AMATEUR HOURJournalism without journalists.Issue of 2006-08-07
On the Internet, everybody is a millenarian. Internet journalism, according to those who produce manifestos on its behalf, represents a world-historical development—not so much because of the expressive power of the new medium as because of its accessibility to producers and consumers. That permits it to break the long-standing choke hold on public information and discussion that the traditional media—usually known, when this argument is made, as “gatekeepers” or “the priesthood”—have supposedly been able to maintain up to now. “Millions of Americans who were once in awe of the punditocracy now realize that anyone can do this stuff—and that many unknowns can do it better than the lords of the profession,” Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who operates one of the leading blogs, Instapundit, writes, typically, in his new book, “An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths.”
The rhetoric about Internet journalism produced by Reynolds and many others is plausible only because it conflates several distinct categories of material that are widely available online and didn’t use to be. One is pure opinion, especially political opinion, which the Internet has made infinitely easy to purvey. Another is information originally published in other media—everything from Chilean newspaper stories and entries in German encyclopedias to papers presented at Micronesian conferences on accounting methods—which one can find instantly on search and aggregation sites. Lately, grand journalistic claims have been made on behalf of material produced specifically for Web sites by people who don’t have jobs with news organizations. According to a study published last month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, there are twelve million bloggers in the United States, and thirty-four per cent of them consider blogging to be a form of journalism. That would add up to more than four million newly minted journalists just among the ranks of American bloggers. If you add everyone abroad, and everyone who practices other forms of Web journalism, the profession must have increased in size a thousandfold over the last decade.
As the Pew study makes clear, most bloggers see themselves as engaging only in personal expression; they don’t inspire the biggest claims currently being made for Internet journalism. The category that inspires the most soaring rhetoric about supplanting traditional news organizations is “citizen journalism,” meaning sites that publish contributions of people who don’t have jobs with news organizations but are performing a similar function.
Citizen journalists are supposedly inspired amateurs who find out what’s going on in the places where they live and work, and who bring us a fuller, richer picture of the world than we get from familiar news organizations, while sparing us the pomposity and preening that journalists often display. Hong Eun-taek, the editor-in-chief of perhaps the biggest citizen-journalism site, Oh My News, which is based in Seoul and has a staff of editors managing about forty thousand volunteer contributors, has posted a brief manifesto, which says, “Traditional means of news gathering and dissemination are quickly falling behind the new paradigm. . . . We believe news is something that is made not only by a George W. Bush or a Bill Gates but, more importantly, by people who are all allowed to think together. The news is a form of collective thinking. It is the ideas and minds of the people that are changing the world, when they are heard.”
That’s the catechism, but what has citizen journalism actually brought us? It’s a difficult question, in part because many of the truest believers are very good at making life unpleasant for doubters, through relentless sneering. Thus far, no “traditional journalist” has been silly enough to own up to and defend the idea of belonging to an élite from which ordinary citizens are barred. But sometimes one will unwittingly toss a chunk of red meat to the new-media visionaries by appearing not to accord the Internet revolution the full measure of respect it deserves—as John Markoff, a technology reporter for the Times, did in 2003 in an interview with Online Journalism Review. Jeff Jarvis, a veteran editor, publisher, and columnist, and, starting in September, a professor at the City University of New York’s new journalism school, posted the interview on his blog, BuzzMachine, with his own post-facto reactions added, so that it reads, in part, this way:
MARKOFF: I certainly can see that scenario, where all these new technologies may only be good enough to destroy all the old standards but not create something better to replace them with. I think that’s certainly one scenario.
JARVIS: Pardon me for interrupting, but that made no frigging sense whatsoever. Can you parse that for me, Mr. Markoff? Or do you need an editor to speak sense? How do new standards “destroy” old standards? Something won’t become a “standard” unless it is accepted by someone in power—the publishers or the audiences. This isn’t a game of PacMan.
MARKOFF: The other possibility right now—it sometimes seems we have a world full of bloggers and that blogging is the future of journalism, or at least that’s what the bloggers argue, and to my mind, it’s not clear yet whether blogging is anything more than CB radio.
JARVIS: The reference is as old-farty and out-of-date as the sentiment. It’s clear that Markoff isn’t reading weblogs and doesn’t know what’s there.
Hey, fool, that’s your audience talking there. You should want to listen to what they have to say. You are, after all, spending your living writing for them. If you were a reporter worth a damn, you’d care to know what the marketplace cares about. But, no, you’re the mighty NYT guy. You don’t need no stinking audience. You don’t need ears. You only need a mouth.
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.
Societies create structures of authority for producing and distributing knowledge, information, and opinion. These structures are always waxing and waning, depending not only on the invention of new means of communication but also on political, cultural, and economic developments. An interesting new book about this came out last year in Britain under the daunting title “Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture.” It is set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and although its author, Mark Knights, who teaches at the University of East Anglia, does not make explicit comparisons to the present, it seems obvious that such comparisons are on his mind.
The “new media” of later Stuart Britain were pamphlets and periodicals, made possible not only by the advent of the printing press but by the relaxation of government censorship and licensing regimes, by political unrest, and by urbanization (which created audiences for public debate). Today, the best known of the periodicals is Addison and Steele’s Spectator, but it was one of dozens that proliferated almost explosively in the early seventeen-hundreds, including The Tatler, The Post Boy, The Medley, and The British Apollo. The most famous of the pamphleteers was Daniel Defoe, but there were hundreds of others, including Thomas Sprat, the author of “A True Account and Declaration of the Horrid Conspiracy Against the Late King” (1685), and Charles Leslie, the author of “The Wolf Stript of His Shepherd’s Cloathing” (1704). These voices entered a public conversation that had been narrowly restricted, mainly to holders of official positions in church and state. They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.
As media, Knights points out, both pamphlets and periodicals were radically transformative in their capabilities. Pamphlets were a mass medium with a short lead time—cheap, transportable, and easily accessible to people of all classes and political inclinations. They were, as Knights puts it, “capable of assuming different forms (letters, dialogues, essays, refutations, vindications, and so on)” and, he adds, were “ideally suited to making a public statement at a particular moment.” Periodicals were, by the standards of the day, “a sort of interactive entertainment,” because of the invention of letters to the editor and because publications were constantly responding to their readers and to one another.
Then as now, the new media in their fresh youth produced a distinctive, hot-tempered rhetorical style. Knights writes, “Polemical print . . . challenged conventional notions of how rhetoric worked and was a medium that facilitated slander, polemic, and satire. It delighted in mocking or even abusive criticism, in part because of the conventions of anonymity.” But one of Knights’s most useful observations is that this was a self-limiting phenomenon. Each side in what Knights understands, properly, as the media front in a merciless political struggle between Whigs and Tories soon began accusing the other of trafficking in lies, distortions, conspiracy theories, and special pleading, and presenting itself as the avatar of the public interest, civil discourse, and epistemologically derived truth. Knights sees this genteeler style of expression as just another political tactic, but it nonetheless drove print publication toward a more reasoned, less inflamed rhetorical stance, which went along with a partial settling down of British politics from hot war between the parties to cold. (Full-dress British newspapers, like the Times and the Guardian, did not emerge until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, well into this calmer period and long after Knights ends his story.) At least in part, Internet journalism will surely repeat the cycle, and will begin to differentiate itself tonally, by trying to sound responsible and trustworthy in the hope of building a larger, possibly paying audience.
American journalism began, roughly speaking, on the later Stuart Britain model; during Colonial times it was dominated by fiery political speechmakers, like Thomas Paine. All those uplifting statements by the Founders about freedom of the press were almost certainly produced with pamphleteers in mind. When, in the early nineteenth century, political parties and fast cylinder printing presses developed, American journalism became mainly a branch of the party system, with very little pretense to neutral authority or ownership of the facts.
A related development was the sensational penny press, which served the big cities, whose populations were swollen with immigrants from rural America and abroad. It produced powerful local newspapers, but it’s hard to think of them as fitting the priesthood model. William Randolph Hearst’s New York papers, the leading examples, were flamboyant, populist, opinionated, and thoroughly disreputable. They influenced politics, but that is different from saying, as Glenn Reynolds says of the Hearst papers, that they “set the agenda for public discussion.” Most of the formal means of generating information that are familiar in America today—objective journalism is only one; others are modern academic research, professional licensing, and think tanks—were created, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explicitly to counter the populist inclinations of various institutions, one of which was the big media.
In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against—journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses—is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man. Even after the Second World War, some American cities still had several furiously battling papers, on the model of “The Front Page.” There were always small political magazines of all persuasions, and books written in the spirit of the old pamphlets, and, later in the twentieth century, alternative weeklies and dissenting journalists like I. F. Stone. When journalism was at its most blandly authoritative—probably in the period when the three television broadcast networks were in their heyday and local newspaper monopoly was beginning to become the rule—so were American politics and culture, and you have to be very media-centric to believe that the press established the tone of national life rather than vice versa.
