THE BLOG
09/30/2005 10:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media

Wednesday the CBS Building in Manhattan, the one they call Black Rock, was wrapped in yellow crime scene tape, a gimmick to advertise the popular crime scene show, CSI: NY, on CBS Wednesday nights. I was rushing by on my way to a roundtable at the nearby Museum of Television and Radio. It was about Big Media, the Bloggers and where the two are likely to meet over the next few years of Web development and cultural change. Which is basically the subject of the book I am writing.

"The bloggers were the usual suspects who write about the issue of blogging, journalism and the media," said David Weinberger, who was there. "The MSM folks were high-level execs at the usual suspect TV and print mainstream news organizations." True. (We weren't a representative group of bloggers, either. No one from the cultural right, no minorities, only a handful of women, no one in his or her 20s. So apply whatever discount rate you wish.)

I was 20 minutes late. As I slid into my seat it took time for my eyes to adjust to the room because they were still on the "emergency" yellow of the fake crime scene tape CBS had wrapped itself in. Black Rock looked sad to be dressed that way. Then I looked around the room and saw three "teams" sitting around in a big rectangle with microphones and a moderator. My team, Bloggers and Net Heads, had...

  • Tim Porter (press blogger at First Draft, ex newspaper guy, thinks it time for journalists to wake up.)
  • Jeff Jarvis (packs them in at Buzzmachine) future J-professor, ex-President of Newhouse Online, evangelist for citizens media.
  • Dan Gillmor (who blogs at Bayosphere) once a top columnist and blogger for the Mercury News in Silicon Valley, quit Knight-Ridder for a citizens media start up.
  • Susan Crawford, the law professor who blogs where intellectual property, technology and democracy meet on the Web.
  • Debbie Galant (Barista of Bloomfield Ave.) pioneer in hyper-local blogging for fun, dollars and civic import in the middle of Jersey.
  • Terry Heaton (POMO Blog) the television news director who got radicalized by the Web, and quit television to blog, write essays and consult on new media.
  • David Weinberger (Joho the Blog) ClueTrain author, Web philosopher, Berkman Center Fellow.
  • The author of this post.
  • And Bill Gannon, who is not known as a blogger but is editorial director of Yahoo News, a company on the rise (with news about Kevin Sites and new columnists) and bigger than all the other firms represented by far.

The Big Media team was led by bosses, people who run news factories, including:

  • Jonathan Klein, the President of CNN/US (who famously defined a blogger as some "guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas," not that this is all he's known for...)
  • Andrew Heyward, President of CBS News, who has figured in more than one PressThink post during the saga of Dan Rather and the Killian Memos. (See this one.)
  • Rick Kaplan, President of blog-crazy MSNBC. He formerly had Jon Klein's job.
  • Paul Steiger, Managing Editor of the (yes, we charge) Wall Street Journal.
  • Alisa Miller, Senior Vice President for Public Radio International, a major distributor of programming to NPR.

Joining the Bloggers Corps (Bill Gannon included) and the Big Media Bosses was a third team: People actively involved in the migration of the old journalism to the new environment of the Web, including some bosses of the Web operations.

  • Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of New York Times Digital, which just introduced TimesSelect. See my post about it, Charging for Columnists.
  • Kinsey Wilson, editor-in-chief of USA Today.com, one of the highest traffic news sites.
  • Bill Grueskin (see his Q and A with PressThink), Managing Editor, The Wall Street Journal Online.
  • Stephen Baker, Senior Writer, Business Week, co-author of Blogspotting for Business Week Online.
  • Vaughn Ververs, Editor of the new ombudsman-like blog, Public Eye, at CBSNews.com, where I guest blogged recently.
  • Stephen Shepard, formerly the editor of Business Week, now the Dean of the new CUNY J-School who gets to create a Web era curriculum from a tabula rasa.
  • Christy Carpenter, executive director of the Media Center project at the Museum, a convening body for the broadcasting industry, designed to help leaders come to grips with big issues. The Museum's roots are in a one-to-many world, and the glamour of network television. But the world is changing, so the Museum has to reach out.
  • Merrill Brown--who doesn't blog, but should--wrote an influential report warning news executives that the world is changing, so you have to reach out. He was Editor-in-Chief at MSNBC.com, which he helped launch in 1996. Brown could have been on all three teams, which is probably why he was moderating.

