The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
Convention versus the Internet
March 2005

by Terry Heaton

The only thing worse than a square peg in a round hole is a square peg trying to get into a round hole.

Long ago, in one of my news director jobs, a young man showed up at the small market station and asked to speak with me. In the lobby, I was greeted by a fellow -- tape in hand -- who was just about the strangest looking job candidate I'd ever encountered. He was what Ichabod Crane would've seen when looking in the mirrow -- a neck four sizes too small for his collar, hooked nose, ears perpendicular to his head, and a mangled wad of hair on top.

"I've been traveling the country for the past year," he said, "talking to small market news directors about getting that first on-air reporting job out of college."

I invited him into my office, looked over his resume and tape, and told him the facts of life about working in a business that demands cosmetic perfection. He was stunned. All the way through school and through a yearlong interview process, no one had suggested that he had a face for radio.

He was a square peg trying to get into a round hole.

So it is in the war between convention and the Internet, and there is indeed a war underway. While the conflict is everywhere, the inability to see the real battle lines has created a significant structural barrier as old media companies struggle with infiltrating the new. Convention sees the surface, but the war is underneath. Square peg, meet round hole.

The debate between the mainstream media and the blogosphere is one highly visible example.

Convention believes that what has been will always be, while the Internet shoots from the hip in a blaze of entrepreneurial gunfire. Like a patient father, convention smiles at the imagination of these children, but when the pushing and shoving begins, it steps in with its infinite wisdom and a resounding, "Enough!" In doing so online, however, convention runs the square peg/round hole risk, because the structure here cannot and will not run from the top-down, regardless of who wants to be the father. The rules of convention can backfire badly, and this is precisely what's happening in the unseen nooks and crannies of New Media.

The guardians of convention are the lawyers of the land. Their lifeblood is codified rules that can be manipulated from the top, and whenever circumstances impose barriers to this, new rules are simply created to continue convention. The problem with convention's rules is that they don't apply online, because there is no control mechanism.

When CBS released its Memogate report, they did a smart thing. Along with the story of network action in the wake of the report, also provided its users access to the entire 234-page report. This was presented in Adobe PDF format, a popular software for transmitting documents for printing. Bloggers and other Internet communicators dislike PDF, because the text in the format isn't easily copied for reproduction in other forms of media, especially those online. Nevertheless, it can be done, but there were still complaints from the blogosphere about the network choice of PDF. These were overshadowed, however, by the fact that CBS had released the entire report.

Bring in the lawyers. Two days later, the PDF file was replaced by one with Digital Rights Management restrictions enabled, which completely prevented copying any of the text electronically. This was a bad move by CBS. It infuriated the blogosphere and further alienated the same people who broke the original story that caused the network so much embarrassment in the first place. The network's lawyers responded that they did it to prevent anybody from making and distributing a bogus copy (or parody) of the document. This was an act of convention trying to wiggle its way into the round hole of the Internet.

From an Internet perspective -- where the law of attraction rules -- the action of the lawyers was almost laughable, but the CBS team of attorneys viewed it as a logical and rational response, because their world is top-down, command and control. Like other Modernist institutions, CBS is addicted to being right, and feeding their addiction has blinded them to what's really taking place in the world around them.

The Achilles' Heel of convention is its insistence that what has been will always be. This is what led New York Times columnist Bill Safire to suggest that bloggers are just waiting to become a part of the mainstream, which is where the money is found.

Blogs will compete with op-ed columns for "views you can use," and the best will morph out of the pajama game to deliver serious analysis and fresh information, someday prospering with ads and subscriptions. The prospect of profit will bring bloggers in from the meanstream to the mainstream center of comment and local news coverage.

The "prospect of profit" can never be a value proposition for the blogosphere, because it would be another square peg looking to get into a round hole. The currency of the blogosphere is passionate involvement and the sense of closure that comes with participation. Citizen journalism's great power is its voluntary involvement in the things that matter to its various denizens. Nothing kills passion like money, and while there certainly may be bloggers who make lots of money, they will then have to morph into the rules of convention and, therefore, lose the street creds earned within the very community in which they used to dwell. This is inevitable, and those who propose a prospering blogging community with ads and subscriptions are fooling themselves.

