Friday, March 25, 2005

From Our Washington Bureau

Nick and I attended Tuesday's Brookings discussion on "The Impact of the New Media" moderated by E.J. Dionne Jr. of WaPo and Brookings with panelists Jodie Allen of the Pew Research Center, Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette, Jack Shafer of Slate, and Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic, Time, and of course his own blog.

In keeping with the spirit of the topic of discussion, the event was "live-blogged" by Juan Cole, Daniel Drezner, Ed Morrissey, Laura Rozen, and Ruy Teixeira. These bloggers summarized the event in real time and also provided running commentary. Each of the hyperlinks above goes to the liveblog entry for the event, not their front page.

We're going to avoid doing a full summary of everything that was said because it would be boring, and also for those who are really interested Brookings has a link to a video that you can stream of the event.

As a computer science major, Jay Rosen's characterization of blogs as "distributed journalism" resonated with me a great deal. Schafer cited this description of blogs towards the beginning of the discussion, and a lot of the advantages of distributed computing find parallels with blogging. It's not an especially novel way of thinking about blogs, but in some respects is a very good comparison.

Shafer's best point during the whole discussion in my opinion, was when he said that there is "nothing exceptional about the blogs." What he of course means, is that it is not actually as new a medium as some would make it out to be: it's plain old fashioned commentary except without the gatekeepers of the journalism world keeping individuals out of the playground. Every now and again you hear people talking about how blogs threaten to polarize the country or destroy the traditional media, and these judgments are quite off-base.

Andrew Sullivan talked at great length about the concept of bloggers as journalists. He first talked about how the English term "hack" is used to refer to all journalists (I'm not sure if he was being truly serious or somewhat joking, but nevertheless it's an interesting point.) He said that journalists in England have "much less of a sense of self-importance" than their American counterparts.

Somewhat surprisingly, Andrew proceeded to attack what he referred to as "The Great Myth:" that you need to be trained to become a journalist. He even suggested that there is absolutely no need for journalism schools because any intelligent person can write about a topic, and the skills you need can be learned through experience. Thus, is blogging going to be the 21st century internship for journalism jobs? Andrew thinks so, and perhaps we will see the next generation of Op-Ed columnists and commentators come out of the blogosphere.

However, I want to return to Andrew's point about not needing schools for journalism. It seems like a pretty extreme view to take, but in a lot of respects I think he's right. News aggregation, commentary, and analysis can be done just as well (if not better) by motivated individuals than those from the institutional journalism camp. Aside from the original reporting of facts, bloggers who have no journalism training show just as much skill as their traditional counterparts. Do we really need someone who's studied journalism to tell us about a recent think-tank report on Social Security? Or couldn't we just turn to someone who has a lot of expertise on the subject and ask for their commentary? Andrew rightly refers to all bloggers as journalists because even without the formal training or gatekeeping, they accomplish the exact same function (of course we're not talking about original reporting of facts here, which will always be the strong-suit of traditional media outlets.)

Of course, there's certainly a big distinction between reporting/investigating versus commentary and analysis. The latter certainly can't exist without the ultimately more important former. However, opinions do come a whole lot cheaper than facts, and in today's world this is creating a lot of problems for journalists doing real reporting. Foreign bureaus for almost all major news organizations have dropped dramatically in recent years, and the topic of a sustainable business model for funding traditional media was raised at several points throughout the discussion.

Apparently, the major news sites only cover their marginal costs of existence with the revenue generated from ads. So, the newspaper doesn't actually make any extra money by putting material on the web, but the site pays for itself. Although, having presence on the web certainly increases influence, cross-references via hyperlinks, and readership-- which is why they all scrambled to get on in the first place. One of the panelists mentioned future technolgies changing this landscape further and seemed to be making vague allusions to e-paper or similar technologies. Perhaps media outlets can convince people to subscribe for a version accessible through an e-paper like system.

Finally, I'll conlude with how the panel ended-- with a question posed by me. Unfortunately, I had to scramble at the last second to reformulate a new question because as I was holding the mic patiently waiting my turn to speak, Andrew Sullivan said essentially the answer to what I was about to ask. I couldn't just say "Hey, could you say what you *just* said?" Nevertheless, I pointed out that an earlier description of blogs falling in a spectrum between talk-radio and newspapers as totally off-base. After all, talk-radio is an entirely passive medium whereas blogs' strong suit is their ability to be interactive. You open the links (in new tabs all you Firefox users) as you read a post so that you can investigate the sources, you can comment, etc. So, this characterization of blogs as just a bastardized newspaper that acts like talk radio is really quite wrong. Aren't blogs more educational? Aren't they more involved, and thus--potentially--far more productive than any talk radio or cable show could hope to be?

Andrew Sullivan agreed wholeheartedly:

Absolutely agree with Chris that the blogs are an educational tool. Actively seeking out information on the blogs you learn more. What blogging is doing in places like Iran and Iraq in terms of getting rid of the fear, are actually beginning to build an underground political movement for change through blogging. The Iranian government has jailed and tortured bloggers. Far from being weird, it's going to be a huge tool for political change in the world.

Of course, a blogger who touts himself as providing "shrill, uninformed commentary" offers up just such that, but in keeping with the ethic of the blogosphere we'll go ahead and link to his wonderful blog where you can also apparently get this writer's thoughts on poop. So, we leave it to you, our readers, to decide which is more trustworthy. Andrew Sullivan, who is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Time Magazine, or "Tom" who wasn't even at the panel. Tom probably didn't bother to listen to Andrew's very substantive response which was prompted by the question.(Also Ed Morrisey agreed while liveblogging:
10:49 - One audience member talks about blogs as being a more active experience, as compared to talk radio and especially talking-head television. Can blogs educate? Sure -- as long as you check our references and links. Don't take my word as gospel, just like you shouldn't take Dan Rather or even Jack Shafer at his (although I know which of the two I'd prefer).

Nick and I also shared a fairly lively discussion after the panel at a nearby Baja Fresh with a fellow named Dan who also attended. Since this post is a bit on the long side, I'll leave out a detailed description of the topics discussed, but perhaps Nick will sum up later.


At 9:43 AM, Anonymous catherine said...

fyi - tom wasn't at the panel, but he watched the web cast, so he heard everything else that you were hearing. however, i was actually at the panel, and wrote up my thoughts here. no offense, but your question was inane - i realize you might have had to scramble to reformulate one, but for a panel that was already fairly mind-numbing, it didn't add much.

as for the poop thoughts, rest assured, those aren't tom's; they're mine. and poop blogging is totally underrated.

At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris: Nice write. One tiny error. It's "Shafer."

--Jack Shafer

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Jack- Glad to see you stopped by! So sorry for the careless error, but it's fixed now.

Catherine- Point taken. I understand how it can be perceived as such, but the crux of what I was aiming to add Sullivan had just said which does make it a bit difficult, and I felt that simply giving up the mic would be just as awkward as trying to get Sullivan to expound further.


Post a Comment

<< Home