Posts about journalism

Stairs down from the pedestal

Jay Rosen declares that The New York Times is no longer America’s greatest newspaper; The Washington Post is. Of course, I should recuse myself from this jury.

Jay is actually covering three discussions. First, what he’s really talking about here is The Times’ inability to tell its own story, again. He and I do not blame Kit Seelye’s account of Judy Miller’s homecoming to the newsroom; she covered what was there, which was nothing, in the business’ most thankless assignment this side of doing Katie Couric’s hair. (Maybe this is one case in which anonymous sources are OK: Wouldn’t you like to hear the real thought bubbles from reporters in that newsrooom at that hour?) Jay and Howard Kurtz and most reporters are eagerly awaiting The Times’ story on Miller… and wondering why they have to wait.

Second, he is talking about the rise of The Post and I’ve seen the same impressive velocity. It’s not just media coverage (I’m a Kurtz fan) and Washington tales in their backyard but also the way they’ve attacked big stories.

But third, what Jay doesn’t explore yet — and I hope he does — is the question of what makes a great newspaper today. What is that definition? Has it changed? Should it?

I do think that there are two miles-apart leagues at play: the national and the local. The Times, The Post, and The Journal are Jay’s best three papers — and I think he hints that renewed competition among them will be healthy — but that is, in part, because they are the only real candidates to be national papers.

A great local paper must be local. That’s why I was appalled when I read Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story about the clash of church and state at the LA Times (no, it’s not online, but you can’t blame me for that anymore). Aulette says that LAT editor John Carroll, who resigned in a budget snit, and Dean Baquet, his successor, cut the Orange County bureau from 200 to fewer than 20 and expanded the Washington Bureau and spent a fortune covering Iraq and opened more foreign bureaus than The Post. Screw what’s happening in Washington: we can find that out anywhere. What’s happening in Anaheim? “Carroll and Baquet’s obession with matching America’s best newspapers came at the expense of local coverage,” Auletta says.

So I’ll ask Jay: What is the proper ambition for a newspaper today? What makes a paper great?

More than facts

David Weinberger does a far better job than I did trying to explore the notion that facts are a commodity — once they are known:

First, I think most of us agree that facts by themselves aren’t enough. Unless we’re looking things up in an almanac, we want facts assembled into stories. Now more than ever. I don’t know about you, but more and more, I read newspapers through weblogs….

Second, Jeff was speaking informally, I’m sure, when he said that “anyone” can get the facts. [Yes, thank you – ed] Obviously, some particular facts are hard to dig up. Some are a pain in the tuchus to unearth but you know exactly how to get them (digging up birth records), and some require months of foot-numbing research and Yoda-like intuition (“All the President’s Men”). Some are mired in Louisiana muck, emotion, and political ambition, like the facts in the Russert case that Jeff and I were originally commenting on. So to say facts are commodities (as I have said before) is not to say that they are all equally easy to come by. But once they’ve been disclosed, they become commodities in the sense that they are low-margin entities and I don’t much care where I get them. If I want to know who Bush has nominated for the Supreme Court or who won the Sox game, there are a gazillion places I can find out. And tomorrow there will be a gazillion + 100.

Well- said (as in, I wish I’d said it that way). We have to grapple with the notion that holding onto facts until we decide to tell the world is not going be sustainable. Facts fly.

This matters insofar as newspapers still consider their value to be the reporting of facts. I think some papers are being forced further into this belief because of the “onslaught” of bloggers. That seemed to me to be the position of John Lloyd of the Financial Times yesterday at the Accountability conference. He defended the news media’s traditional turf by talking about objectivity vs. opinions. I took him to be saying that opinions are easy but facts are hard, and newspapers do the hard and skilled work of fact-finding. Yes, they do. But having done that, the facts then become commodities. Our shared concern is who is going to do this if newspapers can no longer afford to pay reporters. (As far as opinions being easy goes: Yes, but interesting opinions are not commodities.)

