Category Archives: Essays

Journalism a religion? God help America!

Jane Tillman Irving, top left with the \

Jane Tillman Irving, top left, with some of us oldsters of ’91

I spent several days in New York City last week with fellow alumni of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (class of 1991). Other (than) one or two quick visits, the two-day event was my first re-immersion into the culture and campus where I was confirmed as a professional journalist.

In a moment I’ll share some of the intellectually stimulating and personally uplifting experiences I enjoyed but first, true to the ethos of my craft I must lede with my one gripe. But it’s a big one — to this day folks at school still talk about journalism with a reverence bordering on the religious, a mindset that greatly inhibits the desperately-needed self-reformation of mainstream media.

I will brook no argument over the fact that journalism deems it a duty to reach into the barrel and pick out the rottenest apple because I learned that lesson from legendary broadcaster, Fred Friendly, who visited one of the large class sessions back in the day when Joan Konner was dean and Steven D. Isaacs was the school’s ethicist-in-chief. It was at one of these big sessions that Fred offered the following parable of news judgment: if 100 planes land at the airport safely and one doesn’t what’s the news?

Of course there is but one right answer, yet even then, when I was new to professional journalism, I was leery of this notion that our solemn mission was fault-finding. It seemed both self-righteous and distorted, because when professional go dirt-hunting of course they’re going to find scandal, even perhaps when they are hoodwinked into falsely maligning the occasional Puff Daddy. Perhaps because I came at journalism with the eye of a science writer I have always felt as if my proper mission were more like: Behold this marvelous creation and here are some of its fascinating niches, but please pay particular attention here because there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.

My two-day re-submersion into Orthodox Journalism only strengthened my conviction that the “sacred mission” is the wrong metaphor to guide journalism, but this pseudo religious mantra does at least help expose the hypocrisy of America’s Fourth Estate.

Let’s start with the sanctimonious references to past glories of journalism, natural though this may be at an alumni gathering. But we are journalists, the self-anointed guardians of freedom. Surely we know that we are the first Americans since the Civil War who can be arrested without right of appeal to a judge thanks to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 which suspended Habeus Corpus. I’m sure most Americans would say, “What?” but given our work and our duty, we know that this right has been a bulwark against tyranny since 1215 when English nobles forced King John of Robin Hood fame to sign the Magna Carta.

So without spoiling the fun I would have thought we should have worn black armbands or some such to acknowledge that, while we stood guard over civil liberties, Congress turned back the clock of freedom to the era of the sundial. But how can Orthodox Journalism question the political system at such a deep level when this righteous profession is deeply embedded into the fabric of the system? If journalism is righteous then the system must righteous, except for those sins which it is our solemn, if dishy, duty to expose. Nor can journalism seek absolution for its stenographic reporting of many utterances together constituted the Big Lie that made Congress so fearful as to forget what happens when power approaches the absolute.

Oh, well, enough kvetching. Let me share a few of my personal highlights:

Most inspiring: Dele Olojede is a Nigerian native who came to the Columbia J-school circa 1987 as a political refugee of sorts and had a long career as a U.S reporter. He got an alumni award last week and in listening to his acceptance speech I learned that he had won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for work done in 94. I took notes of his remarks. He spoke quietly about how he had decided in 1994, as a foreign correspondent in Africa, to cover the Mandela inauguration and NOT the Rawandan genocide. He said he had always wondered “if I had been in Rwanda at the start of the genocide” and had written forcefully about it would there have been 800,000 lives lost? Even sitting in the back of a large ballroom this man radiated integrity the way a wood stove puts out heat. Dele said something to the effect that anguish over winning the Pulitzer for covering what many have been the wrong story was part of his motivation for going back to Nigeria. He plans to start Timbuktu Media “to build a civic space first in Nigeria and then in the rest of Africa.”

Most Useful: A woman in a green blouse at the Class of ’68 session Friday night asked: Is anybody pairing older and younger reporters? Or words to that effect. What a notion. Pair experience and beat savvy with eager and new-media savvy. If anyone knows the speaker was please comment. It’s a great yet simple idea that could do a lot to improve the newsroom.

