Posts about journalism

Professor of overwriting

That’s him.

And when will there be a museum of blogging?

I suppose it’s appropriate that we had a meeting about the future of media with old media and new, big media and small, mass media and personal at the Museum of Television & Radio’s Media Center. The big guys aren’t history yet. But I suppose they could be.

The good folks at MT&R wanted a session on the intersection of blogging and mainstream news and I got to be a co-convener, helping bring more good folks from the blogging world together with the center’s list of big-media people, all of whom are working at the intersection: Debbie Galant of Baristanet, Jay Rosen of Pressthink, Steve Baker of Business Week, Terry Heaton of Donata and Nashville is Talking fame, Bill Grueskin of WSJ.com, Dan Gillmor of Bayosphere, David Weinberger of Joho and more, Susan Crawford of the amazing mind, Bill Gannon of Yahoo, Jon Klein of pajama fame and CNN, Rick Kaplan of MSNBC, Martin Nisenholtz of the NY Times, Alisa Miller of Public Radio International, Tim Porter of First Draft, Steve Shepard of CUNY, Kinsey Wilson of USAToday.com, Vaugn Ververs of CBS’ Public Eye, Andrew Heyward of CBS News, Paul Steiger of the Wall Street Journal, Bill Grueskin of WSJ.com, Steve Shepard of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Merrill Brown as moderator. A fun and fascinating bunch. Some random notes, first from others, then from me:

: Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, summarized the event. Excerpts of my transcription:

The world has really, really changed and will keep changing and we in mainstream media may not like it but it’s a fact and we have to embrace it or we will die.

People, readers, viewers are no longer satisfied with a small number of omniscient narrators. The toothpaste is out of hte tube. They want to be hears as well as be talked to and they want to hear each other as well as talk to us…

[On the blogosphere:] I think I’ve heard that the magic of this revolution is that it allows people to reach each other and it allows people to learn from and teach each other. It also allows people to mobilize together….

At the same time… many people will do this because it’s fun, because it feels empowering…. Some of those folks will decide they really want to do this and will find ways to get paid… They will develop business models…

How can we [mainstream media] respond and embrace and take advantage of this? First of all, the way to do it is to approach with what we do well: [Taking Susan Crawford’s illustrations] which is to aggregate, which is to illustrate or to order…

And then there are still two skill sets that are in the mainstream media and not in the general blogosphere, which is the general notion of reporting; the ordinary citizen is not a qualified reporter… and then mechanisms for verifying — those annoying habits of editors, w hich get in the way of reporters blooming free…

I had to send a note to my colleagues the other day to remind them that blogs in specific industries have become every bit as important as trade publications … and if you fail to credit one of them it’s just as bad as failing to credit another print publication. [At this moment, the bloggers looked at each other and mouthed the word “Rafat”.]

Whatever the business model, in order to keep getting paid, people in the blogosphere or traditional media would need to do at least one of two things very well… either provide uniquely broad credibility, which will still have value even in this revolutionary world, or uniquely exciting argument… You have to at least do one of them or you’re not going to get paid.

: Go read Susan Crawford’s post to get the perspective of a nonmedia person who was amazed at the bubble we media people live in:

The print guys are very proud of their priesthood, and the culture of journalism is just about the strongest professional bond I’ve ever seen. The emotional energy that filled the room when the print guys started decrying the “potentially deadly” inaccuracy of bloggers was remarkable. We Are The Truth, they seemed to think — We Have Standards. Those bloggers, they’re just typing. We do so much more.

That’s the part — the pride — that made me worry about beloved print journalism. It seemed like a hallmark of descent. We were the best, we were the truest, and even though the blood is running thin and our chins are weaker and our shoulders are rounder, we come from the finest stock. (Speaking of stock: not a diverse group.) I’m familiar with this kind of thinking — I myself am a lawyer and a WASP, two groups that have priesthoods and enormous pride. And are no longer what they used to be….

Under its surface, this well-dressed roundtable discussion (complete with waiters) was really about a future that none of us can hope to control.

