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Your advice: Should I debate?

Andrew Keen and his publisher have asked me to debate him about his book, The Cult of the Amateur, in New York in June. I’m asking your advice because I’m torn.

The problem is that Keen’s book is the worst of link bait. It’s link whoring. Or should I say talk-show prostitution? It’s frilly lace tempting those who want so much to dismiss this change. He tries to push every internet button he can. Like others, Keen wants to be the contrarian’s contrarian. But that only makes him a double negative. It makes him a curmudgeon, a conservative trying to hold onto the past, a mastadon growling against the warm wind of change. Now I’d be fine having an debate about what the change means and what’s good and bad about it, but Keen makes it all bad with sloppy generalities and blanket insults — like the very worst blog. It’s simply not a good book or a compelling argument.

Do we give this attention? Do we play wack-a-mole with these tiresome arguments? Or do we just ignore it with the sure knowledge that it will go away in an act of self-extinction?

To give you a few examples from the start of the book (which I’ve not quite finished):

Keen summons up the T.H. Huxley infinite monkey theorem*, of course casting the internet — us — in that role: “Except in our Web 2.0 world, the typewriters aren’t quite typewriters, but rather networked personal computers, and the monkeys aren’t quite monkeys, but rather Internet users.” Just by using this new tool, we are ruining the world. How? “But what had once appeared as a joke now seems to foretell the consequences of a flattening of culture and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur. This is no laughing matter.” Oh, yes, he’s serious about this. No sense of fine British irony here. He pounds his typewriter with a sledgehammer.

Keen says the internet is used to “publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels.” But nothing else? No reporting? No fact-checking? No new talent making new video? No thoughtful reviews? No new independent music? No new tools for education? This is the most troubling aspect of his book: He acknowledges nothing good about the internet and we who inhabit it. That’s either blind or intellectually dishonest. Of course, there is good and bad here. I acknowledge the bad on the internet — the unbearable blogs, the flaming fart jokes, and worse, the people who use the medium as their outlet for hate — just as I remind its opponents of the bad books, movies, songs, and, yes, newspapers produced by the old media world. But in either case, does the bad negate all the good? Of course, not. I argue that media old farts and the curmudgeons who feed them pay too much attention to the bad and miss the good, and that is a waste. That is playing deaf.

But to Keen, we are the ruination of everything and we’re too stupid to realize it. “If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture.” Hearing your neighbor talk is now corrupting and confusing and Keen knows the difference but we do not. This is his unbearable snobbishness.

He predictably goes after Wikipedia and its articles, “none of them edited or vetted for accuracy.” That’s innaccurate. They are vetted by thousands — as newspapers now can be. He says that Wikipedia is “a more trusted source for news than the CNN or BBC websites” but provides no citation to back up that generality. Introduce me to the people who say that. I’ve never heard it. The book is filled with such as that — like, oh, the worst Wikipedia article. Oh, but Keen might have done well to have looked up a few facts on Wikipedia himself. A few pages later, he makes the cliched reference to cults and Kool-Aid when Wikipedia would correct him: Jim Jones’ poison was mixed with Flavor-Aid. Grape, to be exact. I know because I covered the story. I was on rewrite taking the first stories from Guyana. I’ll vet that. It’s in Wikipedia. Go look it up.

It’s also no surprise that Keen goes after social sites. “It’s hardly surprising that the increasingly tasteless nature of such self-advertisements have resulted in social networking sites becoming infested with anonymous sexual predators and pedophiles.” And a lot of happy marriages. The priesthood is also infested with its share of anonymous predators and pedophiles, but I don’t hear Keen railing against them. This is the worst of tabloid generalization: If one thing is bad, it is all bad. Paint the entire world with the same dark brush. That is the essence of the book’s intellectual dishonesty. There’s more that I may choose to annotate in later blog posts.

