October 13, 2005

The News and Observer Communicator

A discussion underway between Melanie Sill, editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, and Jay Rosen, of Pressthink, provides a powerful illustration of the changing dynamic between news provider, news source and news audience - and of the tremendous benefit this new dynamic can engender for each.

Sill took a swipe at Rosen in her blog (launched in July) after his appearance at a media-web-blogging conference in Greensboro, N.C. in which Rosen, in his usual style, lobbed a few live grenades at the barricades of traditional journalism, including this one (as reported by Ed Cone):

" it was asked if blogs were up to the standards set by the pros, and (Rosen) responded that the pros need to ask as well if they are up to some of the standards set by bloggers (including corrections and transparency)." (Note: I couldn't permalink to this post.)

News and Observer public editor Ted Vaden also reported on Rosen's comments in his own blog. Vaden wrote (my emphasis):

"Jay Rosen says the public distrusts the "filter" role of the press -- where we condense, summarize and edit information before serving it up to you. Readers' direct access to the Internet - to the sources of information that we use, and to alternative reporting voices -- means they don't have to accept the version of truth in newspaper stories."

Vaden then quotes Rosen (my emphasis):

"Increasingly, I think journalists are going to have to tell us, okay if you filter stories to get us the truth, how did you do that? Journalists aren't used to that. They're used to being the filter from God, but people don't accept that anymore."

And adds (my emphasis):

"Rosen claims higher ethical standards for himself and "the best bloggers," compared to newspapers and the mainstream media. He doesn't, for instance, use anonymous sources, he links to his sources of information, he's quicker to make corrections and he gives readers instant access through the comment function."

Still with me? OK. Based on Vaden's post, Sill wrote in her blog (my emphasis):

"Heavens. Perhaps Rosen has spent too much time peering at journalism through the lens of his computer screen. I find criticism of the so-called mainstream media often obsesses over the national press and Washington-based journalism. While of interest I guess to many people, such debates generally overlook journalism's real-life challenges -- the choices and obstacles faced every day in newsrooms like ours and at many, many smaller news organizations where people are more focused on gathering information than on filtering it."

Intentionally or not, Sill's comments started a conversation involving her, Rosen and a dozen-plus of her readers.

In the comments of Sill's post, Rosen responded at one point: "You got it wrong, Melanie." He went on to explain his comment "filter from god" metaphor (my emphasis):

"Let me explain a little more about what a means. First, being an intelligent filter is part of journalism's job. You, Melanie, are acting as a filter when you sit in a afternoon newsroom meeting and decide what makes up the front page. To employ the image of a filter is another way of talking about judgment as an inesapable part of journalism."

Sill characterized her remarks as trying to explain how the exigencies of doing daily journalism rarely leave room for deeper reflection on the nature of the press (my emphasis):

"I think that many journalists have never thought of themselves as being filters from God or anything remotely like that. This is where I see a disconnect between arguably intelligent dialogue in some quarters and the daily work of people gathering news.

"I often find that such debate misses key points. I do think it's important to stress what it takes to do journalism well, and that was the point of my post."

Interspersed were nearly two dozen trackback links and comments, including some from other media bloggers, including this from reporter Daniel Conover (my emphasis):

"With all due respect, Melanie, I read your post and see myself circa February -- defending our profession against gratuitous criticism by "experts" and academics with no skin in the game. And you're right to have that reaction -- it says you respect the work of your reporters and editors, that you care about the value of that work to society. Good on you. Now please take the next step.

" The 'god filter' is simply 'news judgment' as we had to practice it in an earlier technological age. It doesn't make sense today, because the technology has changed and it's changing the context in which journalism occurs. It's up to those of us in the MSM to stop being defensive and change with the world around us."

and this from a reader of the News & Observer, Bob Owens, who blogs at Confederate Yankee (my emphasis):

"Filtering occurs on many levels as well, from choosing which topics are "of interest" to the reader, to determining what the story angle should be on the given topic, to hiring a certain kind of writer who might write just a little more to your liking than someone of otherwise equal merit.

"After years of filtering from the media and the rise of alternative media sources, people are starting to determine that they will filter the mainstream media out of their personal lives. If you really want evidence of filtering in the media, simply look at the declining bottom line of print journalism."

This is an extraordinary conversation between the editor of a well-respected newspaper, someone quoted by her paper and members of the newspaper's readership. It could not have taken place three years ago. Three things happened to make it possible.

First, the technology changed. Blogging software enabled the conversation to change from a stream - me talking to you - to a loop - me to you to your friend to me.

