J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Archive for August, 2006

What is “Networked” Journalism?

Posted by chanders on August 30, 2006

With the debut of New Assignment.net, the question naturally arises: what is "networked journalism," anyway?? Its one thing to speculate about it in the abstract, as I did the other day and as Jeff Jarvis and others have done in the past. But abstract speculation is just the beginning: real-life experiments seem to me to be the place where these terms will get defined.

In his introduction to New Assignment, Rosen asks for reader ideas about what would make a good debut story. This is the general description of what he’s looking for:

*  is under-covered, poorly covered or not covered at all by the major news media;
* lends itself to “distributed reporting,” where a bunch of people—dispersed but connected by the Net—could contribute knowledge in a manner that would be hard for a reporter or even two or three to duplicate;
* is a story of national, international or regional importance— newsworthy, in other words;
* is doable in about six weeks time

A few bloggers have responded publicly with their own ideas. One of the most referenced examples of networked journalism was this week’s successful campaign by TPM Muckraker to uncover the anonymous Senator who blocked a bipartisan bill that would have established a a public, searchable database of all federal grants and contracts.  You can see the network in action below the main article, as one by one, individual Senators are eliminated, until the culprit, Ted Stevens, was uncovered. In this case, the network accomplished in matter of days– contacted every Senator or their spokesperson– something that would have taken a regular reporter weeks, probably.

So thats one example of how networked journalism could work in practice. Andrew Cline over at Rhetorica.com has another idea for a networked journalism project:

Journalists should tell a different story about politics: the story of citizens’ experience with policy and governance more than the story of politicians’ political wrangling. I think this concept fits the four bullet points–especially the second. Distributed reporting would enable the network to uncover the most illustrative and contextually accurate citizen experiences of the stuff that really matters in politics.

To me, this is a vastly different proposal than the type of networked, I’m-a-cog-in-a-larger-investigation (this sounds more critical than I mean  it too) ones that have floated around about earmarks, etc. There is a degree to which it sounds like Cline’s proposal brings  a little more of the "citizen" in citizen journalism back to the idea of networked journalism. Still, I have no idea how it would work. It seems to not fit very well with Rosen’s bullet point number 2. But there’s a "soul" there that I think is worth exploring further.

Anyone have an ideas?

Posted in Personal Musings | 1 Comment »

Josh Wolf Case Adds New Twist to “Blogger as Journalist” Debate

Posted by chanders on August 21, 2006

I’d been passively following the Josh Wolf case over in San Francisco, largely through the excellent coverage provided by Indybay (did you know, as an aside, that Indybay was ranked #328 on technorati?? Thats pretty amazing for an IMC site. Indymedia.org is only ranked #750, and NYC IMC, the site I spend most of my time on, is ranked #8016). Wolf, for those who don’t know, is an independent videographer who shot some pretty gripping footage of an anti-G8 protest in San Francisco in 2005. The Federal Government, a la Judith Miller, a la, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, is trying, through the grand jury process, to get Wolf to turn over unedited footage of alleged crimes that were committed during the protest.

I didn’t realize, though, until Dan Gilmor pointed it out, that there’s a potentially new twist to the Wolf case: that the Feds are basically trying to do an  end-run around the California shield law, under which Wolf would be protected as a journalist, by claiming that the case is a federal one because federal funding was used to pay for the police car damaged in the protest. As Gilmor notes, this would create a huge hole in most state shield laws. California has one of the better state shield laws in the country, and is something of a model for citizen journalists looking for legal protection.

This isn’t the only interesting legal development in blog-land that Gilmor has noted recently. The Berkman Center and the Center for Citizen Media are funding a new initiative to "provide information, education, resources and tools to help address the challenges faced by citizen journalists."

And in another interesting  legal development for indy-media types, American Apparel has just sent a really nasty letter to Clamor Magazine, accusing them of "inaccuracies and accusing Clamor of shoddy and amateur journalism." An AA spokeswoman demanded, “if the article is not immediately removed online, along with a retraction and an [sic] public apology posted online and published appropriately, we will be forced to seek legal action in light of such gross, blatant, negligent and irresponsible journalism.” While the Clamor Magazine situation is somewhat different than these other cases, it does illustrate the hyper-litigious atmosphere currently dominating the journalism world. 

