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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reliving history of the press

The late Dr. Norman Dohn was a likeable guy as journalism professors go — affable, accepting and knowledgeable. His class, "The Press in America," was a look at journalism's history, not a dull subject by a longshot. But in the mid-1980s, the idea of the Penny Press and the battles between Pulitzer, Hearst and Ochs seemed almost quaint. The Pentagon Papers were published. Watergate was a decade behind us and the halls of J-schools were filled with folks looking to leave their mark in a very traditional industry. Cable news was still a few years away and the Internet a good decade away.

I struggled to remain engaged in the subject. Perhaps it held less of my attention because it was taught at 8 a.m. in the cushy auditorium seats of Scripps Hall. If I had kept my notebooks, you could have seen my handwriting drifting off the page as I nodded off from time to time. But I think the real reason was that so many of the issues of that time seemed the antithesis of the industry I was preparing to enter. How naive and short-sighted was I...

Slate press critic Jack Shafer has reviewed a new book about the journalism wars of 1897. "The Year that Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms" by W. Joseph Campbell sounds as if it's a compelling read despite a horrendously academic-sounding subtitle.

Campbell writes of the battles between Aldolph Ochs' "just the facts, ma'am" journalism, William Randolph Hearst's "yellow journalism" and Lincoln Steffens' "literary journalism."

What brings this seemingly ancient battle to life are the parallels to today's journalistic climate, something I never saw coming back in 1986.

Shafer writes: Back in 1897, critics decried the "decay" of American journalism—sound familiar? Politicians sought ways to undermine the pugnacious press. Reacting to the provocations of Hearst's Journal, the New York Senate passed a bill prohibiting publication of caricatures without first obtaining the permission of the target. The measure died, as did a law introduced to the U.S. Congress requiring newspapers to reveal the names of the writers of editorials. Advancing technology was changing the look and feel of newspapers: In 1897, the New York Tribune published the first halftone photograph in a mass-circulation newspaper; color presses were being deployed; newer models of typewriters—some as portable as today's laptops—were coming into vogue in newsrooms.

This brought to mind conversations had at last week's SPJ National Convention and Journalism Conference in which a great deal was said about what is journalism, who is a journalist, how is journalism changing and how does mainstream media respond. I'm not sure there were any answers, but at least we finally may be asking the right questions.

Bob Cox, president and founder of Media Bloggers Association, of which I'm a member, was kind enough to spend a lot of extra time with journalists discussing the issues related to blogging. He was fresh from a workshop at Poynter, where many of the same questions of ethics and standards had been raised.

This column chronicles some of what he saw as the only non-journalist in the bunch at Poynter. But he admitted in Chicago that he's concerned journalists were fixated on issues about journalism and not about journalism online.

Yet, it was often a struggle to move the discussion beyond generic ethical issues such as accuracy and fairness and focus on those unique to online news — linking to third-parties, anonymous and pseudonymous blogs and comments and in-house blogs where “objective” journalists are often encouraged to express opinion.

During the panel he moderated, poorly titled "The Good and Bad about Blogging," a number of issues were raised that seemed to me at least to show some of the breakdown between mainstream media and new media. Panelists were Casey Bukro of the Chicago Tribune and Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, Janice Castro, a member of Online News Association and Steve Rhodes of Beachwood Reporter. The program was recorded for podcast and I'll link to that as soon as it's available. Here's what I scribbled on the the scraps of paper in my program:

• Online is not Mars, it's just another way to reach readers where they are. Either get on the train or get run over.
• MSM often portrays the Internet as an ethical wasteland when in fact most of the major media ethical lapses have occurred in traditional media with far greater consequences than if Joe or Jane Blogger posting to 10 people in Iowa makes them.
• Standards should be across the board and not necessarily altered for delivery method.
• Some are concerned that their own in-house blogs are competing with user-driven content. The harsh reality of that is that perhaps the user-driven content is just plain-old more interesting than the house blog.
• News organizations have to figure out to use free content to their benefit.
• MSM complain about blogs but so few traditional journalists have read them. MSM has displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity in this regard.
• Journalists should be meeting with bloggers, cultivating them as sources and at the very least reading them. Blogs should be part of the regular reporting routine.
• Journalists in particular and the news industry in general should have seen blogs coming -- they should have invented blogs. (Steve Rhodes, formerly of MSM)
• Journalists in general (with few exceptions) continue to make sweeping generalizations about blogs and bloggers by bringing them all down to the least common denominator.

The mystery about editing blogs is baffling to me because we're still talking about writing. Posting to a blog is a form of delivery of that writing, like printing. News organizations are going to continue to edit their house blogs as they have always edited, with perhaps a keener eye toward what moves on the Web.

As example, Kevin Sites of Yahoo's Hot Zone writes on the fly as he travels as a solo journalist around the world. Part of the compelling nature of his blog is that you know it's being written on the run. There's an immediacy and urgency to his writing that is reflected in that site.

On the flip side, the PD has admittedly had problems figuring out the Web. When President George W. Bush was in town speaking last spring, it had sent a reporter to blog from the event. I kept checking Open for updates during the afternoon, looking for the Bush guffaw or the crackpot question. But there was nothing. The rather bland story that ran in the next day's paper was the same thing reported online.

Turns out, after asking about it, that the reporter had failed to charge his laptop battery and was unable to post live from the speech. I laughed because who among us has not forgotten to charge something. What should have been posted to Open that afternoon was something like this:

Open would have had live posts from President Bush's speech if only our reporter had remembered to charge his laptop battery. D'oh!

Sure, he would have taken heat from readers, but it probably would have been more in good fun than in the typical "PD blows it again." But I think it proves that the MSM is still struggling and still doesn't get how to communicate in this way. But it better figure it out because the question of online journalism has already been answered. My parents read news online, I read news online, my kids read news online. The news-consuming public is online. It's time journalism hopped on board.

Somewhere in a box in my basement is my textbook from Dr. Dohn's class. Not sure why I kept it, but I may dust it off to read once again about journalism at a crossroads. Who knows there may be a lessen or two worth reliving.

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