links for 2008-01-10

The difference between journalists and ‘the media’

I often try to draw a distinction between being a journalist, what I consider myself to be, and being a member of the ‘media’. Suw sometimes accuses me of splitting semantic hairs, but I really do believe that there is a difference. I think it’s highlighted in an exchange between Chris Matthews and Tom Brokaw. (from Glenn Greenwald):

MATTHEWS: Tom, we’re going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these [polls].

BROKAW: You know what I think we’re going to have to do?

MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.

BROKAW: No, no we don’t stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they’re saying. We know from how the people voted today, what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.

But we don’t have to get in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed. And trying to stampede in effect the process.

Look, I’m not just picking on us, it’s part of the culture in which we live these days. I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding.

I’m not opposed to journalists providing analysis. That’s part of good journalism, but media punditry is another beast entirely. To me, good journalism can weave a good narrative and present the facts in a broader context, but so often I see the media attempting to impose a narrative.

I was asked by a colleague before New Hampshire if rumours in the British media that Hillary Clinton would become Barack Obama’s running mate were true. It would be a perfect story: A black man and a woman. I said like so many stories in the media, it is an appealing story, but I don’t see any basis in fact for it. If you want to follow the line of interesting, albeit completely unsubstantiated tickets, it would be interesting to have a ticket of Barack Obama and former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman. It might also head off a Unity ’08 bid by Michael Bloomberg. But that’s a fantasy football ticket, not one based on any insider knowledge or actual facts. However, as is often said of hacks and members of the media, never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

Glenn Greewald asks:

Are Gloria Borger and Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman and Wolf Blitzer suddenly going to abandon their desire to impose shallow, melodramatic narratives on our elections and spend their time, instead, analyzing the candidates’ responses to Charlie Savage’s questionnaire on presidential power, or the dominant, corrosive role lobbyists and large corporations play in our political culture, or the widening rich-poor gap, or the strain and stain on our country from our imperial policies? The question is so absurd, so laughable, that to ask it is to answer it. None of them could remotely do that even if they wanted to, even if they were allowed to, and they don’t and aren’t.

And I think this is why there is popular anger towards the media and journalists who confuse literary journalism with literary fiction. It used to be one of my points of pride when I worked for the BBC that in the wake of the Nato bombing of Serbia, that Serbian National Guardsmen rose up in part because there was a disconnect between the propaganda on the state media and coverage provided by the BBC. They said they could see what was happening with their own eyes, and they believed the BBC. That’s the power of journalism.

The media only deals with substantive issues in the guise of the coverage of political palace intrigue and the horse race of elections. It’s sexy to the insider but is only of interest to journalists and their political sources. It trivialises politics and public policy into little more than a who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out farce. News flash to people inside the major capitals of the world – of which I’ve lived in two, London and Washington – most people don’t care about politics as much or think about politics the same way as you do. People accuse George Bush of only living in black and white, but the media inhabit that same world, portraying only binary opposition with no complexity or nuance.

I think it’s why we’ve seen the rise of citizen media. People don’t trust the narrative being shoved down their throats by well-coiffed, over-paid gossip mongers. The media rail away against unpaid people’s punditry in part because it shows what a common commodity their stock and trade is. Already the US and British media have got the story wrong on the US elections, and we’ve only just begun. The media is obsessed with obesity and a good diet, and yet the state of our dysfunctional democracies reflect the quality of our media diet.

But the media will simply say that they provide people with want they want and that they have the ratings or circulation to prove it. It is one of the frequent defences, and it is not without truth. And I know that overly worthy journalism has a small audience. It’s difficult to tell a complex story well, and journalism needs to sharpen its game. It’s always easy to appeal to audiences with simplistic stories made up of strong emotions and angles.

But people fed up with the media also need to vote as I did. I changed the channel, or often just shut off the television. We have unprecedented choice to create our own ‘channel’, and not simply to hear what we agree with but get the information we need. I not only buy the publications I think do good journalism, but I drop some coin in the PayPal jar of people who commit random acts of journalism and promote vigorous public debate. It’s a lean-forward, not a sit-back choice of media. But in the end, I find my media diet more satisfying.

It’s an election year in the United States, but already people have voted with their attention on the quality of the media. It’s not just a vast wasteland, soon it will be a lonely one.

