March Blogger Meetup: Blogger Small Group Overview, Afterthoughts, A Panda Driving a Car and Errantry

The combined blogger/podcasting meetup last night was the best yet. There were so many people there that we broke up into three small groups: one for podcasters, one for bloggers and one for people to discuss with Denise Polverine [who paid for the beer!] how cleveland.com can incorporate more blog content into their site. I didn’t get a chance to browse the Cleveland.com or the podcasting groups because the blogger discussion was so lively. Hopefully others from the other groups will blog about their stuff. I know I’d like to know.

Updates:

Collision Bend and Sardonic Views on the cleveland.com group.

Blog Group Overview:

Jay Miller from Crain’s Cleveland started off the night with the topic that would pretty much take up the whole evening. He is not a blogger himself, but was here to find out the state of the blogger [and/or, +/-, vs.] journalist discussion.

As I said before, we had a lively one. Democracy Guy and Virtual Lori both have journalism degrees and Callahan’s Cleveland Diary is a trig cove on just about any subject. Red Wheelbarrow, Your Daily Art and Organic Mechanic provided a good balance to the discussion. Pop Life was there, and another blogger came in a bit later, but I didn’t catch his name. There was also a new blogger named Daniella, but I foolishly failed to get her contact info [She found me, I’ve spelled her name correctly and linked to her blog]. Roll call ends now.

Red Wheelbarrow offers his own succinct thoughts on our group. Democracy Guy, too.

Jay came in wanting to find out if bloggers are willing to adopt some of the journalistic tricks of the trade into their blogs. It seemed that he was concerned with ensuring that bloggers report things in such a way that the content is accurate enough to avoid getting sued. Everyone had strong feelings on this matter. It came across, at least to me, that Jay felt as if blogs are sloppy or lazy journalism, or that, with no set of guidelines, the medium can’t become a respectable part of The Media. While there is some merit to these ideas, and there are surely a large amount of bloggers who are the web equivalent of dirty-bearded soapbox ranter, our group was of a contrary opinion.

The general consensus of the bloggers present was that if we aren’t comfortable saying something on our blog that we wouldn’t say to someone in person, we don’t write about it. Transparency was a word brought up time and again. I learned a bit about the journalistic process, something called the inverted triangle method which starts out laying out all the facts, and then narrows down to the end by stating the author’s opinion. My immediate reaction to this is that the method can often be disingenuous. As a somewhat typical consumer of mass media, I have been trained to think that hard news is nothing but fact, so “discovering” that a writer has a bias makes people bitch and moan about spin. The transparency comes in when people [or bloggers] say “These are the facts” [with supporting links] and “This is what I think about that” [with comments open for rebuttal or discussion].

The point was then raised that bloggers have no check upon them. I assume this was more along the lines of editorial checks for accuracy than anything else, because just about everyone said that [journalistic] blogs are pretty much always checked by another blog with a dissenting opinion. Then Jay mentioned that people who read blogs are unlikely to search out dissenting opinions. Then someone else said that it is no different than a person who only reads The New York Times for their news. Hooboy. Lively. πŸ™‚

We moved back toward libel territory and were taking that into the direction of free speech, making analogies all over the place. Does linking to a blog post that later turns out to be false make you an accomplice in libel? Shot right back was, if I cut out a newspaper clipping and give it to my friend, and the clipping later turns out to be false, is that complicity in libel? The final conclusion before we ended seemed to be that the larger your audience the more liable you are to be sued for libel. Jay said that he thought that having a bit more knowledge of journalism would allow bloggers to keep their visibility high.

I’m sure I missed something or got something wrong, so feel free to correct me.

Afterthoughts:

I don’t think Jay meant to come across this way, but my back got up almost immediately when he mentioned that bloggers might benefit from a better knowledge and application of journalism. I am under the impression that he feels that the current journalistic process is the best one. Bloggers in some sense are quite counter to that, which is why my hackles rose at the mention of becoming more like a journalist. To me it smacks of allowing yourself to be edited. And while any new method is worthy of examination and new knowledge can be nothing if not helpful, I didn’t like the way it came across.

If anything, I think blogs prevent folks from being just passive consumers of news. Reading blogs is basically the equivalent of talking to thousands of blokes down the pub and then using your own mental faculties to synthesize it. I’d rather have that, with all its accompanying blatherers and trolls and sloppiness, than having to get all of my news, relatively untouchable [until bloggers start working on the case] and accepted as gosepl, from 4 or 5 media conglomerates.

