Thursday, 6 December 2007

BuzzKill: Journalism, Schmournalism

God I pity any of you who, like me, have to read the various blogs and Web sites that dicker over the future of journalism. So much of them seem to be written by cranky, whiny babies. Jeff Jarvis's BuzzMachine is the worst offender, lacking even the ounce of humor that would leaven the pretentiousness or the shred of humility that might suggest Jarvis is not in possession of a crystal ball that tells him exactly what the future is going to be like.

And yet I read it every day, for despite his sour writing style, Jarvis is a mover and shaker whose blog crystallizes one school of thought. His posts draw two types of comments: those that mirror his polar thinking and those that emanate from the other end of the earth. There isn't much middle ground but it's fun to watch the fireworks.

Of course, the Bill Keller speech I praised earlier this week comes in for especial contempt. What struck me as a reasoned explanation of the importance of proper journalism (facts carefully acquired, even in dangerous settings) struck Jarvis and his crowd as a contemptuous slam on all they hold sacred. (Basically, Keller said that Jarvis said that blogging would replace the mainstream media, and Jarvis said "Oh no I di-unt." But really, Jarvis's main gripe seems to be that Keller didn't bow deeply enough in his general direction.)

It's that odd, Oedipal thing I've remarked upon before. For some reason it also reminds me of that scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" where a peasant (Michael Palin) is swatted by an annoyed King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and then keeps shouting "Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!"

Keller and Jarvis have sort of made nice, in an exchange that ends with Jarvis trying to wheedle some sort of collaboration with the New York Times. I'm sure Keller would be thrilled at that.

What do I think of all this stuff? Not the petty bitching but the issues themselves? Well I'm still studying, aren't I? But so far I can see both sides of the argument. I take it as a given that the democratizing power of the Internet empowers citizens to gather more information and spread more information. I agree with Harvard's Yochai Benkler, who writes in his impressive new book "The Wealth of Networks" that "The networked public sphere, as it is currently developing, suggests that it will have no obvious point of control or exertion of influence--either by fiat or by purchase. It seems to invert the mass-media model in that it is driven heavily by what dense clusters of users find intensely interesting and engaging, rather than by what large swaths of them find mildly interesting or average."

Moreover, I'm intrigued by his argument that the mere possibility of being able to engage in communication with the public sphere reorients us: "The way we listen to what we hear changes because of this; as does, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we observe and process daily events in our lives. We no longer need to take these as merely private observations, but as potential subjects for public communication. This changes the relative power of the media."

But I also worry about what researchers call "filtering for accreditation." In a networked world we'll have to figure out whom to trust for our information. That may not be every schmo with a blog. And I don't buy the argument that some rabid MSM-haters make that there is something inherently corrupt and untrustworthy about the press. I think many citizen journalism efforts are just crappy or weirdly self-referential. Of course, so too are plenty of newspapers, especially when you get out of the East Coast orbit. And some efforts that harness the power of the Internet and the crowd are immensely valuable. Benkler describes how a mixture of bloggers, students and freelance software experts exposed serious problems with Diebold electronic voting machines. What they did sure sounds like journalism to me, without the need for any qualifiers.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this stuff.

And Furthermore
Here's something interesting: A while back Jarvis wrote about a report issued by Britain's National Union of Journalists that was critical of Web 2.0. Jarvis was typically cutting ("whiny, territorial, ass-covering" was one descriptor he used), though the bits of the report he quoted didn't seem so outrageous to me (stories shouldn't go online without being edited, for example; untrained writers make for poor online video). I said this in a comment, noting that I hadn't read the report myself.

Now I've seen a copy of the NUJ's monthly magazine, Journalist, and I think Jarvis was probably right. The magazine has that to-the-ramparts feel. But what floored me was that they quoted from my BuzzMachine comment in their December issue. I guess the anonymity of the Web makes that easy, but is that right? Should they have contacted me (my blog was easily findable from my comment)? And do they undercut their argument against new media by employing its tools?

