Posts about journalism

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.

The Times’ Rather

Judy Miller is The Times’ Dan Rather and she will — or should — force an era of reexamination and reinvention on the paper just as Rather brought it on his network.

She should be the slap that comes before the slapped says, ‘Thanks, I needed that.’

Jayson Blair wasn’t The Times’ Rather, only a coincidental scandal that led to just more silly rules about datelines and such that won’t stop liars from lying.

But Miller, like Rather, had the support of her editors and her institution — and no small proportion of her profession — and it is that blind, deaf, and dumb stubborn support that now must cause them to change their worldview, their relationship with the public, their pressthink. Listen to CBS’ Andrew Heyward, who now recognizes, post-Rather, that the age of omniscience is over, that there is no single truth from the mountaintop, that we must reveal the perspectives we already have, that journalism must change its voice (read: its relationship with its public). That is step one: reexamination. Now Heyward must embark on the harder work: reinvention.

How should The Times undertake this? I made a few suggestions below (and keep in mind that I do not consult to the paper or the newsroom; this is free advice and will be taken as such) but let me add:

If the paper is having trouble reporting on itself — and it is — then invite others in to report on it: even competitors, even bloggers, those you most dread if you think you own the pedestal. So let Howard Kurtz and Jay Rosen and, yes, Arianna Huffington in the door or welcome them in when they come knocking (whom else do you nominate?). Don’t create a selected, stuffed-shirt, spineless commission, as CBS did. Don’t just dissect the past but the present and the future and why we think like we think and how we can and should change that. Tell everyone on the paper that they may not hide behind anonymity and are expected to speak to these people because they represent the public and you must not hide from them. Make it clear that no one will suffer for this. Breed openness. Value honesty.

Next, recognize the Gillmorism that your public knows more than you do and demonstrate that. In fact, that would be good business. The public served by The Times is, indeed, a smart and powerful bunch. So make it a goal to gather and share that wisdom. This was a start. But do more: Make your staff continue that dialogue with the few proxies invited in; open it up to the world. When those darned bloggers question your WMD stories, get into a conversation about it. Don’t sit and wait and stonewall as if you can. We journalists, of all people, should remember that it’s the coverup that gets you and silence in the face of questions is a coverup. So, yes, you can guess what I’ll suggest: Have reporters blog so they can enter that conversation. Find a new voice that is authentic by talking with the people you serve. Take the questions and facts and words of the public and find more ways to put that in the paper. Don’t just be a pile of dead words on paper; try to put yourself back into the town square, into the center of the community, into the conversation that’s happening around you, if you can.

Next, above all, recognize that you are not perfect (how could you be?) and you are not the record (for the record is never done recording). This is not about admitting mistakes when forced to. It goes so far as to admit mistakes before you make them so you think to ask for help from your wise public to get stories right: What should we ask the mayor because we get the chance? What are the politicians and pundits missing in their nonefforts to fix health care? What did we miss in that story we just wrote.

We forgot that journalism is about learning, not teaching. We go out to try to learn what’s happening and why. We are supposed to listen, not lecture. We should be part of the community, not apart from it. So don’t look upon this as prosecution but as a lesson. Learn it in public. Make this your Dan Rather moment. Make this your opportunity to learn and change.

Dowd v. Miller

Maureen Dowd fires at Judy Miller — and at her paper — in today’s Times, under the snarly and snarky headline Woman of Mass Destruction. If this is a catfight, it’s one between Siberian tigers:

She never knew when to quit. That was her talent and her flaw. Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers. She more than earned her sobriquet “Miss Run Amok.”

Dowd ends with this kicker-on-the-way-out-the-door:

Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover “the same thing I’ve always covered – threats to our country.” If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.

This is also the first time since Miller’s release from prison — and her most unsatisfying chronicle of the tale that put her there — that we have heard from the editorial and op-ed pages of The Times, which defended Miller and the principle they wrapped her in so vigorously.

One can’t help think that this is a message from those pages and those who run them. But you would need Oracle to analyze all the agendas at work here.

Dowd, of course, is liberal queen of the anti-Bush and anti-his-war camp and so she does not waste this nya-nya opportunity: ” Judy’s stories about W.M.D. fit too perfectly with the White House’s case for war.”

Dowd is also trying to defend her institutions — The Times and The Times’ editorial pages — from the cooties Miller has given them. The newsroom cannot stand Miller and how she printed her own paper, so she criticizes the management of her:

When Bill Keller became executive editor in the summer of 2003, he barred Judy from covering Iraq and W.M.D. issues. But he acknowledged in The Times’s Sunday story about Judy’s role in the Plame leak case that she had kept “drifting” back. Why did nobody stop this drift?

Dowd is defending journalism against the latest attack on its credibility from within.

Judy admitted in the story that she “got it totally wrong” about W.M.D. “If your sources are wrong,” she said, “you are wrong.” But investigative reporting is not stenography.