Ah, but here’s his real point, is essential conservatism: “But our cultural standards and moral values are not all that are at stake. Gravest of all, the very traditional institutions that have helped to foster and create our news, our music, our literature, our television shows and our movies are under assault as well.” Keen is trying to pass the full-employment act for old institutions — even, at one point in his book, including ad agencies! Now, of course, the old institutions do and still will contribute incredible value. But now we have the means to contribute more, to find more talent, to check their work, to hear more voices. I celebrate that. Keen dreads it: “The monkeys take over. Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies and Hollywood movie studios. In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show. With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future. And we may not like how it reads.”

Keen is not just an elitist, he is authoritarian to the point of Stalinism. At the end: “Can we really trust society to behave properly in the Wild West culture of the Web 2.0 revolution? I would argue that we are easily seduced, corrupted, and led astray. In other words, we need rules and regulations to help control our behavior online, just as we need traffic laws to regulate how we drive in order to protect everyone from accidents.” Of course, we already have those laws and they govern life online. That’s a red herring. It’s the gatekeepers he wants, the experts anointed by institutions not by us ignorant masses, the authorities.

If you can’t trust society, then you don’t truly believe in democracy, free markets, reformed religion, art, education, or journalism. Why bother with us if we’re such a bunch of ignorant monkeys?

And why bother arguing with that? So I’ll do just what Keen would apparently abhor: I’ll ask you, the vast zoo of amateurs, whether you think I should take this on in an evening. I’m not handing over my authority; I’ll decide what to do. But I do value your opinion. So tell me what you think about the cult of contrarians.

* CORRECTION: Within an hour after I posted this, I got this email from Sam Huxley:

While my great-great grandfather is highly regarded for many things, unfortunately the infinite-monkey theorem isn’t one of them. In fact if you scroll down the Wikipedia entry you linked to it refers to the TH attribution as a common misattribution- I checked it out as it is the first I’d heard of it. Also, I would pass on the debate as I fail to see how magnifying such an outlandish opinion does anyone but him good.

I thanked Sam and asked him whether I could quote his email. Here is what the Wikipedia entry says:

In his 1931 book The Mysterious Universe, Eddington’s rival James Jeans attributed the monkey parable to a “Huxley”, presumably meaning Thomas Henry Huxley. This attribution is incorrect. Today, it is sometimes further reported that Huxley applied the example in a now-legendary debate over Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species with the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, held at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford in June 30, 1860. This story suffers not only from a lack of evidence, but the fact that in 1860 the typewriter itself had yet to emerge.

So Wikipedia is right and a helluva lot more detailed at that.

And note how this correction came: thanks to the internet and its openness. Who would have known that Sam Huxley would read a blog post and point me to correct information — at Wikipedia? And isn’t it wonderful that the technology allowed me to correct that mistake within an hour of publication. I’m going to bet that Keen’s book may already be published and even if not, trying to fix it in an old print book will be difficult and expensive. All that only demonstrates the superiority of this new medium. But that’s another discussion.

Guardian column: News via links

Here’s my Guardian column this week, on the new architecture of news via links:

The fundamental architecture of news has shifted – again. We’ve already seen that news organisations’ exclusive hold on distribution and content creation has dissolved. But now it appears that their pre-eminence as news gatherers is also challenged, especially during breaking news events. So during big news stories, what is the role of the journalist now? To link, it seems.

There has been no better illustration of this shift than the Virginia Tech shootings, in which witness-reporters on campus used their available tools – blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, mobile phones, wi-fi – to tell their stories as they occurred.

In most cases, the students’ intended audience was not the world but instead their families and friends, who did not come to them with journalistic expectations of completeness, verification, and identity. Their audiences knew them, and the news they sought was simply, “I’m OK, Dad.” Yet because the media had not yet sent their flocks of news vultures to Virginia, they depended on these witness-reporters to give us their accounts and their colour. As was discussed in last week’s MediaGuardian, the students resisted the crush of reporters coming to vet their tales and claim exclusive bits of life and death. Their stories were already there for all to see, with little need for journalists. What was big media to do, then? Link.

