The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
News Is A Conversation
March 2004

by Terry L. Heaton

I was a news director in six markets and a manager in several others. As an incoming news director, my first order of business was always to survey the staff. My experience in the business taught me that the people in the trenches had the answers to most of the competitive questions about the market, and my job was simply to organize their thoughts. Not only did the troops feel good about being asked, but the task accelerated my understanding of the market as well. The lesson for all managers is simple: the people closest to the product — and therefore the conflicts that accompany its creation — generally have the collective business answers you seek.

I find this is also often true about life, which is why the matter of an elite class running things from arm's length is an issue with me. The institutions of the world would do well to listen to the people on the street, for their view is quite different than the opinion of those atop their pedestals. Of course, they have no incentive to do so, so the smokescreen of polling is offered as an attempt to hear the voice of the people. This is not only true in the business world, but itís the mainstream mediaís sad excuse for interactivity. Whether itís polling the audience to see what they like and donít like, or sponsoring issue and political polls, theyíre inherently biased by the questions asked, and the press is able to interpret and control what results are reported.

Thereís a new movement underway today that says relevant journalism could be — and perhaps should be — a conversation, not a lecture or the squawk and noise that comes when journalists talk to each other, and todayís media, with a little modification and a new point of view, could provide a forum for such conversations.

The essential conflict between the old and the new in journalism is the belief by those of the new breed that ongoing feedback — and interaction with that feedback — advances a story. It does so by moving the assumptions of the original piece in directions unknown, and this frightens the mainstream press, who insist that journalism isn't journalism without the editorial process and, by default, editorial control.

So let us examine that postulate. Editorial control means that all copy and pictures associated with communicating a work by a professional newsgathering agency are screened by someone other than the reporter to assure the story complies with the standards and policies of the agency. Implied in this is the understanding that the news organization also is charged with the duty to pursue what it considers news and how it is reported, although one is free to ask from whence cometh such an assignment. This is the editorial process. It is assumed that such decisions and screening are necessary, because the process protects the professional organization from such nastiness as lawsuits for libel and slander while passing along its fruit to the public. But buried in this assumption are two core beliefs: that only one with proper intelligence, training and experience can function in such a capacity, and that the public requires such a screen. The latter isn't talked about and perhaps not even acknowledged, but it's definitely there. "This is important." "That isn't important." These are judgments made by editors daily, even in the process of copyediting.

Media high priest, Tom Brokaw, acknowledges that people today get their information from a variety of sources and, "By the time people get to us, they know whatís happened that day." But he goes on to explain his role, the role of NBC Nightly News. "What we have to do is put this in a coherent form for them at the end of the day." In other words, let their editorial process and control work to digest and summarize the news, so that we can make sense of all those incoherent (for us) bits and pieces. What would we do without news in a coherent form?

In truth, the editorial process works on many levels to assure that, in terms of both style and message, the news agency is set apart from everyday people. To be sure, this is a pedestal, and it engenders an air of arrogance that news people themselves can't seem to see. For upon what does such control base its pronouncements and judgments, if not the personal, albeit educated viewpoints of the controller? To continue reporting the news like this, the organization itself must view its members as a special class whose training gives them the ability not just to package the news coherently, but also to GIVE coherence and meaning to the news events by their analysis, presentation, and dissemination of the facts.

So editorial control is really about power and authority, and not just over words. It's Walter Lippmann's social engineering dream, the masses following an elite, educated class, and it's the core reason mainstream journalists look aghast when somebody suggests letting everybody play the news game. Who wants to give up power and influence? In fairness, journalistic power was in place long before Lippmann. There's the wonderful Mark Twain quote, "Never pick a fight with a person who buys ink by the barrel," but during that time, the press was passionately opinionated and openly represented points of view. Lippmann is the one to brought forth the idea of an objective, "professional-class" journalist, who would stand in the gap between the masses and those alleged to be in power.

It is this power and influence that drives mainstream journalists to look at new media types, especially bloggers, and describe them pejoratively as the "vanity press," "self-important," or worse. The question, of course, is if bloggers derive their sense of importance from themselves, then from whom does the mainstream press derive theirs? You see, there exists within journalism today a belief that this power and influence of theirs is a right, a guarantee given to them by some higher authority, and therein lies the rub.

This belief is further enhanced now that certain, very well paid journalists find themselves on the same societal and cultural levels as those about whom they report. This is treasonous, for the roots of journalism are fed by the blood of those who gave their lives for the free flow of information. As a profession, journalism was never intended to be a get rich occupation. Lippmann and his cronies gave us that.

At the height of the Internet bubble, four people with deep roots in the Web wrote an important and prophetic little book called, The Cluetrain Manifesto. Three of the authors, Doc Searls, Chris Locke and David Weinberger helped pioneer Weblogs and are regular bloggers. The bookís "95 Theses" are well known among those who understand the core value of the Internet, including Howard Dean campaign manager, Joe Trippi. Dean has been referred to as "The Cluetrain Candidate," and Weinberger is a Dean consultant. Here are the first ten of the "95 Theses":

1. Markets are conversations.

2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.

3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.

5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.

7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.

9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.

10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

Regrettably, the vast majority of television and news executives didn't get onboard the Cluetrain when it passed by their offices years ago. If they had, they might understand the current reality; that, like markets, news is a conversation.

Blogger Jeff Jarvis has been using "news is a conversation" to describe the evolving arena often referred to as "the blogosphere," and he cites the Cluetrain as a major influence. "Getting to the true news," he says, "is an additive process, back and forth. News has always wanted to be a conversation, but we've always worked in a one-way medium. Whereas it used to be gatekeeper, source, gatekeeper, source, it's now gatekeeper, source, audience, gatekeeper, source, etc."

"This is the first time we've truly had a two-way medium," he adds, "and we're still trying to figure it all out."

One thing we do know is that the audience itself can and does function as editor in the blogging process. Dan Gillmor, columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and himself a blogger, puts it this way, "I like the idea that people are watching what I say and correcting me if I get things wrong — or challenging my conclusions, based on the same facts (or facts I hadn't known about when I wrote the piece.) This is a piece of tomorrow's journalism, and we in the business should welcome the feedback and assistance that, if we do it right, becomes part of a larger conversation."

As Jarvis, Gillmor, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and many others have discovered, the significance of this new medium isn't power. It's about niche, yet when the mainstream press looks at it, importance is automatically assigned to those with the largest or most influential audiences. This is their hierarchical, Modernist worldview, and it blinds them to the truth about the Internet in general and blogging in particular.

The good news is that the press is beginning to pay attention, and the Cluetrain is still out there for them to climb aboard.

The editorial process certainly has its place in world of journalism, and as a recent commenter on my own blog pointed out, bloggers feed off the work of mainstream journalists. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two, and I'm certainly not suggesting one will replace the other. There is, however, a reformation underway, and while nobody knows exactly how it's going to play out, I think it'll be good for everybody in the end. Bloggers, who donít necessarily care, will find validation in the journalism world, and mainstream news people will be forced to stop giving only lip service to interacting with their audiences.

And instead of turning to elite experts to guide us and solve all our problems, we might actually find that the answers we seek are with the people out here pounding the pavement and living the life that those experts only touch from a distance.

Wouldn't that be something?

© Terry L. Heaton