May 13, 2005

Forum at the Evans School

Last night the Evans School at the University of Washington held a forum event called "Consuming News in the Age of Blog." The attendees included a number of people from local print and some broadcast media, public affairs groups, and a few bloggers.

I'm probably missing a few sites, but bloggers from Sound Politics, Energy Priorities, Digittante and Chuck Olsen who's behind Blogumentary were included. (See why I like this state? Someone holds an event to talk about blogging here, they invite a few of their own initiative instead of having to have their arms twisted.) Representing traditional media, there were people from both the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger, and some from TVW (which is like a localized C-SPAN service for state government).

There were somewhere in the vicinity of 50 people split up into tables that seated 8, and a handful of moderators who wandered around with mikes. After introductions, the moderators gave us a hypothetical situation and opened it up to get responses, mainly from bloggers and the print media attendees, as it turned out. I took very sketchy notes, so I can only give you the gist of what was said, and I didn't always catch the names, but here goes. The first situation was this:

Suppose the Director of Homeland Security comes to Seattle to talk about port security, and part of the trip is a day cruise which will double as a press conference. What if the DHS specifically requested a particular blogger to come aboard & said they didn't want others? What if a reporter was excluded to make room for a blogger?

Most of the bloggers who responded tended to think that if there was a blogger with a specific focus on that area, someone with a body of work on port security, they should be allowed to go. Jim Vesely, a senior editor at the Seattle Times, said that individual reporters don't get credentialed, news organizations do, and the reporter goes as a representative. Vesely also said that if his paper got cut out of an event like that, he'd put 40 reporters on it and cover the story another way. An editor at the Seattle Weekly said that the Weekly wouldn't feel obligated to stick to the chosen topic, and brought up the possibility that a reporter might even want the opportunity to question a state official who happened to be on the boat as well.

After the floor discussion, they showed a brief film called Epic 2014, which throws out a future scenario where Google has melded with TiVO and other content services to create Epic. Epic is depicted as a multimedia storage service that uses an advanced version of Google News to feed users news content based on a chosen filter and past preferences, and also allows people to subscribe to the moderation services of various editors. The film speculated that everybody would write and participate, with popular writers and editors getting a share of Google's ad revenue. Traditional media would be driven out of business, leaving people awash in a sea of shallow information. The hypothetical result was that the New York Times would permanently go offline, to be read only in print by the 'elite and elderly.'*

Of course, it was designed to strike horror into the hearts of print media people everywhere, but despite its alarmism there were some interesting ideas. Imagine what a savings in printing costs it would represent, for one thing. Or in terms of multimedia products like music and film, that gets rid of the need for several electronic devices and boatloads of storage media. In terms of resource efficiency, I approve.

Could an existing media organization survive such a world? Probably, but likely not in its current form. But I'd definitely make a distinction here between any given media organization and the job of reporting. It's a necessary public good to have people whose sole job and occupation it is to travel around, both here at home and internationally, and do nothing else but talk to people and track down information to share with the rest of us. A participant even raised the point that a site like the New York Times might even do very well under such a model if they were linked back to and referred frequently, and that seems like a reasonable possibility to me.

After the screening, they turned the discussion over to the tables to talk amongst themselves, with the goal of delivering two key points back to the group. The session finished with a last round of floor comments.

Concerns that were repeated more than once were the possibility that people would 'silo' themselves out of the information mainstream, that recommendations would narrow to the point that individuals only got limited views of the world. There were also concerns about how to determine credibility, the possible loss of a free press, and a loss of connection to others and the community.

Twice I heard complaints about referrals based on past preference using Amazon recommendations as a reference point. Every time you buy a book, the next book they refer you to is just like the last one, which could narrow instead of broadening your frames of reference. I think this relates back to the concern that people would voluntarily choose to limit themselves in this way if they weren't 'forced' to some extent to be exposed to stories they might not seek out just because they're on the same page or in the same broadcast as a topic they would seek out.

Some of the preferred vision statements included having a verifiable system of checks and balances, having media business models put public interest ahead of profit, and a blending of the mainstream media with blog culture.

Following are some of my jumbled thoughts on the issues that were raised, and some ideas that occurred to me in the course of the discussion.

Blogs are popular, imo, because of three things: analysis, emphasis and personality.