Most energetic: Columbia J-school prof Sree Sreenavasan showed a room full of journalists how to use blogging and new media tools to improve their print product or create new digital news outlets. The audience ranged from never-bloggers to daily-bloggers, and I think everyone learned something useful. Sree has posted beaucoup tips online.

Most Disturbing: Professor Mike Shapiro’s case study session led a roomful of working press through an exercise in whether or not to publish a titillating story on libel-proof but flimsy she-said, he-said input. I was profoundly disturbed by willingness to run with the scandal and I think it shows the prevalence of the dirt-mongering mentality that got the LA Times into trouble.

Most telling: My concept of culture is the complete collection of Star Trek DVDs so I decided to expand my horizons at a lecture from aesthete and critic David Hadju. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t deliver some news I could use. Hajdu talked about the notion of product placement throughout history. Seems like ever since Homer entertainers sucked up to the rich and powerful, a practice that continued up through the Renaissance when painters PhotoShopped their patrons’ faces into artworks. Hadju said this practice stopped during the modern industrial era ((which corresponds with the rise of democracy, n’est-pas?) during which time the “starving artist” made integrity the cornerstone of art. Nowadays, Hajdu said, culture is going to back to this suck-up future, as evidenced by the placement of Tequila references in a Broadway remake of Sweet Charity. So I’m thinking, is this Aristocracy 2.0?, so I ask Hadju something like: Does this mean we’re returning to a he-who-pays-the-piper-calls-the-tune paradigm? And he says something like: Yes. Which I find very useful because it dovetails with an essay from techno-seer Kevin Kelly who recently wrote the New Age Guide to Sucking Up As a Business Model. (Memo to self: work on this ingratiating thing.)

Most Businessy: The final session I attended was a gripe session by the alternative press at which I heard Victor Navasky, editor of the leftist, money-losing Nation, echo the latest Big Idea from Chris Anderson, the libertarian editor of the new-agey, fabulously rich Wired. Navasky said that since The Nation began posting its articles on the web it has experienced a huge spike in subscriber-ship from about 15,000 to 150,000 — which is exactly as Anderson predicts. If I have the numbers wrong someone please correct me, but if I did goof it’s because I was practically nodding off at the end of two-days of speechifying that culminated with a 25-minute victory lap by San Francisco alternative media icon, Bruce Brugmann. Brucie baby thanks for the tip of the hat at the event, but next time you appear at a one-hour session with four speakers, do the math!

Follow the audience into the 21st Century

Doug Millison mashes up a 1979 B&W graphic by Josh Gosfield

In this final essay in a series let me explain why I accuse mass media of dereliction of duty for helping mislead the nation into war, for uncritically swallowing the sensational and for too often ignoring complex problems until they erupt into crisis.

Idealistically I am just a very sad American who feels that our nation has strayed from Lincoln’s mission to be “the last best hope of Earth” and that much of responsibility for this lies with the failure of the working press, of which I am part — although I am now on vacation and speak only for myself.

But I am a pragmatist who does not put much stock in hand-wringing. And while Mario Savio’s impassioned remarks (see graphic above or watch video ) resonate with me, I would not take his suggestion literally because only two types of persons throw anything, especially themselves, into machinery — saboteurs and candidates for the meat grinder. I am neither.

Nor have I merely been critical, for more authoritative critiques abound, including “Breaking the News,” “Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” “The Vanishing Newspaper,” “Fighting for Air,” and “The New Media Monopoly“.

Instead, to speak up without getting ground up, I tried on Tuesday and Wednesday to suggest how the corrosive effects of corporate ownership on journalism could be decoupled from the reality corporate ownership will persist. For insofar as Corporate Media are like the dinosaurs, it would take a meteor strike to extinguish them and I don’t think the ensuing fallout would suit anyone’s interests.

So I have suggested how to improve the credibility of mass media by giving rank-and-file media workers blogs, hosted on company websites, so as to drill thousands of connections down into communities, and from these to pull up ideas and stories that would make better journalism and better business than the all-too-common practice of rewriting the empty press releases issued by the officialdom.

But I’ve spent the last three days saying that and this throat-clearing only serves to betray my apprehension at today’s task — showing, not merely telling, how today’s mass media newsroom breeds the moral cowardice that ails professional journalism. For only when we recognize the sickness can we seek the cure.