How these legal issues work themselves out is the other side to the knowledge and expertise issues I’ve been harping on recently. Professional power primarily stems  from two sources: the claim of jurisdiction over abstract knowledge and the autonomy to realize that knowledge in work. While expertise is developed via grad schools and networks, autonomy is hashed out in the political and legal arena. Once again we see an example of the fact that, while bloggers versus journalists may be over, there are powerful institutions that haven’t gotten the memo.

Here’s some interesting background information on an earlier legal case I was involved with in NYC in 2004 and 2005.

Now playing: "Party Hard," by Pulp.

Posted in Projects: Random Musings | Leave a Comment »

Adventures at Columbia: Ivy-Walled Tower or Towards a Networked Expertise?

Posted by chanders on August 15, 2006

So, its been an exciting couple of weeks at my current academic home, the Columbia University School of Journalism. Just to explain (and its kind of confusing, I admit), I’m not actually a journalism student at Columbia; rather, I’m a Doctoral student, whose PhD program, in Communications happen to be administratively housed in the J-School, even if it actually is an interdisciplinary Graduate School of Arts and Sciences degree. Its actually a fairly unusual set-up, almost entirely attributable to the administrative genius of the late James Carey. Most J-Schools are housed within sprawling Communications departments, rather than the reverse, or, alternately, they maintain an entirely separate (and often rather hostile) relationship. For my part, I’m a communications student studying journalism from a sociological framework within a J-school.

Understand all that?? (And whether you do or not, that begs a second question: how the $%&! will I ever get a job??). In any event, its been an exciting few weeks where Columbia’s J-School is concerned. First, our Dean Nick Lemann wrote his now infamous article on citizens journalism for the New Yorker. Then, just as the resulting blog kerfuffle was starting to die down, news came out that the two heads of CJR Daily were quitting because of funding cuts and the desire to grow the footprint of the print-only Columbia Journalism Review.

To some people, the two events together spoke volumes:  Columbia had placed itself in a firmly retrograde position when it came to the future of Journalism, they said; or, in Jeff Jarvis’ words, "Columbia’s J-school seems to be establishing itself as the classicist, the sanctuary whose ivied castle walls guard journalism as journalism has been done."

Let me stop for a second and say that this is, personally, a fairly difficult topic to blog about. First, there’s the inherent conflict of interest here, with me as a student at the school, and the (perhaps foolish) fears of burning bridges, making sweeping statements that will come back to haunt me, etc. Second, as a student (though not a student like many of the MA / MS students), there’s some sense of being in the middle of it all, with trouble seeing the forest through the trees, as it were. But that said, I am writing about this for a living (in fact, an analysis of JSchools will probably be the second chapter of my dissertation), and second, I do have a fairly unique vantage point from which to speak from, even if there is also the conflict of interest at work as well. So here goes.

I don’t think that cutting CJR Daily’s budget, or even the New Yorker article, are the best clue of the where Columbia’s J-School is going (although the New Yorker piece is an interesting window into where Lemann’s own head is at, and even though Columbia does have an industry-wide reputation for professional conservatism).  Rather, the two-year old MA program is where all the chips are at. My guess, based on the documentation I’ve seen, is that Columbia is trying to create a new kind of "journalistic expertise" at the Jschool, one thats different than the old form of journalistic expertise– how to write a lede, how to interview, etc. Rather, the MA program is attempting to position the journalist as a subject matter expert, who can then take their expertise and "translate reality" through it, using the skills of the journalist to write it all up in such a way that it’s still comprehensible by the average person. From the MA website:

In an increasingly complex world, journalists who can master subjects and communicate effectively to the general public are an invaluable resource to the public and crucial to the best functioning of a democratic society . We strongly believe that as journalists develop real expertise in the subjects they cover, the profession will be strengthened.

Note, also, how many times the word expert or expertise appears in the one page summary: 3. The word expertise is also all over President Lee Bollinger’s address to the Jschool in 2002 (6 times) and the 7 page report from the task force assigned to envision the Jschool’s mission (a whopping 15 times. (Just as a side note, a lot of the documents I found on the start of the new MA program are now gone from the J-School website. Perhaps their cache expired; but in any case, I have ’em saved as pdfs.)

