Home Issues for 2012 #5: How Will Online News Be Organized?

Issues for 2012 #5: How Will Online News Be Organized?

Just ask the man who signs my paychecks… or at least, go back to October 2007 and ask Richard MacManus, the founder and EIC of this publication. He would tell you directly and succinctly that ReadWriteWeb is not a blog. That is, by the definition of that time, it’s not a one-man show. “ReadWriteWeb has evolved,” Richard wrote at the time, “into something different than a blog, which is traditionally thought of as the voice of a single person.”

Over the years, the complaints I’ve received from readers (we all receive some) center around the notion of bias – a tendency to interpret a story with the appearance of a certain slant or, perhaps more accurately, from an angle somewhat askew from the angle most others use in their interpretations. If a blog were truly by and about one person, then the appearance of bias would be impossible to avoid. Typically with publications, it is plurality that enables the reader to see the complete picture of subject matter. Plurality, for any organization, requires organization. And at a time when the Web publishing industry’s definition of what we do evolves faster than our ability to do it, organization has been difficult to achieve.

A sea of one-man bands

What Richard was saying back in 2007 was something I believe we can still appreciate today: A great publication evolves beyond the voice of any one person. Specifically, his comment came in response to his own surprise at finding RWW placed #6 on the Techmeme Leaderboard. He cited RSS pioneer Dave Winer, who in May 2003 – in an effort for his readers to distinguish a blog from a wiki – defined a blog as something that is unedited.

“Assuming a Wiki is a weblog-like system that allows anyone to edit anything (I know some don’t) then a Wiki represents an interesting amalgam of many voices, not the unedited voice of a single person,” wrote Winer. “On my weblog no one can change what I wrote. In contrast, having written for professional publications, pros have to prepare for their writing being interfered with… Weblogs are unique in that only a weblog gives you a publication where your ideas can stand alone without interference. It gives the public writer a kind of relaxation not available in other forms. That might mean that in some sense the ‘quality’ of the writing is different, but I would not say lower, assuming the purpose of writing is to inform, not to impress.”

Thus the notion of freedom as “exemption from ever being edited” may have been born. Readers are developing a notion of blogs as self-service operations, minimally administered content management systems from which unaltered streams of observations are broadcast in their raw and unencumbered form.

Or as one reader put it to me in an e-mail last week, “No one wants to consume a ‘package’ of content any more. The Web and blogs in particular have freed us from all that… [You] reminded me of the old magazine editors I know who don’t like the Web because it has taken away their power to pretend they know what is best for the reader.”

In his October 2007 post, Richard also cited an October 2007 claim from prominent blogger Robert Scoble that the infusion of journalism was, in a way, poisoning the art of blogging, as evidenced by his estimate that only 12 of the 100 blogs on Techmeme’s leaderboard were single-person operations. “Most of the things on the list are now done by teams of journalists – that isn’t blogging anymore in my book,” Scoble had written. “TechCrunch just hired a professional journalist which is sort of funny cause when I started blogging I never expected blogging to become a business, just a way to share what was going on in my life.”

So perhaps in retrospect, one of the reasons why blogging has had such difficulty transitioning itself to a business model is because its leading practitioners had not expected it to be a business in the first place.

Last September, when the inevitable structural breakdown began between TechCrunch and its corporate parent, AOL, contributor M. G. Siegler defended the publication as a blog under the classic Winer definition, and in so doing, distinguished TechCrunch contributors from the body of practitioners called “journalists.”

“Journalists seem to think they can write about TechCrunch as if they’re looking in a mirror,” Siegler wrote. “That is to say, they think our operation runs in a similar manner to theirs and they use that as a jumping off point for misguided (but predictable) outrage… First and foremost, the concept of an ‘editor’ at TechCrunch is essentially just a title and nothing more. Generally speaking, neither Mike [Arrington] nor Erick [Schonfeld] (TC’s two ‘co-editors’) are overlords that dictate what everyone else covers. With a few exceptions (mainly for newer writers), no one person even reads posts by any other author before they are posted. Traditional journalists may be appalled to learn this. But this is a big key of why TechCrunch kicks their ass in tech coverage.”

Are we, or are we not, bloggers?

For those of you keeping score at home, ReadWriteWeb has slipped down the Techmeme Leaderboard to #41 in the four-plus years since MacManus rendered his initial assessment. The simple reason, I’ve tended to believe, was the same one I maintained in defending a different publication I used to manage: It’s not really a blog. “One thing hasn’t changed and hopefully never will – the best bloggers are passionate about the topics they write about, and they are informed and opinionated,” Richard wrote. “All the writers on ReadWriteWeb have those attributes. So even though we’re not a blog, we’re still bloggers.”

Fast-forward to last December, and ReadWriteWeb’s acquisition by SAY Media. At the time, SAY’s corporate blog trumpeted RWW as “one of the most popular and influential tech blogs in the world;” and Richard MacManus followed up by calling the publication he founded “one of the biggest blogs in the world.” He later added, “ReadWriteWeb is and always will be a team effort.”

The distinction matters because of that very phrase. Unlike a diary, a poem, a high school term paper, or any other one-person dissertation, a publication resulting from a team effort carries with it specific responsibilities. It must inform the public accurately, to the best of its ability. It should present a balanced and clear representation of the topics it covers. It should improve the lives and work of the people who read it.

Just as importantly, the law treats a publication differently because it is produced by a plurality.

Last November, a U.S. District Court judge in Oregon ruled that a blogger named Crystal Cox could not invoke the state’s Shield Laws for journalist protection in her defense in an anti-defamation case, stating specifically that one cannot proclaim herself a journalist the same way one can proclaim herself a blogger. In his opinion, Judge Marco Hernandez wrote:

Defendant cites no cases indicating that a self-proclaimed “investigative blogger” is considered “media” for the purposes of applying a negligence standard in a defamation claim. Without any controlling or persuasive authority on the issue, I decline to conclude that defendant in this case is “media,” triggering the negligence standard.

Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story. Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not “media.”

Judge Hernandez’ ruling triggered a measure of outrage, particularly at the notion that in this era of the 24-second news cycle, for someone to be recognized as a journalist, he or she must be associated with an established “media” organization. The EFF’s Matt Zimmerman and Trevor Timm wrote last month that laws should be changed to reflect an era where journalism is practiced by individuals with their own motivation and their own means.

“The proper approach to this question is to focus on what amounts to journalism, not who is a journalist,” Timm and Zimmerman wrote. “Journalism is not limited to a particular medium; instead, it focuses on whether someone is engaged in gathering information and disseminating it to the public. To the extent that laws are unclear or out of date – such as Oregon’s retraction statute which does not clearly include (or exclude) Internet journalism – legislatures should be encouraged to expansively update them to ensure the protection of individuals seeking to communicate information to the public.”

Of balance and choice

At one level, freedom from the burden of organization may be considered enablement, especially for practicing journalists who (like so many of us) have found themselves without a regular paycheck. But the moment we all become privateers, we journalists lose our capability to provide the one characteristic that readers continuously, adamantly, passionately, and rightly demand: balance.

A one-man show cannot be without bias; it is impossible. True, Web publishing has freed journalism from the stifling encumberments of bureaucracy. But it has not relieved journalists of the burden to contribute to a cohesive, complete, accurate picture of the world they cover; and no matter how many hyperlinks it can throw at the subject, the Web cannot substitute for coordination and organization. The editorial system provides journalism with the checks and balances it requires to fulfill its responsibility to the public for fairness and accuracy.

You can have freedom from bias or you can have freedom from oversight. You cannot have both.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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