The ground rules prevented quoting without permission, a condition I don't like and would never request, but some of the big executives need the cover, so we do it that way. You have the cast of characters. Here's what they said:

  • I didn't sense any sign of panic from the bosses or the migrating pros. They're cautious in making statements about the future, but pretty confident they've got a handle on the Web. They enjoy reminding each other--and you--about the illusions that spread during the first Net boom (1995-2000), implying that a similar fever has overtaken some people now.

  • The advertising picture is the same one we have heard lately: rapid growth in Web advertising, but from a small base, which is not enough to catch up with the looming fall off in other ad revenue for the big news and information companies. Classified ads are the best example of "fall off." But it's known that product manufacturers may find new ways of reaching people without traditional media as the connector at all. No one has an answer to this. The advertising market is in flux. Where it will wind up is unclear.

  • Therefore no one really knows what will guarantee into the future the big capital expense of a fully staffed newsroom. This is what worries Big Media people, and they argue that it ought to worry us. They have most of the rest figured out, they believe. But not how to fund the newsroom. As David Weinberger wrote: "They're facing the possiblity of genuine discontinuity."

  • No one doubts the news business will eventually migrate to a new platform on the Net. In the meantime, the traditional model--including trucking the newspaper to people--is a big business with sound cash flow. It's foolish to think it will soon expire. Yes, a new foundation is emerging. For now, the old structures remain because they bring in the money the Web cannot. This isn't like the tech industry where market position can melt away in a year if you don't innovate.

  • Still, it was agreed: Big Media does not know how to innovate. What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never. Do these firms attract designers and geeks who are gifted with technology? They don't, because they don't do anything challenging enough. (See this guy's testimony.) They don't innovate, or pay well. So they can't compete.

  • In competing on the Web, the bloggers do not alarm big media. It's people like Bill Gannon. Yahoo worries them, with its surging revenues, huge traffic flow, and recent moves in news and editorial that involve original content. The portals attract talent, and with their billions they can fund innovation, and roll out new products. This capacity dwarfs what the old line media companies can do, even if everyone on the editorial staff became a Webbie overnight.

  • There is an awareness--or a belief--that technologies not visible yet, ranging far beyond the model of blogs and RSS, may come along and transform the business even more dramatically.

  • Weinberger: "The bloggers didn't have to spend half the morning explaining that most bloggers aren't journalists, that bloggers are in conversation." Blog literacy is up, that's true. And there's more respect. Jeff Jarvis in his write-up: "The tone has changed. There is no dismissive huffing from the big guys about blogs."

  • Big Media sees bloggers as better tuned to conversation about the news than news producers. Bloggers are more connected to "what's bubbling up..." Therefore they have to watched; they can't be dismissed. There was loose talk about "leverging the power of the blogosphere" that probably originated in this sense of bloggers being closer to public chatter.

  • Media people still look at blogging and demand to know: "where's the business model?" half expecting bloggers to have the answer, half satisifed when they don't. Jarvis wrote down my comment: “There is no law of God that there needs to be a business model for everything. There may not be a business model for the Internet. The Internet may just be part of life.”

  • Paul Steiger of the Wall Street Journal: "Whatever the business model, in order to keep getting paid, people in the blogosphere or traditional media would need to do at least one of two things very well: either provide uniquely broad credibility, which will still have value even in this revolutionary world, or uniquely exciting argument."

  • Media people want to believe in the figure of the "who cares if its true?" blogger, the one who will run anything, who has no editorial standards, who can be duped or dupes others. The image still tends to dominate their imagination, perhaps because it puts the most distance between what bloggers do and what they do.

