Sunday, October 23, 2005

Skip the Real Story, Be Defensive

I've said it before and will repeat it: I love the Commercial Appeal columns by Editor in Chief Chris Peck. They are always an amusing mix of lecture, condescension, pats on the head and a shove out the door. So it is with today's column, where he indirectly mentions one of the most important topics being discussed in journalism today in order to defend himself and his paper.
Dan Gillmor apologized, sort of.

"I didn't mean to insult you,'' he said with a wry smile.

Still, his words echo in my ear even today.

''I wouldn't recommend to a young person that they go into print journalism,'' he said at a recent future of the media conference in Michigan.

Gillmor and I were part of a three-day retreat to talk about where journalism was headed. He's a very bright guy. He's worked a long time in newspapers. His words were difficult to hear.
Chris introduces Dan by putting him on the defensive first, to minimise him in our eyes.
I would recommend someone going into the newspaper business. It's the most exciting time ever to be part of the media.

As someone with 30 years in the trenches of daily newspapering, I can say without question that the need for good journalism has never been greater. All of us live in a big, complex world where our very democracy depends on the ability of journalists to help people make sense of what's happening around them so they won't be duped and can make good decisions about their politics and personal lives.
Buried in that is the sentiment that more and more Americans are rejecting: the "lecture" model of modern journalism. Newspapers talk ex-cathedra (as in the Pope talking to Catholics) to their readers, predigesting everything relevant and arriving at Very Good Opinions Indeed for you.

For example, in the CA's case, their crusade against "predatory" lenders. Don't you love that nasty term? The CA made a crusade of a series of stories about the evil, profiteering short-term, no-collateral lenders. But nowhere in those articles, that I can recall, was there an examination of the needs of low-income people for small, quick loans, nor any examination of why the big banks (their advertisers and allies) don't bother to service an obvious need by the average consumer! Nope, the paper had their opinion, pursued it vigorously, and gave it to you to accept.
Turns out that Gillmor also values journalism. He also wants people to be informed.

It's just that he thinks the future of journalism will reside less with ink-on-paper reporting by professionals, and more on a rising tide of citizen journalists using the Web.
Notice the construction here that places Peck and you, the reader, on the same side, the implied correct side, and Dan other there, somehwhere else, somewhere presumably less correct. Clever writing, that. Us and Peck versus [casts gimlet eye] those guys.
He has written a book that makes a compelling case that the future of journalism will look quite different from the past.

He published ''We the Media'' in 2004. He wrote it after 10 years of working for The San Jose Mercury News in California, where he covered the booming dot-com industries of the Silicon Valley.
So, who is this Gillmor guy anyway, to be casting aspersions on the Great and Holy Brotherhood of Journalism?

Turns out he's one of the leading thinkers of the movement that's sweeping journalism. He has a blog. (His old one is here.) He also writes a regular column for his ex-employer, the San Jose Mercury-News, although not recently. He does write another regular column for Silicon

Chris briefly mentions Dan's book. That would be We the Media, which also has a website of its own.

Notice how none of these links made it to Peck's column. We'll come back to that in a bit. The larger point isn't that Dan is just some guy with a book and an opinion. What Peck leaves out is that Dan's ideas are being put into action.

Go and read Jay Rosen's PressThink site and blog. Jay is a professor of journalism at New York University, and a respected educator. He's been documenting the changes tugging at professional journalism for several years now, showing how the landscape is changing and writing about the resistance to that change in the world of news. Go to his "Highlights" sidebar and pick any column there, but especially this one, discussing in great detail the grand and successful experiment underway in Greensboro, North Carolina.

What is happening there is that, basically, the new editor of the paper (the Greensboro News & Record) noticed that Greensboro had a vibrant blogging community that was frequently scooping the paper and fact-checking them ruthlessly. Ed Cone, the editor, was also a blogger himself, so instead of dismissing the blogging community in Greensboro as amateurs and annoyances, he decided to embrace them. He began to erase the line dividing the paper and the community, creating numerous forums and opportunities for the blogging community to interact with and guide the paper's website. It revolutionised the paper, and Greensboro, and this ongoing experiment is being watched nationwide to see where it goes.

There is another experiment, similar in nature, going on in South Korea. The editor of the OhMyNews website, Oh Yeon Ho, had studied journalism in America and developed some radical ideas. He took them back home and re-invented the idea of "news reporting." The Oh My News site employs "professional" journalists, but also has a resource of hundreds of citizen journalists who contribute stories on a daily basis.

The volunteers are housewives, students, businessmen, business owners, scientists and Koreans of every stripe. They write about what they know,what's going on around them, and what they learn. The readers decide what they want to read out of this incredible variety. The upside is that coverage of the community is increased a hundredfold, and areas of daily life that might never occur to, or come to the attention of, a reporter get the light of day. The site is an incredible kaleidoscope that leaves little undiscussed. It's a newspaper, the blogosphere and talk radio all rolled into one.

You can read Oh's interview with Dan Gillmor here. Oh is putting into action the ideas that Gillmor has laid out and explored.

Chris Peck, on the other hand, is trying a different experiment, one rooted very firmly in the old model of journalism. To judge by the Commercial Appeal's falling circulation, it seems not to be working so well. Notice how frequently Peck mentions "professional journalists in his column. That should tell you where he's coming from.

His changes are largely stylistic (using more contractions and colloquialisms; a chattier style; shorter stories and more one-sentence paragraphs) and marketing (lots of stories about people with lots of pictures; stories that pander to readers but are written in the classic "overcoming struggle successfully / enduring hardship with dignity and hope" mode; stories from businesses written by those businesses, hence reading like press releases and not objective news).But the heart of it is still the trained professional priesthood cadre of journalists, protecting and processing the news for the great masses who need instruction.

It's the battle between top-down and bottom-up. We already know which one wins, time and again. We already know which one accords better with the American tradition, which one is authoritarian and which is democratic. Peck wants you to trust in his authority and accept his New Model Newspaper, but the changing mediascape says he's on the losing side, no matter how he dresses it up.

Take, for example, the recent report from the New Orlean's Times-Picayne, which detailed how so many of the hysterical and frightening stories reported by television and print news had been wrong, very wrong. Yes, the CA put the story on the top of page one. Very good.

But the paper itself never addressed its own failures. They simply accepted and ran the stories from the national sources, not doing any fact-checking of their own, even though the paper made a huge deal about how they were devoting a lot of their own resources to reporting the biggest story in the area in decades. The fact that they should so uncritically accept and pass along such fear-mongering, and their own people never caught it despite being on the scene, is disturbing. It doesn't inspire trust at all.

What they did was to append the following paragraph to the article, which by the way was atributed to "From Our Press Sources:"
The Commercial Appeal published stories based on wire service reporting from the scene that referred to some of the reports now found to have been exagerrated or false. In most cases, the accounts were attributed to local and state officials, particularly early fears of a body count that would be in the thousands in New Orleans. An Associated Press story the newspaper published on Sept. 3 noted the wild stories circulating.
That's it. Nothing about the self-examination that ought to have been occuring, the re-evaluation of how wire service stories are used, the in-house changes that should be coming, nothing. It's just "oh well" and onward.

One thing that bothers me in Peck's column is this bit of rah-rah:
So at a meeting last week, the editors of this newspaper were given the task of considering how to get in front of the changing demands and expectations of what journalists do, who a journalist is, and what citizens expect of the work journalists do.
First of all, if they can't get it right none of this matters.

But second, the paper has been particularly lackadaisical at best and stubbornly resistant at worst about the move to the Internet Age. Stories in the online version still don't have hyperlinks. I've been told that this is a feature of their in-house software! That's nearly criminal for a website.

They have some blogs, but almost none of them function in the way most people understand the term. Some serve, as I have noted before, as resources for the writer to stripmine for the print version of the paper. Some are overflow catches for story ideas never published. Some are adjuncts to ongoing projects of the paper.

Many are dead, too, but still listed.

There are the forums, but these are standard-issue bulletin boards, and as you'd expect they are dominated by the same few voices and arguments. Nowhere is the paper actually trying to use their web resource as a place to have a conversation with their readers, as a place to interact, to learn and to grow. Nowhere.

So, Chris, spare me all this woohoo of yours. Yes, you've managed to reinvent the CA as the house organ of the "Downtown is Memphis" elite, capital city of the Kingdom of Greater Memphis. Lucky merchants will get the king's favor and lucky peasants will get the King's Indulgence of seeing themselves in His Paper.

But it would seem that the old biases and agendas largely survive, just in new clothes, as do the same old pretensions and condescensions. There is a deeper, more fundamental change, a re-orientation of point of view, that you seem unable -- or unwilling -- to make. That's a shame.

We could use the newspaper you could be.

No comments: