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Sparks fly at the grumpy white guys…

The “We Media” panel leads off the day – it’s introduced as the grumpy old white guys panel. (This is distinguished from the “enthusiastic young white guys” Web 2.0 panel yesteray, I suspect.) Leading off is Mathew Buckland, a blogger and publisher of the Mail and Guardian Online, which is the 4th biggest website in South Africa – this past year, it was profitable for the first time. The Mail and Guardian has brought politicians to blog during elections, has invited reporters to blog about the reporting of stories, and adds technorati links to each story to “encourage link love”.

Buckland notes that “when that wrinkled old prune Rupert Murdoch” believes a paradigm shift is taking place, you take notice. Murdoch believes the shift taking place with the rise of the Internet rivals that of the printing press which he believes destroyed aristocracy and tyranny. Buckland notes this may be overstated, and that the timing or the scale of this change may be disputed. But very few media companies believe that the online revolution is not real.

A more interesting tension, he says, is the tension between mainstream and citizen media. Bloggers have influence over their audience – they blog about their bad customer service experiences, and are empowered to punish those companies in the process. Blogs also empower their authors by paying them through Google Ads. The success of blogs is due to link culture, which is how the net is designed to work. The online publishers of mainstream media don’t have a clue about how this works. Bloggers are acting as watchdogs for mainstream media. But this isn’t a struggle to the death, just the rise of complementary media.

He ends with some questions and challenges for citizen media: Are we accepting this phenomenon with unbridled enthusasm? Citizen media has a weakness on standardized ethics and fair reporting. What are the consequences for getting the story wrong, on blogs or wikipedia? The mainstream media does get it wrong, but there are consequences. He closes by saying, “Self-regulation works only up to a point – it doesn’t work when you’ve got free riders, rebels, vandals and bad people. If anarchy doesn’t work in the world, why would it work in citizen media?”

(As you would predict, several questions – including mine – jumped on this last sentence.)

Peter Verweij focuses his talk on the question, “Are we all journalists now?” He starts by telling a story about walking along a canal with a student in Amsterdam on a winter’s night. In Amsterdam, most people keep their curtains open… but no one pauses to stare inside. Walking with his companion, she stops and stares, breaking a major societal taboo – the family inside doesn’t know what to do, so reacts in the only logical way – they wave.

His point is this – sometimes societal values demands we don’t look. Yes, the Theo Van Gogh murder, the asian Tsunami, the London Bombings were all reported by people with mobile phone cameras. But do we need to ask what happens when we run around and constantly take pictures. Are we all paparazzi now? Do we need rules and societal understanding about when we take photos?

Now we all have a printing press – anyone can publish to a global audience. But Verweij says, “you have to accept certain rules – you can’t say everything.” Blogs, he says, are highly subjective and highly opinionated. How do you check the assertions out? 99% of blogging is shouting at the television – roughly 1% is worth reading. (Verweij points to Howard Rheingold as someone he believes blogs well…)

He offers a definition of journalism, repeating it twice so we can get it right: “Journalism is truth-seeking storyteling, primarily serving citizens, without a legal foundation.” This means that you’re writing to serve citizens, and that you’re more likely to be writing about politics and economics than about art and poetry, and certainly not about your private interests. “Art and poetry have a certain function, but probably not part of public debate.”

This definition has a presupposition of truth, Verweij says. “You can say ‘there is no truth, there is no publicm but now you’ve moved into postmodernism”, which means you’re giving up journalism and civil society. Verweij says he doesn’t believe in the Nietzchean death of God – he believes in truth in journalism.

By this definition, only a small portion of bloggers do journalism, Verweij says. He argues for the “verdict of the New York Time”s: “Facts are sacred, comment is free”. “Otherwise, it’s art, it’s poetry, but it’s not journalism.”

Tom Jognson tells us he’s mad as hell and wants to know “how long are we going to take it?” Inspired by the lack of connectivity at the conference, he’s scrapped his existing talk and gives a talk on connectivity and control. He reminds us that those of us who remember the early internet remember travelling with a toolkit including alligator clips so we could clip our 1200 baud modems to phone lines. Bloggers need hardware, software, access, skills and readers to thrive – readers need many of the same things: hardware, software, skills and access.

He argues that people in power – world leaders, system administrators – operate from a philosophy of insecurity and fear. President Bush, he believes, is afraid of the world because he travelled so little abroad. His impulse is to shut it out – a wall with Mexico. System administrators act the same way – “When in doubt, keep them out.” But networks grow weaker via exclusion, stronger via inclusion.

System administrators should be more like librarians, focusing on bringing in users, but protecting only the most sensitive data. He proposes a manifesto for the blogging communities: “the three 100s” – all people have access to all the data all the time.

Several questions challenged whether a) the internet has required regulation so far and b) who gets to tell us what blogs are authoritative or not. Andrew Heavens managed to ask the quesiton particularly sharply, asking Verweij for the list of 1% of blogs we should be permitted to read.

Mark Comerford, the moderator, closed by staying he was stunned that journalists are calling for more control over a new medium, given historical constraints on the press in Africa. He speculates that it’s “a cry for Rwanda not to happen again”, where the media is used to incite people to violence.

1 thought on “Sparks fly at the grumpy white guys…”

  1. This means that you’re writing to serve citizens, and that you’re more likely to be writing about politics and economics than about art and poetry, and certainly not about your private interests.

    I would have said journalists write about politics and economics (or sports, or subdivisions, or technology, or black ash baskets) because those are their private interests.

    Even at a large daily, even as a rookie, a reporter has a choice of subject, and always a choice of focus and intepretation. That’s part of the central debate about objectivity in the media. And bloggers are their own editors; they have still more power to choose their content. Would any of us maintain a regular column for any length of time on a subject we had no interest in — and would anyone read it, if we did?

    (I could add that not everyone believes that writing to serve citizens does or should leave out art and poetry, but that’s another debate altogether….)

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