: More from the participants: Weinberger thinks the were usual suspects were there. I’ll plead guilty but I’ll argue that Galant, Porter, Heaton, Crawford, and Baker are not. (Later: David agrees.) They’re doing real things so they soon will be. David also says: “The bloggers didn’t have to spend half the morning explaining that most bloggers aren’t journalists, that bloggers are in conversation, etc. Progress. There were still elements of hostility and misunderstanding, especially around the question of accuracy. But there is definitely progress…” Here’s Heaton’s take. Here’s Baker’s Here are Porter’s prep. And here’s Nora Ephron on another blogging blatherfest across town; Garrick Utley went to both and said MT&R’s was better. Both events, as all the posts above note, were too male and too white.

: Jay Rosen’s cogent notes include:

* Still, it was agreed: Big Media does not know how to innovate. What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never. Do these firms attract designers and geeks who are gifted with technology? They don’t, because they don’t do anything challenging enough. They don’t innovate, or pay well. So they can’t compete.

* In competing on the Web, the bloggers do not alarm big media. It’s people like Bill Gannon. Yahoo worries them, with its surging revenues, huge traffic flow, and recent moves in news and editorial that involve original content. The portals attract talent, and with their billions they can fund innovation, and roll out new products. This capacity dwarfs what the old line media companies can do, even if everyone on the editorial staff became a Webbie overnight.

: Now my disjointed notes….

: The tone has changed. There is no dismissive huffing from the big guys about blogs. There is still that argument about who’s trustworthy (see the note here). Old hat. But there is an acknowledgment that the change is gigantic and has only begun.

: Heyward surprised and impressed me when he talked about the weaknesses of mainstream media today:
* “The breakdown of our formulas.” He said the presentation must become more authentic, more natural.
* “The illusion of omniscience. A lot of television news is based around the notion that there is one truth the reporter gets to. The public has to accept the notion of ambiguity… and we have to be bold enough to acknowledge that there is more than one answer.”
* “The introduction of a point of view… The notion of objectivity in mainstream news needs to be reexamined.”

That, I believe, was a big moment, reflecting a cultural change in meanstream news.

Jay says: “This was probably the most significant surprise of the meeting: an actual shift in press think. At the top, no less.”

: One of the editors said that one roole for big media is to be a smart aggregator: if people are already in a community, he said, then they’ll find each other. But for those who have not found each other yet, we can help.

: Jay Rosen: “There is not a law of God that there needs to be a business modl for everything. There may not be a business model for the internet. The internet may just be part of life.”

He says that big media saw the internet come along and used it to repurpose their content. Bloggers came along and instead asked what the web can do. So they have taught jouranalists about links, the blogosphere, nonduplication of effort (an important and underappreciated lesson). The bloggers did this “because they were of the web, not on the web.”

: More Jay on how journalism got that way: “Journalists do a lot of thins simply because they have to for their production routines, not because it’s a good idea, not because it’s necessarily sound but because they have to meet deadlines… Your production routines you begin to mistake as the nature of journalism.”

This is the prison of the medium. This is why it is vital that journalism has to break free of his media.

Jay continues: “Journalists do certain things because they know they are going to be criticized and they anticipate criticism and they need ways to deflect criticism…. The production miracle, which is what daily newspapers are called, worked and still works but is an intellectual disaster…

“Journalists believe in a certain heirarchy of goods: … information is a higher good than opinion; commentary is a derivative good. On the web, people don’t necessarily think that way.” Journalism prides itself on starting with the facts; sometimes people on the web start with opinion and get to the facts. They can end up at the same place.

: Various BMEs (big media execs) said that their greatest problem is not the will to change but the ability to force change through the alimentary canals of their giant companies. They complained about the lack of product development. And they complained about the difficulty of hiring technology talent.

: Terry Heaton wows the group with his accomplishments working with Young Broadcasting stations in Nashville and San Francisco: Inviting bloggers into the stations to listen and talk; training bloggers how to shoot better video, using “dumb” (automated) and “smart” (edited) aggregation of bloggers (see NashvilleIsTalking.com; and starting an ad network with the bloggers. These are all the steps I hoped I’d see Young take when I had lunch with Terry and their execs a year ago. I can’t believe that they’ve accomplished so much. If you want to see who’s leading in this space, go to Nashville.

: Terry said he asked vloggers whether they would pay a subscription fee to have access to stations’ video for remixing and they all said yes.