Every new medium generates its own set of personalities and forms. Internet journalism is a huge tent that encompasses sites from traditional news organizations; Web-only magazines like Slate and Salon; sites like Daily Kos and NewsMax, which use some notional connection to the news to function as influential political actors; and aggregation sites (for instance, Arts & Letters Daily and Indy Media) that bring together an astonishingly wide range of disparate material in a particular category. The more ambitious blogs, taken together, function as a form of fast-moving, densely cross-referential pamphleteering—an open forum for every conceivable opinion that can’t make its way into the big media, or, in the case of the millions of purely personal blogs, simply an individual’s take on life. The Internet is also a venue for press criticism (“We can fact-check your ass!” is one of the familiar rallying cries of the blogosphere) and a major research library of bloopers, outtakes, pranks, jokes, and embarrassing performances by big shots. But none of that yet rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media—to function as a replacement rather than an addendum.
The most fervent believers in the transforming potential of Internet journalism are operating not only on faith in its achievements, even if they lie mainly in the future, but on a certainty that the old media, in selecting what to publish and broadcast, make horrible and, even worse, ignobly motivated mistakes. They are politically biased, or they are ignoring or suppressing important stories, or they are out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns, or they are merely passive transmitters of official utterances. The more that traditional journalism appears to be an old-fashioned captive press, the more providential the Internet looks.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University who was the leading champion of “civic journalism” even before there was an Internet, wrote in the Washington Post in June that he started his blog, PressThink, because “I was tired of passing my ideas through editors who forced me to observe the silences they kept as professional journalists. The day after President Bush was re-elected in 2004, I suggested on my blog that at least some news organizations should consider themselves the opposition to the White House. Only by going into opposition, I argued, could the press really tell the story of the Bush administration’s vast expansion of executive power. That notion simply hadn’t been discussed in mainstream newsrooms, which had always been able to limit debate about what is and isn’t the job of the journalist. But now that amateurs had joined pros in the press zone, newsrooms couldn’t afford not to debate their practices.”
In PressThink, Rosen now has the forum that he didn’t before; and last week he announced the launch of a new venture, called NewAssignment.Net, in which a “smart mob” of donors would pay journalists to pursue “stories the regular news media doesn’t do, can’t do, wouldn’t do, or already screwed up.” The key to the idea, in Rosen’s mind, is to give “people formerly known as the audience” the assigning power previously reserved for editors. “NewAssignment.Net would be a case of journalism without the media,” he wrote on PressThink. “That’s the beauty part.”
Even before the advent of NewAssignment.Net, and even for people who don’t blog, there is a lot more opportunity to talk back to news organizations than there used to be. In their Internet versions, most traditional news organizations make their reporters available to answer readers’ questions and, often, permit readers to post their own material. Being able to see this as the advent of true democracy in what had been a media oligarchy makes it much easier to argue that Internet journalism has already achieved great things.
Still: Is the Internet a mere safety valve, a salon des refusés, or does it actually produce original information beyond the realm of opinion and comment? It ought to raise suspicion that we so often hear the same menu of examples in support of its achievements: bloggers took down the 2004 “60 Minutes” report on President Bush’s National Guard service and, with it, Dan Rather’s career; bloggers put Trent Lott’s remarks in apparent praise of the Jim Crow era front and center, and thereby deposed him as Senate majority leader.
The best original Internet journalism happens more often by accident, when smart and curious people with access to means of communication are at the scene of a sudden disaster. Any time that big news happens unexpectedly, or in remote and dangerous places, there is more raw information available right away on the Internet than through established news organizations. The most memorable photographs of the London terrorist bombing last summer were taken by subway riders using cell phones, not by news photographers, who didn’t have time to get there. There were more ordinary people than paid reporters posting information when the tsunami first hit South Asia, in 2004, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, in 2005, and when Israeli bombs hit Beirut this summer. I am in an especially good position to appreciate the benefits of citizen journalism at such moments, because it helped save my father and stepmother’s lives when they were stranded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: the citizen portions of the Web sites of local news organizations were, for a crucial day or two, one of the best places to get information about how to drive out of the city. But, over time, the best information about why the hurricane destroyed so much of the city came from reporters, not citizens.