Convention demands control while the blogosphere rejects it. The disruptive innovations that permit an individual to be his or her own publisher -- whether text or video -- aren't what's fueling the citizen journalism revolution. It's the distribution system, one that has no top or bottom, and wherein audience is determined by the readers/viewers, not by the publisher or network. Moreover, the relationship between blog writer and blog reader is far different than that of editorial writer and newspaper consumer. Why? Because the readers of blogs aren't just reading. They're also judging and thinking and writing and linking. A viable blog doesn't broadcast. It a part of a conversation, and conversation is, well, free.

There's an important discussion underway about whether the Internet is a medium or a place. Convention understands and welcomes the former, but the latter is the actual reality. Cyberspace is still space, and the immutable laws are a little different here. A medium moves content from one place to another, usually outward. A space is where people gather and share the experience. Conversations are two-way in a space. A medium moves messages in one direction. This ads to the square peg/round hole problem.

Despite the arguments of those within the institution of the fourth estate, the role of the so-called "professional" press is the manufacture of consent. This was the dream of its founder, Walter Lippmann, who introduced the idea of an educated and elite class to control the uneducated masses 100 years ago. However, the role of the blogosphere is the deconstruction of that consent, with the resultant hope of establishing a more universal consent at street level. Square peg, meet round hole.

Convention's most dangerous trap is to seduce that which is new. Like the Borg of Star Trek, it boldly proclaims that resistence is futile and that assimilation is the only way. Convention must assimilate or be destroyed and replaced by something else. As Picasso said, "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." That which is being destroyed -- the fatted calf that went before -- doesn't want to let go, but that's exactly what's happening in this brave, new world of ours. This is why people like Mr. Safire, and those who rest comfortably within convention, can see only what has been.

PR guru and blogger, Steve Rubel, wrote of the "rock star" status of some bloggers.

With interest in blogs rising, some bloggers are rapidly becoming celebrities. They're popping up in the press, attracting flocks of followers and, in some cases, even a roster of advertisers. And why not? They deserve it. After all, these "A-listers" can easily sway the opinions of thousands.

This is convention trying to seduce a threat. Steve encourages companies to invest in endorsement deals and the like with bloggers, because it's smart business. Square peg, meet round hole.

In an article called "Blogger Backlash," New York Press writer Russ Smith notes the conflict between the mainstream press and bloggers:

"The bloggers - "citizen journalists," pajama pundits, whatever you want to call them - are reaching millions of Americans, and while many will be co-opted by traditional media companies, it's a kick in the pants and skirts of the Beltway cocktail party crowd, whose precious words and broadcasts don't matter as much anymore."

Note the assumption that bloggers will (of course) be "co-opted by traditional media companies." Assimilation. Resistance is futile.

George Simpson wrote for MediaDailyNews that blogging is a hobby that won't pay the rent, so Rubel's idea of payola to grab extra income is appealing. Simpson sees what's really happening.

One of the things that make blogs appealing is that they have no rules. But no rules mean that they will never escape the shadow of doubt. (Not that having rules stopped payola in any other industry.) So let's not overreact to bloggers and understand that they are subject to the same corruption that infects every other medium. With one tiny exception: they are accountable to no one.

In addressing media companies who are experimenting with citizen journalists, Poynter's Steve Outing writes that the idea of identifying your best citizen journalists and paying them as they continue contributing isn't a bad one. "But perhaps a better idea is to pay frequent contributors with goodies like t-shirts, caps, and coffee mugs -- all emblazoned with the brand name of the website, of course." This is smart, because it doesn't force the assimilation issue. It simply recognizes the contribution of everyday citizens and differentiates them from professional journalists. Once they get paid, they've been assimilated.

When discussing the Internet and the blogosphere with media people who are uninformed, the first question that's usually asked is, "Where's the money?" It's an understandable question, because we're so indoctrinated in the laws of mass marketing that nothing else is real or valuable. The top wants to be shown how the bottom will support its position. But this is the heart of the misunderstanding about the Internet in general and the blogosphere in particular. Certainly, there's money to be made online, but if we approach it only from convention, our minds will be closed to the infinite possibilities it offers.

Broadcasting needs to return to its roots in order to have a successful future, and I'm not talking about the business basics. In its infancy, the industry was driven by an entrepreneurial spirit that brought us innovation after innovation and built a model that lasted for 50 years. But the business rules and concepts that carried the industry are exactly what's killing it today, and the only way out of that is to get back to that entrepreneurial spirit. Invite the right-brainers around you; get out the whiteboards and zero base your company.

I often think of that young man who came to see me so long ago, and I wonder what happened to him. He's no doubt found a square hole for his gifts and skills, because life has a way of making that happen. So it is with all of us.

© Terry Heaton