: Terry also says that media is the biggest issue in the country today but media is not covering media as an issue.

: Dan Gillmor says he fears that media execs will think it’s over already: We have a blog, we have citizen journalists, we’re done. Dan says we’re just at the beginning. He asks big media to surface the best we’re seeing from the community and do some projects with citizen journalists. He suggests that big media team up with the citizens on covering the reconstruction after Katrina because there is a lot of reporting to do.

: David Weinberger: “I think the revolution has happened… The big change has already happened… It turns out that we the audience are much more interesting to us than the news media are… I don’t mean disrespect. There’s good and bad in that because we’re not very good journalists.” (Don’t shoot at David. He was saying that the proportion of bloggers who want to do journalism is small.)

: Steve Baker of Businessweek says that “one of the best things a mainstream journalist can do is blog” because they get more information and change relationships. “If Ilost my job tomorrow, I’d be happy that at least I had a blog going, as a little bit of a rowboat.” He says that “more of us are going to be on our own with our own little brands.”

Dan Gillmor later urged the BMEs: “If there’s someone in your organization — a Steve Baker — let him try stuff.”

Correcting the facts and missing the truth

Three weeks ago, I linked to Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard’s outburst on Meet the Press about the mother of a colleague who died, abandoned, in a flooded nursing home. Two weeks later, I said it was my responsibility to link to a correction about details of that story. And now I’ll link to Tim Russert’s ambush (David Weinberger’s quite appropriate word) on Broussard and Brian Oberkirch’s wise and blunt perspective about all this.

This turned into a game of factual gotcha and in the process some lost sight of the real story and the real tragedy and that is by far the greater failure.

On this week’s Meet the Press, Russert replays Broussard’s emotional appearance for him and then goes after him on the facts. The woman who died was in a nursing home where the owners have been indicted for neglecting and not evacuating their residents. So, Russert says, that’s not the feds’ fault, huh? Russert gets up on a factual high-horse but Broussard puts him right back in his place, explaining that he learned what he said from his staff and that he certainly did not cross-examine his colleague about the mother he could not rescue, who had just died. That does not make the story of neglect of the entire city of New Orleans by government at all — all — levels any less vital. And Broussard says so:

Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. Tommy will tell you that he tried to rescue her and could not get her rescued….

Listen, sir, somebody wants to nitpick a man’s tragic loss of a mother because she was abandoned in a nursing home? Are you kidding? What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man’s mother’s death? They just buried Eva last week… It will be the saddest tale you ever heard, a man who was responsible for safekeeping of a half a million people, mother’s died in the next parish because she was abandoned there and he can’t get to her and he tried to get to her through EOC. He tried to get through the sheriff’s office. He tries every way he can to get there. Somebody wants to debate those things? My God, what sick-minded person wants to do that?

What kind of agenda is going on here? … Somebody better wake up. You want to come and live in this community and see the tragedy we’re living in? Are you sitting there having your coffee, you’re in a place where toilets flush and lights go on and everything’s a dream and you pick up your paper and you want to battle ideology and political chess games? Man, get out of my face. Whoever wants to do that, get out of my face.

Russert keeps riding his horse. He wants Broussard to somehow say that by getting facts of this story wrong, his criticism of the feds was thus invalidated, was not “fair” (and what a schoolyard word that is in this context). Broussard won’t bite.

Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles. That’s for history to document. That’s what Congress does best, burn witches. Let Congress do their hearings. Let them find the witches. Let them burn them. The media burns witches better than anybody. Let the media go find the witches and burn them. But as I stood on the ground, sir, for day after day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn’t come. The Red Cross didn’t come. I’ll give you a list of people that didn’t come here, sir, and I was here….

Did inefficiencies, did bureaucracy commit murder here? Absolutely, it did. And Congress and the media will flush it out and find it out and those people will be held accountable. You’ve already given an example. These people in the nursing home in St. Bernard, they’re getting indicted. Good. They ought to be indicted. They ought to get good old-fashioned Western justice. They ought to be taken out and administered to like they did in the old West.

