The Digital Journalist

The 2007 Online News Association Convention, Toronto
November 2007

by Ron Steinman

I arrived in Toronto Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 17, a damp day with unusually high summer temperatures similar to New York. I checked into my room at the Metropolitan Hotel and walked about two blocks to the Sheraton Center for the opening round of the ONA Convention. I was last in Toronto in 1988 for the Today Show to cover Ronald Reagan at an economic summit, an easy assignment because nothing ever happened at those events. That was 19 years ago, but much of the city, except for the construction of many new buildings, appeared unchanged. There was more traffic, but the streets were quiet and clean and the people and buildings looked American. I am sure Canadians do not like to hear that but it is easy to understand why producers shoot many Hollywood and made-for-TV movies in Toronto.

Over the next two and a half days I did my due diligence and attended many meetings, usually one after the other on a variety of topics pertinent to news and the digital revolution. There were coffee breaks, lunches, cocktail hours, and dinners. I wandered the halls eavesdropping on the new world of journalists, or should I say, some who call themselves journalists, to the point where I thought I would drown in a world of jargon.

Most of the meetings I attended discussed blogging, reader comments, user-generated material, voice, freedom of the press and who, in the end, has control over what a journalist – a blogger or columnist or reporter – says. All are important in the infinite digital world, yet each seems as difficult to pin down as pellets of mercury in a Petri dish. By the end of the meetings, one panel had morphed into the next, until all had become as one. I'll try to separate the chaff from the chaff and try to make sense of what I saw, heard and discussed with other people.

Here are a few of the buzzwords and terms I heard over and over: "reader credibility matrix." That's a beauty -- reader credibility matrix. That seems to go to community policing of comments, something I think one panel described as a dream, never a reality. On sites that foster comments, there were discussions about the need for quick response to what people said, but I didn't hear anyone define "quick." Is this for "robots" -- another term blithely tossed around -- housed in software or is it something we expect humans to handle? My take is that there are not enough people to handle all comments, even for small Web sites, not to say for the giants such as USA Today. By the way, most experts realize it is impossible to police comments, especially the nasty ones, the flamers who cannot be stopped on their path to destroy everything in sight. Someone said, "They are out there!" Another said, "You can't deny flow of the user river," meaning those who cannot help but comment about anything and everything. Another said, "You can't stop the agenda trolls from commenting." I love the use of the word troll. It brought to mind make-believe and fairy tales.

There were discussions about "pre-approval" and/or "pre-moderation," perhaps even the registration of reader or viewer comments, self-policing, the wisdom of the crowd – how naïve, I thought – and the realization of the digital wizards that different content often calls for "diverse moderation." Some want free, anonymous commenting on sites. By allowing everyone access, does that imply sites fear losing audiences? I leave that for the reader to decide. Those at the convention had a mixed response to all of this, but I wonder why we should trust the reader to authenticate any comment not generated by him or herself. These were fascinating positions. Agenda trolls are indeed everywhere. I think I even saw them crowding the halls of the convention, laptops open, his and her fingers sailing over the keys. I agree that we must allow readers to comment, but we should also edit them, perhaps with a handy abuse button, and keep the discourse sane and intelligent. Otherwise, many thoughtful comments will be beaten down and fall into a dark, meaningless, pit.

Frequent discussions in forums and in the hallways had to do with the new world of "participatory journalism." Yes, in quotes because the use of comments as a foundation of participatory journalism is deeply flawed. Is it that news sites that seek comment as seemingly the most important part of their efforts cater to the lowest common denominator in their pursuit of any audience at any cost? I sensed that many news sites gauge their audiences by the response readers have to the stories they produce. That may be worse than how Nielsen rates TV shows.

At the convention some thought that the reader or viewer knew far more than did the reporter and therefore his or her opinion should have greater respect than journalists now give to them. I am not sure I subscribe to that theory. During the meetings questions kept coming up that went to the heart of journalism in today's fractured world of information. All information is not journalism. All journalism is not information. This is not simplistic. User-generated material, unless pictures and voice from a disaster where professionals are not present, is the only kind of amateur work news Web sites should consider using. And even then, editors must carefully vet the truth of a submission.

Several panels billed "voice" as important to success in digital journalism. I know voice is important for a novelist or what J-schools teach in creative non-fiction classes. But without solid journalism, voice is merely a prop. A good stylist can have voice. But is that voice true or merely the result of clever writing? Much in these panels went to the heart of what for some has become the new journalism, the world of blogging. There are freelance blogs and, of course, blogs in official publications. However, passionate analysis must prevail over partisan writing. A reporter working in the mainstream, and the blogger -- I insist on separating the two -- must bring enthusiasm to his or her writing. However, unless the writer has judicious fervor at his or her base, any information in either form we may think of as trustworthy is worthless.

Journalistic basics are essential if the journalist wants to serve his or her audience. All journalism should not be blogging. Telling that to a blogger is difficult. Bloggers must conform to the essentials of the five Ws: Who, what, where, when, why and how. I know this sounds old-fashioned. The new free traders in news think otherwise. Maybe this is why blogs are proliferating but, interestingly, also dying rapidly. Every blog must be edited. I know this is heresy in some circles. In the mainstream media voice sometimes drives out passion because the business of news does not always allow a passionate telling of a story. This does not mean that bloggers have an edge just because many are all voice and no journalism.

There was clearly a generational divide in the audience despite that many panelists had grey hair and lined faces. This was most apparent during one discussion about freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is not a given. All of us know that a free press is important to the growth and stability of a society, but no journalist is free to do whatever he or she wants if he or she works for someone else, the person or group that pays his or her salary. As a callow youth from the audience said during one discussion, and here I paraphrase, 'I am free and I can do anything I want. That for me is the meaning of a free press." Not really. Arguing with the converted is the same as slamming into a wall, so I did not respond to his comment. In America we have the freest press in the world. But total freedom to write the way you want would result in anarchy. As an independent blogger you have the right to say and do what you want, but that right evaporates when you work for someone else. Many who blog, especially when working for an institutional publication, refuse to understand this truth. As a surgeon, when performing an operation do you take a different path than shown on the X-ray because you prefer the direction where you would like your scalpel to take you? If you receive pay for work you must understand that your blog must somehow reflect the concerns of the news organization paying your wages. If you cannot in the least conform and do that, find other work, paid or unpaid.

For all the talk and sometimes high-flown theorizing through two and half days of panels, some intense and others either arcane of just plain silly, through hallway conversations, lunch, coffee breaks and dinners in the end at the awards ceremony, the tenets of traditional journalism prevailed. These award-winning efforts wore new suits of clothing across a variety of useful and user-friendly platforms. Solid reporting, strong investigations, good judgment won over technology and the striving to be new, fresh and innovative only for the sake of being new, fresh and innovative. It made me review some notes I made about writing and presentation. We should strive for passionate analysis and not always partisan writing. We should make the significant interesting and relevant. We should keep the news comprehensive, yet proportional. And in the end, we should always exercise personal conscience, for without that, we will have no standards at all.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.