July 28, 2006

Rosen answers objections to NewAssignment.net

Jay Rosen has published part 2 of his Q & A about NewAssignment.net in which he begins to answer some serious objections. I have a problem with this part:

If “Donors balk at an inconvenient truth” is the first warning, what’s the second?

The site will only fund projects that bring in the donor clicks. So the perceived availability of funding, not the intrinsic newsworthiness of a story, will come to rule the editorial roost.

To which your answer is?

Good editors. With reserve funds. That’s exactly why the reserve funds are there. To un-enslave the editors. Still, I think this is something to watch out for.

Rosen pulls out the “good editors” retort a few times. And, for the most part, I’m willing to play wait-and-see because I think he’s on to something important here. Journalism is practiced by people, not commercial institutions. If you take away the institution–or, as he says, the media–I think there’s a real chance that good editors will be the ones who smooth those early bumps.

But… Let’s consider the purpose of journalism as stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel and edited by Cline, McGill, and Iggers: The purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to make public life work. I’ll bet Rosen buys into some reasonable articulation of this. In fact, he’s offered a reasonable articulation of this in his book What Are Journalists For?.

Here’s my problem: If this is the purpose of journalism, then any practice that interrupts it is unethical.

Before you get your shorts in a twist–I’m not calling Rosen unethical. I’m merely reinforcing something that Rosen himself has already claimed: that the model he’s proposing leaves journalists, including those good editors, somewhat at the mercy of the very thing that challenges them ethically when they practice journalism for commercial institutions–money. To choose money over “the information that people need to make public life work,” for any reason, will give a good journalist a dose of heartache. And that’s why I like the “good editors” retort.

[Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that the definition of “good” plays a crucial persuasive role here. I’m thinking that it might not include many of the inchoate ethical practices listed in the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. I’m thinking it identifies a quality of professional practice something like Kovach & Rosenstiel’s list in The Elements of Journalism (linked above). In other words, by unyoking from the commercial institution, NewAssignment.net also has the opportunity to assert a new ethics for journalism–one that articulates and defends the virtues of journalism rather than provides cover for the collective rump of the commercial institution.]

BTW, Rosen mentions one of the best examples of pro-am journalism: Doug McGill’s coverage of the Anuak genocide. Click here for the first article. And here to read the entire series.

July 28, 2006

Ads on the front page? Nothing new

You don’t have to spend much time looking into the history of American journalism to discover that advertising has often been displayed on the front pages of newspapers. The concept of space for sale began in the colonial period, and the stuff one had to buy looks far more like news to us today than it does advertising. The shipping “news” (what ships had arrived with what goods) was big news. If one wanted a news item published (what we think of today as news, anyway), well, one often had to pay for that space (the printer’s own editorials being a notable exception).

So now we (traditionalists) are freaking out because the Wall Street Journal will be running a small ad on the front page. And The New York Times has been running ads on section fronts. Says Jon Fine:

The announcements made knees jerk in certain traditionalists’ circles. Bob Steele, director of ethics at journalism think tank the Poynter Institute, expresses many concerns about the Journal’s move. They range from the semi-tangible (an ad means less news space on the front page — but lead Journal stories jump to other pages) to the fanciful (he cites research that concludes that a reader’s eye goes to visuals first, which means the news may be upstaged, which by extension threatens every newspaper and magazine article that’s adjacent to an ad). One blogger wondered how it would look if CNN put ads in the ticker-style “crawl” that runs along the bottom of TV screens, which would only be analogous to the Journal if the paper started running ad copy mid-sentence.

He says he’s unfazed by such ad flaps.

I don’t like it for a traditionalist reason: I think print is a serious medium; ads reproduced in serious spaces detract from the seriousness. But, then, I’m an old crank.

On the other hand, I’m thinking I’m not too worried about this. Here’s why: Journalism is something people do, not something commercial institutions do. Commercial institutions do business (i.e. selling ads and subscriptions); journalism is not a business. So this move merely highlights reality–in case you’d overlooked it (smaller papers have been doing it for a while now, e.g. the Springfield News-Leader–a Gannett paper). It makes plain why journalism is suffering while profit margins remain solidly in the double digits (news chains demand margins that make other manufacturers envious). Business comes first, and enough lip-service to a journalistic mission will be paid to keep readers (shrinking in numbers by the day) coming back…for what?

So, yes, let’s put ads out front. Let’s shuffle the increased revenue off to corporate HQ. And let’s cut a few more newsroom jobs.

July 28, 2006

Rhetorica Update

Just in case you missed it, I’m using the Haloscan comment system. So far so good.

I’ve been doing a little updating of the whole site, especially the drop-down menu that you’ll find at the bottom of many pages. I’ll also be doing some minor cosmetic changes to some of the main features. I have no plans to change the look of the blog anytime soon.

And I’ve given two blog interviews this week. Springfield’s own Snarling Marmot posted an interview with me this week (scroll down). Today you find another on Words At Work.

July 26, 2006

Are Americans clueless?


There are some disturbing numbers in a new Harris Poll. Kevin Drum draws this conclusion:

Amazing, isn’t it? As the prewar facts become clearer and Iraq spirals further into civil war, the American public becomes ever more withdrawn from reality. Even if complaints from us shrill liberal bloggers are dismissed, surely poll results like this should get the media pondering the question of whether they’re doing a very good job of reporting what’s really going on.

Bob Somerby has a slightly different take:

We don’t have a problem with what Kevin says; we think the press corps should ponder those numbers. But it shouldn’t be surprising to see the public give a weird account of basic facts. Although the media don’t like to discuss it, the public is almost always misinformed, about almost all issues, no matter how major. It really shouldn’t be surprising if the public is misinformed about this. Nor does it necessarily mean that the press is to blame for the problem.

I think the press plays a role in this regard: The press does a poor job of being a custodian of facts. Journalists get caught up in the narrative and fairness biases of journalism. They operate with a false notion of objectivity. So journalists tend to allow blatant falsehoods or willful distortions to stand unchallenged because, well, it’s so-‘n-so’s opinion and s/he is entitled to it (and s/he is likely an expert or official of some kind–an authorized knower). Further, the press does a poor job of analyzing and criticizing the partisan windbag pundits. Geez, what am I saying? The commercial institutions, responsible for disseminating most journalism, actively give these clowns their own TV and radio shows and syndicated columns.

Why? One word: Entertainment. The windbags don’t get time and space because they fulfill the civic purpose of journalism.

July 26, 2006

Doing a backgrounder should be journalistic SOP

There’s no need to rehash the limitations of television as a medium for news. Those limitations, however, should not prevent good journalists from trying to make a difficult medium work (i.e. the purpose of journalism to provide the information people need to make public life work).

CBS News gave Richard Roth a background assignment: “What’s Hezbollah?” and “What do they want?” This should be a standard assignment for any important event–give the necessary background so the audience has some context. That’s a necessary movement from information (def.: statements about facts in the world) to knowledge (def.: organized information embedded in a context). If the news organization is really good (i.e. understands and fulfills its purpose), then it will refer to such backgrounders often and make them available on the web.

What I’m wondering about now: Is this item on PublicEye simply an exercise in transparency or a bit of bragging? Either way it’s a telling moment. We can see the a combination of the status quo and expediency biases at work here. Notice that all the sources are official.

July 25, 2006

Rosen introduces NewAssignment.net

Jay Rosen today introduces the idea for NewAssignment.net, an experiment in pro-am enterprise reporting. He says:

In simplest terms, a way to fund high-quality, original reporting, in any medium, through donations to a non-profit called NewAssignment.Net.

The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion; it employs professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards so the work holds up. There are accountability and reputation systems built in that should make the system reliable. The betting is that (some) people will donate to works they can see are going to be great because the open source methods allow for that glimpse ahead.

Today marks the official separation, or distinction, of two terms (now two concepts): citizen journalism and networked journalism. Both operate, or should, by open-source or collaborative methods (we’re still working on what those are). Whereas networked journalism is a collaboration between citizens and professionals, citizen journalism is, or should now be considered, those efforts by the public to create their own journalism.

These are not opposing ideas. Ideally, citizen efforts should inform the professional product and professionals (and their institutions) should be willing to nurture the citizen product.

I’ll be looking forward to this project with great interest. I also hope to contribute in some way.

July 25, 2006

Rhetorica Update

Comments are back!!! I’m giving the Haloscan system a try.

I’m also posting selected items from Rhetorica on my page at Newsvine. You’ll find a comments feature there, too.

July 25, 2006

Virtual Reality in Real Life Online Conference: July 24-28

The VR@RL online conference this week will investigate the intersection of rhetoric and new media. The conference seeks to provide a forum for scholars working in this emerging area of inquiry, to address common problems in research and teaching, and to uncover fruitful points of connection. You don’t have to be an academic to find this work fascinating. My former Park University colleague Derek Mueller, who writes the Earth Wide Moth blog, is hosting the event on his site.

July 22, 2006

Does CNN practice journalism?

With all the hand-wringing over the question “Are bloggers journalists?” we’ve forgotten to ask: Does CNN practice journalism? According to Lawrence Pintak:

“This could be World War Three!” more than one reporter was heard to say. The same dramatic images were endlessly repeated, as if on a loop. Rumor was elevated to fact — and the networks seemed proud of it. One CNN promo showed an unedited sequence in which a nameless photographer told Anderson Cooper, in northern Israel, that there was a rumor of rockets on the way. Cooper then turned to the camera and authoritatively reported, “The police say more rockets are coming.”

So much for checking sources.

Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. It would be better for all of us if they did so more consistently at the proper times.

July 21, 2006

Will bogs replace journalism?

No, blogs will not replace journalism. This false dichotomy (willfully) misunderstands journalism and blogging (so it’s merely a simplistic put-down).

Journalism is not: newspapers, radio stations, TV news, etc. Journalism is a practice of a certain kind–practiced for the most part within commercial institutions. The commercial institutions are not journalism; they are distributors of journalism for profit.

We may define what journalism is by identifying its purpose (my edit of its articulation by Kovach and Rosenstiel): The purpose of journalism is to give the public the information it needs to make civic life work.

Blogging belongs in that list of institutions because some bloggers most certainly do practice journalism by giving the public the information it needs to make civic life work. That they do so adds to journalism. That they do so may, eventually, challenge the commercial institutions in certain ways (economic, ethical). But journalism, because of blogging, is expanding, not contracting. And the expansion of a practice is not the replacement of a practice.

Vaughn Ververs says these figures are not so impressive (assuming 12 million U.S. bloggers):

  • 44% have published elsewhere–that’s 5.2 million bloggers.
  • 54% of bloggers are under the age of 30–i.e. the next generation.
  • 64% blog to share practical knowledge or skills– i.e. what the typical features section of a daily newspaper does.
  • 11% focus on politics and government– i.e. 1.3 million people.
  • 5% focus on general news and current events– i.e. 600,000 people.
  • 5% focus on business– an important part of civic life.
  • 2% focus on religion, spirituality, or faith– ditto.

Oh, and those 76% of bloggers who say they blog to document their personal experiences and share them with others? Don’t tell me this ain’t journalism until you’ve done a proper content analysis. Some of those stories (you know, what journalists are supposed to tell) may certainly fit journalism’s purpose.

Nope. Nothing impressive about that.

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