So let me recall when I first joined the San Francisco Examiner in the summer of 1992, a 38-year-old white male who’d done a lot in and around media but had never worked in a daily newsroom. That job was my dream come true and I did some silly stuff at first. Early on I remember calling Carl Sagan on some science story and asking more than once something like, “How many stars there are?” until he caught on and uttered his signature line, “billions and billions.” I trust that Carl, wherever he may be, has either forgotten or forgiven this, but I mention this because I remain in many ways a kid who hasn’t lost the thrill of meeting great people and witnessing historic, and so I occasionally still do things that are silly.

Another seminal moment in my early Examiner days was when former colleague Dennis Opatrny called me over and said something like, “I wanna show you what kind of paper you work for.” With that he keyboarded me into “the staff basket” — an internal bulletin board for everything from yard sales to lengthy screeds aimed at headlines, stories and sometimes each other.

That staff basket has long since disappeared in the various technological and corporate metamorphoses that continue to reshape the San Francisco daily newspaper scene. But back then it used to let off hot air like a whistling tea kettle. I grew up in a Greek and Italian family where argument was almost a form of affection and I remember feeling like I had found my long-lost, extended family of truth-seekers. And if my staff basket inputs were a little too Brooklyn at times, I got cut some slack because we were short-staffed underdogs and I worked hard enough to earn the right to pound the table at times.

But let me tell you how even in those halcyon days I bumped up against the limits on free-wheeling debate and here I must name a few names because the first rule we learn in J-school is to attribute who said what to whom. This lets the audience assess motivations and allows parties to challenge misstatements. I think the working press too frequently sets this rule aside on issues of war or peace or even silliness.

Being pragmatist I also think it’s good business to name names because it is people who subscribe to newspapers, tune in to broadcasts or click on web sites. And they like to see and hear themselves. Two Stanford business school professors wrote a great article in which they asked Hoover Adams, founding publisher of the Dunn, North Carolina, Daily Record how his paper had achieved a market penetration above 100 percent. This is what the publisher told the eggheads:

It’s because of three things: Names, names, and names . . . . A local newspaper can never get enough local names. I’d happily hire two more typesetters and add two more pages in every edition if we had the names to fill them up.”

Of course I’m not a real publisher. I’m just a blogger trying to dial into American newsroom and the guy who has nailed that channel is Romanesko and he always names names. So let me take a page from his book and tell you about two interactions with former Examiner managing editor Sharon Rosenhause that suggests why we must change a system that puts super-human expectations on mere mortals.

Today Sharon is managing editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a leader of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and an advocate of newsroom affirmative action — the importance of which will become apparent when I discuss the second of two meetings I will use to illustrate my point.

But first things first. My initial closed-door meeting with Sharon occurred when she called me into her office for a gentle remonstrance over a screw up on my part. It involved a daily I must have written for the Ex sometime before Gray Davis ended his term as California state controller in 1995. I couldn’t find the e-clip because the online archives of Examiner stories starts in ’95.

But I recall the circumstances clearly and it was my bad — throughout the story I called this elected official by his first name, “Gray,” rather than the last-name convention, “Davis.” I recall Sharon sitting behind her desk, shaking her head and asking me how “such a talented writer” could have made such a goof. I think she said something about how it got through copy desk but I was preoccupied with feeling dumb.

Our second closed-door chat was different. I knocked on her door sometime in summer or fall of 1996 to complain about what I deemed to be the Examiner’s heavy-handed tilt against Proposition 209 a hot issue on the November 1996 election.

Prop 209 ended up passing and amended the California constitution to invalidate or complicate state and local government affirmative action programs. I visited Sharon to object to the tone and headlines of stories such as “Left forges new alliance aimed at fighting the right,” by Carol Ness; “Thousands Rally in San Francisco to ‘Fight the Right’ ” by Susan Ferriss; and “New Civil Rights Warriors” by Katherine Seligman and Kathleen Sullivan.

