A handful of media types and blog types are gathering later this week at one of those big Harvard thinkfests to consider, as the conference's title says, "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility."
Some of us, alas, are foolish enough to attempt all three.
I must be smoking something funny, because I'd like to believe we can all accept a notion put forth by NYU's Jay Rosen -- that bloggers vs. journalists is a dead argument -- and move on to more important things.
It persists, however, because plenty of people in the journalism world still misunderstand blogs -- trying to color them as fringe endeavors or draw old-media corollaries (the op-ed page). Last year's election further disproved the former, and the dramatic first-person accounts from the tsunami zone put one more nail in the latter.
On the other side of the aisle, some blogistas insist a true blog is a not-for-profit personal expression untouched by the hands of an editor. Puh-leeze. Blogs have already been co-opted by the corporate mass media, including MSNBC.com, and the corporate world generally.
Each side would do well to remember the obvious: Journalism is a function; blogging is a form.
The corporatization of the blog (note this recent example from Boeing) can be unsettling, but infuriated bloggers often sound strikingly similar to my own whining when corporate America discovered the Internet in the mid-1990s and sent the masses online to ruin our little playground. (I'd also like to remind my fellow bloggers that some of us managed to publish Web sites before Moveable Type and LiveJournal.)
In much the same way that press releases and glossy advertorials haven't yet destroyed newspapers and magazines, you can emulate the form, but -- recent examples notwithstanding -- you can't buy your way into a trustworthy voice.
Tearing down the walls
Which is not to say professional journalism hasn't taken its share of hits lately. Of great glee to bloggers was their role in uncovering, then magnifying (and still finding holes to poke in) the CBS memo fiasco.
But this isn't about the outmoded hulk of journalism being torn down. CBS' mess, plus Jayson Blair and all the other setbacks, should be a clear message to journalists: More than ever, the public is keeping a close eye on who we are, what we do and how we do it.
Public feedback isn't new, but scribbled letters to the editor and ranting phone calls could be more easily ignored. Now critics can unleash a flood of e-mails and bloggoriffic rants that vie for equal time in the online reader's browser. This all means talent and trust are more important than ever. Our newsroom, like many others, has come to accept -- if not always embrace -- the one-click closeness.
I continue to believe any reporter who wants one should have recourse to a blog. MSNBC has long embraced blogging -- both for our big-name TV counterparts and my colleagues online. I believe we should offer even more of them. (For the record, I don't have a blog on MSNBC.com, though I do elsewhere, and I won't be blogging the conference.)
After all, blogs allow us to note interesting tidbits that might not warrant the due diligence and sourcing needed for a full story. (Tidbits, I said -- not badly sourced gossip.) They allow for additional perspective that space considerations would otherwise squelch. They allow dialogue beyond a story. They also provide reporters room to provide disclaimers about their own perspectives in approaching a topic.
This is scary to many journalists; it shouldn't be. Admitting to a point of view now and then could even push us toward a less monolithic media world, one not as concerned about the elusive goal of objectivity.
Given how much time and effort goes into a well-reported story, there will be more need for professional journalists to become distillers of crucial facts, able to weave those facts into a compelling narrative for readers and viewers who don't have all day to suck up what Herbert Gans once called "multiperspectival news."
It's worth remembering that European media function just fine with papers that offer divergent worldviews. You may not like how the Daily Telegraph or Guardian interpret the world, but they have established their reputations over time -- by proving to both sources and readers that they are trustworthy.
Credibility isn't the sole property of news organizations, however. After all, a credible reporter should remain credible no matter where he writes, or who is paying her (or not). The burden on a lone blogger to establish such trust may indeed be greater -- there's a reason news companies hire editors, after all, and it's not just to make sure the commas are in place. The ethical lapses we've seen lately are a reflection of that editorial gatekeeper role breaking down -- propelled, I believe, by a 24-hour news cycle and a corporate drive for profits.
If you publish in a forest ...
The real issue here is who's reading. Media companies survive only because of a critical mass of readership or viewership, enough to make a business model work. At this point, blogging is still mostly about charity.
News organizations can help filter a nearly impenetrable mass of information into something compelling. Most blogs bite off a small chunk of the larger whole. Just as most people don't read five newspapers a day, there is a finite limit to how many blogs you can digest on your lunch hour, even with RSS.
News companies can do better. I happen to believe that competitive fears and laziness have whittled the news agenda down, making it too narrow and too shallow. But the process -- redacting the world into a digestible chunk -- remains valuable. Good bloggers and journalists both manage that.
So what we're ultimately arguing about is form, and that'll drag on for a while. Declining newspaper ad revenues should tell us that old media may need serious navel-gazing. Ditto an an unsettling detail noted last October by the Washington City Paper: Many younger potential readers of the Washington Post said they wouldn't take the paper even if it were delivered free. They didn't want all that paper lying around.
Newspapers have to sort out their problems, and come to peace with the online world. Some old media are having a tricky time finding a balance. But plenty -- The Oregonian and Spokesman-Review immediately come to mind -- are figuring out how to make it work. Either way, credibility isn't negotiable.
What truly worries me is whether readers and viewers actually care. The Armstrong Williams flap seems to hint that we do, though the backlash there may be as much about editors' concerns as readers'. By contrast, the lines between TV networks' news and entertainment divisions have been eroding for a long time now. Both online and on TV, it is now an easy stretch from reporter to commentator.
Interestingly, blogospherians have been crying foul that more of them weren't invited to the Harvard outing. As our own Will Femia has been documenting, that's prompted the credibility debate to spread throughout BlogWorld, perhaps fueled by the back-and-forth over recent acknowledgements of the Dean campaign's blogger payments.
The big concern with this conference seems to be that we'll emerge with some (pointless) Grand Proclamation. Why bother? The conversation has already been extended beyond the room. Maybe it will get everyone thinking about why anybody should believe what they say.
That extends to both bloggers and journalists, by the way.
Jon Bonné writes about the food industry for MSNBC.com and about food and wine at amuse-bouche.net. He has been publishing his own Web sites since 1995 and blogging since 2000.