Norgs Unconference: The Walls Come Down?
Posted by chanders on March 26, 2006
"All we have to do is create the future of local news in Philadelphia."
Spent an amazingly exciting and invigorating day at the Annenberg School of Communication discussing small subjects like, say, the future of news in America. You can read the back story on what gained the awkward title of the "norg unconference" here; let me just add that the pending sale of both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, combined with major staff cuts at the PDN, seems to have finally shaken the great newspaper beast out of its slumber. It was all out on the table yesterday in Philly. Too late? I hope not. We’ll have to see how it goes.
You can read some great roundups of the event here: from Jeff Jarvis (who liveblogged– amazing!), Dan Rubin with the Inky, the nub of the "whiteboard" from the event, a flickr photo set [from Albert Yee] (featuring a few photos of me talking, as usual, with my hands!), the West End, Philly Future, and the Smedley Log. Video is on its way, sooner or later, from Philly IMC (I have to get my hands on the raw feeds…), and I hear there is an mp3 lurking out there too. Next steps: a blog, a wiki, more thinking, and another meeting.
All of the above blogs give a better sense of what went down than I could. Let me just go in two directions, briefly. The first to simply say what I was saying over and over again yesterday– the meeting sounded like an Indymedia meeting from 2002 (older, more professional, and without the anti-capitalism, of course [more on that later] but the basic message was the same). Journalists are no longer the high priests. The internet, with all its possibilities and perils for citizen communication and construction of the news, is here to say, it its blowing apart everything journalists do. Being the media has arrived. As Jeff Jarvis wrote: "I say this is the day that the war ends. This isn’t journalism against bloggers anymore. It never was, really. This is journalists and bloggers together in favor of news." See also the prescient "Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over," written by Jay Rosen. Simply the diversity of people in the room, all working towards the same goal, was an intense head trip.
Second direction: as a person hanging around, trying to make sense of all this in an academic context, I also see my role as trying to fit what I’m seeing into broader theories and assumptions about the news, about the professions, about knowledge and expertise in general. Or, if they don’t fit, to say where the academics are wrong and why they might be, and how we can tweak their abstractions to make them better jibe with reality. Not sure if this will be useful to anyone else out there, but its useful for me. So here it goes. (This is also where I get a little critical, by the way…)
Most of my writing the last year or so has been from the frame work of Bourdieu and the professional project. (see here for an example.) Professionalization theory sees the professional universe, basically, as a struggle over jurisdiction, something like combat, different occupational groups slogging it out in order to gain legitimacy and in order to represent themselves as the true practitioners of knowledge. Bloggers versus journalists can be seen in this context. The bloggers fight the journalists as each group attempts to represent themselves as the one, true, distributor of knowledge.
The movements of the past year or two, and this is reinforced by what happened yesterday, give credence to an alternate view: expertise is as generous as experts are jealous; in other words, "on a sociological level, the current connection between journalists and bloggers might be seen as a contradictory and uneasy partnership in addition or alongside to a more competitive relationship." Or perhaps, based on the events of yesterday, not even contradictory and uneasy– engaged and excited, maybe.
But maybe not (here’s that critical part I mentioned earlier). Perhaps what we saw in Philly were the "accommodationist" wings of the "citizen journalist" and "professional journalist" movements, ignoring, for the time being, the more entrenched and hard-core members. Which is more important: the things that bring these groups together or the things that drive them apart? For instance, someone wrote, in response to Jeff Jarvis’ claim that bloggers don’t hate journalists: "personally, I hate them and I am hardly alone. Those that don’t hate newspaper people are ill informed." There are also the suits in the boardrooms who have the ultimate decision making power about much of this. What do they think?
There’s also the more Bourdieuean insight about "the real being the relational" and ideas of distinction. There’s the notion that groups and individuals have an almost elemental need to distinguish themselves from other groups and competitiors. To what degree can the blogger identity and the journalist identity really overcome the need for distinction? They might not need to, but they might. This also ties into issues of professional power. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the whole day was when I asked my breakout group "who does the reporting in a norg"? The actual on the ground stuff. The response was pretty quick and pretty unanimous: paid journalists will still do it. Will Bunch thought that you could get insight and new ideas from citizens, but the bulk of the work would still be done by paid professionals. Susie, according to my notes, argued that we (these are my notes, btw, not a direct quote from her) "need to have “minimal certification” for bloggers. Ex: complete a six-week course in libel policy. Stable of “so-called” quality stringers. Bring the trade notion of journalism back into the practice of journalism." This is still a line between the professional and the citizen, and its quite a different line than the Indymedia line, for instance. Or the Phillyblog line, or the wikinews line. So when does accommodation end and professional identity begin– even now?
Anyway, these are all empirical questions that I probably care a lot more about than some people. I definitely see a major part of my dissertation field-work occurring in Philly, at this point. Its an exciting place right now, and I think it will be for a long time.