What I recall quite vividly is how Sharon used a single phrase, like a verbal Aikido move, to flip me on my back so to speak. “What is your problem with affirmative action?” she asked. I had come in to talk about balance on the news pages and suddenly I was defending myself against her correct observation that, as a guy raised in sleeveless t-shirts who still “tawks like dis” on occasion, I did have a problem with affirmative action, so maybe the perception of bias was in the eye of the beholder.

I do not mean to rehash the affirmative action debate nor suggest that the editors of the now-defunct Hearst-owned Examiner were wrong to reflect the liberal bent of the San Francisco Bay Area. I truthfully don’t know what is the correct course for mass media journalism, to cling to impossible concepts of objectivity or get edgier and closer to local constituencies.

But my point is that we don’t have any empirical system to understand our audiences and so we fall back on the time-honored method of going to the mat to solve such difference. That may have even worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when there there were enough media outlets and thus enough head-butting contests so that the Fourth Estate somehow got the job done.

Now there are fewer outlets and fewer people. Yet our news judgment system still relies on thousands of journalists at different organizational levels having discussions on all sorts of issues day after day after day in a vacuum of empirical means for figuring out what ought to get covered. The proper operation of this system presupposes an inexhaustible willingness for some participants to get back-flipped day after day after day. Either that or they learn to go along to get along because after a while hitting the ground gets old.

Here I speak from experience because about a year after this encounter with Sharon I started taking Aikido lessons under a terrific sensei and learned how to side-step trouble. But I started at age 44 and after four years of taking falls my body began to cringe at the thought of another pounding. So I quit.

But we don’t have to keep doing journalism they way they do Aikido. We can find a gentler way to arrive at a meeting of the minds by coupling interactive technologies with cultural changes in the newsroom. Let’s push the power to publish down into the ranks and offer thousands of journalists outlets for their interests, curiosities, even frustrations.

Liberating these suppressed voices is a business opportunity because interactive media is not like mass media. Interactive media is about making connections. People to people. People to information. People to products. Whatever. The old media business model based on distribution is dead. Stick a fork in it. Web-heads like David Weinberger have been trying to tell us for a very long time the Internet is a two-way street. But we still have this mindset of the one-way trip to the driveway. And cannot get to these new land of connections with Soviet-style central planning. We must allow newsrooms to follow their audiences into the 21st Century.

In many years of covering Silicon Valley I’ve noticed how those guys promulgate “laws” to lend authority to their educated guesses. I’d call this a cheap trick but make lots of money doing this so let me tell you about Metcalfe’s law which says the more people who use a network the more valuable it becomes. More connections means greater value plus better journalism. It’s a win-win.

I can’t believe I said that! It’s obviously time for me to stop and thank you for your attention. This project has consumed most of my two-week vacation and I’m already late for an alumni schmooze fest at Columbia J-school. Oh, well, I’ll be late for work on Monday, too, because I’ll be spending a leisurely Sunday with my table-pounding family and taking the first flight back to San Francisco on Monday morning.

But at least I will arrive, as they say, tanned, rested and ready.

# # #

This concludes the fourth in a series of essays laying out the journalistic and business reasons for reforming mass media newsrooms. How? By letting all staffers cultivate part-time blogs and training editors to skim these blogs for briefs and story ideas. The series argues the need to flatten the newsroom hierarchy and empower the staff to become mini-publishers and demonstrates a  new business model in harvesting high-value clicks from specialty blogs and making connections. Finally, why the current newsroom hierarchy breeds moral cowardice and mediocrity and how a business model inspired by Silicon Valley can reverse both the financial and ethical slide of mass media.)

1.  Take me to your leader

2. The Pyramid and the Cloud

3. Newspapers don’t FARK yourselves to death

4. Follow the audience into the 21st Century

# # #

The Pyramid and the Cloud

Collage by Doug Millison of NonHuman Communications

In Hollywood everyone has a screenplay. In New York the unpublished novel is the thing. In Silicon Valley, which I’ve covered for most of the last 16 years, it’s all about inventions. So at the risk of sounding like I’ve gone native let me tell you about two magic bullets that could cure the brain death afflicting newsrooms — the editaser and dewhisperfier.

