Let’s have a real debate about Web 2.0

Both of us feel so strongly about the National Union of Journalists’ recent statements about Web 2.0 and new media that we felt we had to challenge them. Although we’re breaking the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ rule, we felt these issues are too important to the future of journalism to be left unexamined.

In this post, we want to challenge Donnacha DeLong’s piece WEB 2.0 IS RUBBISH in the Journalist, the union’s magazine. The article is a one-sided polemic which not only mischaracterises Web 2.0 but also misrepresents the way that journalists and editors think about collaborating with their readers.

The article begins with the subhead: “Webfolk call the burgeoning interactive use of the internet ‘Web 2.0’.” “Webfolk”? That’s as dismissive and belittling as “boffins” or “nerds”, but at least it sets one’s expectations pretty accurately for the rest of the article. Whilst DeLong mentions in passing the fact that the web is “full of opportunities”, he chooses to focus only on what he sees as the “dangers”. This is unsurprising. Between us, we’ve come across this The peril! The peril!” attitude from many and various sources, online and in person, but it’s not a constructive attitude for the NUJ – or DeLong as its representative – to take.

DeLong’s first error is to oversimplistically equate Web 2.0 with “participation and feedback from our ‘users’.” As the Telegreph’s Shane Richmond says in the comments on a Jeff Jarvis post, this is no more than a convenient strawman to attack. As we have long argued here at Strange Attractor, Web 2.0 is far more than asking people “tell us what you reckon“. Rather, it creates an opportunity for journalists to find not just eyewitnesses, but also expertise from what Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience”. Any journalist worth his or her salt should be interested in talking to people that witnessed or who can shed real light on news events, and should be willing to go beyond the limits of their own address book – Web 2.0 enables that in a way we’ve never seen before.

Web 2.0 is also about mass collaboration, such as sifting through documents or carrying out research. After another Church of Journalism troll wrote a poorly researched and argued piece in the Los Angeles Times recently, Jay Rosen wrote a piece about the journalism that bloggers actually do. This is about networked investigation and research, not just soliciting feedback and opinion. In the UK, Ben Goldacre who writes the blog Bad Science and a column in The Guardian of the same name, asked his readers to file FOIA requests with Durham Council to get information about fish oil “trials”.

Then there are the database-driven online projects that these new technologies enable. Take a look at the Washington Post’s election coverage. You can see all of the candidates campaign appearances in a Google Maps mashup and even download their calendar. Both are great resources not only for the public but also internally for the Post’s own journalists.

And, of course, the journalistic benefits of Web 2.0 are not just about reader-facing stuff. Tools such as RSS, Google Alerts and social bookmarking help journalists efficiently gather and organise lots of sources of information when doing research. We often hear about how as a society we are overloaded with information, but these tools provide a way to sift through a mass of data to find what we need. Any journalist not using RSS and social bookmarking on a day-to-day basis is making life unnecessarily hard for themselves.

Having thus mischaracterised Web 2.0, DeLong then goes on to claim that it is “seen as replacing traditional media.” By who, exactly? Now, a good blogger would give examples, but we’re expected to take DeLong’s word for it. Obviously it’s difficult to include links in a magazine article, which DeLong’s piece originally was, but there is no reason not to provide sources on his blog post. The irony, of course, is that this is the exact sort of cut-and-paste from print to web behaviour that the NUJ complains about in its report on mulitmedia working. (Note: We haven’t seen the original report yet, so we will comment fully on that later, when we have.)

But neither of us can think of any traditional news organisation with a strategy – stated or otherwise – of replacing all their journalists with content sourced from the internet and/or their readers. And the discussion about the dissolution of the mainstream media in favour of 100% citizen journalism was had in (and outside, but mainly in) the blogosphere at least three years ago.

Then DeLong digs up the old chestnut that journalists alone can produce “truly authoritative content”, a claim that is patently untrue. Suffice it to say that long before we were even talking about Web 2.0, Dan Gillmor understood that his readers in Silicon Valley had expert knowledge that he could tap into to make his journalism better. There are thousands of experts out there – lawyers, professors, professionals – who are writing about their field in an accessible and interesting manner.

DeLong then says:

They have the ability to produce content that informs and fulfil an essential part of democracy – the widespread dissemination of information that allows the public to question those in charge.

This is over-egging the pudding somewhat. The good journalist does this, but many who should, don’t. We too often see press releases and wire copy republished with nary a challenge to the party line. Sometimes it’s only the dogged persistence of activists and experts – some of whom are bloggers, many of whom are not – who fact check, challenge and publicise inaccuracies that results in a more accurate story being told.

And the training that DeLong puts such stock in is rather a red herring too. Many excellent journalists come from non-journalism backgrounds, but bring expertise in specialist areas such as science, business, technology and the arts, to name a few. And many poor journalists went to J-school. Setting up journalists, collectively, as some sort of bastion of democracy and truth is rather an exaggeration.

Journalists aren’t the only people who can contribute to democracy. Where would journalists have been without pictures from “witness contributors” – to use the NUJ’s phrase – when covering the recent crackdown in Burma?

Much of this unnecessary angst about the threat of citizen journalism and Web 2.0 – and the deification of journalists that accompanies it – comes from the misperception that everyone wants to be a journalist. Only a tiny percentage of bloggers have any desire to go into journalism, and they would have made moves to enter their chosen profession with or without Web 2.0. But the vast majority of people who provide eyewitness reports of an event are there only through luck (good or bad), and expert bloggers are expert because they have years of experience behind them. Neither groups has any interest in changing careers.

DeLong goes on:

The media are not perfect. More often than not, they focus on issues the public is interested in rather than those that are truly in the public interest. But those who argue that Web 2.0 is the future want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The imperfections and exemplars of the media are entirely irrelevant to whether or not Web 2.0 has a part to play in the media’s future. More importantly, the media has to realise that it has no choice: It must embrace the internet, including Web 2.0, because the audience is already there and advertisers are moving there quickly.

The mainstream media is not leading the charge to the internet, it is following along behind its audience, laggardly, sullenly and defensively. Many journalists have spent ten years dismissing the internet as a fad and an inferior medium. They are equally dismissive of Web 2.0 without even knowing what it means. DeLong says on the NUJ New Media’s blog, “So there we go – a nice big debate about the issues”, but he has done nothing to move the debate forward and nothing to help of inform NUJ members. Instead, he has engaged in more scare-mongering about the threat of the internet and simplistically focused on perceived, but illusory, dangers to journalism.

Both of us embraced the internet because of the opportunities it presents. It’s the world’s greatest story-telling medium, bringing together the strengths of text, audio, video and interaction. The internet as a communications tool can help journalists tap sources like never before, making their stories richer and more balanced. Why wouldn’t journalists take advantage of the internet?

Yes, the job is changing, and we as journalists need to change with it. The internet may be posing a threat to the business model that support journalism, and it’s understandable that this causes anxiety. But misrepresenting the reality of that change won’t make it go away.

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