Che-Che Lazaro’s Media in Focus was kind enough to invite me to Thursday’s show, on new media. I understand Sassy Lawyer (that’s Atty. Connie Veneracion to the rest of us) and Ronald Meinardus of My Liberal Times will be there too; I trust they will pick up the slack on my end, which will inevitably wrap itself around my legs, like an indulgent snake.
In a sense, the fact that we are discussing the difference between traditional media and the new forms of media we use on the Internet this late in the day is already commentary enough. But Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, had the foresight to start a new debate on an old issue (old, that is, in Internet years). It’s possible we can use this debate to frame our terms.
Lemann’s piece in the August 7 & 14, 2006 issue of the New Yorker dwells on the still-unfulfilled promise of "journalism without journalists."
To live up to its billing, Internet journalism has to meet high standards both conceptually and practically: the medium has to be revolutionary, and the journalism has to be good. The quality of Internet journalism is bound to improve over time, especially if more of the virtues of traditional journalism migrate to the Internet. But, although the medium has great capabilities, especially the way it opens out and speeds up the discourse, it is not quite as different from what has gone before as its advocates are saying.
He ends his controversial story with a familiar appeal: more reporting, less opinion.
Reporting—meaning the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience—is a distinctive, fairly recent invention. It probably started in the United States, in the mid-nineteenth century, long after the Founders wrote the First Amendment. It has spread—and it continues to spread—around the world. It is a powerful social tool, because it provides citizens with an independent source of information about the state and other holders of power. It sounds obvious, but reporting requires reporters. They don’t have to be priests or gatekeepers or even paid professionals; they just have to go out and do the work.
The Internet is not unfriendly to reporting; potentially, it is the best reporting medium ever invented. A few places, like the site on Yahoo! operated by Kevin Sites, consistently offer good journalism that has a distinctly Internet, rather than repurposed, feeling. To keep pushing in that direction, though, requires that we hold up original reporting as a virtue and use the Internet to find new ways of presenting fresh material—which, inescapably, will wind up being produced by people who do that full time, not “citizens” with day jobs.
Possibly the most anticipated response to Lemann’s piece was that of Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor who writes the popular (never-at-a-loss-for-words) PressThink blog. (Rosen was also quoted in the article, and one of his new-journalism initiatives written up.)
He said he agreed with much of what Lemann wrote; but he also sought to strike a balance.
But I don’t understand why we can’t have a picture with a lot of continuity in it and some genuine moments of rupture. How’s about one degree of complexity in this debate? Why does it have to be the newsroom reactionary’s “there nothing new under the sun…” or the Net revolutionary’s “…there’s never been anything like it?”
I try to stay away from these extremes but journalists don’t seem to want that. They prefer what Lemann terms “the most soaring rhetoric about supplanting traditional news organizations.” It’s the extreme claim that interests them. If they don’t have speakers to quote they just go without.
Look at how Lemann begins, “On the Internet, everyone is a millenarian.” Really? Here’s PressThink on it, October 17, 2003: “The weblog is continuous—not a revolutionary break—with five hundred years of print culture. It is the printed page, modernized, interconnected, made two-way, but still… ‘powered by movable type.’”
Rosen also quotes Steven Johnson, a celebrated Internet writer; Johnson had also been moved to respond to Lemann’s Wayward Press article, and posted five principles about Internet journalism that he says we can all, already, agree on.
1. Mainstream, top-down, professional journalism will continue to play a vital role in covering news events, and in shaping our interpretation of those events, as it should.
2. Bloggers will grow increasingly adept at covering certain kinds of news events, but not all. They will play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all kinds of news.
3. The majority of bloggers won’t be concerned with traditional news at all.
4. Professional, edited journalism will have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than blogging; examples of sloppy, offensive, factually incorrect, or tedious writing will be abundant in the blogosphere. But diamonds in that rough will be abundant as well.
5. Blogs — like all modes of contemporary media — are not historically unique; they draw upon and resemble a number of past traditions and forms, depending on their focus.
So here’s my proposal: if you’re writing an article or a blog post about this issue, and your argument revolves around one or more of these points — and doesn’t add anything else of substance — STOP WRITING. Pick a new topic. Move on. There’s nothing to see here.
I would like nothing better, in the next few months, than to pick a new topic and move on. But I’ve a nagging sense that agreement on all five of Johnson’s ideas will be a long time in coming.