But the students were not the only ones who were media-savvy. So was the murderer. Many decried NBC’s decision to air his “multimedia manifesto,” as the network’s anchor called it. But I disagree. NBC should have revealed the worst of his rants to inform a needed debate about America’s laws on insanity, privacy and guns, laws that allowed this deranged man to be at large. It is not journalism’s job to be safe and popular but instead to tell us uncomfortable truths. Besides, the murderer’s videos could just as easily have been posted to YouTube or his blog; NBC was their gatekeeper only by chance. The next time, a network won’t be there to protect us from ugliness, to sanitise the world for our protection. And is that journalism’s job, anyway, when reality is only a link away?

I am also struck by the inevitability that, come the next major event, the news we see from witness-reporters will be delivered from the scene, live. The technology exists today. You can broadcast live on the internet via It’s even possible to broadcast live from a mobile phone. So what happens when a dozen witnesses stream reports over the internet as the news occurs? What does big media do when there is no time to vet and verify? They’ll have to issue caveats. And link.

In the midst of the Virginia Tech story, I was at the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas, where two talented video bloggers – Zadi Diaz, of JetSet, and Amanda Congdon, ex of Rocketboom – both refused the title “journalist” because of the baggage it brings, the expectations and demands. They don’t want to be on that side of the gate. They insisted – not unlike the Virginia Tech witness-reporters – that they are merely doing their own thing. They just want to be linked.

Now let me turn to one of the best examples of original reporting in the US recently: the Washington Post’s exposé of the mistreatment of Iraq veterans at an Army hospital in Washington. The New York Times was criticised for not matching that story sooner, but at another conference, I argued – to nodding heads from people at both papers – that on the web, the Times was better off linking to the Post and saving its reporting resources to uncover its own critical stories. The Times had a journalistic obligation to send traffic and support to the Post, to journalism at its source. I’ve similarly argued that newspapers should stop wasting resources covering what everybody else covers just to feed their institutional ego under their own bylines. They should stand out not by sending the 100th correspondent to a news event that witnesses are covering anyway but by doing what journalists should do best: reporting. This led me to issue a new rule for journalism: do what you do best. Link to the rest.

And that is how journalism will surely expand into new areas of coverage – hyperlocal, niches, specialities: News organisations can no longer afford to own, employ, and control – to vet, verify, and sanitise – everything that happens. The only way they can expand is to work cooperatively with witness-reporters, community members, experts, people who publish on their own, finding and sending readers to the best and most reliable among them. How? Via the link.

The unbearable weight of infrastructure

After returning from the National Association of Broadcasters/Radio Television News Directors Association convention in Vegas, I have been haunted by the size of the infrastructure of the industry. The convention center was packed — blimp hangar after blimp hangar and the lots inbetween and meeting rooms all around — with salaries and equipment devoted just to filling a little screen a few minutes a day. Look at the video below — not yet; wait until I tell you — and you will see thousands of salaries walking around — and, of course, they represent a tiny fraction of a percent of the people who work in TV, just those who are sent to conventions in Vegas. There are thousands more like them at home. That will be the death of TV: the unbearable weight of its infrastructure. (I talked about the media infrastructure implosion here and I calculated the savings of a new world of TV practically free of infrastructure here.)

At an RTNDA panel, my pal, panel star Michael Rosenblum, lectured executives and stars of local TV news about this implosion. There was no lighting and so my video of him sucked even more than my usual video (proving the point of the pros, I suppose, and making them smug in their belief that better pixels equal lifetime jobs). And so I put his words on top of random images from the floor of the convention, just to show the number of people, the salaries, the weight of it. Over to you, Michael:

But, of course, it’s not just about the infrastructure of staff and equipment but of culture. Now see a San Francisco anchorman from WPIX TV complain, predictably, about quality and hear Michael’s response (again there was no lighting — as the anchorman pointed out — and my video sucks, but you can get the substance of it; think of this as a transcript with sound, a podcast with wallpaper):

Now go to Michael’s blog as he reacts to my wishful and surely and sadly wrong suggestion that the end of the age of the anchor may be at hand — anchors like that guy. He calculates the real cost of Katie Couric’s $14-million-per-year salary:

The whole concept of ‘anchor’ is a complete waste of time and money.