The editaser is a smart stun gun to find and punish editors who assign stories based on stuff they’re read or seen in other media. The dewhisperfier is the antithesis of the cone-of-silence from the 1960s television series, Get Smart. It would force rank-and-file journalists to complain out loud and generally behave like the heroes of newspaper epics such as His Girl Friday, or Inherit the Wind, or The Paper.

Before I proceed let me correct any misconception that I am talking about the paper from which I am currently on vacation, and which I consider to be the Lake Woebegone of newrooms, where the editors are wise, the reporters fearless and the copy desk misses nothing.

No I am talking about mass media and I base my worries on two lessons that I learned at the Columbia University J-school (class of ’91) where I will be attending an alumni gathering this weekend.

It was while I was at J-school that ex-New York Times correspondent James Feron gave me the idea for the editaser. Feron co-taught my home room class with science-writing professor Ken Goldstein. One day Feron mentioned that he had a Times colleague who never started an assignment without first sleuthing out from where and whom inside the building the assignment had come. As a reporter I’m trained to recognize the detail or quote that encapsulates the story. Though I wasn’t quite sure at the time what Feron was trying to say I was sure it was what one former editor, Kenneth Howe, called the objective correlative.

Let me pause to explain my protocol on naming names, which I consider a bedrock of journalism that allows a reader or viewer to better assess statements and anecdotes. As I articulate my concerns and suggest reforms for the untrusted and deeply-troubled mass media I will name former colleagues and past incidents, within the bounds of propriety. Current colleagues and issues, however, I deem protected by the obligation of employer and team loyalty. Plus I consider telling tales out of school smarmy.

But I digress. The dewhisperfier was also inspired by J-school recollections of what should have been pep talks by Big League journalists. But their body language showed more pessimism than pep. They whispered and frowned in tete-a-tetes with the profs who had arranged the visits. This head-shaking puzzled me because they had the jobs we wanted and yet . . .

After I got into the corporate world, by which I mean both journalism and the business beats I cover, I realized that I was witnessing Dilbert syndrome — a form of cognitive dissonance that afflicts many professionals, including journalists, who can’t live up to their professional norms and expectations.

Take My Girl Friday whose plot revolves around editor Walter Burns’ zany efforts to keep wise-cracking reporter Hildy Johnson from quitting. What a myth! If a reporter today said, as does Hildy — “I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you! — would Walter say, “Hildy, Hildy, Hildy,” or, “One less pink slip.”?

If newspapering was ever as insouciant as is portrayed in His Girl Friday it isn’t like that today. What kind of film would it be if Hildy was afraid to tell Walter to take his job and shove it. Meeting Walter’s expectations would become her career skill while Walter, basking in her talented yet submissive admiration, would become overly impressed with his own discernment. I would re-title the modern remake The Jayson Blair Project — a tale of the inherent corruptibility of the mentor-protege model.

That was an exceedingly bad manifestation of the archaic way in which we try to make journalism. What ails newsrooms today is too much incentive to look up and too little to look down. We survived Citizen Kane because there were enough Pulitzers and Knights to keep the system in balance. How many media voices are there, now? Not enough. Today’s corporate media are to news in the 21st Century like the condottieri were to war in Renaissance Italy — not terribly skilled, lacking in principle and costly.

The imperious editor, as popularized today by the Spiderman-bashing J. Jonah Jameson, is as useless as Pharaoh. His day has passed. Hierarchies were useful when we need to build pyramids. But an historic change is occurring today. The pyramid is being smothered by “The Cloud” — one of the names used to describe the Internet, that anarchic disruptor of all modern industry.

Sociologists have coined the term “network society” to describe the reorganization of wealth and work that is being driven by this new mode of organization. David Weinberger’s “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” offers a more better metaphor and read. Network society is built around small teams with low overhead and high skills. They just do it while hierarchies convene committees that meets for hours to produce minutes.

It may be a difficult cultural adjustment but newspaper execs have the fix at their fingertips — give every person in the organization the power to publish to a paper-sponsored blog (If you have not already, please glance at my similar statement on this yesterday).

Imagine over time hundreds of people in your organizations spending perhaps 20 percent of their time finding and posting items of interest. Sound like a waste? Unless you’ve shut down their browsers they’re already spending a good part of their days looking at videos, shopping or passing jokes.

