January 22, 2004

Public Journalism, Privately Funded

In recent years, the term public journalism has been a synonym for civic journalism, the much-debated notion that journalists, and newspapers in particular, have a duty to further civic discourse.

A new form of public journalism is taking place now, one that ironically was born in the personal journalism of blogging but has matured into a renewed emphasis of the natural connection between the journalist and his "public," whose members, in this relationship, are also his employers.

Dan Weintraub, a political columnist for the Sacramento Bee who writes The California Insider blog, profiles one such public journalist for the Online Journalism Review - Joshua Micah Marshall.

Marshall is a longtime magazine journalist and author of Talking Points Memo, a popular political blog. Marshall asked his audience, which Weintraub reports as 300,000 unique users a month, for donations to fund a reporting trip to New Hampshire. "Within a day," said Weintraub, "190 donors had contributed $4,800."

Weintraub points out that "given his credentials, Marshall could have easily pitched a piece on the primary to a major magazine and covered his expenses with his fee. But he decided that taking the freelance route would force him to choose between using material in the blog and saving it for the magazine. He came down in favor of the blog."

Why? "There's a freedom for me," Marshall told Weintraub, "a value to the independence. .... I'll be giving readers a sense of what's happening that they don't get in conventional journalism."

Here's a sample of Marshall's reporting, an excerpt taken from his account of a John Edwards speech:

"When I watch these guys one of the things I also watch for, either semi-consciously or quite deliberately, is, how will the Republicans go after this guy --- either on substance or on tone and demeanor and life story? With some of the contenders it is painfully obvious. But watching Edwards I had a pretty clear sense that he'd scare the president's political advisors --- a lot. …

"And yet, an hour or so later, after his presentation and after and Q& A, I had a bit of a hard time remembering quite what I was so dazzled by. It put me in the mind of one of those old clichés about light Asian food: filling at the time, but a few hours later you're hungry again.

"These are just quick impressions from observing one event. I wanted to write a post which conveyed --- in as unmediated a fashion as possible --- my immediate impressions of watching Edwards work a room for the first time. The above isn't intended as a blanket judgment about a whole campaign and a whole candidate. But in this one case I did have the experience of being truly wowed and then, later, feeling that the whole thing was somehow a bit thin."(Emphasis added)

"In an unmediated a fashion as possible." That phrase is key. Marshall is bypassing the editorial labyrinth of "conventional journalism," eliminating layers of editors, constrictions of newshole and limitations of deadline, to report directly to a public who values his work enough to pay for it in advance.

Stop. I am not speaking against editing, which plays a necessary role in process-driven journalism. This is not about editing gone wrong; this is about a new form of journalism. "This," Jay Rosen of PressThink told Weintraub, "is private people supporting something that becomes public information. It's a wild development."

Leonard Witt, founder of the Public Journalism Network, wrote in a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that the self-publishing power of blog technology means that "intermediaries are no longer needed as public journalism morphs into the public's journalism."

Witt argues that the ability of the public to become the publisher - and in Marshall's case the public is both audience (the reader) and publisher (employer) - increases "the need for the press to stop reporting just from the top down and for journalists to listen to the people."

Significantly, tradition-bound newspaper editors and reporter who disparage blogging as hormonal therapy for teen-age girls [ Read: Sniping at Blogs ], cannot dismiss Marshall for lack of reporting credentials. While still an aberration for independent journalists (Weintraub also cites Christopher Allbritton's reader-financed Iraq coverage), Marshall's connection to his readers, manifested by their financial responsiveness to him, offers newspapers several lessons these editors and reporters should heed.

First, media fragmentation continues. Every minute someone spends reading Josh Marshall or any other blogger is time not spent reading a newspaper (or watching television, for that matter). Media is growing. The number of hours in the day are not. The relevance of newspaper reporting on the information mindshare of the public is shrinking.

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded: "The 2004 presidential campaign is continuing the long-term shift in how the public gets its election news. Television news remains dominant, but there has been further erosion in the audience for broadcast TV news. The Internet, a relatively minor source for campaign news in 2000, is now on par with such traditional outlets as public television broadcasts, Sunday morning news programs and the weekly news magazines." (Emphasis added).

Second, sophistication, authority and humanity matter. Josh Marshall writes well. His words convey the conviction of an eyewitness, even when expressing uncertainty about the significance of what he is seeing or hearing. It is a very human approach to reporting. People trust individuals more than institutions.

Third, innovation is mandatory. I should add that innovation is especially mandatory when traditional approaches are dysfunctional. Look at the political reporting from Iowa. The mainstream press, myopically focused on Dean and Gephardt, missed completely the Kerry-Edwards surge. (Note the defensiveness of journalists in this New York Times story: "The race was turned on its head. I don't know that we missed the story, but the story changed," said one. In other words, the story changed, but the reporting didn't).

Finally, empower - and trust - the audience. Marshall has only one editor - his readership. Of course, he can write what he wishes, how he wishes and when he wishes, but if he displeases his editor (his audience), they will stop reading and stop donating. The connection between news producer and news consumer is direct.

Again, I am not arguing for elimination of editors. We are not all Josh Marshalls and many of us need a helping hand on concept or craft, which good editors provide. I am arguing for creation in newsrooms of a second channel, one that compresses or skirts the traditional editing process and reaches more directly to the readers.

Think of it as product development - in this case the product is a new form of news. In many companies, for example, new products are conceived, modeled and test marketed by teams of researchers, engineers and marketers that exist outside of normal production pathways, free of the disrupting influences of everyday checks and balances such as budgeting or production capacity.

Under this model, newsroom innovation must come from outside the traditional editing and production system.

With political coverage for example, why couldn't reporters also file daily updates to blogs as well as turn in more traditional stories? (Jim Camden of the Spokesman-Review does this in his blog, Spin Control.)

If a newspaper is sending more than one reporter, why couldn't one of them carry a video camera or file only online?

Why are regional newspapers around the country sending reporters to New Hampshire to write the same stories being reported by the wires or the national papers? I'd rather read a Josh Marshall-style, personal report than another story about how Democrats want a candidate who can beat George Bush (that's news?), which is the lead story in today's San Francisco Chronicle.

As I've said many times [ Read: The Quality Manifesto ], good enough is no longer good enough. Marshall is live-from-the-Granite-State proof that readers will pay for quality - quality as they define it, not quality as defined by an anonymous set of editors.

 Daniel Weintraub, Online Journalism Review New Hampshire Is This Veteran Political Blogger's Primary Concern
 Leonard Witt, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Weblogs change face of 'public journalism'

Posted by Tim Porter at January 22, 2004 09:57 AM

Excellent. No one could say it better.

Posted by: Jonathan Potts on January 22, 2004 11:10 AM

Ah Ha!

Dina Mehta has this wonderful image - mantra - way of thinking - we are clay, if we are brittle we dry up and crack into a million pieces - dust - but if we stay maleable and fluid we can always reshape or be reshaped

The Potter's wheel!!!

Posted by: Jozef on January 23, 2004 12:10 AM
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