Thursday, January 27, 2005

This debate is pure silliness

OK, silly season has opened again in the blogosphere, or as it's known around here, Chapter MCMLXXXVIIIIIIEIEIO of the seemingly never-ending debate of blogs v. mainstream media.

The latest skirmish opened with Jack Shafer at Slate, and what read to me like a rather well-intentioned volley that basically said OK, let's just hold up a minute. This new vision stuff has a somewhat familiar ring to it, of video guerrillas armed with beta cams putting the networks out of business, etc. Or, as he titled it, "The danger of hyping a good thing into the ground."

The danger of fetishizing a new technology (the Porta-Pak) or a new media wrinkle (the blog) is obvious: In the rush to define the new new thing and celebrate its wonders, the human tendency to oversell kicks in. ... News blogs, political blogs, sports blogs, community blogs, gardening blogs, tech blogs, shopping blogs, radio blogs, video blogs, and blog blogs all possess great potential. But we owe it to this prodigious new communications form not to demand too much too soon.
I think he's right. There's a lot of potential. We've shown that at Newsplex. But we've also scoped out some problems, specifically with picture-based mobile weblogs that I've detailed on this blog (here and here).

Among his other points was that mainstream media, dino-like as they can be, have proved amazingly adept over the centuries at eventually waking up and either figuring out a way to live with the upstarts or to co-opt them. Shafer was recounting his impressions from the "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility" conference at Harvard (might I suggest the mere fact we now have big-C conferences on this stuff helps make Shafer's point).

In doing so, he quoted Jay Rosen on a couple of points, and Rosen fired back, opening with the shot that Shafer is "intellectually dishonest. That's a few doors up from lying, but the same general neighborhood." Ed Cone was more restrained, "Boring, Jack. And worse, inaccurate."

Enough already.

Maybe there will be violent disagreement with this observation, but I actually see more common ground. Rosen is right to take Shafer to task for some mischaracterization. Rosen's body of work clearly shows an understanding that it will not be one v. the other, but coexistence, and we're still trying to figure out who, if anyone, will lead in this dance. But I think the other side needs to lighten up, too. I don't read Shafer as saying those who say blogging will radically change things are a bunch of loons. What I do hear him saying, and I think rightly so, is that if you spend too much time reading your press clippings, while you're not looking, the folks who wrote those clippings will move on and find a way to co-opt your vision. It's happened so many times before. (We all tend to forget, for instance, the visionaries who said radio was going to be a cultural enlightener of the masses. Yeah, right.)

A lot has been made of the comment by Jill Abramson of the New York Times, who asked if those at the conference knew how much it cost to operate a bureau in Baghdad. I don't think that was a straw man question as some have suggested. I think it's a valid thinking out loud, because those in MSM who care about journalism frankly are not sure that under the new paradigm, whatever that is, we'll have those kind of journalistic assets. And no, I don't think the Baghdad bloggers are a full substitute, any more than a complement of American bloggers can fully convey the nuances of what's happening here to people in other countries who bring a different cultural frame to things. It is useful to have one's own on the scene.

Bloggers and MSM are complementary and symbiotic and, it is to be hoped, not locked in a death grip.

So let' s move on, because I'm actually more concerned about my students, too many of whom really do not have a good grasp of what is happening around them in this business. Sure, they blog or text message, and they surf for news. But they do so, it seems from talking with many of them, without a true understanding of the meaning of it all or even the rudimentary beginnings of a vision. Yes, part of helping them form that vision is our job. But when they are so focused on the here and now (i.e., the 6 p.m. news and the morning paper) as their future, it is too rare that we can adequately break through in the limited time we have with them.

I have an independent study student who is beginning to get it after a couple weeks of a lot of reading and some close contact and discussion -- something that we don't have the luxury of with every student.

"I wish they'd teach us more of this stuff in class," she said as we left Newsplex. "We try to," I said, thinking to myself "but every time we do, the more common response is, 'What does this button do?' "

If we can't get through to more of our students and spark in them a new vision of what journalism can and should be, that may be a greater threat to our future than anything else.

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