Category Archives: It’s Just Journalism

Conference in Minneapolis seeks media reform

The National Conference on Media Reform is being held this weekend in Minneapolis and while the gathering is largely being ignored by the corporate media that are the intended targets of reformers, the organizers offer plenty of ways to listen in to the speeches. The local alternative paper, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, covered the kickoff of the event. I had hoped to attend this conference myself but it would have been a costly exercise. My sympathies and energies go with the reformers, who correctly argue that mainstream media coverage is so insipid as to be misinformation. Just the other day a U.S. Senate committee criticized the White House for making misstatements about WMDs that led the nation into war. Months earlier a press watchdog group tabulated 935 falsehoods uttered by senior administration officials — all dutifully repeated by corporate news media.

The present news system is broken and the worst of it is the denial. Jay Rosen calls journalism a religion. Professional journalists cling to their sanctimonious self-image as public watchdogs and ignore evidence that the current system has failed time and again, and not just on issues of war. The news media touted the housing sector right up until it the current mortgage crisis. It pumped up the stock market during the dotcom excess. The public has so little trust in U.S. media that one recent poll found President Bush more credible.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune used the media reform event as a peg to editorialize in favor of the Free Flow of Information Act. This is supposed to be a federal shield law which is fascinating given that the word “shield” appears no where in the bill, which cleared the House last year and now awaits Senate action. The Star Tribune editorial notes that the Free Flow Act would “provide reporters with only modest protection” and goes on to say that:

This weekend’s conference will highlight the diversity of today’s journalism landscape, with bloggers and citizen journalists taking on increasingly important roles. Determining who’s actually practicing journalism — and who should receive protection — is one of the ongoing and important debates about the final shape of the law.

What is the paper’s position? Should bloggers have shield protection? Apparently there is not enough moral courage on the Star Tribune masthead to take a stand. The House version of this Free Flow Act limits its “modest protections” to paid journalists and excludes citizen journalists. How unconstitutional, not to mention stupid, would it be create a legal distinction between the press and the public at just that point in history when technology is erasing that distinctions. Now more than ever the First Amendment must cover all Americans or it covers none.

It sounds like the Star Tribune is ready to throw bloggers under the bus. I’d wager its editors never bothered to read the act which codifies dozens of reasons to jail journalists, however journalism may be defined. The bill contains one clause written for Steve Jobs. The Apple Ceo once tried to stop bloggers from reporting details of forthcoming products by demanding they reveal their sources. But the bloggers sought and received protection under the California state shield law (see case summary). The Free Flow Act would create a new federal cause of action that would allow any corporation to force a journalist to reveal the name of any source who discloses a trade secret. What a gift to Corporate America. Stamp “trade secret” on anything and it muzzles the media and trumps state shield laws.

Some months ago I reviewed a book by former Labor secretary Robert Reich titled “Supercapitalism.” Reich argumes that corporate interests now have so much political clout that the legislative process has become a competition for advantage between lobbies. Lawmakers are so overwhelmed by demands from these fictitious legal entities that they can’t hear the flesh and blood citizens they represent.

Like Congress, U.S. media have become corporate mouthpieces. The corporate agenda has become the media agenda. Each day BusinessWire and PRNewswire aggregate corporate press releases and funnel them to the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Press, Bloomberg and other the mainstream news outlets. Thousands of editors see these corporate press releases each day. Like Congress, the media is mesmerized by these corporate messages. Supercapitalism has created Supermedia.

So while we may hope for reform we should not expect it and plan instead to build the media we want.

Thank the Lord for the people I have found

Tom Abate, also known as MiniMediaGuy; drawing by Dan Kelly

Let me pause today to thank the people who have helped me spell out the problems with professional news-gathering and suggest the blog- and people-centred approach that makes better ethical and business sense.

The professional journalist of the 21st Century will not be a gatekeeper but rather a connector — connecting people to ideas, to other people, and to products or services. The old journalist shouted, “Coups and Earthquakes,” to quote the title of Associated Press writer Mort Rosenblum’s famous if dated book. People sill want to see and hear about great events but the first reports are now more likely to be uploaded by someone on-scene with a camera phone and Web access. The professional journalist will provide context and connections to help the audience react to the news. The Web is an interactive medium. The audience is not passive. Professionals must get interactive or get left behind.

But I needed help to present that argument and a place to work, and both were provided in unexpected ways, starting with the friendship and technical assistance of Charlotte Yee, a former statistician and public information officer for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Charlotte has created the Feds Hall of Shame site for federal whistleblowers — those who disclose official mistreatment or misdeeds to find that the system regards them with hostility. Charlotte completly overhauled the look of my blog and was wise and funny as I worked through the mental gymnastics that helped me take my stand. I owe Charlotte a debt which I intend to pay by helping her to encourage whistleblowing.

Network provider Scot (Birdhouse) Hacker held my hand at critical moments when my primitive understanding of Web technologies made me fear that e-gremlins were conspiring against me. Scot updated my WordPress blog platform the day before I began publishing — which either changed or broke most of my familiar publishing tools. I visited Scot in a panic and left with a tutorial and a workaround to an as-yet unsolved glitch involving Internet Explorer. Thank you for your patience Scot, and blessings to Mary Hodder who aimed me at you some years ago.

