Sunday, March 09, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 IX

Josh Benton, Dan Gillmore, Matt Haughey, J.D. Lasica, and Evan Smith: Old Vs. New Journalism

Benton is an education reporter for the Dallas Morning News and maintains Crabwalk. Gillmore is technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and writes a blog for . Haughey founded Metafilter. Lasica is senior editor of the Online Journalism Review. And Smith is editor and executive vice president of Texas Monthly. Here is a rough transcript of the panel discussion:

Smith: This panel is misnamed. Blogs: Old Vs. New Journalism. I think we'll find that it's all journalism. I'm an editor for Texas Monthly. So I represent old media. What we're doing is nothing like what these four gentlemen are doing.

We're joined up here by four people. And rather than introduce them, I'll let them talk about their blogs, their philsophy of blogging, and how that reflects itself in their blogs, which might not be the same thing.

Down on the end is Josh Benton, who by day works for the Dallas Morning News. To his right is Dan Gillmore, who does a blog that's under the umbrella of the San Jose Mercury News. It's basically part of his work for the San Jose paper. To his right is J.D. Lasica, who writes for Online Journalism Review, but he does a blog that's independent of his work for the Online Journalism Review. Then there's Matt Haughey, who has no connection to traditional media.

Benton: I probably have the least connection between my blog and my day job, which is writing about education for the Dallas Morning News. Of the panelists, I might be the most pessimistic about the opportunities for news organizations have Web logs. When you think of Web logs as journalism, you probably think about the independent blogs online. I'm probably the least optimistic. I see the form of blogging as not being incredibly distinct about what journalism already does and has done for quite a long time. The old world of media is probably a lot more interactive than people give them credit for. When I write a story for the Dallas Morning News, I get a lot more feedback than I do when I write something for Crabwalk. The form of blogging is not really all that new.

Gillmor: I just came from a meeting of the East Coast Liberal Media Conspiracy, and I'm sorry you weren't invited. I love Web logs the way I loved talk radio when it started. I don't like a lot of what I hear on talk radio, and I don’t like a lot of what I read in Web logs. It's nice to have the Web log sponsored , bought, and paid for by my employer. I've been fortunate. People ask me what the business model for Web logs is, and I say it might be the same as community theater. There might not be one.

The most important thing about this is the transformation from the traditional lecture model in which someone is speaking to a group, and one in which people are talking to each other. In the end, we might end up with a better version of the truth. The collaborative filtering and conversational aspect is why I'm interested in this. My readers know more than I do. That's not a threat. That's an opportunity.

Lasica: [Walked into the audience to take a photo of Ben and Mena Trott, the creators of Moveable Type] The barrier between audience and panelists is really artificial. That's what's going on with old and new journalism. We're more part of a conversation, which is different than the traditional model of journalism, which is top down.

I do a blog called New Media Musings. I interviewed 30 people for an article about RSS feeds for Online Journalism Review, and I decided, why not publish the 30 transcripts in my blog?

How many bloggers are in the audience? How many are blogging right now? If you're doing something more than blogging transcripts, adding commentary or any kind of synthesis, you're engaged in a random act of journalism. I want to get away from the idea that there's a top-down approach that has to be done.

The folks up here are sort of concerned that blogging is journalism because there's so much bullshit out there. Not all bloggers are journalists. I don't even think some newspapers are journalism. You don't need to write for a professional publication to be a journalist. All you need to do is go out there and report something the best that you can, add some commentary and analysis, and you're a journalist.

Haughey: I'm Matt Haughey, and I do Metafilter. I never had any aspirations to do anything that was even remotely like journalism. New journalism and blogging tends to turn readers into writers. Old journalism is more like broadcast.

Metafilter has some journalistic tendencies. These are like story leads. People do research, domain experts might have something to say, but no one really gets around to writing an article and publishing. Old journalism is going to have to take on some of the qualities of new journalism.

Smith: Is this a case of new journalism becoming more like old journalism and old journalism becoming more like new journalism? You are setting the standards for some of the new sites that are out there. There are a lot of old media sites trying to add aspects of blogging. Even those extremely liberal democrats at the National Review [laughter] are starting to blog. Is the mountain coming to Mohammad or the reverse?

Lasica: I think it's both. In the next year or two, we're going to see an intersection of Web logs and old media. You've seen a little bit in terms of old media trying to co-opt the form, like Web blogs on MSNBC. It goes the other way, too. Web loggers who want to practice journalism can learn something from the old guard such as ethics and conflict of interest.

Haughey: You're starting to see Web loggers pick up the phone. They're trying to do their own kind of reporting. That's something we'll see more of.