Yes, there’s a lot of people that they’re going to find that are going to be villains in this situation, but they’re also going to find for the most part that the Peter Principle was squared. The Peter Principle is you promote somebody to the level of incompetency, but when you promote somebody to the level of incompetency in a life or death department, then those people should be ousted. Those people should be strung up. Those people should be burned at the stake. And I’m sure Congress and the press is going to do that.

Mr. Russert: At the local, state and federal level.

Mr. Broussard: Sir, at every level. Are you kidding? This is a jigsaw puzzle. This is a mosaic. The blame will be shared by everybody….

David Weinberger sums up the journalistic sin of losing the forest for the trees, the story for the facts:

It was an attempt to discredit the story’s teller in order to deny the story’s meaning. It was contemptible.

Too much of journalism is turning this way today: If we nitpick the facts and follow some rules some committee wrote up, we’ll be safe; we’re doing our jobs. No, sir, our job is to get more than the facts. Anybody can get facts. Facts are the commodity. The truth is harder to find. Justice is harder to fight for. Lessons are what we’re after.

Tim Russert lost sight of the story because he was embarrassed that bloggers caught a guest on his show with facts that were wrong. Russert’s proper response should have been to fix those facts quickly and clear but still pursue the real story. Instead, he chose to shoot the messenger who embarrassed him with the bloggers. He lost sight of his real mission.

Says Brian Oberkirch:

I was offended by how quickly the whole discussion went meta. Bodies yet to be retrieved & buried, folks hanging from their own rafters holding onto life, literally, by their fingertips — and pundits, bloggers and media types were already well on their way to converting the storm into a object lesson for their own rhetorical strategies. Hijacked our suffering for their own stories….

Here’s a new way to think about blogging and all forms of consumer generated media: forget fact checking [your] ass. That’s a parlor game for grad students and professional cynics. Yes, you caught some high-profile folks screwing up. Good on you. We’re frying bigger fish now, and you can’t play with us if you haven’t got the emotional heft. I’ve seen do-it-yourself media help us reconnect as human beings. Help one another as individuals in need. Answer a calling to the better parts of ourselves. That’s where I’m putting my energy.

You see, the reason jouranlists were getting praise for their coverage of Katrina and New Orleans was not because they got blown over by winds or soaked in sludge or spewed and fixed facts (many of which go unfixed). The reason people sat up and listened again was that they heard human beings stripped of their dispassionate institutionalism who tried to tell the real story again.

How soon we forget.

: UPDATES: Video and more at Crooks & Liars. Gandelman weighs in.

Dinosaur tears

Dan Rather gets all weepy at a Fordham speech:

Addressing the Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan, occasionally forcing back tears, he said that in the intervening years, politicians “of every persuasion” had gotten better at applying pressure on the conglomerates that own the broadcast networks. He called it a “new journalism order.”

He said this pressure — along with the “dumbed-down, tarted-up” coverage, the advent of 24-hour cable competition and the chase for ratings and demographics — has taken its toll on the news business. “All of this creates a bigger atmosphere of fear in newsrooms,” Rather said….

[HBO documentary boss Shiela] Nevin asked Rather if he felt the same type of repressive forces in the Nixon administration as in the current Bush administration.

“No, I do not,” Rather said. That’s not to say there weren’t forces trying to remove him from the White House beat while reporting on Watergate; but Rather said he felt supported by everyone above him, from Washington bureau chief Bill Small to then-news president Dick Salant and CBS chief William S. Paley.

“There was a connection between the leadership and the led . . . a sense of, ‘we’re in this together,”‘ Rather said. It’s not that the then-leadership of CBS wasn’t interested in shareholder value and profits, Rather said, but they also saw news as a public service. Rather said he knew very little of the intense pressure to remove him in the early 1970s because of his bosses’ support.

Nevins took up the cause for Rather, who was emotional several times during the event.

“When a man is close to tears discussing his work and his lip quivers, he deserves bosses who punch back. I feel I would punch back for Dan,” Nevins said.

Dan, face it: The pressure to get rid of you came from the newly empowered public and from not a few journalists who believe you messed up.

Misery loves company – OR – Safety in numbers

If a storm caused the river by your isolated farm to flood, ruining your house and your work, leaving you homeless and jobless, you’d likely receive no media attention and no extraordinary government help and not much charity from strangers.