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My Seesmic experiment with the US Elections

Suw and I started using Seesmic over the holidays, especially a fun night we had with our good friend “Kittenfluff” on New Year’s Eve. One thing that has impressed me thus far with my brief experience with Seesmic is the conversational, call and response nature of the video. YouTube is still a form of broadcast media to me, while I’ve seen several interesting conversations in the short time that I’ve been using Seesmic. I think this has as much to do with the community there as it does with the technology. It’s populated by people who are accustomed to “declarative living” as Suw calls it.

In a bit of inspiration this morning on my way into work, I thought about posting questions about the US Elections into Seesmic and getting some response to spark off a debate on the Guardian’s US politics blog, Deadline USA. I could then embed the video responses into the Guardian’s blog. Not having been in Seesmic very long, I first posted a video to see if people were comfortable with me doing this. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Suw pointed out that it might make it difficult to bridge the conversation between the Guardian’s blog and Seesmic seeing as it’s a closed alpha. Thus far, that hasn’t been a problem. There has been a lot of buzz inside of Seesmic but relatively little participation on Deadline USA. I’m hoping that it picks up over the next day or so, but as I was explaining to some of our journalists today, comments on our site represent just a fraction of the conversation around our content. It’s often blog posts and other responses off site that are the vast majority of the participation in a social media experience. It is a little difficult to fully reflect all of this activity inside of Seesmic, but I am sure that it will develop. These things take time, and one of the biggest mistakes is to start a conversation and then walk away from it as many news organisations with little social media experience do.

As for this experiment, it’s too early to call it a success or a failure. I’ve been impressed by the response thus far and look forward to it playing out over the next few days. But what really has me excited thus far is hearing from a voter in Maine talking about his issues as well as hearing opinions about the US elections from other places around the world. It still gets my journalistic blood flowing when the internet opens doors around the world.

I think there is something interesting here, both on Seesmic and also on ways to build conversation around video. Right now, Seesmic is pretty small, and even now, following the threads is challenging. But I think this moves online video in a new direction, a more conversational direction. It’s great to start the New Year off with something new to push the boundaries with. The tool, the technology is only part of the process of innovation, creativity gets you the rest of the way to your goals.

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links for 2008-01-03

The Strange Attractor Wedding of the Year

Well actually, it’s the only Strange Attractor wedding! Kevin and I are getting married in February, and at last we’ve managed to get almost all the invitations out (although a few are still stuck here, with no addresses – for shame!). As we’d expect from our friends, so far we’ve had responses via IM and this one, via Seesmic. Thank you Lloyd!

You’ll forgive us (well, me, really, as Kev’s still writing prolifically), if blogging is a little lighter than usual in the run up to the Big Day.

What is an online journalist?

Craig McGill recently asked: What is an online journalist?

So what should a digital/online reporter be? Should they go out on stories alongside print reporters and basically be someone who takes video, pictures and audio soundbites and then files it back to the office? Should they also be editing that content just as a wordsmith edits his words? Or should all of that be the work of the reporter and there shouldn’t be an online tag? Said reporter then comes back to the office and crafts/edits the words and everything else? Seems like a lot of work for one person.

It caused me to think, because I have always defined myself as an online journalist, despite the fact that I was trained as a newspaper journalist and for most of my career I worked for a public service broadcaster, the BBC. Yet by 1999, just five years into my career, I had already worked in every major news medium: Newspapers, television, radio and the internet.

I will admit that my motivation for the self-definition has been, in part, an act of defiance, a professional statement to the high priests of the Church of Journalism that, despite the perceived power and importance of newspapers and television, I chose to work online. Why defiance? I made the move online in 1996. A couple of years later, when I considered moving back to newspapers, my experience was dismissed as if my work online didn’t count. Even computer-savvy journalists, even back in 1998, told me that I would have to chose between technical work and journalism. Instead I forged my own path at the BBC.

There I covered stories for radio, television and online, such as the Microsoft anti-trust trial and the boom. For years, I had a slot on BBC 5 Live talking about technology and the internet, and I covered US politics, current affairs and entertainment for the website. There wasn’t a binary decision to be made about whether to be online or be a journalist, whether to be technical or editorial – I was both. Any field journalist knows technical knowledge is a requirement for the job: If you can’t get your story, your audio and your video back to the office, the quality of the journalism does’t matter.

