Posts about journalism


Here’s a transcript of the NewsHour segment on shield laws, leaks, and all that.

Privilege for whom?

I am confused about shield laws. That alone is heresy for a journalist; we’re all supposed to be all for them, right? But I come at this from the perspective of those outside the castle — bloggers and just citizens — and so I don’t think it’s as simple as it seems. And that’s what I told the producer at Newshour when she called to ask my stand. They’re having me on anyway, as a heretic.

I don’t want to see an official definition of who is a journalist, not only because this is likely to exclude bloggers but also because official status can be given and can be taken away. Danger lurks there.

So why don’t we define journalism, for this purpose, as I usually do: as an act? Perhaps. But there, too, we risk excluding the person who commits a major act of journalism but once.

The third possibility is to define, instead, the quality of the whistle blown: this is so important to society that it’s worth protecting the source so we could get it. Of course, this puts the power to decide what’s important in the wrong — that is to say, official — hands.

So I don’t know where I end up. I confess my confusion.

The added problem is that there has been abuse of the system — or rather, the code, I suppose — on many sides. Journalists have overused unnamed and confidential sources. We should be in the business of revealing, not keeping secrets. In some cases, we don’t reveal sources just because we’re too lazy to get the named source or because we’re buddy-buddy with the source (that’s the way the tit-for-tat system works); in other cases, the disclosure is not worth the breaking of the compact that really matters, the compact we hold with our public: It is our job to tell what we know when we know it. It is not a privilege to hold secrets. It is a curse.

The sources use this as well, of course, hiding behind their own anonymity so they can spin spin, float balloons, hit and run. And we let them. We allow ourselves to be used.

The Newshour producer asked me whether I was uncomfortable with reporters, like Russert, testifying at trials, like Libby’s. I hesitated. I hate lawyers and lawsuits so much, I react with reflexive discomfort. But I suppose what makes me legitimately uncomfortable is that this becomes yet another way for reporters to be used: If you report something critical of someone with power or lawyers, you can end up sitting in court. That’s particularly uncomfortable for citizen journalists who don’t have a million dollars of The Times’ to blow on legal fees. The Plame prosecutor has said that reporters should be called as witnesses only sparingly. But, once more, we have the problem of an official defining what sparing means. And besides, reporters may find themselves in the odd position of not wanting to know something because it puts them in personal peril: We turn into a profession of Sgt. Schultzes. We know nossing!

On the other hand, it can’t make me uncomfortable to see journalists in the same role as any citizen. Didn’t an editor at the Online News Association almost tearfully plea that we shouldn’t call bloggers “citizen journalists” because journalists are citizens, too? Indeed. Journalists are citizens and need to stop living apart from the community but be again a part of it.

At the end of the day, transparency is still the best policy. The less we find ourselves in the position of keeping secrets, the better we serve our public. Do some disclosures, some scandals, some whistles blown merit getting into this mess of keeping confidentiality? Yes. Do we still need investigative reporting that traffics in such secrets? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a confusing and perilous mire.

: See also my Guardian column on the changing nature of secrets online.

Whither the biz

So I moderated — or tried to moderate — a panel at the Online News Association this weekend. Here‘s a story about it at the ONA site:

Try as he might, Jeff Jarvis couldn’t quite keep what he called the “dinosaur-bashing” and the “blogger-bashing” from rearing their respectively ugly heads at Saturday afternoon’s “Journalism 2010: Who’s leading the way?” panel discussion.

Though the former mainstream journalist-turned-blogger had hoped the discussion would focus on what online journalism has to look forward to in five years, some in attendance – including panelist Robert Cauthorn, who is president of CityTools – couldn’t help but take a few swipes at the established media – the dinosaur.

Cauthorn wouldn’t get off the snark express regarding the NY Times (which went on to win lots o’ awards at the banquet that followed). Others snarked at his snarking. As threatened, I read Rafat Ali’s scold of the ONA’s first day for their lack of passion. Somebody got up and argued back at “the blogger” that they have lots of passion. I got Rafat up — if at first reluctantly — not to fight back — Crossfire is dead — but instead to give his suggestions for what the ONA should do next year. He was quite the mensch, and the crowd recognized that with applause. But the snark express rode on. The editor of Projo emotionally said that she, too, is a citizen even if she’s also a journalist. No argument…. so long as the contrary is also accepted: Citizens can be journalists, too. A guy from the Scotsman issued the old saw as if he’d just thought of it that second: Who would you want to perform brain surgery on you, a surgeon or a citizen? I said I knew who I sure as hell didn’t want to perform surgery on me: a medical reporter. The bloggers were tired of being bashed for so long they bashed back; the dinosaurs were tired of being bashed in turn, so they bashed.

You get the smelly drift. There were good moments as well but it’s sad to see this destructive nya-nyaing from both sides, as if there are sides. We’re all supposed to be headed in the same direction and if we don’t recognize that then others who don’t give a fuck will just take over while the professionals piss on each other.