Tim Bishop helped with key edits early in the series that helped me set the tone. My kin and lifelong communicant, Deep Cuz, aka The Cuzzola, fed me several very useful links — an astonishing act of mind-reading as I don’t know that I broadcast a message of intent. Yet The Cuzzola discerned my direction and fed me links. May the blessings of Kahoutek be upon him!

Artist and comic novel publisher Doug Millison created the series of illustrations that added a thought-provoking visual dimension (see Mario). Doug is a friend from my UC Berkeley days and his son, Watson, who turned 21 the other day, is the first child of one of my friends who I ever held in my arms. Doug and I will be working together on future visuals around the theme of media reform.

I began writing these posts at the Starbucks in Yucca Valley, California. It offered a wireless hotspot near Joshua Treet National Park where I attended a group campout with my 15-year-old son. The campout was sponsored by the HomeSchool Association of California (HSC). Flailing at the keyboard by day and singing around the campfire at night was how I stayed sane. Or what passes for sane in my context.

I met some great people at that Starbucks starting with Dan Kelly, the artist who created the caricature of me, above. Dan, a retired Lockheed engineer, is a regular at that coffee house and his artworks — of native animals with mythic themes — adorn the walls. He sketched this piece at my request.

I had fun introducing people to each other and it was in playing this yenta role that helped crystallize the notion of the journalist as connector — in this case on a personal level. For instance in separate conversations one day I met Evelyn Bornstein, a retired Los Angeleno, and Carole, a woman of working age who asked that I not use her last name. Both were relative newcomers to that rural locale and we had separate conversations lamenting their cultural deprivation. The next day they happened to come in at the same time and I introduced them. Not bad for a stranger.

Yucca Flats is just west of 29 Palms the site of a gigantic Marine Corps base and I met HM3 Keith Parmalee, a Navy corpsman, the day before he shipped out with a Marine unit for Iraq. May the God bless you and bring you home safe to your lovely wife! ( I will mail out that book I promised to send you later today.)

Susanne Kern, the German tourist traveling with friend, Thomas, thank you for allowing this stranger to accost you with tales of the truly beautiful northern stretch of California. I mentioned Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (about 320 miles north of San Francisco) a magical place where you can hike through cathedral redwoods to the Pacific Ocean. If you visit there you may find a special treat at Rolf’s Park Motel and Restaurant along Highway 101. If Rolf is still there he is a Bavarian chef who makes an awesome Wiener schnitzel.

Mike and Kathy Culwell of Corona allowed me to use their home office for two days at the end of our camping trip. I hope to see you guys at the next HSC campout. I know Aeneas is ready!

After a week in the desert and vicinity I flew to New York City where I got an incredible series of assists from my extended family in the New York metropolitan area. How great is it to have a sister and a brother-in-law who are never home except in the evenings to feed and entertain me while I worked all day, polishing the ideas that I had dreamed up in the desert. I’ll tell everyone I know about the Dolly Inn, where the fabric softener is included with the service.

During the two days I spent at my J-school reunion at Columbia I had a safehouse in Harlem just a stone’s throw from the Cotton Club. What blessings!

Thanks to all, including last but not least, my immediate family who are stuck me in my worst moments.

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.

What’s in a name? Everything.

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Edwin R. Newman says: use your words (carefully) journalists

In his 1974 book, Strictly Speaking, former NBC newscaster Edwin R. Newman warned that mass media were polluting public discourse with “banalities, cliches, pomposities, redundancies and catchphrases.” Alas his warnings fall on deaf ears. Fast forward three decades and journalists have become so accustomed to accepting mealy-mouth that they no longer seem able to discern or demand the truth.

One silly little anecdote serves to illustrate the extent to which American journalism has devolved into a pathetic sub-species of stenography. A Ohio newspaper ran a correction to alert readers that one hapless reporter had mistakenly confused a congressional aide named Hillary Wicai Viers with the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The correction said, in part:

“According to the reporter, when Viers answered the phone with, ‘This is Hillary,’ he believed he was speaking with the Democratic presidential candidate, who had made several previous visits to the Mahoning Valley (in Ohio).”

To correct any such future errors until American journalism gets its act together, let me suggest that anyone named “Hillary” or “Barak” henceforth answer the phone, “Hello, this is Hillary (or Barak), not the presidential candidate.” I would hesitate to offer a similar suggestion to prevent the mis-identification of an ordinary American with presidential candidate John McCain, as his first name is so common. So let me suggest the reverse: specifically, between now and the general election, let American reporters refrain from phoning any Johns. Had this rule been in effect only a short time ago, one prominent New Yorker would have avoided trouble.

It’s something of a joke when the boo-boo occurs in a part of Ohio which still reveres the Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest, arguably the greatest of the many fine tacticians of the Confederacy. (“Always meet a charge halfway” is an adage I recall from a book I once read of his exploits.)