Then she recounts the ways in which Miller has been an unreliable narrator, which a journalist should never be.

Dowd is defending the principle of journalists protecting confidential sources:

Judy refused to answer a lot of questions put to her by Times reporters, or show the notes that she shared with the grand jury. I admire Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Bill Keller for aggressively backing reporters in the cross hairs of a prosecutor. But before turning Judy’s case into a First Amendment battle, they should have nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade.

And, finally, Dowd is defending Miller in the way only one Timesman can defend another: while protesting too much. She says she enjoys “operatic” (read: obnoxious) behavior.

: So what should happen now?

I’ll repeat: The honorable thing Judy Miller should do for journalism and The Times was not going to jail; it is resigning.

I would not be surprised to see the newsroom rise up to ask her to do just that.

And we still must hear more from The Times. But I don’t just want to hear the facts and this unfacts that unravel in Miller’s tale.

We should hear the lessons learned. We should hear the editors and publisher of The Times tell us what lessons they have learned and it would not hurt for them to ask us, their readers, what we think this should teach them. We also also hear from the reporters who have, like Dowd, dissed Miller and what she has done but behind cloaks of confidentiality. Spare us the irony. The last thing anyone needs in this sad tale is more secrets. Why not invite readers and reporters to say what they think in public, in print, and then let the bosses join in.

One Dowd column does not a catharsis make.

(Sorry that the link above is behind the pay wall. On that, considering my own conflict of interest, should I say no comment? No, I’ll just apologize.)

: MORE: Howard Kurtz reports the first public rifts between Miller and The Times:

New York Times executives “fully encouraged” reporter Judith Miller in her refusal to testify in the CIA leak investigation, a stance that led to her jailing, and later told Miller she could not continue at the paper unless she wrote a first-person account, her attorney said yesterday.

The comments by Robert Bennett came as Executive Editor Bill Keller accused Miller of apparently misleading the newspaper about her dealings with Vice President Cheney’s top aide, signaling the first public split between Miller and the management of a newspaper that had fully embraced her in the contentious legal battle.

: See also Bill Keller’s memo to his staff on Romenesko. I found and read this after I wrote my suggestion above. Note that Keller is sharing his lessons with his staff; I hope he shares them with his public as well. Among those lessons:

These are instances, when viewed with the clarity of hindsight, where the mistakes carry lessons beyond the peculiar circumstances of this case.

I wish we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor. At the time, we thought we had compelling reasons for kicking the issue down the road. The paper had just been through a major trauma, the Jayson Blair episode, and needed to regain its equilibrium. It felt somehow unsavory to begin a tenure by attacking our predecessors. I was trying to get my arms around a huge new job, appoint my team, get the paper fully back to normal, and I feared the WMD issue could become a crippling distraction.

So it was a year before we got around to really dealing with the controversy….

By waiting a year to own up to our mistakes, we allowed the anger inside and outside the paper to fester. Worse, we fear, we fostered an impression that The Times put a higher premium on protecting its reporters than on coming clean with its readers.

I wish that when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed as a witness in the leak investigation, I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own….

Dick Stevenson has expressed the larger lesson here in an e-mail that strikes me as just right: “I think there is, or should be, a contract between the paper and its reporters. The contract holds that the paper will go to the mat to back them up institutionally — but only to the degree that the reporter has lived up to his or her end of the bargain, specifically to have conducted him or herself in a way consistent with our legal, ethical and journalistic standards, to have been open and candid with the paper about sources, mistakes, conflicts and the like, and generally to deserve having the reputations of all of us put behind him or her. In that way, everybody knows going into a battle exactly what the situation is, what we’re fighting for, the degree to which the facts might counsel compromise or not, and the degree to which our collective credibility should be put on the line.”…

: Judy Miller should blog.

Consider that so much of what big-media accuse blogs of doing, she did. She went off on her own, without supervision and proper editing, and published speculation and innaccuracy. But note that if a blogger does that, she’ll get hounded into making a correction a helluva lot faster than Judy’s paper or she did. She operated in an echo chamber. She was a self-promoter. Yup, she should blog. She’ll need something to keep her busy and I suspect it’s not going to be The Times.

So, Judy, a gift for you: is available.

: LATER: Arianna Huffington on the Keller memo:

I’m assuming that his memo “slipped out” on Friday because he knows that on Sunday the paper’s public editor, Barney Calame, is going to write a devastating critique of the Times and he wanted to do some pre-emptive self-flagellation.

I’m assuming that Keller has not yet accepted that Judy Miller is only one part of the Times’ problem — that he must also confront an institutional arrogance that extends beyond one rogue reporter.

I’m assuming that Judy Miller has written her last story for the New York Times.

Dog, meet bone

Jay Rosen is staying on the story of Judith Miller like, well, a reporter.