The sense that the media doesn't analyze news well in many cases is shared across the political spectrum. It's my contention that the traditional news format, as it's come to be, doesn't allow a deep enough focus on any issue to build a story into an evolving narrative that lets the viewer/reader put it into its proper context. Blogs seem to have an easier time setting an event in its timeline rather than being constrained as often by space concerns to stick to recent events. They also frequently hotlink key phrases to give readers who know less about the topic a bit of history as needed. There isn't any technical barrier to mainstream news organizations, freed from the tyranny of needing to fit stories to scarce column inches, doing the very same things.

Regarding emphasis, why do we end up hearing about Jennifer Wilbanks and the deliberation over whether or not to charge her with anything, but not about the man tasered to death by Sheriff's deputies in the same jurisdiction. The same District Attorney is responsible for both investigations, but decided that the deputies didn't need to be further prosecuted. Which story do you think is more important?

It should be noted that Talk Left found the story through a blogger who found it through a media outlet. In fact, most of the bloggers affirmed their dependence on the existing media for news, so it isn't that these stories are never covered. Yet the question of how difficult it is to find the important stories vs. the flavor of the day influences media consumers a great deal. A front page story gets more attention than a back page story. A story that's wall to wall on the cable networks gets remembered better than one they do a little five minute blip on at the end of the hour. If news media wants to retain respect and credibility, it can't be competing directly with Entertainment Tonight.

In terms of personality, I don't just mean lots of ranting and 'color.' That isn't necessarily what people tune in for. As you get to know a blogger through their writing, you begin to get a sense of what they consider important. If you consider the same things to be important, and you like the writing, you'll come back. In the rest of the media, this sense of importance is conveyed by placement and repitition, but from the ostensible position of impartiality. And I think many people come away with from print and broadcast media wondering if they have a credible sense of what's important, if their conscience can be trusted.

Another issue could simply be writing style. When I attended the National Writers Workshop here in Seattle recently, writing coach Donald Fry's presentation was based on the premise that the standard AP Style Guide was killing print journalism. He said that the formats currently in use, inverted pyramid style stories, leads that are filled with incomprehensible jargon, and a lack of definition of terms and background make many stories hard for readers to understand. He noted that the Wall Street Journal is a paper whose editorial board directs that every story be understandable by anyone, and that all uncommon terms be defined as they're used, and thereby they produce writing of exceptional clarity and quality.

Blogs, free of the constraints of the style guide strait jacket can write more personably, and have much more freedom to explain terms or link to explanations. Also, when a topic is outside of even a reader's general knowledge, there's often a blogger who's qualified in that topic and capable of breaking it down, summing it up, and generally giving readers a good introduction so they can follow along. Blogs don't always do so, this isn't a monolithic community, but they often do.

Still, the prime strength and weakness of blogs rests in the limits of what a single individual can do in a day.

The strength of blog media is that I can only read so much, and I've got limited amounts of time to attend any given sort of event. Because my time is limited, I do choose to go to trusted filters like Atrios and Daily Kos, where I know that information of a type I want has been panned out of the dross for easy retrieval. I still do my own searches, but reading blogs maximizes my time.

The weakness of blog media is that a blog is commonly the product of the spare time of one person, or maybe a handful of people. This puts serious limits on the scope of primary information that any one site can gather, even large community sites like Daily Kos. I can't sit in City Hall or the local District Court all day. I don't have an Africa bureau. I can't expend the time to be somewhere and hope something will happen, day in, day out, like someone whose sole job it is to talk to people and gather information on a specific beat. Further, reporting on large organizations is an area where independently paid journalism becomes exceptionally important. Everyone is aware by now of the perils of blogging about your place of employment, and inside information tends towards either PR, petty trivia, or the irritation of the disgruntled. There need to be people who can take all day to perform these tasks, to separate the wheat from the chaff when culling information from insiders, and blogging won't have a large scale answer to that for the forseeable future.

The repeated concern that I think is the least likely to be a problem is the issue of personal connectivity. I've definitely met more people through blogging than through watching television or reading the paper, and several of the bloggers had the same opinion. People hunger for connection with each other, and I have no doubt that whatever tools are introduced to manage our public information in the future, they will be turned to the ends of meeting others and expanding the conversation or people will lose interest in them.

When it comes to news and media consumers getting cocooned in only stories that follow a narrow interest, people can pick that now. They can focus solely on sports, on right wing politics, left wing politics, entertainment, kitten in a tree stories, what have you. An anecdote from the National Writers Workshop told of a newspaper editor who went out on the street and watched numerous people buy his paper from the distribution box, pluck out the sports section, and drop the rest in the trash. If the public isn't interested in a broader range of subjects, it's a problem with a deeper cause than the news delivery medium.