  • I discussed an example of collaborative, open source journalism-by-blog. In November of 2004, Josh Marshall got mad when Republicans House members went into closed caucus and voted to change the ethics rules to benefit their Majority Leader, Tom DeLay: ("There was a vote. It wasn't recorded. There's no official tally. But everyone who was there was asked to say yea or nea. Why shouldn't they be willing tell their constituents what they said?") So he asked readers of his blog who live in Republican districts to call their Congressperson, as a constituent, and try to get an answer: was it yea or nea on the rules change? If you get a reply or a clear refusal to say, e-mail us, Josh said. We'll make a list and tell everyone else. And by such means--distributed fact-collection--he and his readers tried to get the vote recorded.

  • So I told them this story. They liked it. It made "citizens journalism" a lot less abstract. And they insisted that Josh's callers would be less reliable than journalists. Blog readers wouldn't know when they were being fed a line. Because they're partisans suspicious of DeLay, they would hear only what they wanted to hear. Dan Gillmor tried to inform them that Talking Points Memo was widely read on Capital Hill. Staffers for a Republican Congressman would know if Marshall had screwed up. They'd fire off an e-mail right away to correct the record. This information made no visible dent. Big Media was adamant. One could not trust information gathered by amateurs.

  • Stephen Baker wrote about it the next day at his Business Week Blog: "But how reliable was the reporting, media execs asked. Who were their sources? How about if one of the citizen reporters had it in for one of the Republicans? I didn't add my two cents on that point at the meeting. Here it is now: As a reader, I'm happy to look at that citizens' reporting. It's additive. There was nothing. Now there's something. True, the anonymous reporters are not accountable for their work. So I wouldn't cite it, journalistically, as evidence that a certain Republican voted one way or another."

  • But the exercise Marshall and crew undertook wasn't designed to answer the question: who voted which way on exempting DeLay? That information was lost to recorded history. Marshall said so at his blog. He was asking: was there pride in the vote? ("Why shouldn't they be willing tell their constituents what they said?") In his scheme, Congress people and their staffs are met with a second decision: what to say to constituents about the first? Who's willing to stand up and be counted? The object was to re-establish accountability--and minimal transparency--after the majority party put them on holiday. I thought it was great journalism.

  • There wasn't time for me to explain my suggestion for a next big project in open source journalism-- a blog-organized, red-blue, 50-state coalition of citizen volunteers who would read and attempt to decipher every word of every bill Congress votes on and passes next year.

  • As Susan Crawford wrote after; "The emotional energy that filled the room when the print guys started decrying the 'potentially deadly' inaccuracy of bloggers was remarkable. We Are The Truth, they seemed to think -- We Have Standards." That bloggers in '04 ran with pre-mature exit poll data was still rattling around for them. (See this about it.) And you could hear the sarcasm in their voices when they discussed the alleged fact-checking powers of the blogosphere, summarized as: "throw it out there, and we'll figure out later what part is true."

  • The blogosphere tends to be seen as a collection of individual blogs, each unedited, each without "standards" (although some are very good.) Therefore the 'sphere as a whole is weak on verification, and so Big Media retains a crucial advantage. (Says Big Media.) Other attempts to explain how open source methods can be highly effective--Wikipedia for example--do not seem to have made any impression.

  • Even so, Big Media knows it has to change. To stand pat is not a credible position. The market will not be there. Lots of experimentation is going on, or due soon as Web intergration becomes more of a reality. Paul Steiger in his closing notes: "The world has really, really changed and will keep changing and we in mainstream media may not like it but it’s a fact and we have to embrace it or we will die." (Link.)

  • Terry Heaton writes: "Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, noted three areas where his thinking has been changed." 1.) Heyward talked of a breakdown in newsroom formulas influenced by bloggers and the power of their conversation. 2.) The illusion of omniscience is hurting news. "That's the way it is" journalism isn't credible anymore. 3.) Therefore point-of-view has started to become more acceptable because it seems more inevitable. This was probably the most significant surprise of the meeting: an actual shift in press think. At the top, no less.
Oh, and everyone said nice things about my weblog, PressThink.

Jay Rosen is on the Journalism faculty at New York University. His weblog is called PressThink: Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine.