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Monday, January 24, 2005

Harvard Conference Highlights Need for New Definition of "Journalist"

Discussion and reaction continues in some quarters from the Harvard conference last week on bloggers, journalism and credibility. Robert Cox, managing editor of The National Debate blog, director of the Media Bloggers Association and a participant in the conference, has a number of "what now" suggestions for much-needed initiatives. You can read the Cox list here.

The Professor also has a stimulating compilation of observations from the two-day gabgest in Beantown, which you can read here. Especially worth thinking about is Rosen's point number six concerning the vital importance of open archives to maintain access to big media organization's reporting record. Rosen's point here is worth quoting at length:

"I made one empassioned plea during the conference, and it was on an issue I didn't know about or care about a year ago: the open archive. Most of the big news combines have, I believe, the wrong pollicy-- wrong for the future of the news industry, wrong for the practice of journalism, and wrong for the public on the Web. They believe in charging for their archive, and they change the urls (or Web address), meaning that all links to the original address go dead.
"But link death and the pay wall are killing the news business for reasons explained by Simon Waldman of the Guardian:
The Importance of Being Permanent. At the conference I asked whether the newsroom troops fully understood what the generals had decided about their work: that through this ill-fated archive policy all their good journalism will be "lost to Google, lost to bloggers, lost to online forums and conversation, lost to the long tail where value is built up." (From the Waldman post.)
"Shortly after, Weinberger's
notes show, "Bill Mitchell of Poynter says this discussion is changing his mind. He came in thinking that archives were one of the reliable sources of revenues, but now he's thinking about the social impact of locking up the archives and about alternative business models."
"For those who wonder whether Big Journalism can change itself and get with the more open language of the Web, the key issue to watch--the signal for a big switch in philosophy--is the archive policy.
"My suggestion: Open archive, permanent url's, free public access, make your money off smart advertising keyed to search, plus added-value services that make sophisticated use of the data in the archive, which you know better than anyone else because you own it and create it.
Weinberger: "Jay calls upon journalists to demand this."
"In fact I do. But not just to demand it-- get involved in trying to figure this thing out so that the open archive pays for itself, or even makes money. Dan Gillmor knows way more about this and will be posting on it Monday, he tells me.
"One more thing: News organizations, once they grasp Waldman's argument about content accumulating in value on the Web, will figure out how to do journalism so as to continually improve the (future) value of the open archive. That's not where anyone is focused now. But it could be done.
"A simple example would be: if you make an effort to always do the bios of the key actors when you have any sort of newsmaking public controversy, then you are always building your public actor bio file, and new products may emerge from that."

Now that's an interesting concept - a media organization reporting over time on a public official, agency or issue, or some other field that commands attention and making the results of that reporting available on the web creates thereby a web product the value of which will continually increase. Ease of access and relevance of the content make it easy to envision a reporting "morgue" that is the opposite of the dusty files and storage demands of microfiche in the pre-web days. We might even say the governing paradigm of the newspaper morgue is totally and forever changed by the web.

But that is just one area of journalism in which the governing paradigm is being changed fundamentally. Consider the paradigm of who is a reporter. In the daily newspaper world of the MSM, credentials and experience with accepted organizations are the pre-requisites for admission to the guild of the ink-stained wretch. Note that it is virtually impossible to separate the reporter from the organization.

This fact gives rise to, among much else that is damaging to the MSM's ability to see reality, the idea that real journalism can only be done by certified journalists employed by a media organization with the requisite structure of assets, including newsrooms full of editors, a library and research staff, bureaus in distant locations, communications links among all of these assets and so forth.

A vivid example of this attitude came Friday at Harvard during a discussion (which I listened to on the webcast of the conference) of bloggers alleged inability to do things like go to Baghdad to cover the War in Iraq. There came a point in that discussion when Jill Abramson of The New York Times asked in a voice that dripped with condescension if the bloggers present had any idea how much it costs the Times to maintain a Baghdad bureau. The implication was that such a bureau - i.e. infrastructure - is required to cover Iraq.

Just how much of a relic that notion is becomes clear when we contemplate the fact that all that is required for a blogger to blog an event is a laptop, a web connection and perhaps a healthy measure of the obnoxious curiosity that so endears traditional reporters to the message managers of modern governance. Sure, the logistics of blogging the Democratic National Convention in Boston are of a different magnitude compared to those of posting daily from Iraq.
But consider the likely product of a traditional MSMer operating out of the Baghdad bureau of a daily newspaper, compared to an independent blogger operating from the same city. (Yes, I know there are access, diplomatic roadblocks and other variables that can be serious obstacles for the blogger).

Even so, the fact remains that the MSMer may be the best war correspondent since Ernie Pyle but he or she will get one byline a day, which will not be read until the following morning, plus perhaps a couple of shots at filing updates on the newspaper's web site. The traditional structure of the newsroom and the handicap of hard-copy newspapers imposes serious limits on how much reporting reachers readers and constrains the timeliness of that reporting.

The blogger faces no such structural limitations. If he or she can get the story, all he or she has to do is write it and post it. "It" will consist of a series of posts, none of which by itself tells all the relevant facts, but all of the posts will have three priceless advantages - the incomparable advantage of instant access for readers around the world, the power of links to expand the reporting picture and the multiplying energy of inter-activity with knowlegable readers. In other words, with the blogger's multiple filings, the wisdom of crowds becomes part of the reporting process.

Anybody can read the blogger's posting as soon as it is posted. Each posting can include links to explanatory sources, each of which in turn will possibly direct readers to additional useful information. And thanks to the instant inter-activity of instant reader comment, the blogger can quickly obtain significant new leads, information sources, original analyses, expert ssessments and much else. And the blogger gets quick feedback on the credibility of the post. "We will fact-check your a--" applies equally to bloggers and MSM anchors.

Compare the two: the MSMer is like the stopped clock that is right twice a day even though it's batteries are dead, while the blogger can post multiple updates as they are available throughout the day. Due to space and time limitations, the story that appears in the paper will lack depth, will be far from comprehensive and will be in effect one frame from a film that goes on running long after the MSMer's deadline for filing to the foreign desk back home.

The reader who has resources that could aid the reporting process stands little of chance of reaching the MSMer, even if he or she has email and checks it regularly. The same reader not only can post a comment with the posting that will be seen by the blogger, it will also be seen by countless other readers who in turn will possibly enhance the resource.

By the time, the daily appears on the front step the next morning, the story has changed how many times? And been updated how frequently on Fox News, shredded by the hour on Talk Radio and fisked beyond recognition by the Blogosphere. The blogger gets constant feedback and can update subsequent postings as the information required to report the event in question becomes wider, deeper and more useful to readers.

Frankly, when you think about comparisons like these, you have to wonder why the MSM would ever hesitate to make blogging skills a hiring prerequisite for every journalist. I also wonder how long before folks outside the MSM realize how comparatively easy it would be to assemble a team of bloggers who could cover, say, Congress, or a key committee in Congress with a comprehensiveness, accuracy, responsiveness and timeliness that no MSM organization could hope to approach?

Here's where the journalist paradigm shifts. Instead of the generalist skills and attitudes that typify MSMers, consider the lawyer or engineer who has knowledge and expertise on a particular issue, committee, agency or program. Give that same lawyer or engineer the blogging skills needed to observe and post quickly, accurately and concisely and you've got yourself a new kind of journalist, my friend.

Start with this paradigm and then envision the people and resources needed to assemble a reporting staff to cover a county government or a federal agency and you begin to realize how antiquated is the MSM newsroom. It's like the difference between the lean production concept that makes mass customization possible in a Toyota or Honda factory versus the production rigidities and design inflexibility that marked Detroit's Big Three prior to the shock of the Japanese invasion of the 1970s.

I have much more to say on this score in this space in future postings. In the meantime, I would love to get some feedback. Let me know what you think.