Oh, no! Not another blogging vs. journalism post

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Readings in Media

6 responses to “Oh, no! Not another blogging vs. journalism post

  1. KARL De MESA

    Papa John,

    Musta po? About how media is changing (eg reporting, etc), google and check out “Epic 2015.” It’s very prophetic. Hope to see you on SAT (Aug 26) at my buk launch. It’s 7Pm at Newsdesk Cafe : )

    Ciao,
    KARL

  2. Francis Ochoa

    You know the technological advances of the world have overtaken your mind’s abilities to grasp new concepts when you’re out there painstakingly trying to explain your side on journalism-vs-journalese to students only to find out that the raging debate is something different altogether.

    I am hopelessly stone-age.

  3. Jeg

    He ends his controversial story with a familiar appeal: more reporting, less opinion.

    Why cant we have both? In the same article? Unlike traditional media, if you add opinion to your reporting, people can get their reactions to you immediately. Youll be called on your opinions and interpretations. I think the reason blog-news is popular is because they contain a fair amount of personal take in it. It’s one person speaking instead of a disembodied medium.

    (Didnt see the TV show. Not available where I am.)

  4. Thanks for the mention, Jon. I’m very flattered. Other community-oriented blogs worth mentioning are Oliver Mendoza’s (Iloilo) and Willy Priles’ (Naga).

    Too bad I missed the show. I hope I catch it on replay.

  5. “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.

    x x x

    “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.”

    John, with apology, let me repost here a rather lengthy but fairly recent commentary of mine re the abortive debate (remember?) between DJB and you on the matter.
    ________

    For someone whose views I personally regard as rather conservative in the ideological spectrum, the recent raves by Dean Jorge Bocobo (DJB) against Philippine mainstream media is uncharacteristically radical, if not extremist (to the Left).

    DJB posted the following obiter (to the main commentary on the “pigging out” incident in Canada involving the seven-year old Luc Cagadoc) on Newsstand, John Nery’s blog, after John had pointed out some supposed “blind spots” on DJB’s part:

    “You guys aren’t REALLY free to do journalism as it can be done . . .wouldn’t touch some of the juiciest stories . . . except within a very constrained and narrow range, you guys are actually gagged and compromised . . . .

    “I know the individual journalists may not want it like that, but they are part of an establishment — the Media — that is, in my humble opinion, a permanent, unelected part of NATIONAL GOVERNANCE in the Philippines, more so than most govt agencies and depts, and the equal of any of its political, judicial and legislative branches. Kinda like pravda and izvestia used to be, but even more influential in many ways. Like the old soviet press, the Philippines press is the only effective channel for communication between the govt and the people. In fact sometimes it seems govt doesn’t ever do anything but react to the media.

    “I know you folks laugh about this a lot — that you actually set the nation’s agenda. But it’s Vanity. Blind, tragic vanity, John.”

    Regor Aguilar, also a blogger, thus thought a “real argument” was in the offing and appeared ready himself to jump in to spice it up. But John could only promise “to respond to [DJB’s] ‘larger’ point . . . perhaps later in the day” and seemed for now to have chosen to sit out the dare.

    The rather equally uncharacteristically dismissive stance of John was noticeably in sharp contrast to the way he has weighed in with alacrity, in another entry subsequent to the one at bar, scoffing at the government’s “purging itself” theory to explain the assassination of over a hundred leftists in the Philippines. One act could either be a gentlemanly flight (and I do regard John as a thinker and a gentleman) or a strategic stalling; the other perhaps just another intuitive attempt to keep legitimating media’s so-called watchdog role.

    As a matter of full disclosure first, . . . I’ve have been as critical as DJB of the media in general and the Philippine media in particular and the consequent insult and assault to free speech.

    If I may take the liberty to restate DJB’s position, when media ministers to private power, it loses its true office – basically that of telling as truthfully and ethically as possible what the emperor is wearing or not wearing. Not blind spots but self-imposed “blinders” have “gagged and compromised” the media in such a way as to render it as “not so free as it pretends to be,” to appropriate once again another no-holds-barred raps from DJB.

    I would assume that media practitioners who out of practical convenience choose to sidetrack issues that really matter (i.e., those that pry on the very core of the dominant system) are likely to produce muddled exchanges in the public square. It could get even worse when the same people, arrogating their agenda-setting power, ultimately drown the disparate voices of the multitude which are deemed necessary for a healthy democracy to thrive. Wouldn’t journalism in the traditional sense suffer in the process the way the truthful recording of history get “compromised” through the self-serving selection of historical accounts by the victor in war as part of the spoils?

    Political correctness on the part of individual journalists may actually amount to sheer submissiveness to the private power of the people running the media business who are for the most part into it for the money. In this respect, concentrated media power as anathema to the “free market of ideas” parallels the chimera of oligopolies as dregs of the free market society.

    It then becomes easier for me to appreciate DJB’s motivation leaving the mainstream channel (DJB used to be an op-ed contributor to PDI) to experience the liberation in the blogosphere.