Second, the public took to blogs - creating them and reading them - like a parched horse to water. Suddenly, media control was theirs. Traditional news media, already weakened by broader social, economic and technical forces, became further devalued as people remixed news, information and opinion to fit their own tastes.

Third, some news organizations - driven to innovation either a desire or the force of hard numbers -- joined the conversation.

I consider the last point to be the most significant from the perspective of journalism because it signals a crack in the culture, a tremble of movement from the closed traditional newsroom, one dominated by defensiveness and rigid attitudes about what is and what is not journalism, to an open newsroom that embraces public engagement, that does not stand above the fray but plunges into it, that is willing to express and debate its values and, more importantly, listen to those of others.

Is the sea changing? Not yet, but there is a noticeable shift in the tide. Innovators at smaller newspapers like John Robinson and Ken Sands, are being joined by news companies like McClatchy, owner of the News & Observer, which seems to have told its editors: Go online and talk to someone. Some examples:

 The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which has made a big commitment to readership driven change [Read: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.], is using a blog to guide readers through an ambitious redesign.

 The two top editors of the Modesto Bee, Mark Vasche and Dan Day, are blogging (albeit somewhat tentatively).

 The News & Observer has more than 10 blogs up and running, including Tar Heel Blogwatch, which tracks other bloggers in the region.

As I've said before, a blog is only a tool, one than can be used for anything from political spin to journalism. [Read: Journalism by Every Means Necessary.] A blog's importance for newspapers lies in its ability to enable conversation, to connect the journalists and their readers - the people who were formerly the audience, as Jay Rosen calls them.

In that sense, a blog is a cultural change mechanism. Its interactive nature, its open conversational loop into which anyone can jump, demands participation - as Sill found out - and this is a positive step forward for a news industry accustomed to one-way communication.

I've met Melanie Sill through my work with Tomorrow's Workforce and I can tell you she is a smart, strong-willed, passionate journalist (Pulitzer winner in 1996). In a every good sense of the word, she is as traditional as journalists come. This deep devotion to the practice of good journalism is evident in her defense of how difficult it can be to achieve it. As she wrote in her post about Rosen (my emphasis):

"He ought to be out with a reporter trying to get a reluctant local sheriff to share a report that is public information but that the sheriff controls. Rosen ought to be out driving toward a disaster zone, instead of away from one, trying to find out what happened and why. He ought to be at the tail end of a 12-hour day with an assistant city editor at any newspaper, editing stories on deadline and trying to make them clear and cogent."

All true. Good journalism doesn't happen easily - and we need to keep doing and getting better at all the things Sill cites. But there is more than craft to being a news organization these days, something Sill also knows or she wouldn't be blogging. This is the stuff Rosen has been writing about since Day 1 (and me since the Quality Manifesto.)

Earlier, I wrote: "The audience is talking back. Media that listen to, encourage and participate in that conversation will maintain relevance. Those that don't, will wither." [Read: The Audience is Talking Back.]

I like what I see in Raleigh. Sill and Rosen may not yet agree, but having editor like Sill engage in a public debate about how journalism is done is a good thing. If this keeps up, The News & Observer may have to consider to changing the second part of its name.

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Posted by Tim Porter at October 13, 2005 10:42 AM

Great observations, Tim. I'm in complete agreement. With a few exceptions, my industry, local television news, is far behind their print counterparts in figuring all this stuff out. The industry has so embraced superficiality over the last few decades that the rush to make deadline is almost always dominated by technical challenges (try producing a live broadcast with multiple live remote feeds), style or presentation and rarely content or journalism. The "filtering" in a local TV newsroom, therefore, has factors beyond the story and takes place much earlier in the editorial process than (I suspect) in a print shop.

As you know, I encourage my clients to get deeply involved in the local citizens media scene, and I'm always gratified when others do likewise.

Keep up the great work.

Posted by: Terry Heaton on October 14, 2005 08:25 AM

I'm a blogger in The N&O's circulation area. You can get an idea of the kinds of experiences many readers, including other bloggers and myself, have had with Melanie Sill by reading this post.


I think the events the post describes, the information it conveys, and the questions asked in it all bear on the "filter" Professor Rosen is talking about.

But I'm not a professional journalist. I'd be very interested in hearing what professionals have to say.

Mr. Porter, Will you keep this thread open for some days? Can you do something to encourage comments?

Like people elsewhere, many of us here in North Carolina want to learn more about how we receive information. And among those many are people who feel compelled to influence the process of information selection, summary, and delivery. For such people, Kinko's , Lucy Ramirez and the like are just not acceptable.

Posted by: John on October 15, 2005 08:43 AM
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