The libel discussion and nascent free speech issues contained within it, and the mention that blogs might fall into obscurity if “journalistic integrity” is not followed, just strike me as scare tactics, even though the intent might be just the opposite.

The blogs falling into obscurity if they are ineffective is a good thing. It is natural selection in a virtual environment. If they can’t stand the heat they get burnt. I kind of get the feeling that non-blog journalism might feel a bit threatened by the possiblity that people would rather listen to opinionated writing on anything under the sun that also allows them to check on the sources, than listen to the faux-objective or ultra-objective dreck that can be found everywhere else.

I’ve tried to be a bit contrary in this post for the hopes of continuing the discussion here. So, discuss folks!

A Panda Driving a Car:

Errantry:

I could hardly sleep last night because I had so many thoughts swirling around in my head as a result of the meetup. One thing that came to mind is that I don’t like the term “framing” when used in discussion. Framing an argument seems to limit it immediately by stuffing it into The Box we’re always supposed to think outside of. It binds a topic and just thinking about it in those terms is reductive instead of expansive. I like saying that you are looking through a lens, because then it is both obvious that you are coming at the topic through a bias [lenses distorty things] but you also allow the topic to remain amorphous and do what it wants.

9 thoughts on “March Blogger Meetup: Blogger Small Group Overview, Afterthoughts, A Panda Driving a Car and Errantry

  1. Adam,

    I’ve been thinking about our conversation, too.

    I didn’t intend to come off as believing “journalism,” whatever that is, is the only true path to enlightment. Sorry if it seemed that way. Part of what’s easy for me to do, because I do it as a reporter all time, is play devil’s advocate, and I was doing that quite a bit last night.

    Reflecting since then, I guess what concerns me most is that I wonder if bloggers are prepared to survive as the medium evolves.

    Specifically, I think about the issue of audience and that’s where standards of content (be it journalistic standards or some other standard) comes in.

    Part of what journalism training does is make you think about your audience and what you need to do to satisfy their needs so they will keep reading.

    I think for the long haul bloggers need to be thinking about that.

    Jay

  2. I guess deep down I had a feeling you were going the DA route.

    Part of what journalism training does is make you think about your audience and what you need to do to satisfy their needs so they will keep reading.

    I think that statement will let me elucidate something that was swimming around didn’t not come up for air last evening. In simply “think[ing] about your audience and what you need to do to satisfy their needs” there is no room for the audience to state their needs. In some ways I think the relationship between a blogger and their audience is much more intimate than between a traditional journalist and their audience. All too often journalism comes across as “We know what is best, we know what you want” but the greater intimacy that a blogger has with his audience [mostly through the use of comments and the ability to follow up on a subject without the boundaries or conflicting concerns of a news show or newspaper] automatically makes a blogger better equipped to assess the needs of his/her audience.

    One of the most exciting things about blogs is that no one really knows what is going to happen to them as they evolve. So when are you going to start one, and show us all how it’s done? πŸ˜‰

  3. Hello Kurtiss, good to put a name to the face.

    Your points are strong, but I think there needs to be some way to strike a balance [maybe not in methodology] but in content. [playing Devil’s Advocate now] The use of RSS allows people to subscribe to very tailored interests, but there are things that people need to hear about, need to discuss, that can only be effectively illuminated using traditional reporting methods [although perhaps not traditional methods of dissemination].

  4. First, I was in the other blogger corner, so don’t know what Jay’s words or demeanor were. But why should that keep me from commenting?

    I was surprised to see Jay at the meetup. I assumed he was curious or considering starting a blog of his own. I had no idea he was going to focus a discussion critiquing bloggers, but that’s okay. Blog readers probably have just as much right to critique as blog writers. Jay is president of the Cleveland chapter of Society of Professional Journalists. I happen to be 2nd veep, so have gotten to know Jay and his writing. Though this won’t give him enough credit, he’s primarily a “business reporter” in his writing I know. To do well at this, it helps to have a business orientation or training. I grew up in a Fortune 500 corp hdqtrs., and I know that the culture that sticks around is the conservative biz culture in all the ways you can think of, including delivering what your customer wants (not necessarily what the customer needs) and the legal liability stuff… in a word the culture is: Safe.

    Safe is not free speech and expression. Safe is not rebellious. Safe is not usually passionate. Safe is not walking on thin ice. Safe is not the stuff and motivation of most bloggers I know.

