Saturday, July 26, 2008

A caution against the categorical

Many of the smart, passionate people who are arguing for a new definition and practice of journalism – I'm thinking here mainly about Jay Rosen, Howard Owens ( jayrosen_nyu and howardowens on Twitter) and, in a somewhat different way, Jeff Jarvis – are in danger of suffering from baby-with-the-bathwater syndrome. Too often, they propose simple, categorical resolutions to complex and nuanced issues.

(Update: Following a good Twitter exchange with Jay, let me clarify: I certainly don't mean to be categorical myself in suggesting all these folks hold all the attitudes I find misguided. You'd profit from reading their thoughts in whole at their sites).

Both the business model and relationship with audience for traditional news companies are under huge stress. Both must change in dramatic ways, quickly.

But that doesn't mean everything we've learned about value-added information and public service journalism – fairness, ethics, professionalism – ought to be jettisoned for a new launch. As I have argued many times here, the better model is evolution, not revolution. (See Reign of Terror.)

In the spirit of helping further their very useful deliberations, I offer the following in a cautionary spirit:

In the play “A Man For All Seasons,” Robert Bolt’s drama of Sir Thomas More as he struggles in “the thicket of his imagination,” two scenes illuminate the dangers of wholesale rejection of ideology, convention and (in More's case) laws by passionate reformers. I suggest some parallel for those who would reject the conventions and established disciplines of journalism as they explore the beguiling new frontiers opened by global, read/write networks.

Towards the end of the first act, Sir Thomas More is with his wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, and his son-in-law Roper. They are clamoring for the arrest of an individual. Margaret tells her father that the man is bad. More replies, "There's no law against that." Roper tells him, "There's God's law." More answers, "Then let God arrest him."

More continues with a lesson to his son-in-law: "The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal, not what's right, and I'll stick to what's legal." Roper accused him of setting man's law above God's. More answered, "No, far below. But let me draw your attention to a fact. I am not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong I can't navigate. But in the thickets of the law, oh there, I'm a forester."

Later, Roper argues straightforwardly for the necessity of abandoning, even destroying established law in the service of his own perception of God’s higher ordinances:

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

(I don't have the play in front of me; I remembered these basic scenes and Googled for the quotes used above).


  1. Whoa, Howard. Jay is right on Twitter. Show us where ANY of us have, in your mischaracterization, that "everything we've learned about value-added information and public service journalism – fairness, ethics, professionalism – ought to be jettisoned." There is no basis for this post and scold: a house with no foundation, an opinion with no facts.

    And you pick on three people who, indeed, actively uphold those values and the value of maintaining journalism itself. Two of us teach journalism. One practices journalism. All three of us work hard with tangible projects to try to find that future for journalism.

    Unfair, Howard, very unfair.

  2. Thanks for the added note.

  3. My post was sparked by specific Twitters this morning from Jay and howardowens, which I don't think I've unfairly characterized. (One trouble with Twitter is it's next to impossible to reference its evanescent archives.) I was, however, guilty of the kind of categorical reference I objected to. Funny how many times I find myself doing that :)

    And hell, I called you all smart and passionate and described all these conversations as "their very useful deliberations."

    Please, continue.

  4. Anonymous12:40 PM

    I agree with Jeff, I think you're making huge leap here, and setting up a straw man in the process...

    - Amy Gahran

  5. Howard,
    In your tweets, you seem not to understand why this upsets me so. It's because you are ascribing a view to me that I do not hold. Indeed, I teach journalism because I want to uphold the values you say I want to jettison. Having this falsehood (I'll say in a nonlegal sense, a libel) about me is bad for my professional relations and reputation. You further accuse me of not having nuance in the work I do. Well, come to the conference I invited you to and let's find nuance and solutions together; that is exactly why I have called it.

  6. Anonymous1:09 PM

    Howard, while I did not include the word "ethics" in my Twitter, I've certainly argued how important ethics are to a reinvented journalism in my blog. And in Twitter, I certainly very pointedly espoused fairness.

    Twitter is hard thing to follow some times, and the nuance of the short statements can be lost quickly as the conversation flows.

    But I had to jump in here and stand up for my position on fairness. Fairness may be my very #1 ideology for a new journalism, because for the past half century or so it's been in very short supply in journalism.

  7. Further:

    Not to speak for my colleagues in this post but....

    Howard Owens is, like you, trying to reinvent newspapers so they can survive into the digital age.

    Jay Rosen has started many very real and nuanced projects to try to reinvent the practice of journalism while maintaining and expanding its values: Off the Bus, New Assignment, Beat Blogging. These are very real, important, and generous gifts to the industry.