Where did this come from, this notion of the ‘anchor’?

People seem to believe that the ‘anchor’ gives the newscast some kind of credibility.

After all, we call it, The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.



We don’t call it, The New York Times with Tom Friedman, but the New York Times still seems to be pretty credible. And we certainly don’t pay Tom Friedman $14 million a year!

That is a nice sum, $14 million (let the number roll around your tongue for a minute), a year, to work 22 minutes a night, reading what someone else has written for you. By the way, in every other journalistic endeavor we would call that plagiarism. Only in television do we deign to call it ‘journalism’.

There is a rationale that these people somehow earn their pornographic salaries.


What they do instead is strip the true journalistic assets of any newsroom, whether it is local news or network, because that $14 million has to come from somewhere, and it comes from the budget of the news division. How many local news operations work with old equipment, broken vans, ancient editing decks and a skeleton staff so that they can pay the ‘anchors’ their insane salaries?

In short, Katie is infrastructure. Along with all that equipment and those executives and those studios. Michael suggests a better use for the money that buys all that infrastructure: reporting.

Newspapers are fairly simple. You get a bunch of reporters. Pay them a decent salary. You give them pads and pencils. You say, ‘here’s your pencil, there’s the door, see you at 6′and they go off and find stories. Works pretty well. (That is why TV news gets its stories from the newspapers, and not the other way round).

We could build a TV newsroom based on a newspaper. We could, for argument’s sake, take 100 great journalists, give them small HD camcorders and laptops and say ‘here’s your camera, there’s the door, see you at 6, and send them all over the world. They could upload their stories and feed them to a web site, 24 hours a day. Refreshing all the time. With text and video and sound… Live and podcast and VOD.

Pretty cool.

Really kind of a digital model for journalism for the future, don’t you think?

And it would not cost all that much.

Let’s say we paid each of our 100 reporters, $140,000 a year. That’s a pretty good salary. You would attract a lot of talent. Real reporting talent.

Where would you get the money from?

Well, let’s take the $14 million you’re paying Katie Couric and guess what… you’re there.

What, really, do you think gives you better journalism?

And then get rid of some of that unnecessary equipment and layers of production and management and imagine how much more you could spend on journalism. Of course, it wouldn’t all fit in 22 minutes a day. But to hell with those 22 minutes. Feed the web with reporting.

If you get rid of the presses and the trucks and the broadcast towers and the headquarters buildings and the fancy equipment and the old-time stars, if you kill the infrastructure, you are left with more resources for journalism — and savings in the face of reduced revenue in a suddenly competitive marketplace — and the bottom line is a and more efficient and sustainable business.

Infrastructure is the enemy of journalism.

Ah, but you say, what about editors and correspondents? If they’re vital, they’re not infrastructure. If they are not vital, then they are merely expenses and you must get rid of them.

Infrastructure is the enemy.

The obsolete interview

The interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought.

There’s no better demonstration of this than the recriprocal snipes we’ve been seeing from and around Wired magazine from its attempt to interview people about Michael Arrington. (If you know the tale, skip to the next paragraph.) See Jason Calacanis’ quite reasonable effort to respond to Wired writer Fred Vogelstein’s questions via email and Dave Winer’s equally reasonable offer to respond in public on his blog. Now see the blunderbuss response from Wired in a blog post by Vogelstein recounting the email exchange and his dogmatic rules — “I never do email questions right out of the gate…” — and also in a blog post from his colleague Dylan Tweney, calling Calacanis “cowardly” (it appears to be an awkward attempt to be cute) and in an even clumsier attack from Ryan Singel: “What happens when a top tech figure has an online soap box, a Silicon Valley-size ego, millions in the bank and a grudge against the mainstream media?” Arrington piped in, fearing the fuss would cost him his publicity. And unable to resist any post about Arrington, Valleywag joined the journalism seminar. Vogelstein — who came to Kofi Annan agreement to record an interview with Calacanis — emailed me, too, but I told him I was about to blog about this snit and he probably wouldn’t want me. Finally, Wired Editor Chris Anderson joined in, saying in a comment on Calacanis’ blog, “I don’t impose any one policy.”