So, is all this focus on a "new expertise" inherently conservative? Not necessarily, although, at first blush, it certainly is an attempt by a threatened profession to maintain its knowledge-boundary, which has conservative connotations. But as NewAssignment.net and other "networked" journalism projects have shown us, its possible to combine the expertise of the individual and the expertise of the group, at least in theory. The real question, in my mind, is how Columbia’s new MA students are being taught to regard "the expertise of the network." Are they being taught that they, the "real experts" are a special caste, or, rather, are they learning that there exists such a thing as networked knowledge? These are empirical questions, and I hope to investigate some of them in the years ahead.

Here are some interesting old websites on the start of the Columbia MA program

Rosen, Taking Bollinger’s Course on the American Press

Rhetorica, On Bollinger’s Statement

Zoned for Debate, What’s the Right Way to Train Journalists…Today?

And here are some things I’ve written on journalists and knowledge:

Do Journalists Possess "Expert" Knowledge?

Embedded Knowledge in the Blogosphere

Now playing: "Even Better Than the Real Thing," U2.

AFTERWORD: In which I predict the future … Lemann responds to Jarvis, just moments ago: "I think Jarvis and I also disagree about whether our school should
teach students the substance of complicated subjects that they will
write about as journalists – I strongly believe we should, because that
is one of the most fundamental ways in which journalism can help inform
citizens and thus strengthen democracy." Read the whole thing

Posted in Personal Musings | 1 Comment »

“Actually Existing” Citizen Journalism Projects and Typologies: Part II

Posted by chanders on August 1, 2006

(Read Part One)

Yesterday, as I was completing Part I of my post on "actually existing" citizen journalism projects, Nicholas Lemann, my Dean at Columbia and very well-regarded a New Yorker columnist, wrote an article that was fairly critical of citizen’s journalism. Much of what he wrote can be tied in to this here Part II (can I just start by saying, however, that it would be awesome if the New Yorker had a way to let readers comment on Nick’s article itself, rather than depending on bloggers to carry on the conversation for them? That would be an enlightening conversation…)

Anyway, I concluded yesterday’s post by noting that there were really at least three streams of media activity going on in the confused world of blogging: ‘zine like personal expression, punditry, and "reporting." I’ll now pick the thread up here and talk about some of the ways that the reporting thread got carried forward until today.

IV. Hyperlocal Citizens Journalism

Let me start by saying that it wasn’t very long before the deep thinkers in the blogging world, fueled on by questions like, "is blogging journalism?" began to realize the dearth of original reporting in the blog world. It wasn’t entirely non-existent, of course. But the basic criticism– that politically inclined blogs were too derivative of the "MSM," too focused on commentary and analysis, to ever replace the professionals– hit home. 2004 and 2005 saw the emergence of something its supporters and practitioners were calling "hyperlocal citizens journalism," defined by Wikipedia as "online news sites [that] invite contributions from local residents of their subscription areas, who often report on topics that conventional newspapers tend to ignore." Some well-known examples of hyperlocal CJ include the Northwest Voice, h2oTown, and the Muncie Free Press (ahhhh, flashbacks to my IU days). By and large (though certainly NOT entirely), reports from hyperlocal news sites tended to focus on things like bake sales and the building of new high school gyms.

The invention of Hyperlocal journalism (and I do believe we can speak if it in these terms, even if the invention wasn’t planned or deliberate) allowed advocates of citizens journalism to solve three problems at once. First, and most importantly, they dramatically lowered that barriers to access that reporters needed to hop over. Rather than needing a special press pass to be one of the 6 or so journalists lucky enough to get invited along on Air Force One, hyperlocal journalists merely needed to show up at their local town council meetings with laptop in hand, or even simply write about their daily lives. Secondly (and this is related), hyperlocal CJ was served up as an example of how the internet really does facilitate the practice of that thing we call reporting, even if the most popular bloggers are largely pundits. Finally, it could be argued that serious local reporting is largely neglected by large metropolitan dailies, and that there was a public benefit to focusing the attention of the internet on this ignored area.

Hyperlocal journalism also solved a business problem, one that it didn’t necessarily set out to solve. What that problem was, and how the solution to it has been embraced by larger media outlets, is discussed in the next section.