But it’s not so funny when such stupidty and lack of obvious follow-up questioning afflicts the entirety of U.S. mass media on an issue of national security. This was suggested by a recent report from The Center for Public Integrity which identified, in the two years prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “935 false statements by eight top administration officials that mentioned Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, or links to Al Qaeda, on at least 532 separate occasions.”

Wow, I wonder how the capitol press corps kept track. Did they use those clickers you see the gatekeepers use at sporting events or movie theaters to make sure the room isn’t filled past legal capacity? It almost makes you wonder why none of them asked the tough follow-up questions that might have called into doubt some of the assertions later discovered to be some flavor of not-true. Actually, there was one American journalist who put forth the question, tiny tower of moral courage Helen Thomas, who I heard speak some time ago at a Media Alliance event in San Francisco.

This dereliction of journalistic duty has all but killed the body politic which now languishes in near-diabetic shock, having been so long fed a steady diet of sugar-frosted sound bytes mixed in with actual bits of lies. When the polling firm BIGresearch recently surveyed which of five political actors – the President, the House, the Senate, the media and bloggers – Americans most trusted, 70 percent answered, “None of the above!” The President’s 14.2 percent trust rating was a tad higher than those of the other four combined. With respective ratings at bloggers (5.8%), media (4.4%), House (2.6%) and Senate (2.2%), the pontificators of the blogosphere out-polled the watchdogs of the Fourth Estate!

But that makes perfect sense to me. Bloggers may be fast and loose with facts and all too quick with opinions, but they’re volunteers who don’t profess to uphold some noble mission of which they’ve fallen so miserably short. Card-carrying journalists, who ought to know better, have forgotten that ancient wisdom which lies at the heart of their craft: to name the thing is to have power over it. It’s the words, stupid! These great tools have forever raised humans above the rest of the animal kingdom. We must keep them sharp and safe, so that the people may use them to grasp the big ideas, move the levers of power and bring tyrants to heel. Protecting words requires constant vigilance, because the 26 letters of the alphabet – the atoms of meaning – are prone to extraordinary rendition and may be made captive to lies.Journalists should protect words by writ of habeas corpus instead of aiding and abetting the waterboarding of our language. Let’s not torture the language amongst ourselves. Please, Kiyoshi Martinez, founder of the oxymoronic site that I ranted about yesterday, think about making some rule or name change so that you do not further the temptation of American journalists to dissipate their anger by pissing into your anonymous cesspool of ennui.

Pissy Poodles Can’t Be Angry Journalists

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I recently visited a web site called AngryJournalist.com. I had read about it in a commentary from a prestigious journalism think-tank, the Poynter Institute. At first I thought it was a joke, then I got angry, because its welcome screen read:

“Tell us what’s making you upset at your journalism job. Anonymity guaranteed. One rule: no real names.” 

How oxymoronic! Journalists sign their work. They report the news without fear or favor, or at least they should. To post an anonymous complaint shows fear. Even if some of the posters hold media jobs they are not journalists. Journalism is a standard of performance, not a position. And that standard is incompatible with anonymous caterwahling.

I live the frustration and fear so common in this age of disruption. Last year I survived a one-in-four cut in my newsroom. Empty cubicles surround me where colleagues once sat. I wonder when my turn will come. My paycheck is the main support for me, my wife and three kids. My wife had a cancer four years back. She is in remission but is now uninsurable outside of a group health plan. I worry about this but it doesn’t make me angry. At who or what? The 21st Century?

Instead I focus my indignation on the moral corwardice of American journalism. The most important decisions we as journalists make is what we cover and what we ignore. And it is the tone of  coverage that sickens me. Setting aside politics and crime, what passes for news seems like so much hedonistic trivia meant to drive advertising sales.

I find this “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” sensibility completely at odds with what I see around me. I’m a frugal man. My commute car cost less than an iPod. A carpool buddy sold it to me as a favor. Yet for the first time in my life, at age 53, I must now balance my checkbook for any debit over a hundred bucks. This fluffy coverage represents the collective judgment of  thousands of putative journalists. They too are anonymous for all practical purposes. But their judgments bother me. Aren’t media supposed to be a mirror? Mirror, mirror on the world, what the hell is wrong with you?

Since I work inside the system I do what I can. On my beat I try to cover stuff that I think matters. When things fall through the cracks I write a memo. I try to keep my anger in check because it doesn’t help. My editors are stuck between the newsroom headcases and the boardroom briefcases. No surprise which wins more often.

But I will not put a black bag over my angst and whisk it off to some anonymous Internet holding cell. If it disturbs you that a journalist who kicks ass and takes names by day goes home some nights and cries, then you should be disturbed.

Every morning I get up and put on a tie and my moxie and do it again. I know that thousands like me must do the same. We pick a few battles and try to manage the career risk by keeping our bitch-to-byline ratio positive. I  sure wish we knew who each other were because I’m driving my family crazy and I could use the company of people who can understand how much it means to me to be a journalist, how hard I work at it and how little I get in return.

Meanwhile, I wish these anonymous whiners and wankers would change the name of their pissing pond to DepressedJournalist.com. That way they could enjoy the catharsis without tarnishing the brand of those of us who journalists and are angry enough to take our stands.