Maybe enough citizen journalists will become skilled reporters that we don’t need professional newspaper reporters. But we shouldn’t let the promise of citizen journalism distract us from the evident fact that another key value of the news media has already devolved to the citizenry: We’re already providing the editorial judgment on which the media so pride themselves. I no longer look at the front page of the NY Times to tell me what’s important. I look at it to see what people like the editors of the NY Times think is important. I’m finding the news that matters through the Internet recommendation engine: Blogs, emails, mailing lists, my aggregator, websites that aggregate and comment on news, etc. With the growth of social filtering and whatever some genius in a garage is inventing, the Internet is only going to get better at this. While we wonder if and how citizens will replace reporters, citizens are rapidly replacing editors.

Are we not human?

Here is one incredible side-effect of journalism’s separation from its public: A news photographer feels he has to explain, hide, or apologize for putting down his camera to save people’s lives.

Biello isn’t used to putting his camera down — journalists are trained to be observers, not participants. But the human misery caused by Katrina put these instincts at war with reality, and made many journalists rethink how to do their jobs amid calamities….

He’s convinced he did the right thing, the human thing. But Biello still felt he had to explain to CNN management why he wasn’t spending all his time working. Those conflicting feelings are partly why he hasn’t told his story publicly until now.

CNN management has fully supported him.

“I think it’s heroic and laudable and praiseworthy,” said Jon Klein, CNN/U.S. president. “I’m proud to work with a guy who would do something like that. It’s a cliche at this point, but we are human beings first, and if you are the only thing standing between another human being’s life or death, you really don’t have much of a decision to make.”

Other reporters have talked about the frustration of being on the scene well before rescuers, and said they gave away supplies when they could.

Strict rules about staying on the sidelines aren’t always practical, said Roger Simpson, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and a University of Washington communications professor.

The assumption behind that is incredible: It is as if journalists became crewmen on the Starship Enterprise with a prime directive not to interfere with the life below them.

Journalists are still citizens, neighbors, humans and when we forget that, we forget our real mission: Helping our communities. [via Lost Remote]

Thin skins

Two surprising truths about journalists:

First, they give bad interview. You’d think all those years on the other end of the pencil would teach them how to give clear, concise answers to questions … and how to beware of reporters’ tricks. But, no. Reporters being interviewed tend to ramble and enjoy the attention a bit too much and, like a drunken criminal, say too much. That’s why media companies give reporters media training, which should be too ironic to bear. And I suspect that is also why media companies fear giving reporters blogs.

Second, reporters have thin skins. You’d think that all those years of probing, criticizing, attacking, and lampooning others would give them Teflon skin. But, no, like a schoolyard bad boy, if you confront them and criticize them back, they turn either weepy or prickly. Can give, can’t take.

That is not so surprising, after all, when you realize that this is really an issue of control. In the closed worlds of the newsroom, the page, the show, and the media conference, journalists are in control. In the wide-open world of the web, they’re not. And that’s a tough adjustment for some.

See Public Eye. They’re nice people; I’ve met them. But they’re publicly struggling with finding not just their voice and reason for being but also their attitude and their place in this new media world. They’re being at once thin-skinned and prickly. The Anchoress says they need to take a chill pill.

The problem is, PE, while trying hard to be a “blog” is a weird hybrid just now – it hasn’t quite figured out that there is a loosey-goosey quality, a free-wheelingness to blogging that is very distinctive, but that needn’t preclude serious writing or -as evidenced by Michelle Malkin and Brian Maloney’s dogged work on Air America’s misuse of public funds (a story the mainstream media simply does not want to look at) real investigative journalism.

One can’t help feeling that on some level – subconsciously, perhaps – PE feels like it is slumming it a bit, and is looking down its nose at the company it finds itself forced to keep. As much as I like Public Eye – and I do like it – their “journalists stand here and bloggers stand there” vibe is detectable, and nothing demonstrates that better than these two battles the blog has now engaged in, with Jarvis and Hewitt…

The Jarvis kerfluffle was minor. It was just odd that CBSNews.com’s Dick Meyer said I made his blood boil. I said he misunderstood or I misstated and in either case, he should cool his jets.