Eyewitness accounts and information-sharing during sudden disasters are welcome, even if they don’t provide a complete report of what is going on in a particular situation. And that is what citizen journalism is supposed to do: keep up with public affairs, especially locally, year in and year out, even when there’s no disaster. Citizen journalists bear a heavy theoretical load. They ought to be fanning out like a great army, covering not just what professional journalists cover, as well or better, but also much that they ignore. Great citizen journalism is like the imagined Northwest Passage—it has to exist in order to prove that citizens can learn about public life without the mediation of professionals. But when one reads it, after having been exposed to the buildup, it is nearly impossible not to think, This is what all the fuss is about?
Oh My News seems to attract far more readers than any other citizen-journalism site—about six hundred thousand daily by its own count. One day in June, readers of the English-language edition found this lead story: “Printable Robots: Advances in Inkjet Technology Forecast Robotic Origami,” by Gregory Daigle. It begins:
From the diminutive ASIMO from Honda to the colossus in the animated film Iron Giant, kids around the world know that robots are cool yet complex machines. Advances in robotics, fuel plans from NASA that read like science fiction movie scripts.
Back on Earth, what can we expect over the next few years in robot technology for the consumer?
Reprogram your Roomba? Boring.
Hack your Aibo robot dog? Been there.
Print your own robot? Whoa!
On the same day, Barista of Bloomfield Avenue, the nom de Web of Debbie Galant, who lives in a suburban town in New Jersey and is one of the most esteemed “hyperlocal bloggers” in the country, led with a picture from her recent vacation in the Berkshires. The next item was “Hazing Goes Loony Tunes,” and here it is in its entirety:
Word on the sidewalk is that Glen Ridge officialdom pretty much defeated the class of 2007 in the annual senior-on-freshman hazing ritual yesterday by making the rising seniors stay after school for several minutes in order to give freshmen a head start to run home. We have reports that seniors in cars, once released from school, searched for slow-moving freshman prey, while Glen Ridge police officers in cars closely tracked any cars decorated with class of 2007 regalia. Of course, if any freshman got pummelled with mayonnaise, we want to know about it.
What is generally considered to be the most complete local citizen-journalism site in the United States, the Northwest Voice, in Bakersfield, California (which also has a print version and is owned by the big daily paper in town), led with a story called “A Boost for Business Women,” which began:
So long, Corporate World.
Hello, business ownership—family time, and happiness.
At least, that’s how Northwest resident Jennifer Meadors feels after the former commercial banking professional started her own business for Arbonne International, a skin care company, about eight months ago. So far, it’s been successful, professionally and personally.
Another much praised citizen-journalism site is Backfence.com, headquartered in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Last month, it sponsored a contest to pick the two best citizen-journalism stories; the prize was a free trip to a conference held by Oh My News, in Seoul. One winner was Liz Milner, of Reston, Virginia, for a story that began this way:
Among the many definitions of “hero” given in The American Heritage Dictionary is “A person noted for special achievement in a particular field.” Reston is a community of creative people, so it seems only right that our heroes should be paragons of creativity. Therefore, I’m nominating Reston musician and freelance writer, Ralph Lee Smith for the post of “Local Hero, Creative Category.”
Through his performances, recordings, writings teaching and museum exhibitions, this 78-year-old Reston resident has helped bring new life to an art form that had been on the verge of extinction—the art of playing the mountain dulcimer. He has helped to popularize the repertoire for this instrument so that now mountain music is everywhere—even in slick Hollywood films.
In other words, the content of most citizen journalism will be familiar to anybody who has ever read a church or community newsletter—it’s heartwarming and it probably adds to the store of good things in the world, but it does not mount the collective challenge to power which the traditional media are supposedly too timid to take up. Often the most journalistically impressive material on one of the “hyperlocal” citizen-journalism sites has links to professional journalism, as in the Northwest Voice, or Chi-Town Daily News, where much of the material is written by students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, who are in training to take up full-time jobs in news organizations. At the highest level of journalistic achievement, the reporting that revealed the civil-liberties encroachments of the war on terror, which has upset the Bush Administration, has come from old-fashioned big-city newspapers and television networks, not Internet journalists; day by day, most independent accounts of world events have come from the same traditional sources. Even at its best and most ambitious, citizen journalism reads like a decent Op-Ed page, and not one that offers daring, brilliant, forbidden opinions that would otherwise be unavailable. Most citizen journalism reaches very small and specialized audiences and is proudly minor in its concerns. David Weinberger, another advocate of new-media journalism, has summarized the situation with a witty play on Andy Warhol’s maxim: “On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.”
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.
Journalism is not in a period of maximal self-confidence right now, and the Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence. They have got the rhetorical upper hand; traditional journalists answering their challenges often sound either clueless or cowed and apologetic. As of now, though, there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing. As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.