V. Big Media Citizens Journalism

Now things start to get complicated, because when you see CNN starting up its own citizen’s journalism web site called CNN Exchange )where they write ""CNN Exchange invites YOU to connect with the news: Share your stories, your pictures, your videos wherever you see the I-Report logo") you know things have gone beyond the old battlefield of blogger versus journalist. In other words, CNN– and most other major media outlets– have finally embraced the fact that we live in a Web 2.0 world, that you can make money of "user-generated" content (or at least attract those ever-harder-to-attract eyeballs), and, perhaps most importantly, you can tie user generated content into reductions of newsroom staff. Or, as Chris Krewson put it on the NORGS mailing list:

Our *publishers* — those of us still at the old-timey newspapers — […] are hot on "user-generated content." What scares a lot of us who’ve bet lives — and mortgages — on real, paying journalism is whether those kind of powerful folks may be wondering if and how that stuff can replace paying newsroom jobs.

So here’s one point of intersection across the old battle lines. The second point is a primarily stylistic one– newspapers and other major media outlets adopting the format and cheeky attitude of the weblog. Most big journalism outlets now have their own blogs. Much of this big media blogging, however, seems to consist of paid reporters blogging about fairly trivial things, like food, the Wagner festival in Germany, or the Oscars (all New York Times blogs). In a sense, this is the ghettoizing of the internet media form, safely confined to fairly trivial areas of news content where it really doesn’t matter all that much anyway.

VI. Networked Journalism

At this point, we get to where Jay Rosen, Josh Marshall, Chris Albritton, and others have left us: the notion of the new journalism as a collaborative event that unites the former audience and professionals. I’ve devoted a lot of space in this blog to the idea of networked journalism, and Jay Rosen has explained New Assignment.net better than I could, so I won’t spend much time reviewing the basics of what I mean by networked journalism. I just want to make a few points that will bring our narrative to a (momentary) conclusion.

For starters networked journalism can be seen as addressing the very real problems inherent in the "hyperlocal" concept, as well various problems relating to money. I think its important to remember that every "important" piece of journalistic work is not the second coming of Watergate, and that sometimes community journalism is just as meaningful as its flashier, investigative concepts. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that there is a good deal of triviality within hyperlocal reporting as a whole. All hyperlocal journalism need not be "serious," but the fact remains that there ARE meaningful things going on in local communities– rampant political corruption, for instance– that are being ignored by most citizen journalists.

This gets to the second problem, that of "how the heck you pay for all this good, but expensive journalism." And as Rosen points out, his networked notion is largely designed to answer this very question. I won’t belabor the point here.

Finally, we should keep in mind that networked journalism is a retreat from the more expansive, utopian claims of (some, not nearly all) of the citizen journalists. Not only are we no longer talking about replacing  professionals, but we are actively putting them at the center of the new journalistic model. Although its common now to repeat the refrain that "no one wants to replace professional journalists" I don’t know if this is true. Indymedia, as part of a much larger critique of hierarchy, takes a more radical line where this is concerned. So do the anti-MSM partisans of the right. Lets keep this in mind.

So, to conclude: we’ve looked at 6 forms of actually existing Ctiziens Journalism-

Personal homepages
Hyperlocal Journalism
Big Media Citizens Journalism
Networked Journalism

They’re not mutually exclusive. Many will exist side by side, and in some ways, thats the most interesting part of the whole thing.

Now Playing: "Napoleon Says," by Pheonix.

UPDATE: I realized that I never really addressed Nick Lemann’s basic question in this post: namely, has citizen journalism been successful? But the answer depends on both your definition of success in relationship to what it is your trying to achieve.

For starters, it seems fairly obvious that the internet has fundamentally altered (until net neutrality goes away, of course) the basic equation of content providers versus content consumers. Blogs and homepages, along with mashups, You Tube, etc, are here to stay. In other words, people can be creative now, in public, in ways that’ve never been possible before. I don’t think this is a meaningless development. It may not as be as overtly profound as some of our more "political" happenings, but its not trivial, either.

Second, when it comes to what people used tp call "punditry," the rules of the game have changed as well. To be blunt– there is nothing that Maureen Dowd, or Tom Friedman, or David Broder do that is unique anymore. On almost every topic imaginable, I can find a better post online than any of the highly paid and powerful columnists with the majpr papers. These folks are the real disappearing journalists.

So, we’re left with the future of reporting. This is a much more mixed picture, as Lemann forcefully points out. But I think the future is still "in development" on this one. I also thin that its amazing that the conversation has gotten as far as it has in such a short period of time. We’ve gone from "is blogging journalism?" to a much higher bar in a matter of years. Who knows whats coming down the road?

Posted in Personal Musings | 8 Comments »