Where will the media be in 2014? Everyone understands that it will be different, that it has to be different. I believe there will still be a vital place for dedicated reporting, but I share concerns about how it will be paid for and who will be shelling out that money. Will we see more of a commitment to truly independent public broadcasting like they have in Britain? Will media sources become more centralized or more localized and diverse? Will corporate bottom lines continue to dominate the limits of acceptable dialogue?

I don't know. But as a consumer of news and a participant in my small way in the public media, I'll be sure and speak up for what I want.

* How much more meaningless can we make the word 'elite'? Does that mean anything as a stand alone term when consuming media, which everyone does in some way, as opposed to talking about some clearly defined profession, class issue, or activity? Does it refer to socioeconomic status? Does it refer to level of education, or taste regarding the quality of the content? I haven't the foggiest clue, and I bet no one else who's watched this film does either.

Posted by natasha at May 13, 2005 10:07 AM | Media | Technorati links |

Exceptionally good post.

Posted by: Anne at May 13, 2005 06:55 PM

I agree -- I am one of the co-creators of EPIC 2014, & this is one of the most thoughtful reflections on this whole bundle of issues I've seen around.

P.S. The movie's dystopian tone is misleading -- Matt Thompson & I are actually pretty psyched about the Googlezon-ish future.

Posted by: Robin at May 13, 2005 10:30 PM

Robin - "The movie's dystopian tone is misleading..."

Actually, I didn't find it particularly alarming myself, though it sure does a number on the heads of establishment print journalists and people who have a deep attachment to them, if the reaction was anything to go by.

The media is already conglomerated all to heck under the thumbs of a few corporations, and the costs of getting information to the public are enormous by traditional means, so I have a hard time figuring that opening it up to more voices could possibly make it worse.

The flip side of that is the blog readers distribution curve, where a handful of first tier sites get massive amounts of traffic, traffic which simply plummets outside the top few dozen of them. There's a possibility for undue concentration even in citizen generated media. Nonetheless, the most popular sites tend to be ones that people can participate in, places like Slashdot and dKos, or even popular weblogs with comments.

Anyway, it was an interesting and imaginative look into the future of all this, and it got people thinking. So, good job.

Posted by: natasha at May 13, 2005 10:53 PM

I saw the EPIC piece for the second time on Thursday at the Forum. If personalization works well, I feel like my ability to be a critical, effective news consumer will grow. If news orgs follow FOX and TV news and move towards entertainment programming will I be able to sort out the shite? I think I can, if there is some biz model that will support good reporters to provide enough baseline "facts" to triangulate and compare.

The second time I saw it I was more intrigued and less freaked by the Terminator tone. The biz models are the problem. It would be cool if the conversation had turned a little more to what that future might look like.

Our table talked briefly about a Seattle Times with 200 full time reporters versus 500 parttime or some other "citizen journalist" hybrid. I think the Google Ads/popularity payscheme envisioned in EPIC could be really interesting--more interesting in Seattle than Kansas--but if you go for the Stranger's Urban Archipelago story maybe that isn't so bad.

Anyway, thanks for writing. I thought the event was great and I appreesh your comments.

Posted by: joe at May 14, 2005 12:37 AM

FAKE NEWS -- I started watching European TV news during the Iraq invasion, and discovered the schism between reality and CNN.*

EPIC -- Not a big deal, given that most citizens will get news from TV, comedians, and friends. Scenario somewhat realistic. And promising, if all the right technologies come together.

STEREOTYPE -- Bloggers are not here just to critique the MSM, as one of the participants has suggested. What a waste of a great medium.

REPORTAGE -- As a blogger I'm about 50% dependent on MSM for background. Not 100% because I research and interview subjects for many of my stories. And I don't critiqe MSM, except directly. Does that make me a less-than-genuine blogger? I enjoyed talking with you, Natasha, about this point after the forum.

POINT? -- I felt like this was a way for some journalists to face their demons, to come to terms with bloggers (see STEREOTYPE above). Whatever, I hope it worked. I liked it.

* Example: As CNN reported that allies had captured the Baghdad airport, I was watching live newscasts from the tarmac by EU reporters being taken on a guided tour -- by the Iraqi army press office. No US troops were in sight. CNN corrected, hours later.

Posted by: Denis Du Bois at May 19, 2005 05:14 PM