After the crash, I watched as many of my online journalism colleagues were laid off, their divisions gutted, downsized or destroyed. Most of them were so disenchanted with the experience that they left journalism entirely. In 2002, the BBC News website did a Q&A – the questions came from the site’s readers – with Peter Jennings in the New York studios of ABC News. After the interview, Mr Jennings took us to the online department, introduced us to the staff and showed us their work with collegial pride. He grumbled that “the Mouse (Disney)”, ABC’s corporate parent, didn’t value their work much and was cutting staff.

It’s an attitude that is still common in journalism today, even if the number of digital staff is increasing. You can see it in the responses to Craig’s question, for example, the journalists who believe that their online colleagues do little more than “type the stories up for the web”. It’s about as dismissive as Truman Capote saying that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was not writing but merely typing.

In the early part of this decade, I remember talking to university classes in the Washington DC area where I was based. They would ask how they could get a job like mine, and I had to tell the students that my job was one of a handful of editorial online positions. At that time, most online positions merely re-purposed content from newspapers or broadcasters for rather unimaginative websites. A large number of the sites that provided original news reporting for the web got wiped out in the crash. It was content on the web, not of the web, but not by choice of the journalists, rather, it was due to lack of vision by the editors and management who were so focused on the present that they never looked up to see the future.

Beginning just a couple of years ago, that changed. Broadband had reached a tipping point in the United States, western Europe and many parts of Asia. Despite the crash, people had continued to make the internet an important part of their lives. News organisations woke up from their post-crash schadenfreude to realise that the internet hadn’t died. Yes, it might have been a victim of irrational exuberence by some, and get-rich mania by others, but the medium had continued to grow and develop.

Now, some newspapers find the shoe on the other foot. The internet continues to rise as a medium and newspapers and their business are in decline.

I guess this is all a rather roundabout way to explain not what is means to be an online journalist, but for me, why the self-definition as an online journalist means more than a job description.

So back to Craig’s original question. What is an online journalist? Craig asked several people to answer the question, including Bryan Murley of the Innovation in College Media blog. Bryan said:

I see an online journalist as one more in mindset than anything. A page designer can be a good online journalist, if given permission. A photographer can be an online journalist or a stick-in-the-mud.

I would have to agree, and it reminds me of Rob Curley’s about the importance of mindset rather than skillset. You can learn to do anything, but you need to have an open mind, professional curiosity, and a passion to try new things and to learn from your experiments.

Throughout most of my career, and even still today, I have to explain that my background is journalism and not computers. I have only taken one computer course in my life, Pascal in high school, and I dropped it after one semester. Since coming to the UK, I have found an anti-technology attitude here that is alien to me. If you use a computer, the media believes that you must be a ‘boffin’ or some pasty, anti-social creature who prefers the company of computers to people. Suw has wondered if this is down to the culture within the university education system which has a history of pitting science against the humanities, and most people in the media have humanities degrees. It’s odd because you can’t walk into a newsroom and not see a computer, but computers still don’t fit into the sense of self of many journalists.

I know my way around a computer and the internet, but I don’t know much about Flash or database programming. I’m a cut-and-paste coder not a developer. I know more about multimedia than I do about developing web applications. I know much more about remote comms than most because so much of my career has been learning how to file from anywhere.

But I know what’s possible, and I know the importance of working with people who know what I don’t. I know that working with a good team can achieve not only what is possible now but redefine what is going to be possible. I know that online journalism is not a mature medium like newspapers, radio and television. It evolves constantly and is still developing forms, styles, conventions and a grammar. That is what excites online journalists. It’s blogs and social networks now, but in a few years, it will be something entirely new.

That is why, through good times and bad, I choose to work online. Yes, the naysayers and the curmudgeons annoy me. The red mist still descends when uninformed people dismiss the internet as a journalistic medium. But I have more than 10 years now of working online for two of the most successful, prestigious news websites in the world. Personally, I don’t feel the need to justify my journalistic credentials to anyone, although there are people in the profession who still ask me to do so.

But there are more innovative and imaginative people to work with now than a few years ago. There are more of us who know what the web is capable of and are eager to just get on with it. That’s why I’m looking forward to 2008. After a lot of groundwork, I’ve got a couple of projects to really sink my teeth into, to explore what is possible with some excellent partners. I can’t wait. Happy New Year!

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