events or disseminate information; however, journalists have the task to show both sides (or as many sides as possible) of the story and let people digest it and use it as they see fit.

    Maybe this is real only in theory thanks to the 24-hr entertainment news cycle, news aggregators and infomercials.

    But nonetheless, this is what I aim for every time I am reporting, writing and investigating. At this point it is clear that I’m not in this profession for the money; it’s my passion, pays the bills and makes me happy.

    • Andy Freeman

      > As a young journalist, I define journalism as the practice that infuses balance and perspective to information.

      What is it about journalists that makes them think that they have the the relevant skills and/or knowledge to do those things?

      I’m serious. I spend an absurd amount of time with lawyers, yet I’d never claim to be able to “infuse balance and perspective” wrt legal affairs.

      Do you really think that a legal affairs correspondent has better “balance and perspective”t (wrt legal issues) than http://volokh.com/ ? (Note that “the conspiracy” don’t claim to be journalists.)

      This isn’t limited to legal affairs.

      Journalists know how to tell stories. However, that doesn’t imply that they know how to tell stories that correspond to reality.

  • Edward R. Murrow once said, “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.” But he may have been misquoted. Or my internet source may have fabricated the statement. Either way, it reads well, seems to fit, and I’m on a deadline…so I stand by my statement.

  • Jacqueline Hughes

    Very interesting article and comments, thank you. I’m a reader, so I have what seems to be an outside interest in how workers in the word and image industry define themselves.

    As a reader of news or comment I find it useful to keep in mind that the product of mainstream mass media is neither news nor entertainment, but profit. Yes, there are exceptions, but no, I don’t blindly trust any grouping of words. I am not simply being given the truth, but encouraged to buy it from a particular salesman (writer/presenter) or company. So I think when journalists discuss their work in terms of accountability to the truth, they are ignoring that they are also accountable to purchasers/producers and purchasers/consumers.

    So this reader agrees that objectivity is a lie.

    Let me address a single imaginary journalist as I tend to read one thing at a time.

    The more you pretend to objectivity the less I trust you. You are no more objective in your arrangement of words than I am in my reading rearrangement.

    The less you provide access to sources/further reading, the less I trust you. If it is the truth, as you claim, and an important truth, then it’s probably important for me to find out more about it. If you block this, I won’t like it.

    The more your words manipulate my emotional reactions while you pretend to none yourself, however worthy the cause, the less I respect you. I may well reject even your partial truth. In the age of new media, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

    Oh, and I get really bored if when you do declare an interest, all you do is talk about yourself.

    I don’t know if I’m the sort of reader you dread or desire, but I don’t claim to be unique. I don’t know if you will ever treat me as anything other than an inexpert client, but if you do, I know I won’t owe you a thing. I’m looking for a very civil partnership.

    Platforms sound interesting.


  • Robert levine

    From my experience teaching at cuny, most students, but not all, look down on people like Arrington and blodget as shady- and rightly so. Arrington breaks news, but he has agendas within agendas. Blodgets record on wall street speaks for itself. Is it journalism? Not sure. Is it good? Most of my students would have said no.

    • I wholeheartedly agree Robert. I think Huffington and Blodget are in the field, in part, to celebrate having reinvented journalism. And as I mentioned in my comment above, I hope the next wave of journalists and CUNY students continue to challenge them and their approach to generating and valuing news.

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  • lg

    So if I understand : there is no journalism, there is only proof of journalism ?
    Remember what journalism was just after the 9/11.
    I can see proof of no-journalism at the moment at the french tv where so-called journalists just wait for a show from DSK the former director of the IMF.
    Facts are not the truth, journalism is not the truth, is there any truth ?

  • Robert levine

    If you look at David Carr’s column on l’affaire Arrington, THAT is journalism.

    • It is a defense of the orthodoxy of journalism. Is that the proper role for a critic?

    • Andy Freeman

      > It is a defense of the orthodoxy of journalism. Is that the proper role for a critic?

      Doesn’t that depend on whether the orthodoxy is “good”? Or rather, I expect criticism to tell me what’s good, why, and why it matters, just as I expect it to tell me what’s bad, why, and why it matters.

      • Robert levine

        I think he was defending standards, not orthodoxy. Carr is hardly orthodox. What I liked about his column is that it examined arrington’s claims and found them wanting.

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  • Jeff,
    You could replace the words “journalist” and “journalism” with “librarian” and “librarianship” across a lot of your blog post. The internet and cheap computing devices are breaking down the barriers that existed in a world of information scarcity. Traditional gatekeepers to the “truth” in a number of sectors are feeling the effects of this. While painful for some I believe it will lead to new and exciting opportunities for many others.

    • Belinda Gomez

      Who actually thinks librarians have any special skills to finding information? Most MLS degree holders think their job is social work and crowd control. Read Annoyed Librarian for this take.

  • All those words you waste, and you managed to say nothing. I wish to prosecute you for the mass murder of all the cells in my brain you just wantonly killed.

  • And don’t forget journalism isn’t just for humans anymore. At StatSheet we’ve been “reporting” on College Basketball and now MLB e.g. http://bosoxball.com/ through our publishing platform that automatically converts stats into prose. Software journalism is just as viable (and in some cases better) than human journalism for certain types of coverage.

  • At a conference by the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Gavin Millar QC (http://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/barristers/gavin_millar_qc.cfm) said: “A journalist is like a terrorist, we have no legally defined term for what they are”

    Now I blog about Data Journalism and have just written a definitions page http://datamineruk.wordpress.com/about/definitions/. I have been searching for something to put down as a guideline for ‘journalism’ but nothing similar to the http://opendatamanual.org/ or http://www.opendefinition.org/ exits online for ‘open journalism’.