Most amusingly, the NUJ report included this section: "The ease of copying and pasting leads to journalists under time pressure to 'simply lump text across without proper consideration of its quality or reliability.'”

Um, isn't that what Journalist magazine did? Pot, meet kettle.


Anonymous said...

I think as part of their by-lines all "journalists" should post their political party affiliation, who they voted for in the last two elections and any food allergies they might have.

You're right to assume that people don't trust the media. Everyone has an agenda even the reader. Simply state yours up front and we'll be more likely to believe you in the future.

Plus I don’t trust people who can’t process milk. I mean co’mon…

suburbancorrespondent said...

I admit, I clicked on "every schmo with a blog" to make sure you weren't linking to mine. Phew!

What I find difficult (and this may just be my middle-aged, raised-on-print mindset) is figuring out where a news blog is coming from. I have to use up a lot of my time figuring out the point of reference of whoever is writing. Newspapers make that a little easier. I know which ones are coming from center, left of center, etc. Magazines, also. With news blogs (not affiliated with an already established magazine or newspaper), I feel as though I am reading blind. There's no context. Or, I feel as though I am jumping into the middle of a conversation and I have no idea who started it or what it is about. I can't get my bearings.

mark from alexandria said...

To a non-journo, this is just plain fascinating! Blogging on journalism, journalism about blogging. Parsing,phrasing, ranting, praising. Its a different world.

Old Lady said...

About the future of journalism, good article by Michael Hirschorn in the December Atlantic (p. 137ff), saying "newspapers should try giving their readers what they want, not just what editors think they need." His point being that much current news is readily available elsewhere. His study reports "what readers think is interesting and what editors think is important tends to overlap less than one-quarter of the time."

Richard said...

I'm not sure I agree with Mr Hirschorn that readers and audiences ought to dictate coverage. This may to sound strange to US ears, so I hereby declare my interest as both European and working for a public service broadcaster. What the readers and audiences want isn't always good journalism. And sometimes what they want isn't (paradoxically) healthy in a democracy. So there is space for the editors to plonk down their soapbox and preach.

It isn't one thing or another though. Knowing how much to give and how much to tell is like trying to hitting a running cat - a moving target. The variables and the weight which they bear change constantly.

And I instinctively feel that many of the public recognise this. To use another eating metaphor, not eveyone wants to eat a la carte. There are many who go for the menu becuase they trust the chef's judgment. Similarly, the wide availability of information out there does not preclude the viability of a product which filters and weighs it. And which, after you've finished with it, can line a dog's kennel.

(Kind what Suburbancorrespondent said, but in a more pompous way and with rather forced analogies.)


Henry said...

I look forward to reading Michael Hirschorn's article, but in the meantime, I agree with Richard: as Sir Huw Wheldon (another legendary BBC producer) said, the choice between what viewers (or readers) want and what they need is a false dichotomy. To add another analogy, especially relevant to Americans saddled with huge tuition fees, why go to college when you can get all the facts from Wikipedia?
I'm slightly curious about how much Richard knows about hunting cats...are things THAT bad at the Beeb?

John Kelly said...

Well that's the equation, isn't it: What readers want (custard, arguably) versus what they need (broccoli). I think what's happened is that journalists have gotten out of touch with what the ratio should be, or they've lost the recipe for making custard nutritious or broccoli tasty. Here's an interesting quote I came across (you see, I really am reading books), from NYU's Jay Rosen: “The idea that the journalist’s connection to the community could help the newspaper tune itself to the people who live their has never been seriously considered in mainstream journalism. It’s the opposite. One’s connection to the community is feared as a conflict of interest." I don't agree that newspapers NEVER had that, just that they've lost it. said...

Continuing on the food theme, what is troubling is when readers are served custard that looks, smells and tastes like broccoli. I agree that the notion that all of MSM can't be trusted is just a defensive, knee-jerk reaction, and the accusations do go both ways. Bloggers and Citizen Journalists don't always get it right either, so the best option should be the two sides complementing each other That way we can have both our custard and our broccoli, in healthy amounts and full of delicious flavo[u]r.