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Interview with the Bwoggers

Posted by chanders on October 17, 2006

Anyone with a cable TV channel or who cares about the goings-on at America’s universities has probably heard something about the Minuteman protest that erupted at Columbia University on October 4th.  The protest and ruckus that followed, which led to the cancellation of the planned address by Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, quickly becamse a referundum on campus free speech and racism in the anti-illegal immigrant movement.

Not surprisingly, the best coverage of the entire affair has come, not from Columbia’s official student newspaper The Spectator (The Spec), but from an unofficial campus blog, called The Bwog.

Intriged by this act of citizens’ journalism on my very own campus, I took it upon myself to interview a Bwog reporter Lydia DePillis and the website’s editor-in-chief Avi Zenilman. I was interested in getting a taste of what real life campus bloggers in the middle of a huge story thought about themselves and what they were doing. On a textual level was intrigued by how the seriousness of the Minuteman story was co-existing (sometime uncomfortably) with Bwog’s oft-irrverent aditutde. I was also curious to see how the Bwog staff saw their relationship with the Spec, and what they thought CU students thought about journalism in general. Sometimes, its easy to get caught up in a bunch of journalism theory and loose sight of what’s actually happening on the ground.

The interview (conducted via email) follows.  Folks interested in learning more about blogging and networked journalism on college campuses should check out Innovation in College Media, a website run by my colleague Bryan Murley and a few others. Its by far the best source of discussion about college journalism on the web.

Chris Anderson: What is The Bwog? What is its relationship with the print publication
"The Blue and the White?"

Lydia DePillis: The Bwog launched in February of 2006 as a source for campus news and
gossip with a light, funny, sometimes irreverent tone. It’s partly
reader driven, in that anyone can send in tips and ideas for posts, and
partly staff driven, in that we work hard to commission more considered
features with a high level of writing. It’s run by the staff of The
Blue and White, but the Bwog recieves no funding from the
University–which means we have complete editorial freedom, unlike the
magazine.

Avi Zenilman: The Bwog is the online manifestation of The Blue and White,
Columbia’s monthly magazine. It was launched in February 2006; we took
some features from the magazine (gossip, digitalia, lecture hopping,
arts reviews) and put them in blog form. It was meant to be smart,
breezy, cheeky–and, in a campus where there is only one publication
that comes out more than once a month, an alternative source of
information and procrastination. We used "Columbia Gawker" to describe
the project before finding a name. The Bwog’s content comes from
mish-mash of Blue and White writers (some who hate blogs), staffers who
are either detailed specifically to bwog, daily bwog editors, and,
naturally, our readers. Unlike The Blue and White print edition, it
does not receive any funding for Columbia–which makes our lives
easier. The relationship between print and online is still unclear–The
Bwog comes out more frequently, has a wider readership and the writers
work harder for it on a day to day basis, but I think there’s something
about the closedness and definitiveness of a closely edited magazine
that makes it more central to The Blue and White. Also, right now, I
think the magazine does a better job of reporting on the intellectual
content of academic life, but I’m sure Bwog will catch up soon.

CWA: How did The Bwog prepare to cover the speech of Minuteman founder Jim
Gilchrist to the Columbia community? Have you covered controversial
campus speakers before? How was this similar / different?

LdP: We prepared to cover Jim Gilchrist’s appearance just like any other
event, not knowing how it would blow up. As it became apparent that the
protest outside was not your average Columbia snit fit, Bwog daily
editor Sara Vogel and I teamed up to take pictures, and I took my
laptop inside the Auditorium when the event started to post as it
progressed. We haven’t really covered things live before, and I’m not
sure why we decided to do it this time. It was an exciting atmosphere,
with lots of media, and we wanted to be first to break what went on
inside.

We’ve had our share of controversy, but mostly over things
like found objects with swastikas scrawled on them (see our April
archives for details on that).

Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

Oh, and finally, what I see as two examples of a norg in action: the NYC Indymedia blogwire (here) and the Bay Area is Talking (there). Check em out.

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Thoughts on Gannon Gate, and the Changing Blogosphere

Posted by chanders on February 14, 2005

Starting to think hard about what I’m going to say at the 2005 Indyconference. Here’s a start: a feature I wrote for U.S. Indymedia on the aftermath of Gannongate:

Why shouldn’t James Guckert (aka ‘Jeff Gannon’) have been allowed in the White House briefing room?

Multiple questions surround the rapidly blossoming White House scandal: did Guckert blow the CIA cover of Valerie Plame? Or not? What’s Guckert’s connection to the raft of homosexually-themed military escort websites registered under his name? What is ‘Talon News’? How does the Guckert case relate to other recent Bush-admnistration propaganda scandals? What’s his connection to Karl Rove and the rightwing PR
machine
? The real question, though, is far harder to answer: what does it say about the state of American journalism when a fraudulent, partisan journalist is unmaked by insurgent, partisan bloggers?  On what grounds can those of us in the radical media criticize J.D. Guckert?

That sounds a little harsher than its meant to. After all, the bloggers at Daily Kos and Atrios, along with Media Matters who uncovered this farce really are heroes. And there are a few big differences between Guckert and the members of the left-wing blogosphere; for one thing, they don’t use fake names to get access to White House press conferences, and for another they haven’t been under invesitgation for their connection to the Plame affair.

But the issue goes deeper than this. After all, we in the alternative media have been gleefully tearing down the walls that separate journalists from ordinary people for years now. It seems the Bush administration is cynically taking our advice, and doesn’t seem to care who is a "journalist" these days as long as this or that person adhere’s to the Bush regime’s far-right agenda. As White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Friday, "in this day and age, when you have a changing media, it’s not an easy issue to decide or try to pick and choose who is a journalist."  Of course, as long as they spin your lies and shill for your domestic programs its easy to look the other way.

I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I can point to a possible place to begin the discussion. In 1997, from the jungles of the Chiapas region of Mexico, Subcomandante Marcos observed: "the world of contemporary news is a world that exists for the VIPs — the very important people. Their everyday lives are what is important: if they get married, if they divorce, if they eat, what clothes they wear and what clothes they take off — these major movie stars and big politicians. But common people only appear for a moment — when they kill someone, or when they die."

James Guckert is a VIP; so is Armstrong Williams, Scott McClellan, and George W. Bush. Even David Brock is a VIP. Almost eight years after Marcos delivered his indictment of the global media system, how close have members of the new community of "participatory journalists" come to rectifying the imbalance he observed? While this discussion might seem a long way away from staged White House briefings and gay-themed web sites, having it seems to be more important than ever.

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