Take me to your leader

Collage by Doug Millison of NonHuman Communications

My name is Tom Abate and I’ve been a daily newspaper reporter since 1992. I was 37 when I got my first daily job after I reinvented myself out of the typesetting industry, a craft that was then disappearing. Now part of me feels like it’s deja vu all over. The newspaper industry seems to be crumbling. Eric Alterman practically wrote its obituary in his New Yorker article Out of Print. The cartoon depicts web maven Ariana Huffington throttling the paper tigers of dead-tree journalism, and the article explains how her team is blending professional and amateur news-gatherers in a news engine that aspires to be both profitable and responsive.

But despite such gloomy reports, and the layoffs such as the one I survived last year, I see a ray of hope so powerful that I feel compelled to bring it to light.

Newspapers can do what seems to be working for the Huff Post — they can report and write with more attitude, and in a symbiosis with readers as opposed to the prevailing pontiff-to-parishoner mode. And it’s a simple fix if we have the will — push the power to publish way down into the editorial ranks through blogs.

I packed a hint of that hope into a comment that I e-mailed to media reporter Steve Outing some weeks ago. Steve used some of my thoughts in a piece he wrote for Editor & Publisher. (It’s behind E&P’s firewall but if you have access to the archives, look for “What’s Needed in 2008: Serious Newsroom Cultural Change.”). Here is my entire comment:

“I would give every daily newspaper employee, starting with reporters and editors and working down to the mail room, with a blog. And some instruction on the dos and dont’s. And then instruct the editors to read the blogs. Ideally these staff-written blogs should be a collection of detailed conversations about all the beats within the paper. And the editors should read those blogs as clues to future stories. Some issues may ripen on the blog and become stories for the mass audience in print. Astute editors will also spot trends by pulling together disparate blog items that all show, for instance, citizens creating local charities, or whatever. I tried to describe this concept at least once before as an attempt to use staff written (and ultimately non-staff blogs) as a way to develop a “capillary action” that would suck up ideas from their grassroots and contribute these locally-originated ideas into the newsroom. Because think about it, Steve: in news meetings at every paper in the nation, the national and international news wires and the entire global news gathering apparatus SHOUTS AT EDITORS. So how do papers hear their own readers over that din, if not by a method such as I propose?”

If the medium is the message, then the message of our times is interactivity. Feedback is what makes the Internet and the World Wide Web such a communications revolution. Mass media professionals have so far been fixated on the ‘Net’s global reach and how it lowers to near-zero the cost of dristribution. These characteristics, in combination with the ease of copying digital content, have hurt the incumbent mass media that pay the salaries and health plans of professional journalists. (This is a 15-year-old phenomenon called the Attention Economy that explains why the current situation in professional media is so grim.)

But most of us have been blind to the gift that came wrapped up with the unwelcome elements cited above: we can adopt a new approach to journalism that takes advantage of the interactivity of the World Wide Web to do what storytellers haven’t been able do since Gutenberg’s day — look their audiences in the eye, technologically speaking. Let’s use feedback to better match our stories to audience interests and to elicit ideas and gather content that professionals could not acquire on their own.

This vision of 21st Century journalism requires a new conception of our role as professionals that moves away from being gatekeepers ala Walter Lippmann, toward something more akin to the role of the moderator of a public conversation as envisioned by folks likes Dan Gillmor, the former San Jose Mercury News reporter turned prophet of citizen journalism. He isn’t alone. Folks like Adrian Holovaty and Lisa Williams and fellow Northern Californian J.D. Lasica are attempting, like Huffington, to reinvent journalism from outside the current sysytem through projects like EveryBlock, H2Otown and Ourmedia, respectively.

This observation arises out of my experience. For most of my time in newspapers I’ve covered the technologies and personalities of Silicon Valley. Since I started blogging as MiniMediaGuy in 2005, I’ve posted more than 600 entries on media technologies, business models and criticism.

Newspapering is my second career. In the 1980s I started and sold a typesetting company and launched an alternative paper that has flourished under new owner Judy Hodgson. She bought that paper in 1990 when I decided to get into mainstream media by attending the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

It may be wishful thinking on my part to believe that mainstream media can reinvent themselves by adopting the tools and techniques being developed by these innovators at the edge. But I choose to believe that we can develop a news-gathering ecosystem that would weave mass media into the fabric of their communities like a carpet of sod. Those close connections would stand in contrast to today’s journalism in which stories seem like palm trees along Las Vegas Boulevard. Sure, we occasionally impress our audiences and behave like members of the Fourth Estate when we devote our “resources” to prize-winning investigations. But normally we fill our pages and broadcasts with scandal (search “Spitzer and prostitute”) or bizzare occurrences (recall when the media covered the arrest of John Mark Karr as a suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey case until whole story evaporated and he went free?). And a lot of what passes for serious news on issues of vital national interest seems more like stenography than journalism (how else do you explain the 935 false statements that we reported in a critique titled The War Card).

So, if you’re on the editorial side of the industry, I hope you are receptive to the notion that newsrooms should be more like microphones listening to their communities than megaphones blaring out whatever happens to be the message du jour, and that a new blog-centric form of daily journalism is the way to effectuate this switch. But in order to reach this new journalist-as-moderator role, we’re going to have turn away from the elitist notions of the Lippmann era which has made Organized Journalism much like Catholicism insofar as the only way to get things done in a newsroom is to kiss somebody’s, well, ring. I will argue the need for this cultural shift from top-down to bottom-up journalism tomorrow in a posting titled, “The Pyramid and the Cloud.”

If you’re on the business side of media and wonder how a blog-centered strategy does aught but increase the risks of libel, please wait for the third installment, in which I will lay out the choice I see ahead as we redesign our business model. Right now I think we’re listening to Joe Sixpack and trying to give our “product” more mass appeal. That’s a slide to the bottom we can’t win. I will argue that the smarter play is to climb the flagpole by developing niche information markets that should be lucrative and would supplement advertising revenues — an idea that was first inspired by the UC Berkeley economist who helps Google make its billiions.

The fourth and final installment in this series — which I have timed to coincide with an alumni gathering at my journalistic alma mater, the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University — will wrap up loose ends and inject a little passion into this experiment in turning my critical reporter’s lens inward on the industry that has, for 16 years, kept me living in the manner to which I’ve grown accustomed.

Tomorrow: The Pyramid and the Cloud.