The Hugh Hewitt hissy-fit-fest is far hotter. It started with this effort at Public Eye to list top journlist bloggers (that’s why I don’t like lists, man, they’re meaningless and just get you in trouble). Hewitt had a proper fit, saying it was a bad list that left off conservatives and him, too. He had the hapless Brian Montopoli, author of the list, onto his show. Then Meyer put up his email exchange with Hewitt. Then Public Eye chief blogger Vaughn Ververs wrung his hands over all this and tried to figure out them darned bloggers:

As in the Hewitt example, there is a dual dynamic here. While it’s not entirely fair to make broad characterizations of all bloggers (just as it’s unfair for bloggers to do the same to the MSM), it’s a pattern I’ve noticed on both the left and right.

Bloggers love to ridicule the MSM for being unresponsive, slow, bumbling, unable to innovate, unwilling to change and arrogant. Yet somehow, they want to be part of it. They dismiss mass media even as they compete to mass communicate, shutting off their televisions (when they’re not on them) and closing their newspapers (when they’re not in them) to check their Technorati hits. Bloggers are fond of the gate-keeper metaphor. Seems like they just want a key to come and go as they please.

Bloggers are also fond of holding MSM orgs to the highest of standards (as they should) while eschewing those same standards for themselves. “Facts” and “accuracy” are something for the MSM, not them. They’re just bloggers, after all.

The irony is, the bigger blogger empires become, the more they need the MSM for a foil. Hewitt needs to rail against Public Eye as a tool of corporate media to help his own Web, radio and publishing empire grow larger. The MSM will never do right in their eyes, otherwise they’d be out of business. I’ve always thought of bloggers as the ultimate outsiders of media – independent, brash and unafraid. Increasingly they want to be insiders. What will happen to the revolution once they arrive?

There’s so much irony in that, I don’t need a knife to cut it, I need a samurai sword. Even as Vaughn says it’s unfair to make gross generalizations, he proceeds to do just that as he says that bloggers are driven only by ego — as if TV people are not! — and not by standards (so we have MSM people complaining about the standards of the people who complain about MSM’s standards). Further, we have a media guy acting as a blogger saying that bloggers just want to act as media guys. Jane, stop this crazy thing.

This is no way to win friends and influence bloggers. And then maybe that’s the point of Public Eye or maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure that PE knows what its point is yet. Or its identity. On the one hand, it’s trying to be a blog: They call it a blog; they use blog tools; they swim with the bloggers. On the other hand, it’s trying not to be a blog but an extension of the big media place reaching out to the public: a window into the palace, a spot of transparency. And, you know, either is a fine goal.

Here is advice from the Anchoress to Public Eye:

I think Public Eye will really begin to succeed when it can lighten up a little, when the crew can be proud of their “mothership” which is the venerable Columbia Broadcasting System, but also be able to mock it, and themselves, from time to time…

Perhaps Public Eye would lose some of its formality and stiffness if it were to fill out the blogcrew – currently thick with “journalists” – with a few “non-journalist” blogging types who are able to let fly. It needs a voice or two who are less “Buttondown-J-school-with-suspenders” and more “I’m posting this from my pub…”

Dick Meyer has the balls to enter into the conversation there, as he does with Hewitt; read the comments, too. You have to respect them for that; they’re trying hard; they’re struggling to figure this out. Says Meyer: “PE is neither fish nor fowl; it is a work in progress, and our intention is to communicate — not to be a great blog by blog standards or a great sanitized blogproduct by msm standards.”

What’s my advice? I might tell them to decide which way to go: One choice is to become the blogger inside the castle and really think and speak with the independence — and personal viewpoint — of a blogger; that’s a positioning they decided against when they said their blog would not be opinionated (except about bloggers, apparently). The other choice is to make this instead a window into the palace and its process, the start of a culture of transparency.

But is it a choice? At the other days MT&R Media Center get-together, Terry Heaton disagreed with me that there is an intersection between what he calls mass and personal media. He says they are on parallel tracks. That would say there is nothing to bring them together. That would argue that, indeed, it is a choice.