: To my amazement, I got email from a thin-skinned Gawkerite (an oxymoron, I would have thought) because of the last link above. Let me be clear then: I’m saying that while the bashers bash each other, people who are smarter and have a more authentic voice and are more nimble and less encumbered by old rules and egos will come in and take audience and advertising because they don’t give a fuck about the old rules of the old world. So I come not to bury Gawker but to praise Gawker.

Journalism 2010

This afternoon, I’m moderating a “superpanel” on the future of news at the Online News Association. The folks up there: Susan DeFife, president and CEO, Backfence; Neil Budde, news director, Yahoo!; Robert S. Cauthorn, president, CityTools; Lockhart Steele, managing editor, Gawker Media. The agenda asks: “Will journalism be as relevant at the end of this decade as it was in 1910? If information is power, the answer must be yes. But will journalists be the innovators or the commodity?”

Well, of course, I’d argue that information isn’t the only power; relationships and trust are, and so we’d better figure out what our relationship to the public is again. And I’d argue that we shouldn’t be worrying about journalists but instead about journalism, since new tools open journalism up to anyone. But I’m only the moderator, so I won’t be arguing that (well, I’ll try not to), and I’ll choose to define “superpanel” as Dave Winer would: The whole room is the panel. Hell, the world is the panel.

So what do you think I should bring up before these machers of online news? When I asked this the last time, Hugh MacLeod gave me a line that I quote in every damned powerpoint I ever give (how newspapers should stop thinking of themselves as things but rather as places where people come together to do good things in their communities).

What do you want to ask or say to the machers of online news today about their tomorrow?

: WHERE’S THE PASSION? I’m very glad Rafat Ali blogged his thoughts from a conversation we had at ONA yesterday:

This is perhaps the most exciting time to be an online journalist, at the most exciting time in the media sphere. Yet, at ONA, where was the passion? Where was the excitement about working in the most innovative time in the history of media? In its place what I see is self-doubt, existential crisis, a siege mentality….

Above all, where’s the entrepreneurship? The Web 2.0 thing, while may have been over hyped, at least has something at the core of it: innovation, on the cheap, and available to all. These are people who believe, and believe me, that’s half the battle won. Why is that mentality not coming to journalism, and specifically online journalism? Why isn’t more startup culture being encouraged at media companies? Yes, they’ll start blogs on their site, but beyond that, what? Why aren’t journalists being encouraged to be entrepreneurs, and the other way around? When will we have our version of the young-out-of-school-entrepreneurs amongst us? Isn’t the passion of creation the most basic of drivers? Where is that?

Right. They took one of the single most innovative people in news, Adrian Holovaty, and had him explain RSS. That was my frustration the last time I attended, two years ago, when blogs were at best the subject of condescension. This time, they had a blogging 101 session. Aren’t they past that? I fear not.

What the ONA should be doing is inviting in all the barbarians at their gates inside to challenge them: all the bloggers and vloggers and programmers and 2.0 publishers. who are reinventing news. I don’t know why they’d bother coming but the online news machers should be begging them to.

At the Museum of Television & Radio Media Center event, the news executives lamented the lack of product development and innovation in their business. Rafat is seeing the proof of that. You’d think that ONA would be the showcase for the newest, the place where that cutting edge is honed, the place to come to have your brain exploded. It’s not.

I’m going to start today’s panel by reading excerpts from Rafat’s post. This is exactly the challenge the online news machers need.

Sulzberger speaks

I’m at the Online News Association and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzburger is giving the keynote. Before he starts, he suddenly turns around and pats an imaginary head and says, “Judy.” Silence in the room. “A very small joke,” he says. Later, he briefly addresses Judy Miller and starts saying by: “We fully support… supported… Judy.” Slip?

ORJ asks whether he thinks that “failing to fire Judy Miller” has hurt the credibility of The Times. Sulzberger reponds: “No, I don’t…. There is no question there has been an effect on the way that people are viewing us because of this Judy Miller situation… What is important here is that we have tried, we are certainly trying to own up to that. The story is not over….” In response to another question, he says that “while your reporter is in jail, there are constraints. Well, our reporter is no longer in jail and those constraints are off.” I’m not sure what that means. I think he’s talking about coverage, not personnel m atters.

I’m not blogging the speech; it’s a packaged speech and they usually put these up online.

One note on blogging. He says that though many blogs make great contributions, “We have to be aware of what we are getting…. Some take journalistic protocols seriously. Most wouldn’t have a clue…” Oof.

Asked whether he was concerned taking the columnists out of the conversation with TimesSelect, he said: “Information does not in fact yearn to be free. Opinion — quality opinion — does not yearn to be free.”

Asked whether Google is a friend or foe, he violates the gag rule on Google Zeitgeist and says that when Don Graham of the Washington Post took to a panel, he thanked Google for inviting old-media guys “like Arthur” and for doing this on the very day they announced they were going after classifieds.

See my full disclosure here.