    But here’s the rub. Can there be a mainstream media if no voices are marginalized? If DJB (he claims he’s just “a human being with a blog”) is able to engage John Nery (a professional journalist, also with a blog) in an open debate for instance on the very issue of proper discourse in the public square, DJB’s position becomes, in effect, contradictory; after all, he has effortlessly helped himself to a public and free-for-all discussion with someone who is a mainstream media practitioner, for a major Philippine newspaper to boot.

    Still, the saving grace for DJB’s position is probably the realization that, at least in the Philippine setting, blogging as a medium of exchange remains marginalized as yet. If we believe however the claim that blogging is also elitist in many ways, doesn’t the contradiction return?

    Now take note: In John’s blog, voices from the powers that be come astray sometimes (I recall at this juncture the highly discursive calls in Newsstand of presidential men like Bobi Tiglao and Ricardo Saludo in the run-up to President Arroyo’s impeachment proceedings) and anyone can join in retort anytime (as I’ve done a number of times even while I’ve been in pajamas). Indeed, the process, as we bloggers know, could be very empowering.

    Apparently in the vast ocean of public discourse through blogging, the divide between mainstream and the side stream could be blurred where every one willing to dare can just test the waters, swim to his heart’s content among the fishes and all the sea monsters or drown upon his own weight (unless someone like Sassy sets up enclosures, of course).

    I myself find blogging to be therapeutic. Thanks John for daring to keep your blog.

    __________

    Now, perhaps, there are at least two more principles we can add to Steven Johnson’s and agree on:

    6. The “traditional” journalism/Internet journalism debate ultimately boils down to a debate about the locus of power.

    7. Civic journalism will repeat the vicious cycle when paying audience begins to trump the spirit of citizenship that drives it in the first place.

    Or if I may add just another, an 8th, which I would call the Sassy principle (or syndrome): the possibility of Web journalism being transformed into a tyranny of autonomy (or a “citizen journalist” lapsing into “pomposity and preening” that heretofore defines a professional journalist).

    Lehman also pointed out: “(T)he Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence.”

    How true. Let me share with you what my thoughts were about our now moribund virtual community, Pinoy-rin, some seven years ago (before the advent of blogging as recognized today).

    ________

    Public forums like Pinoy-rin hopefully will continue to challenge the monopoly role of elite media networks as “purveyor of truth.” In turn, one of the challenges our community faces would be how to safeguard from self-interest our self-appointed role as an alternative source and interpreter of information, and as active participants in the realization of certain goals that may be achieved in the light of the analysis of those information. We are starting to discern the importance of such a role in the crucible of our exchanges. Returning to our community the role of the “mob” to holler at the governors’ indiscretion, excesses and misgovernment is empowerment in the real sense of the word. In that sense, every poster in our public forums becomes a free-lance newsman or reporter “chatting” about facts and stories not given prominence by media organizations. Armed by a username, our member could yell not only at the emperor, but likewise at the businessmen and industrialists who have failed to be competitive despite state protectionism, at the educational leaders who have only succeeded to provide a mechanic’s solutions to a systemic educational problem, at our historians who have remained blind to history, or at the Anastacios out there claiming moral ascendancy over our countrymen who have refused to remain forever colonial.

    In such a democratized setting, the Pinoy-rin community will try “to decide what will be decided” reducing webmasters and editors, subject only to minimum ground rules, as mere referees and not as censorship courts of last resort. This has happened in several of Pinoy-rin’s folders: in Nav’s exposition of certain untold story in the “Peace eZone for Mindanao”; in Shark’s criticism of the powers that be in “What’s Needed to Achieve OC-12 Bandwidth Capacities?”; in Eloy’s ambitious project of “Preserving Our Soon To Be Extinct Languages”; or in the unabashed coming out of our poets in the “Poetry n’ the Hood,” to name only a few. This new form of empowerment, aided by interactivity of the Internet, will hopefully force the traditional media to transform itself. This is something that may not be far-fetched at all if only wider grassroots participation could be extended through our PC in every barrio project.

    For public forums like Pinoy-rin to carry out its “alternative” role, it must be ready to assume what Ms. Monsod has recognized as a “public trust.” The insights provided by the messages posted in our forums should help us find some answers. As many of us in our Net community know, Pinoy-rin has been recently chosen as one of the finalists in the Philippine Web Awards under the cause-oriented category. Several months before the awards nights, a handful of our community members had been figuring out—online in another .dot community – how to build our own home on the basis of the vision and mission around which we have formed our consensus. We have been unsure how we would actualize our vision or accomplish our mission. At one point, it has been suggested if we could just start scaling the mountain and taking a pause at a certain height, see how the steps we would have so far taken could be retraced given the dimension of the new vista reached. Today, we are still scaling the mountain. But the insightful messages being offered by each of our participants are certainly giving all of us the benefits of a fresher perspective each day we try to allow ourselves to be a medium for truth, progress and peace.

  6. Too bad I don’t have ANC at home, John.

    But I surmise no sparks flew between you and Sassy face to face, considering the fireworks in the digital fireplace when you two crossed paths a few months back? 🙂

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