The bloggers and journalists are comrades-at-keyboards
Monday August 21, 2006
The war is over. No, not that war. Or that one. I mean the supposed battle between mainstream media and bloggers. The last shot, a dud, was fired by Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, when he issued an encyclical in the New Yorker this month defending professionalism and decreeing that citizens’ media is just “journalism without journalists”. It was met online with an exasperated yawn from bloggers and (in Roy Greenslade’s term) hackademics, who said there never really was a fight. Bloggers don’t think they’ll replace reporters, they want to work in symbiotic bliss, amateur alongside professional, complementing each other’s skills to expand the reach of the news. I call this networked journalism and I am seeing more examples of the two tribes coming together not to clash but to conspire.
For example, when a Reuters lensman faked up photos from Lebanon, blogger Charles Johnson at littlegreenfootballs.com demonstrated just how Photoshopping had oomphed up the action. Johnson was the same blogger who showed how the documents underlying former CBS anchor Dan Rather’s investigation of George Bush’s military service had been faked. But big media’s reaction this time was different. CBS stonewalled for 11 days. Reuters responded by suspending, then firing the photographer. They also gave Johnson credit, which is to say that Reuters saw they were on the same side – the side of honesty.
Similarly, when AOL released millions of web searches, thinking the information was anonymous, it was bloggers, like techcrunch.com‘s Michael Arrington, who realised searches can reveal our identity. The New York Times reported a magnificent story tracking down searcher “no. 4417749” as an old lady in Georgia who’d sought “women’s underwear” and “dog who urinates on everything”. The Times, like the Washington Post, gave nods to bloggers for doing the legwork.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has just announced a new initiative in public-supported journalism called newassignment.net. He believes one way to support investigative journalism is to invite the public to suggest and assign stories, to donate money to support the reporting, and to help in gathering facts. Key to Rosen’s vision is that paid reporters interview, investigate and write, with the support of citizens, and that editors’ journalistic skills and standards act as a buffer.
A related project being discussed among bloggers, journalists and technologists is to create a simple program that thousands of onliners could use to test whether their internet providers are crippling the free phone service Skype or other applications that compete with the telecommunications corporations’ own paid services. This would inform a debate in the US over net neutrality – that is, whether government should regulate to assure that all bits over all wires are treated equally. Note that in this project, the reporting itself might influence the news – that is, an internet provider, faced with mass testing, might mend its dastardly ways. Reporters would say this ruins the story; it scoops the scoop. But the role of reporting is still met: that of journalism as a watchdog.
Finally, last week, the sunlightfoundation.com, a US group dedicated to openness in government, joined with a consortium of journalists to unleash citizens on government appropriations: the billions of dollars in special favours elected representatives get for their districts to curry favour and – let’s call a pig a pig – buy votes. The UK has similar efforts, such as theyworkforyou.com.
So networked journalism is about much more than camera-phone pictures of disasters or stars. It can be about digging up news and keeping government honest. I used to call this “citizens’ journalism”, but I recanted when I realised that journalism should be defined not by the person but by the act. Anyone can perform an act of journalism and the more such efforts we have, the more informed our society will be. So I believe we must support our new comrades-at-keyboards with resources, reporting, editing, training and even revenue. In the end, we’re all in this together.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a journalism professor at the City University of New York who blogs at Buzzmachine.com