Let’s go with the flow and harness some of this curiosity and restlessness. With mild discipline and some training these e-pubs will find niche readers to replace the mass audience that has dissolved into droplets. Newsrooms must draw these thousands of currents inside and then ask editors to do a job they’ll find more fulfilling than attending meetings. They will look into this array of inputs for patterns. Some of these patterns will become stories — and many of blog posts will make briefs, brites and picture boxes. Journalists will form a symbiosis with what ex-newsie Dan Gillmor calls “the former audience.”

Sure media organizations are experimenting with citizen journalism or what investors call “user-generated content” (meaning free labor). Online journalist Jonathan Dube recently described an opinion forum created by New Hampshire Public Radio and a citizen media site created by CNN. I am sure there are other examples of reaching out to readers.

But this must be more than a technology bolted-onto the pyramid. A new way of gathering and disseminating news is here. It will require a change in attitudes at the bottom and the top. Those accustomed to whispering at the base of the pyramid must reach for the clouds. Those at the apex will have to decide whether they love journalism enough to let it go.

I am confident the powers that be will do the right thing. Or perhaps I’m just hoping to keep getting paid vacation like this one. But as a backstop I’m offering open source licensing to anyone wants to help design, build and/or finance my two inventions.

(Note: The title of this posting pays homage to Eric Raymond’s 1997 essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, about Linux, a prime example of open source software development. Thanks also to print journalist turned blogger Tom Foremski who helped me realize that journalism is an open source activity. Foremski’s posting, “The Holy Trinity, is worth regarding in this regard.)

Tomorrow: Newspapers: don’t FARK yourselves to death.

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.

Journalism: not a job but a calling?


Some folks have rocks in their head; big rocks

(I’m camping out at Joshua Tree National Park on a soul-searching expedition in preparation for some future writings. This previously-published blog entry is indicative of my line of thought.)

* * *

Bumper sticks were handed out in the newsroom yesterday: Democracy Depends on Journalism. This lovely and largely true slogan was authored by The Newspaper Guild, of which I am honored to be a card-carrying member. The slogan is part of a campaign, to dramatize the loss of jobs — about 44,000 over the last five years — by people like me.

While I worry about my paycheck, and what happens to journalism in an online world, I can not make the leap between mass media staffing levels and the health of the republic. That would be as simplistic as saying fewer cops lessens public safety. 

Blame technology or praise it, but ”the collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or news articles” — the prime dictionary definition of journalism — have escaped the control of mass media. (For example, look at a forthcoming experiment in wiki-style news gathering.)

Perhaps I’m resigned to this because I’ve already surrendered one professional skill to technology. In 1980 I co-founded a typography and small press printing shop. Desktop publishing and all manner of rapid print technologies blew that away. I survived. In 1990 I began the migration to my current job. Of course I was in my mid-30s then. It’s scarier in the 50s to start over but the economy really doesn’t give a damn about me. 

I blow hot and cold on whether the shift from professional to citizen journalism will be good or bad for society. I don’t imagine, for instance, that citizen journalists have the chops to replace the investigative skills that took media firms decades to develop. On the other hand mass media have been lazy watchdogs so maybe competition from blogs and user-generated content will be for the good of governance. (When I was a typographer I worried that amateurs, using desktop publishing, would clutter up the presentation of material. If anything, design has flourished in more hands.)

So, yes, journalism is important to democracy. But journalism is mutating. We as professional journalists may ultimately be judged by how gracefully we translate our hard-learned values to the citizens who have the capability to wield publishing power — and we will have to do so as our jobs become the compost of the next media. But then we knew journalism was a calling when we came to it, didn’t we?

So God bless the union for lamenting the attrition in our ranks. But maybe the union should be organizing citizen journalists, to help them gain market clout — and health insurance (here’s another plan in that regard). To lash the union to mass media makes no more sense than assuming that newspapers, magazine, radio and television are the only vessels that can carry journalism.

Newsroom culture, beyond dysfunctional?


To Eric Brazil who told me of the beauty of the desert bloom  

(I’m still at Joshua Tree National Park pondering the future of the Fourth Estate and my role in it. This prior posting is suggestive of my line of thought.)

