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Politics Online 2006: The Changing Media Landscape

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, March 7 2006

Live, from Politics Online at George Washington University, here are my semi-verbatim notes (i.e. these are not perfect direct quotes but my best paraphrasing) on a lively morning plenary called "The Changing Media Landscape," with David Weinberger, Dan Gillmor, Alex Jones and moderated by Chris Nolan. My random editorial comments are in italics. (I'd be blogging more from here but the wifi connection is really spotty.)

Nolan: What's changed in the last year?

-Weinberger: Editorial authority has shifted. Bloggers are recommendation engines, instead of a bunch of middle-aged white guys deciding what's important. We're constructing our own front pages more on what friends recommend to us. [Indeed.]

-Jones: My opinion is different because I don't use the internet in the same way that Dave does. Neither do young people use it the same way. What's happening now is sites are separating themselves, in a sort of organic process, in terms of what they will and won't do. For example, I'm interested in what bloggers will do in response to today's New York Times story about Edelman's using bloggers to help promote Wal-mart. In the blogosphere generally, the "anything goes" mentality is getting more refined. This is part of "growing up." [Why put it in such a condescending way, Mr. Jones?] I also see newspapers figuring out how to adapt, acting in a collective self-preservation mode, to the blogosphere, in many cases with local sites.

Nolan: A big change that I see is that journalists see blogs as a useful tool. Dan, you're Mr. Citizen Journalism [she says with a smile] where do you see that going?

Gillmor: While many of us are getting the equivalent of a front page and inside pages from the equivalent of "recommendation engines," the vast majority of people today get their news, such as it is, from quite traditional media. Not everyone uses Digg or Technorati, sites that combine machine intelligence with human intelligence to flag items that are catching community interest and lift it up to a front page. We're at the very very early days of this. The community aspect of this is crucial. It's quite probable that my readers are collectively smarter than I am. That's not a threat but a great opportunity, to bring them into a conversation.

Nolan: Why? Why this insistence on a community?

Gillmor: In professional journalism we don't have a monopoly on wisdom. For example, what people inside the Beltway think is important is not necessarily what is important to people outside the Beltway. And the media establishment often misses that.

Jones: Most of us, though, do believe that expertise is valuable. We go to a doctor with good references. That's not unlike what we do in terms of news. I worked at the New York Times for nine years and I think it's a bargain considering the collective knowledge that goes into making that paper on any given day. My time is valuable to me, and I don't want to spend time managing my stock portfolio (such as it is), I have someone who's more expert than me to do that.

Weinberger: Everyone agrees that good reporting is a genuine skill that requires training, it's a profession and it's valuable. But something larger is happening. We've developed an idea that experts and knowledge are a special class because, in part, print was so expensive. Not everyone could get published. But, we know in a democracy, we believe that there's a clash of equal ideas and values and while we disagree about what is most important, we try to work out that clash. One of the most amazing things about the internet, we're now in an age where everything is miscellaneous [subtle book plug Dave!]. We no longer need a single hierarchy telling us what is important, there are many available, and it's up to us and as citizens and in loosely formed communities to decide what is important to us. If it's Darfur that is what will be on our own front page every day.

Jones: Maybe your friends are different from mine, but when I get emails telling me to read something it's usually something funny. I think it's a time management issue, actually. What I fear is that if we sequester ourselves in just a few interests we won't talk to people with broader viewpoints. It's valuable if we have some news in common that we all have to deal with. [It's interesting that this is a sentiment frequently expressed by folks that I would call, with all due respect, our elders.]

Gillmor: We're not talking about spending all day surfing around figuring out what news is of interest to us. I value the Times' news judgment. At the same time, we are beginning to find new ways and tools to put other kinds of front pages together. And I'm less worried about the echo chamber effect that Alex is worried about and we have some data on this now. People who went online for news in 2004 tended to know more about their opponent's viewpoints than people who don't go online for news. There's also data that suggests that people going online are more social. [I'm glad Dan is making this point but it sure goes against conventional wisdom. I wonder what it will take for people to actually believe this.]