But maybe, given your vow of radical transparency at the magazine, Chris, you might want to at least impose openness to new ways, or at least an open discussion about the state of the art of the interview in the time of the empowered interviewee. A few discussion points:

Who says that reporters are in charge of interviews anymore? Why should they set terms? They are the ones who are seeking information. As Calacanis pointed out in their email exchange, Vogelstein was willing to give up two interviews because the subjects would not follow his rules. So the story suffers — it’s less complete, less informative, or less accurate — because of the reporter’s controlling rules? That wouldn’t make me happy as an editor, subject, or reader. If you need the information, shouldn’t you be willing to get it however you can? Isn’t that what reporting is all about?

Are interviews about information or gotcha moments? Vogelstein said in his email that he wants phone interviews to get the tone of the subject. Why? If this is about information, what does that really add? Or is it about the reporter’s effort to characterize the players in a narrative? Is this about information or drama? As a subject, wouldn’t you be wary of that? Or does the reporter want to catch the subject in a slip of the tongue? But what does that really accomplish? Isn’t it better to get considered, complete answers? What’s so wrong with enabling a subject to think about an answer, to review it and get it right before sending it? Isn’t accuracy and completeness the goal? When I came up in the business, I was taught not to review quotes with subjects before publication but now I see magazines doing just that; as Valleywag points out, reporters even negotiate quote approval. The only reason not to do that is that you don’t want to ruin the gotcha moment: ‘You said that.’ ‘Well, I didn’t mean it.’ ‘But you said it. Gotcha.’ ‘But it’s wrong, so can’t we correct that?’ ‘Gotcha.’ We’ve all misspoken. Should we be able to take back our own words? The only reason not to is if the reporter believes he has indeed caught us. And there is a place for catching people (George Allen couldn’t take back “macaca”). But in most stories, that’s simply not the case, unless your agenda is to get someone.

Too many reporters get too much wrong. Listen to what both Calacanis and Winer — not to mention veteran journalist Dan Gillmor — are saying: They’ve been burned when their words in stories end up incomplete or wrong. Gillmor’s right that reporters should be the subjects of stories to learn what it’s like to be on the other end of that pen. I’ve certainly learned that lesson myself.And by making complete interviews public, as Calacanis insisted, even on audio, we get to check the reporter. If, again, the goal is accuracy, there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s a better way. Try combining the Calacanis and Winer methods: Perform the interview in writing, in public. As Winer says: “So if you want to work together, let’s find a new way to do it. I’m fed up with the old system. The way we start the reboot is to do all our work out in the open, real-time. Not via email, but in full view of everyone.” Examine the possible benefits of this: The reporter asks a question and I answer it. But I get it wrong and a reader pipes in to give a correction. Isn’t that a better way? I read my answers as I write them and improve them myself. What’s wrong with that? Why should the reporter get the opportunity to rewrite and edit and I don’t? Why should the reporter get to look smarter than the subjects? The best reporters, after all, go to find people who are smarter and know more than they do to get the best story. Ah, but I can hear some of you saying, wouldn’t this blow an exclusive? Well the exclusive has a fleeting value of about 30 seconds anymore anyway. And what’s exclusive about what Dave Winer has to say about Mike Arrington? If anyone owns that exclusive, it’s Dave, no? And Dave’s stance is that if he has anything to say on a subject, he’ll say it on his blog. Welcome to the transparent era, my fellow journalists. You want transparency? This is transparency.

My words are mine. Enough said.

Quotes need no longer be taken out of context. Isn’t that the greatest problem subjects have with how their words are treated? But that need no longer be a complaint. Why shouldn’t every quote, every snippet and soundbite, link to its context in the fuller interview? If the reporter has done a great job on the story, no one need click on those links. But if you want more or if you want to investigate the context in which this person said this thing, why not make that readily available, now that we have the ability, thanks to hyperlinks and permalinks? In fact, doesn’t this change the very structure of the story? Why shouldn’t that change, too? I’ve been arguing for sometime that online, there’s no reason to insert the standard background paragraph when you can link to full background. Ditto for interviews. Think of the finished story as a summary, a guide to more information. It may give you everything you want. Or it may link you to background if you’re new to the tale. Or it may link you to more depth if you want to dig deeper. Every story becomes a table of contents to knowledge. Let’s not just reexamine the interview. Let’s reexamine the architecture of the article.

Interviews and articles need never end. And never start. A story can begin with a reader’s blog post: ‘I wish I knew…’ Or it can begin with a reporter’s blog post: ‘I’m looking at doing a story about ____. What do you know? What do you want to know? What should I ask? Whom should I ask?’ Who says the reporters should ask all the questions? Shouldn’t the readers? Shouldn’t even the subjects (good interviewers usually ask whether there’s anything they didn’t ask)? Then the interviews can appear online to be challenged, amended, and corrected by writers, readers, and subjects alike. Why shouldn’t it be a collaborative effort when it can be? Won’t that only yield better information? Then the reporter writes a story. Make no mistake: There is still and always will be great value in that. For the vast majority of subjects and stories, I don’t want to go digging through original material and reporting-in-progress. I want the reporter to do the work of packaging it for me. Absolutely. So the article remains a keystone. But who says the story should be over then — done, fishwrap — just because the reporter’s finished writing it? The story is online and as we see every day, it continues to live and grow as people add their knowledge and perspectives and corrections via links and comments and remixes of the information. So the article isn’t a product. It is a process. It is collaborative. It is three-dimensional, linking to background and depth. It’s alive.

Yes, it is a favor. Vogelstein said in his email to Jason that “no one talks to me to do me any favors.” Oh, they most certainly do. In our gift economy, every act of sharing is an act of generosity, a favor. No reporter or reader should ever forget that. This is the essential human trait that makes the internet — let alone libraries, newspapers, and magazines — valuable. Reporters think that they are the ones doing the subjects the favor and, indeed, that used to be the case and to a lesser and lesser extent, for some, it still is: The reporter holds the key to the presses and with the reporter’s choices — ‘I’ll quote you but not you’ — the reporter grants attention, publicity, legitimacy. Or that’s the way they thought it worked. But this is the essential lesson of the democratization of media: We don’t need you and your presses to be heard. Calacanis in his email to Vogelstein: “Besides I have 10,000 people come to my blog every day–i don’t need wired to talk to the tech industry.” Winer: “Like Jason, I don’t have any trouble getting my ideas out on my own.” Or hear the students at Virginia Tech who got sick of reporters bugging them about the stories they’d already told on their own .

That should force reporters to reexamine the human economics of the interview: because they have to and because they can, because the power dynamics of journalist-subject have changed and because they now have new tools to do interviews — and articles — in better ways. Why not at least try?

Vogelstein wanted to talk to me about Arrington. But I didn’t want to talk to him about that. I wanted to talk to him about this. And I just did it, in writing, in public. And I hope he talks back and that you will, too. Yes, news really is a conversation.

Meanwhile, elsewhere at Wired, they are trying radical new ways working with Jay Rosen and on their Assignment Zero. I was interviewed via email and posted the results immediately, as did the reporter; they also solicited questions and wrote about doing interviews this way. Not a lot of conversation around that because I was long-winded, pontifical, and boring. But hey, the internet and conversation are meritocracies. We talk about what’s worth talking about.

PrezVid Show: Advice for Edwards

In response to his YouTube spotlight video, I have an entirely frivolous yet still sincere suggestion for Sen. John Edwards that can change his image and the tone of the entire YouTube discussion.

More at Prezvid.