    I think it’s clear that the value of Jay sharing his viewpoint with envelope-pushing (or not) bloggers is that it’s got us thinking and talking about how and why we do what we do. Ultimately, the blogging community may reject what Jay says about libel, traditional journalistic standards or whatever — but in our doing so, we have added value to blogging, imho.

    Jay, whether you intended or not, thanks for mixing it up at our meetup. Only wish I could have been part of it.

    All the Best,
    Steve FitzGerald
    “Lakewood Life” blogger on cleveland.com
    and lakewoodbuzz.com publisher

  5. I think we’ve got an interesting discussion going here and a number of good points have been raised. But I probably entered the discussion a little too casually and, naturally, the conversation followed a path of its own. As a result a lot of important stuff didn’t get said that probably should have. Most of all we didn’t talk about any ethical obligations a writer — journalist, blogger or whatever — has to his or her audience.

    Most journalists, for example, believe they have an obligation to be as honest and fair as possible in gathering and interpreting information. We also believe it is important to exercise considerable care to avoid errors. From what I heard at the meetup, many bloggers find media sources that they believe adhere to those principles. I say that because several people said they don’t do reporting, they rely on media for that. I think that relationship needs to be explored.

    That said, I’d like to reply to some of the comments I heard. A few people seemed annoyed that I suggested bloggers should be aware of the laws of libel and slander — they didn’t think that would affect them. Well, a show of hands, please. How many of you, five or eight years ago, expected record companies to be chasing after Internet music downloaders? Also, I’m troubled by a comment above by Kurtiss Hare. He wrote: “In the future, it should be possible to point, click, and certify your website , under contractual law, so that your visitors may be assured of your adherence to some degree of well defined integrity. This sort of technology both enables free speech and provides for a means of reliability in online storytelling.” I have to disagree, he’s turning free speech on its head. We should never encourage the establishment of some organization that certifies what people want to write or say.

    And I guess that’s something that journalists understand about the exercise of free speech and free press. Since we don’t want anybody appointed free speech gatekeeper. So we try to hold ourselves to standards that readers can understand and rely on.

  6. You’re right, ethics is something we didn’t speak about specifically; I scrounged up a few links on blogger ethics. It seems most of them already use the SPJ’s own code as a primer.

    The cost of ethics: Influence peddling in the blogosphere is an article that contains many excellent links on just about every facet of blogger/journalist ethics. It is also friggin long.

    Quoth the article:
    Most observers agree on one point: Bloggers and traditional journalists don’t play by the same rulebook. Consider the unsparing standards set out in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code, which instructs journalists to:

    • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
    • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
    • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
    • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
    • Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money

    Bloggers sometimes act as journalists, but they uniformly say they hew to different standards than professional journalists. “The idea that there has to be a Chinese wall is an industrial-era notion that doesn’t take into account the cottage media era we live in,” said Mitch Ratcliffe, a veteran tech journalist and blogger. “When I am blogging and I am both publisher and editor, I’m playing by different rules, and there is, across the blogosphere, an evolving set of mores that will never become hard and fast rules for all bloggers.”

    While they may not have a rulebook, bloggers have evolved a loose-knit set of general tenets. These principles seem to be widely held:

    • Disclose, disclose, disclose. Transparency—of actions, motives and financial considerations—is the golden rule of the blogosphere.
    • Follow your passions. Blog about topics you care deeply about.
    • Be honest. Write what you believe.
    • Trust your readers to form their own judgments and conclusions.
    • Reputation is the principal currency of cyberspace. Maintain your independence and integrity—lost trust is difficult to regain.

    Others have come up with their own formulations. Rebecca Blood, author of “The Weblog Handbook,” identified six principles of blog ethics. And Jonathan Dube of CyberJournalist.net issued a Bloggers Code of Ethics. But as Ratcliffe suggests, the blogger’s penchant for independence means that even these guidelines may be trumped by an even higher law: Don’t impose your rules on me.

    …which sums up nicely the problem I came up with while in the shower. Professional journalists are to do all they can to avoid conflicts of interest. At the same time, they are getting paid to do this, which is why they are professional journalists. Pretty much no blogger makes their living from their blog. The prescriptivist blogger code states right out that bloggers should write about what they care deeply about [which I think pretty much every blogger follows… Who wants to write about stuff that bores them?], so it seems like blogger ethics are less strict. That is where transparency comes in.

    For possible comparison:
    CyberJournalist gives their own adapted version of the SPJ’s code.

    Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

    Now, that is a shitload of reading. I think you might find a much simpler version over on BFD:

    Show up
    Pay attention
    Speak your truth
    Let go of the outcome…

    Jay, you want me to delete those last two lines of you last comment? Looks like you were rephrasing stuff and forgot those were at the bottom…

  7. I was the guy who came into the conversation half way through. I must say that the majority of blogs that I read are in no way similar to the product of traditional journalism. This is because the content I receive is highly tailored to suit my particular interests. No newspaper or trade magazine has been able to come close to the kind of narrowcasted articles that I read on a daily basis.

    I think that in traditional journalism, authors were faced with the problem of satisfying their readers, because the readers had a very limited set of media from which to choose, and an ever more crude system of distinguishing between choices. This stems from the fact that journalists were in short supply because of the high cost of becoming a journalist.

    The advent of distributed peer media is pulling us out of the “economy of scarcity.” Thinking that an author must sacrifice any sort of integrity, opinion, honesty, or even dishonesty, to satisfy readers is a moldy biproduct of old, centralized media. Today, there are technical solutions allowing people to subscribe to what they like. I believe that increasingly, people will be drawn to the sort of transparency seemingly present in many blogs. To me, it is precisely the difference in the nature of the medium that should be an exciting prospect for new storytellers (be they columnists, bloggers, or podcasters). I am certainly no legal expert, but I can definitively say that the perceived oportunity cost of releasing complete discretion over my words and hypertext is much higher than the prospect of any libelous allegation coming to fruition. …*and* with any luck, internet technology will continue to evolve such that the opportunity cost of publishing continues to decrease. The future of storytelling does not lie in the dark age of scarcity, where the unnecessary rigidity of journalistic practice succeeds only in silencing the people.

  8. Perhaps my last sentence was misleading. As in all art, I think there is much to learn from your predecesors, even across media. Citizen Kane would not have been so brilliant if Orson Welles had not already been a masterful radio storyteller. Undoubtedly, there are good things to be carried over from journalism and I think there is a complex discussion to be had in examining what those items should be. On the other hand, even the most fundamental of practices should be reexamined in the light of a new medium’s properties. What a travesty it would have been for our founding fathers to have shaped America with the same hands that wrought the familiar tyranny and injustice they were trying to escape, simply because they couldn’t see past tradition.

    Philosophy aside, I believe there are technical solutions to the problems cited by many journalists that have not yet had time to develop. Larry Lessig’s work with the Creative Commons license is a prime example of such a technical solution. In the future, it should be possible to point, click, and certify your website , under contractual law, so that your visitors may be assured of your adherence to some degree of well defined integrity. This sort of technology both enables free speech and provides for a means of reliability in online storytelling.

    I think there is a generation, or perhaps a large subset thereof, who do not feel the need to hear about traditional news, or really, any news whatsoever, until something like O.J. Simpson or 9/11 is shoved down their throats. Certainly there are issues that affect these individuals more closely and regularly than O.J. Simpson, and for some, 9/11 as well. Is there anything within current journalistic practice that may have incited the existence of such a generation?

  9. Jay is absolutely right that no establishment should be given the kind of power that a title “free speech gatekeeper” might incur. My suggestion was not that an organization intermediate as to the truthfulness or correctness of a story, but that an organization might act as a legal conduit by which normal people might be able to make simple certifications about their stories. Do you see the difference? Once again, I point to Creative Commons as an example of an organization that is already providing a similar service. They are enabling artists to hold a form of copyright on their works with specifically defined attributions under contractual law. The kind of system I was speaking of would simply be in charge of defining a contract, the terms of which would indicate the signing party’s intent to provide material compliant with a shared list of ethical practices. The organization could possibly be responsible for acting as a legal witness to the contract, in case of dispute. Perhaps I’ve made an oversight, but any convincing dialogue marking the idea as an inversion of free speech principles would be readily received. Trust me πŸ™‚

    As far as the RIAA example goes, I’m not sure it is an analogous extension of the subject at hand. I find it hard to make any “bill of rights” argument defending the actions of internet piracy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got plenty of practical and ethical arguments, but none that would stand up as a fundamental or universally accepted human right πŸ˜‰ I do not condone complete legal naivete on the part of any blogger, or citizen for that matter; rather, I expect common sense. It doesn’t make common sense to me that I should legally be able to download music that I might otherwise have to pay for, but it does make common sense that I should legally be able to write artistically, expressively, and according to my own definition of journalistic ethics when publishing online. Of course, this is all assuming that I have no commercial connection…

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