But if the same thing happens to you when you are among hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation at the same time — if you are one among a big number — then you will be lavished with media obsession and some of the billions, even hundreds of billions in federal money and many millions more in charity devoted to your plight.

Is that fair? No, logically, it isn’t. But it indicates how driven our society has become to big numbers, thanks first to media, second to politics. This is in a sense an extreme example of the inequality of power law Clay Shirky writes about: The people at the top of any number curve get the attention.

If life, government, and media were fair — if government policy and media coverage were driven by principles rather than publicity — then the lone farmer above would have the same rights to help as the millions driven out by Katrina. Of course, there are added issues caused by this catastrophe: A region’s infrastructure — its roads, schools, utilities, services — were also disrupted or destroyed.

So take another charged example: 9/11. If the families of the heroes and victims of that day had a right to receive recompense from government and charity for their loss — and who will argue with that? — then, it has been asked, why don’t the families of the soldiers killed by terrorists in Iraq or the innocents killed in Oklahoma City or for that matter the doctors killed by anti-abortion terrorists?

But this isn’t about principle. It is about numbers. We pay attention to big numbers. And whose fault is that? Media’s, first and foremost. Part of the reason behind that is obvious: In a world of scarce paper and airtime, only the big news gets big attention and big numbers mean big stories. Part of this is our fault: We watch the big story because of the big numbers. So big numbers make business sense: Big begets big.

Then the politicians exploit the numbers, too, of course. Especially after messing up the rescue and relief on the Gulf Coast, Bush and Congress ran to throw big money at the big numbers of victims: $200 billion is the latest figure we’ve heard. But we haven’t yet heard a substantial debate about how best to use such money: Is it to rebuild New Orleans? Or reimagine New Orleans? To support the building of housing there, as has been proposed? To support the creation of jobs there? To support mortgages and jobs and schools elsewhere in the country, where these people are going?

Whenever numbers grow big, you can count on a big backlash. The other day, I took Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman to task for scolding media because they reported predictions of death tolls that — thank God — apparently turned out to be too dire. And then an AP reporter called following a similar angle. I told him that it is a nonissue. What were reporters to do: Not report what officials said? Question their numbers with no basis in fact to do so? Follow what the officials said with some blanket caveat — “but they could be wrong” — as if we’re all an idiot and didn’t know that already? And what if — God forbid — the numbers turned out to be even worse than predicted? Then how would the reporters look? If the number were smaller or greater, is the story and the tragedy and the need any different? Or is it just the numerical perception, the headline value and political value that changes? And as a practical matter, if the government would not jump fast enough in a disaster where 10,000 were believed to have died, then you could argue that the local officials should have predicted 100,000 to get faster action. Because everybody responds to a bigger number.

This is all a product of mass think from mass media and plaint-by-numbers politics. But to quote Raymond Williams as quoted often by Jay Rosen: “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”

We see — and use — the victims and even the dead as masses. But, of course, they are a mass of individual stories and today, on the internet, each of those individuals can tell his story. We are coming into the age of the empowered individual: as consumers, as publishers, as businesspeople, as citizens. We have to learn that when we hypervalue the mass, we undervalue each of us. Whether part of a tragedy of huge numbers or a tragedy of one, each of us is the same, just one person with the our own pain and the our own needs. That is the ethic of the individual over the ethic of the mass.

: LATER: David Carr wrote in The Times today about other kinds of exaggeration that came into Katrina aftermath coverage — just as happens with other too-big stories: the reports of rapes and murders in the Convention Center, for example, which came from major media and which I linked to. Fears and stories get overblown. That may not excuse the journalists who reported without verification. But even here, this doesn’t lessen the gravity of the neglect, and that is the real story.

It is a fact that many died at the convention center and Superdome (7 and 10 respectively, according to the most recent reports from the coroner), but according to a Sept. 15 report in The Chicago Tribune, it was mostly from neglect rather than overt violence. According to the Tribune article, which quoted Capt. Jeffery Winn, the head of the city’s SWAT team, one person at the convention center died from multiple stab wounds and one National Guardsman was shot in the leg.

If Geraldo could get to the Convention Center but water bottles and soldiers could not, if one person died becuase of this or five or 10, the story of neglect is still the same.