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The great hope of hard-pressed newspapers has been that their online traffic and revenues would rise soon enough and fast enough to replace their evaporating print advertising. But there is some evidence (as I’ve blogged once or twice before) that traffic flows to most online news sites have flattened. While a few national and brand name online dailies continue to grow, the rest of the online dailies stagnate. 

That’s the gist of a Harvard study at the heart of this concern. Paid Content editor Rafat Ali has raised a red flag about the study’s traffic-counting methodology. So don’t take it as gospel. But the concern about a traffic slowdown rings true to me because it fits the way the web has evolved. Local newspapers had a natural advantage when they went online a decade ago because they could repurpose print content for Web 1.0. Their competitors had to create content.

But Web 2.0 is not about content. For one thing search has commodotized content.  It has unwrapped and aggregated content in an efficient way that feeds people all the news they could possibly want by grazing the web. This invites nomadic behavior at odds with the old habit of newspaper subscribership, and helps create what Steve Yelvington recently called a promiscuous news audience – a term he took from the “nut graf” of research from the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company:

“The research — an online survey of 2,100 consumers in the United States — found that the respondents divide their time among as many as 16 news brands a week. ‘Brand promiscuity,’ it appears, is the norm.”

So content is not the king of Web 2.0. In fact it may be closer to the harlot. Content is a good way to draw a click. But in a promiscuous world the quality content is unlikely to make the visitor stick. Media compete in an Attention Economy. Media thrive or fail depending upon how much time people spend with them. That’s why Web 2.0 sites emphasize community, conversation, connections, voting – anything to create involvement and buy-in.

 None of this — not this thought process of involvement, not the inclusive technologies of Web 2.0 — are native to the newspaper newsroom. Newspaper sites could do well, at least traffic-wise, in the first wave of the web because it was just like printing only without the paper. But a lot has changed in this new web. So much so that I wonder how much of this ethos of participation and involvement has filtered into the American newsroom?

(Special thanks to Der Cuz, who saw Steve Yelvington’s remark picked up in a post by Mike Masnick of Techdirt.)

Why journalists can’t rely on advertising


To start my mind a-wandering

(I’m at Joshua Tree National Park dreaming up some future blog postings. This is a rerunn of a previously-written post that is suggestive of my thinking.)

* * *

Tsk, tsk on Paid Content today for taking a snarky potshot at Yahoo’s Hot Zone, the series in which ( dangerously handsome) roving reporter Kevin Sites serves up pathos from world hotspots. Paid Content says this magical misery tour attracted only 1.38 visitors in March, versus more than 27 million forYahoo proper and adds: “Nor have advertisers fully embraced the Hot Zone as a place to sell their wares.” Now consider this MediaPost report on the launch by Scripps Network of its second channel on bath design — the first being kitchen design — and the character of new media comes into focus.

I use “character” in the same way I might use “cuisine” to describe fast food. Yes, it’s edible but that’s the extent of it. Current media (including my employer) have been advertising supported but there is a difference in measurability and targetability with online media. Direct linkages such as contextual advertising destroy any illusion of separation between editorial and advertising content. Of course advertisers won’t “buy” the Hot Zone. What would they sell? Kevlar vests ?

In contrast Scripps Network can mine a rich advertising territory in its kitchen and bath design channels. On a brief visit there this morning I noticed that portable, inflatable spas for just under $800. Wouldn’t Kevin Sites love to luxuriate in one of those after schlepping across the Sudan. Maybe we can do something groovy and user-participatory and take up an online collection to send him one.

So maybe it’s just that it’s Friday. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a middle-aged print dinosaur. Or maybe I wonder whether my notion of journalism — once defined as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” — can survive in an era in which algorithms reward content that better enables us to feather our nests?

Personally I am astonished and impressed that 1.38 million unique visitors took time out of their days to let Sites expose them to conditions so alien to our comparative everday luxury. And I hope Yahoo News general Manager Neil Budde is adamant about maintaining and supporting the less lucrative but entirely laudable Hot Zone. Meanwhile, if Kevin has to get more visitors, I suggest he do video segments in which he interviews local personalities in the portable, inflatable spa. It could bring a new dimension to the notion of news in the raw.