But then there are Steve Baker and Heather Green at Business Week. They are very much of big media and its standards and processes. But they blog openly and honestly and personally. They are either an intersection or a bridge. I’m not sure they know, for Steve said at the event that “one of the best things a mainstream journalist can do is blog… If I lost my job tomorrow, I’d be happy that at least I had a blog going, as a little bit of a rowboat…. More of us are going to be on our own with our own little brands.” In any case, they’re doing something right. I’d say they are making a model for any big media joint that wants to start blogging.

And here’s the essence of what they do: They try to cut away at the separation that journalists put between themselves and the public they want to serve (a rallying cry of Jay Rosen‘s). Note that Steve doesn’t talk about bloggers in the third person plural or the second person. They think of bloggers in the first person. And shouldn’t that be the real goal of mainstream media blogs: to end that separation, to get back to eye-level (no irony intended) with their public, to be human and honest and open again? It’s not us-vs-them. It’s all us.

And then there’s me. Which choice did I make? I used to say I was mediaman by day, blogboy by night. But now I’m blogboy. In the eyes of some in my old camp, I’m a damned radical, for I believe that journalism needs saving and must change.

Change. That is the real issue here. It is a mistake to think that either MSM or blogging is an established, finished institution against which to measure the world. Blogging knows it is changing, growing, experimenting, learning; that’s obvious. MSM has to learn to do all that again or — as the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Steiger said at the MT&R event — it will die. That’s the way big media should look at the blogs it writes (after it reads a few): not as an opportunity to tell the world more about itself, not as another outlet of publication, broadcasting, and ego — but as a means of conversation and learning and change.

What the hell does that mean? Well, for example: Instead of publishing your list of journlist bloggers, ask for a list. Find out what blogs your readers read. Find out what blogs they think your writers should read. Go to your writers and ask them what blogs they read and then make them read some of the ones your readers recommend and then have your writers write about that. Turn the prism around and look through the other end. That’s the opportunity blogging gives you.

Judith Litella?

I’ll admit it: I can’t figure out Judith Miller. Is she just Emily Litella: Oh, nevermind. Dan Froomkin asks the question better than I can:

So what was Miller doing in jail? Was it all just a misunderstanding? The most charitable explanation for Miller is that she somehow concluded that Libby wanted her to keep quiet, even while he was publicly — and privately — saying otherwise. The least charitable explanation is that going to jail was Miller’s way of transforming herself from a journalistic outcast (based on her gullible pre-war reporting) into a much-celebrated hero of press freedom.

Note to reporters: There is nothing intrinsically noble about keeping your sources’ secrets. Your job, in fact, is to expose them. And if a very senior government official, after telling you something in confidence, then tells you that you don’t have to keep it secret anymore, the proper response is “Hooray, now I can tell the world” — not “Sorry, that’s not good enough for me, I need that in triplicate.” And if you’re going to go to jail invoking important, time-honored journalistic principles, make sure those principles really apply.

Transparency, please. Reporting, please. Honesty, please. If you dragged all journalism through the briar patch and didn’t have to, you owe an explanation.

Arianna Huffington also asks:

After she answers Patrick Fitzgerald’s questions today, Judy Miller needs to start answering some of the obvious questions raised by her head-scratching stance:

What made her refuse Libby’s waiver when it was first offered but accept it now? (Especially since Judge Hogan had told Miller that “she was mistaken in her belief that she was defending a free press, stressing that the government source she ‘alleges she is protecting’ had already released her from her promise of confidentiality.”)

Was Miller’s sudden eagerness to find a get-out-of-jail excuse prompted by Fitzgerald’s planning to ask for an extension of the grand jury?

Or was it prompted by Fitzgerald’s gearing up to charge her with criminal contempt?

If all it took for Miller to feel properly released was a phone call, why did she wait 85 days to make it?

And I’ll ask: When she reenters the newsroom, will it be to triumph, shame, or questions?