Gillmore: Which has happened in one or two cases one or two years ago. One is the Casey Nicole story, which was the hoax of a young woman who died. Web loggers thought this seemed awfully strange and started doing reporting. One Web logger went to the county seat in Kansas. They ended up breaking a story that the mainstream media only picked up after the Web community had done all of the reporting.

You mentioned the National Review. The Right wing has been far ahead of the Left in terms of using technology as long as I've been using technology. They were the first on bulletin boards in the '80s. Talk radio is dominated by the Right. And most of the best political Web logs, in terms of quality and quantity, are on the Right. Web logs attract people who feel like outsiders even if they're not.

Smith: Do you consider Matt Drudge a Web logger?

Benton: I would say that Matt Drudge is a journalist, but I don't think he follows the Web log form. I would argue that he might not be a particularly good journalist, but he is a journalist. It's much easier for someone to do what a journalist does than it was 10 years ago. I get more than 100 emails every week from people who want to talk to me about what I do in journalism. You don't need a Web log to get that interactivity.

Smith: To what extent do you feel torn between the day job that pays your bills and the Web log that might claim your attention?

Benton: I've rethought the wisdom of attacking my employer. I'm supposed to be completely objective in what I do. I'm in a slightly different situation than Dan, who's a columnist. Whatever opinions I have I need to keep to myself. There was an error in a Dallas Morning News story that I posted something about, and an editor, who's an active reader of Crabwalk, scarily enough, emailed me saying there might be a better way to deal with this.

Gillmor: The reason that attacking a competitor is an issue is that journalism does a really lousy job covering journalism. Media doesn't do a very good job covering media. That's a shame.

It's true that I have a lot more freedom because I'm a columnist. I'm encouraged to say what I think. I have considerable leeway in what I write. Are there things that I won't do? Sure. While I have attacked my company in print on an issue that I thought raised serious ethical questions, there are things that I won't write about. It’s not that it's filthy laundry, but it just feels like it's not my place. If I saw something that made me feel sick to my stomach, I would either quit or do something different. I wouldn't work for an organization I considered unethical.

Haughey: In terms of these newspaper-attached blogs, there are definitely conflict of interest issues. There were two law suits this year that involved posts that were borderline libel or slander. On independent sites, you need to quiesion people's motivations for saying what they're saying and doing what they're doing. Is it self-promotion?

I always have to talk to the lawyer. There are no real laws. People are starting to work on blogging ethics, just throwing out ideas about we should do that we should do this. I've tried to pave the way by saying Yahoo message boards are just opinion. It's not speech that's actionable.

Lasica: I think a bigger issue is credibility. How do you know what to trust, what to believe online? A writer for the Washington Post said that people are never going to turn to blogs for news and information in great numbers because bloggers don't have the same standards and values. I think she's wrong about that. There are webs of trust. People build up brands just like a traditional news organization. All of our Web logs, if you visit long enough, you'll know what you can get.

Too many people believe what they read on a Web log. They're just not that skeptical. People believe what the believe. We just need to edit ourself.

Gillmore: When someone gets burned by what they read, there will be the same bullshit filters that we have with people that we meet. With some sites, there will be a confidence that a fair amount of time, effort, and money went into making something correct.

Smith: Is there a New York Times of blogs?

Gillmore: There are a number of blogs that I find credible within their realm. Glenn Fleischman writes a blog about 80211 wireless networking, and it's the best source to go to for information about that. They tend to be more niche. Nick Denton and his folks in New York are doing a lot f niched blogs like Gizmodo and Gawker.

Haughey: Web logs are transparent, I think. Especially when there are comments or a community, people will say what about these links that contradict what you say?

Lasica: There's not just one ultimate blog out there. All of us have our blog rolls. You can discover all these niche sites.

Benton: It seems in a way reflective of something that's happened in the broader journalism world. People are looking for sources of news that's more in line with what they already believe. That's a potential problem with Web logs. Anything that takes away editing, you can get caught in a world that just focuses on their side of their question. You can hear just your own voice.

[At this point, my PowerBook froze, and I needed to restart. I didn't lose a lot of the conversation, but lesson: Save often.]

Lasica: I don't think any of us are saying that Web logs should supplant other journalism. But if you're looking for news and information, the mainstream media isn't the only place for you to go.

Question: As media becomes bigger, it becomes more general because you can't piss off your advertisers. Web logs work well because they are small. Journalists have let us down because they've stopped covering niched things. They're not covering the library down the street.

Benton: I would disagree with that. There's a myth that there was a golden age of journalism. Go look at a newspaper from 30 years ago. Look at the archives. There was a lot of crap out there. I agree with you that it's great to have a granular voice. That's terriffic.

Smith: There are a lot of shitty Web logs with no ads. And there are a lot of shitty newspapers with ads. I don't think advertising is the problem.

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