    Legally, the best I could find is this from Council of Europe Committee of Ministers recommendation No. R (2000) 7 on protection of journalistic sources:

    Appendix to Recommendation No. R (2000) 7- Principles concerning the right of journalists not to disclose their sources of information

    Definitions For the purposes of this Recommendation:
    a. the term “journalist” means any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication;

    In my mind the definition of journalist should not be in what they do (as you can see is too vague and in real life too fluid to be assigned a permanent definition) but in what protections they can be offered by law i.e. Public Interest Defence. In the UK anyone ‘publishing’ on Twitter or Facebook cannot be granted the right to a public interest defence as the law as it stands classifies Twitter and Facebook as a online ‘private’ journals not ‘a means of mass communication’. This is clearly wrong.

    In that sense, I would like the heads of traditional news organisations as well as technology platforms such as the above to be editors of the “journalismdefinition” wiki and the “openjournalimsmanual”. The purpose of such sites would be to act as a witness in any court of law where a defendant wishes to use public interest defence as an argument.

    What do you think?

  • Belinda Gomez

    I think users do care–we want to know if the reporter/journalist has an axe to grind or something to promote. (Jay might recall Assignment Zero, where “citizen journalists” tried to hide behind fake names while uncovering something they didn’t like.)

    While I don’t believe that the NYT’s layers of editors insures quaility control, I trust those editors more than I trust someone who hits “post” on Typepad or WordPress.

    On Cohn’s site, one sees too many pitches where the writer already has his/her mind made up and wants to cherry pick facts and data to support that view point. That’s not reporting, that’s something else. Advocacy journalism isn’t objective and I want to know what the writer’s POV is before anything else.

  • Sling Trebuchet

    Way up above , on September 3rd, I wrote “I think that the problem for someone who wants to be a Journalist is that there is a huge demand for entertainment.”

    Today I see a latest post by Robert Scoble on G+ regarding Techcrunch

    Extract: “Several years ago Arrington and I were headed to some conference and I asked him about how he sees himself. Did he consider himself a blogger or a journalist, I asked. His answer stuck with me all this time: “I’m an entertainer.”

  • George Simpson

    Jeff: interesting in all this no mention of “separating the wheat from the chaff” or of “creating the first rough draft of history” two concepts I grew up with. I truly fear for our kids and their ability to discriminate between what you and I thought was journalism when we were younger (however imperfect) and the first-person opinion that combine elements of reporting with a subtitle POV that will be hard for them to recognize. The fact that they don’t even read dead tree papers is scary enough.

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  • The question is whether or not news orgainizations are people in the same way that corporations are people. The answer is clearly NO!

    The new journalism might just be all of us acting as responsible citizens and using communication tools at our disposal to do that. I am sure I agree with Winder, but have’t read the piece. There is no monetary profit in this. The profit is having a stake in our society.

  • Hanover

    Journalism as truth-seeking.

    Yup, Damian Ghigliotty is thread-winner here with a simple definition that all can agree upon as fundamental.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Journalism as truth-seeking.

      > Yup, Damian Ghigliotty is thread-winner here with a simple definition that all can agree upon as fundamental.

      Except that it’s clearly false. Journalists don’t have the skills and/or knowledge to “seek truth”. They merely have the ability to quote people and rewrite what they said.

      We can see that in the term “fact-checking”, a task which journalists think consists of verifying quotes.

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  • Ivory

    Journalism is a spectacle at best, a farce at worst. My field is in online publishing and I can tell you that the content put up on popular/brand name sites — the stories editors choose, even the words writers use — is all to drive search engine results which may or may not lead to relevant information or education.

  • I’ve just caught up with an episode of This Week in Tech where this same subject was discussed – given Jeff was on the panel. Within this, unchallenged went the notion that the facts are established? Just Google them; Journalism as a concept needs to evolve.

    The staggering naivety of the statement left me stunned. Suggest reading something like Merchants of Doubt to examine the ‘facts’ and the extent to which salting the facts is possible. Google does not promote actual authority or facts, it makes (clumsy?) assumptions about authority. Without active journalists where do challenges to costly marketing exercises come from (the type of exercise that may well create Google Authority with links and other SEO).

    The idea of the informed journalist – the person who does the fact checking or a least the sniff test is not dead nor is is it moribund and whilst we know it has likely never existed perhaps it can still serve as an ideal – and aspiration.

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  • George Mason

    This comment adds no value to the discussion except to suggest that Jeff just nailed it, in one concise paragraph.

    And, yes, the Sunday TwiT discussion was worthwhile. Time for a TwiJ?

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  • Sling Trebuchet

    John F Kennedy – in a 1961 speech
    “And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate, and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

    He was asking for a measure of voluntary self-censorship in that speech – because of the Red Peril. Putting that aspect aside, the quote above and the speech might throw some light on what Journalism might/should be.
    The full speech: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfknewspaperpublishers.htm

    Amusement and entertainment, the trivial and the sentimental, ‘what I want’ – these seem to be more than catered for in a world where anyone can be a publisher. Journalism (with a capital ‘J’) has to rise above that.

    • Andy Freeman

      JFK’s words are nice, but the fact is that pornography and other entertainment has more 1st amendment protection than political speech.

      Journalists bear a lot of responsibility for that state of affairs.

      Then again, journalists almost never show much interest in other people’s free speech/free press rights yet insist that said others value the free speech/press of journalists.

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  • I would agree on this need for questioning. I think journalism can happen on social media, and not only by professional journalists, as long as some work is put into converting loose data into valuable information; if data is verified with different sources, if context is added and corrections are made, why not call it journalism? Then again, sometimes that doesn’t happen, rumours, gossip, loose data are not journalism by themselves. It seems to me that users are increasingly able to tell the difference.

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