    To too my horn, I, like Jay, teach journalism and try to find new ways to do that. I created an entrepreneurial journalism course to start new sustainable journalistic enterprises and now I am going to start a center and incubator to do that for individuals or companies such as yours. I am holding conferences to find and share best practices and set new goals for collaborative journalism and regarding new business models for news. I advise and invest a number of startups that work in the new architecture (e.g., the link economy) of news and media. I also advise big, old media companies in 3 nations on how to find new digital paths.

    How is that throwing baby or bathwater out by any of us? We are not rejecting old ways. We are trying to find new ways and update and expand and preserve the old values that ought to be preserved in that. Granted, we're not trying to preserve them all -- such as the values of maintaining a closed, priestly newsroom. But neither are you. So how do you see yourself in opposition to us?

  8. Howard Owens,

    Yes, we are maintaining ethics such as fairness, accuracy, completeness. And I have also learned new ethics in this age: the ethic of the link, the ethic of transparancy, the ethic of the swift and open correction.

    Professionalism? Well, that word means many things to many people. In some quarters, it means quality and pride. But in some quarters, it means a closed professional priesthood. I can support some definitions, not others.

  9. Anonymous4:05 PM

    I read all of you guys, and this posting still has me scratching my head. I'd like to see some evidence that Owens, Rosen or Jarvis are advocating or have advocated sweeping changes that eviscerate the core principles of journalist.

    My impression is there ARE sweeping recommendations for changes in business models and product sets and even a spectrum of participation levels with non-professionals, but no one has suggested journalism as a practice be done in a crass or careless way.

    This post sounds more like Pulitzer polishing rather than open and accurate engagement on a fair playing field of ideas.

  10. I've now heard my cue to reread Episcopal bishop John Shelby Sprong's book, _Why Christianity Must Change or Die_.

    Whether or not the chosen route is evolution or revolution, they're both valid to talk through. The practice of journalism (and hopefully our business model) will be healthier for it. The key (and I think this speaks to your comment, @John Proffitt) is separating the practice of journalism from the publishing of website or printing of newspapers or even the being _from_ the newsroom staffs of said papers online or off.

    In deciding how this all goes down, do we confuse the church with the religion? Do we tear down the temples altogether, beheading statues? Or, do we find a middle path? Scoping the boundaries of that middle path are, I suspect, where the very interesting conversations lie.

  11. Ok, we regular readers of this are REALLY scratching our heads. What are you all arguing about? How about some context, background? If this is a private argument, go out to the alley. If I were the editor of any of you I'd ask for the nut graph.

    Oh, by the way, your edging into my territory. Spong's book was interesting aboout 15 years ago, but getting a bit dated. Check out Brian McLaren's "Everything Must Change."

  12. Anonymous9:19 PM

    I must regretfully defend Mr. Weaver here, with regard to noting that alternative-j. boosterism can be problematic.

    Some of those in the trenches (i.e., bloggers you have never heard of) who are most enthusiastic about citizen journalism are those who most want to dispense with those pesky codes of ethics and obligations to disclose - and who, I have come to surmise, have good financial reasons to find such constraints distasteful.

    The fact that there is such interest, from such people, is a red flag - a warning that the creature we're creating is going to need a powerful immune system.

    To talk about the creature without acknowledging this - explicitly and rather loudly - is to present a partial picture.

    (Case in point: See Leonard Witt's interview with Grayson Daughters (in which he buries the lede)).

  13. Anonymous8:09 AM

    I'm not sure any of these people except Rev Jim actually know what a nut graph is.

    And I'm left wondering why Anna Haynes "regretfully" weighs in on Howard Weaver's side here. Does she not like our Howard? And here I've always found him to be a decent guy myself.

  14. Rev. Jim: This *is* my alley. And you're welcome here.

    Anna Haynes: There is a powerful germ of exactly what I'm worrying about in this nugget: "the creature we're creating is going to need a powerful immune system." Mainstream journalism, for all its manifest faults, does have disciplines and a catechism that contribute to accountability and verification (among many things). We have yet to discover how this works in a world of anonymity, sock puppets and unfettered access. It may work very well indeed (this is my bet), but it hasn't been proved yet, and there are important lessons to remember and perhaps even import from older disciplines.

  15. Anonymous6:16 PM

    > "I'm left wondering why Anna Haynes "regretfully" weighs in on Howard Weaver's side here. Does she not like our Howard?"

    (for the record: indeed i do, but as one of the great unwashed, i have divided loyalties and would prefer to weigh in on everyone's side)