Nolan: There's a lot of talk about conversation, between writers, bloggers, etc. Do you see more moderation, more tamping down of extremes, taking place?

Weinberger: Most of the internet is in fact a contextualizing of other things on the internet. We're finding people we trust, or who add judgment or context, all the time. Sites like Digg or Slashdot are pioneering in "social editing." We're inventing new ways to deal with the overload of information available. This will include a huge amount of serendipitous information--if anything the internet is a huge distraction engine. [What did you say? I'm sorry, I missed that.]

Gillmor: The community conversation that goes on, on many sites, desperately needs moderations in all senses of the word. And the more successful sites, I think, are doing that. We do have a huge amount of noise, but there also a lot of incredibly valuable signal. Moderation systems can be done a lot of ways, but the best ones are done by people.

Nolan: Reporters are going to moderate comments on blogs! Reporters hate people.

Gillmor: Reporters think readers are a distraction. [But if the internet is a distraction engine, then are readers the internet? Ooops, sorry...]

Jones: I don't think people have changed, actually. What we have now is infinite choice, not just 500 channels. The way we sort of organize ourselves is that we're going to pick a half dozen or so sites, or maybe twenty if we're ambitious, and that is where we're going to spend our time. Maybe an email from a friend will shift that from time to time, but not much.

Gillmor: We need to talk about the elephant in the room. Competition from bloggers is almost irrelevant here. The real competition for newspapers, the real issue is that the business model is eroding under their feet faster than they ever participated. The largest classified advertising business in the world is called eBay. And Craigslist is far and away better than what the newspapers offer. There's more there, they have more things to offer, and it's almost all free. (Disclosure: he's an adviser to my new center and longtime friend.) Craig also runs a community, not just a business. The crucial thing about these sites, like Monster, is the competition for different revenue streams. And the problem is it would be ridiculous for any of these sites to do journalism.

Weinberger: You also don't have to invent classified-ad-speak to fit your message into a tiny space on Craigslist. The other big shift is that newspapers tried to develop a universal, neutral voice that comes from no identifiable human being. We have this dead language of reporting. On the internet, we are desperately hungry for human voices and that is what is behind the flowering of the blogosphere. Newspapers will increasingly sound anachronistic, and this important--I think this will also affect how we want our politicians to sound. [That's a very interesting point! I actually think that the same hunger for authenticity that makes the internet a "strange attractor" is at works in politics, too. Just remember what Groucho Marx said: "Integrity is everything. If you can fake integrity, you've got it made."]

Nolan: We recently saw the New York Times and the Washington Post publish a picture not taken by a professional but by a cellphone user in the London subways.

Jones: The job of a journalist is to go out to sources and talk to them. The Zapruder film was taken by an amateur too. But you vet it. I want to take issue with something David said. Some of you are aware of the meltdown taking place at Harvard lately. What's happened with Larry Summers firing is that its been seized upon by a lot of people, and a lot of their opinions are popping up all over the place and most of them, I think, don't know what they're talking about. In my opinion, the best reporting on this is at HarvardMagazine.com. But it's written in that dispassionate voice, by someone who knows what they're talking about. But a lot better informed than anything done by the reporters at the NYTimes or the Boston Globe. My point is that high quality journalism is expensive, it requires training, etc. [But didn't he just make David's point? The expensive reporters at the Times and Globe didn't do as good a job on the Summers story as a niche publication. In many cases, that's what good bloggers are--people who are passionate about something and know their subject more intimately than a professional journalist who has to cover many different topics on a daily basis.]

Gillmor: But that's not the end of the story. That's the middle. That's where we can keep talking about it and adding elements that even this great reporter for Harvard Magazine didn't know. This is enormously valuable if you care about something. We're still figuring out how to do this in a time efficient way.

Jones: What's the difference between that and spin? Most of what I read didn't add anything. You can't say that that is the same as a factual report. It's as if you are taking away the idea that there is a core truth and everything is relative. [True, but why is that "Spin Alley" is an institution invented and maintained by traditional news organizations, not bloggers, Mr. Jones?]

Gillmor: I'm not equating an opinion based on nothing with a thoroughly reported piece. I'm saying that in the world we're talking about, that thoroughly reported piece is not complete.

Nolan: One thing that incenses reporters is when they see bloggers talking online about the conversation that they had in the newsroom where they took various things into account.

Weinberger: We are going from an attitude in the culture that says that news belongs to the newsroom, to news belongs to us. There are terrible risks with that, with news going awry. In the broadcast medium, it wasn't. But now it's ours.

Jones: I don't disagree with that. I am just questioning where it is going to go and whether there is a way to preserve good reporting, professional news judgment, etc.

Time for Q&A...

Q: A question about OhMyNews's success in Korea.

Gillmor: I'm not sure that the conditions present there apply elsewhere. OhMyNews became the true alternative to the deeply corrupt conservative media system. Their determination to be an alternative has helped a lot. They have 40,000 citizen reporters now. Whether it's replicable here is unclear.

Q: Have we reached a peak for weblogs? There's a lot of garbage out there. Bloggers don't know when to keep their mouths shut.

Nolan: I think you will see more group sites. I run a group site. We don't take comments and it's more like a news magazine. And I think you'll see more journalists doing this online. Blogs are just a tool, by the way. Blogs are set up for different purposes.

Q: Where do we go next? A hundred years ago there were many more newspapers and now we have consolidation. Will the same thing happen with blogs? [asked by Sanford Dickert]

Gillmor: Assuming that the fake new AT&T doesn't kill it off, we have a democratization of media tools and distribution. And it's not just PCs, it's phones with cameras. And it's tagging, that allows people to find things in new ways. That's not what we had a century ago.

Weinberger: It's generally a mistake to think about blogs as a new media. A handful of newspapers doesn't become a million blogs. It's not a publishing medium, it's a conversational medium. It's people talking to each other. The really big blogs are like media, but the other 30 million aren't media any more that a conversation over dinner is media. To worry if they are sourcing themselves properly, is to confuse a conversation with the media.

Jones: Newspapers consolidated around the strongest in the market. It could not support two or more until radio or TV came along, and now it consolidated around one. David is right, there's no barrier to entry to blogging. But commercially, the domination will be by existing entities that go into this business and preserve this business. And to the extent that people want a conversation, they'll offer a conversation section. Not that there won't be an infinite number of other options, they just won't be commercially viable.

What is there to prevent commercial interests from masquerading as "people" and controlling the blogging conversation the same way they dominate the legislative conversation?

Weinberger: (Discloses that he's a consultant to Edelman). Astroturfing has been a problem for a long time. We human beings. We get fooled. We can go 20 years without learning that a friend wasn't who we thought they were.

Gillmor: We need lots and lots of reporting to expose bad stuff.

Follow-up: Doesn't that suppose that there is a mass interest in unmasking bad stuff?

Gillmor: There's a bit of a higher obligation in this medium on the reader to be more skeptical. For example a blogger who does no disclosures of any kind and has a very strong position on something, could just feel very strongly about it, or not. Perhaps that plays to the strength of the traditional media.

Jones: One of the charms of blogging is that it has the credibility that conversations have, especially when someone you know tells me something. It was almost a belief system, especially in the beginning days, when everyone was speaking from the heart. But we're grown-ups and that doesn't last very long in this world. We live in a world with huge interests that will try to capitalize on that. They will try to capitalize on sincerity. This may be the Achilles heel of blogging, in the same way that objectivity may be journalism's. Bloggers may need to find some way to show that they're not "those guys."

[Sincerity may well be the Achilles heel of blogging, though I would put this the other way. Money is the Achilles heel of humankind.]

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