The debate over news and new media is too often tribal. And though it may make for lively debate, tribalism impairs judgment. Yesterday, Jeff Bercovici blamed a 21-year-old stringer for the violent deaths of 24 people, including seven United Nations workers in riots in Afghanistan, after AFP published his account of a Koran-burning in Florida by Terry Jones, the unhinged pastor. The context, according to Bercovici: the report went against an informal media consensus to ignore Jones’s antics. This has been rebutted elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail on it. But there is a basic problem in arguing that journalism – communicating information about something that happened – is by definition a provocation, or that people looking to provoke, and people susceptible to provocation, won’t find some instrument to express themselves no matter what AFP does. In addition, old media is not a cartel; media outlets cannot collectively agree to “disappear” an event any more than investment banks can all agree buy stocks in order to make the market go up. And if they could, what standards are they supposed to use?

But there’s another issue here. This post – which took shots at Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis – was also reminiscent of Bill Keller’s attack on Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post. As Bercovici’s subject was citizen journalism – or journalism outside the old media cartel and its values and standards – Keller’s subject was aggregation. The problem here is that “aggregation” wasn’t Arianna’s idea. It is a technological and economic feature of the web as it currently exists. It’s very easy to set up a website or an app and pull in content from many sources. This is a useful service. Sometimes this occurs illegally, and/or without permission, and the HuffPo has done some things with NYT content that the NYT doesn’t appreciate. But if that’s really the problem, a magazine column isn’t the place to deal with it.

By personalizing the issue, Keller trivialized it. Aggregation is a force that that legacy media must grapple with. (Indeed, the NYT does some aggregating of its own.) Markets, technology, clicks and eyeballs aren’t personal. Attacking individuals instead of acknowledging this reality is unserious. The problem here is oversimplifying and anthropomorphizing complex forces, putting a human face on uncontrollable trends the writer disdains. This a common feature of politics – which should tell you something. It’s a terrible way to do journalism. For journalists, anecdotes can carry great power, but in each of these instances the anecdote collapses under the weight of the subject it’s supposed to exemplify. The broader problem here is viewing new media from a position that is simultaneously both defensive and dismissive. That is not a good frame of mind to bring to bear on a rapidly emerging global economic and social phenomenon. The forces being unleashed by new media and social media are formidable. And for journalists, worthy of respect and a sincere effort to understand them. Even if they piss you off.

NEW YORK - APRIL 03:  An early customer emerge...

Image by Getty Images North America via Daylife

Everybody loves – loves! – the iPad. The downside is that Apple’s new device may also be an anti-democratic force. The app-based touchscreen interface allows the creation of elegant media-consumption experiences. But it also grants the big media producers a lot of control they don’t enjoy on the open web, and limits our ability to talk back and share. At least this is what Jeff Jarvis, Dave Winer, and several other sophisticated commentators believe.

Here’s Jarvis:

It’s meant for consumption, we’re told, not creation. We also hear, as in David Pogue’s review, that this is our grandma’s computer. That cant is inherently snobbish and insulting. It assumes grandma has nothing to say. But after 15 years of the web, we know she does. I’ve long said that the remote control, cable box, and VCR gave us control of the consumption of media; the internet gave us control of its creation. Pew says that a third of us create web content. But all of us comment on content, whether through email or across a Denny’s table. At one level or another, we all spread, react, remix, or create. Just not on the iPad.

Winer:

It’s definitely not a writing tool. Out of the question. This concerns Jeff Jarvis, rightly so. This is something my mother observed when I demoed it to her on Saturday. Howard Weaver writes that not everyone is a writer. True enough, and not everyone is a voter, but we have an interest in making it easy for people to vote. And not everyone does jury duty, but easy or not, we require it. Writing is important, you never know where creative lightning will strike. And pragmatically, experience has shown that the winning computer platforms are the ones you can develop for on the computer itself, and the ones that require other, more expensive hardware and software, don’t become platforms. There are exceptions but it’s remarkable how often it works this way.

I don’t have an iPad – at least, not yet – but I identify with these concerns. (more…)

My first reaction upon reading today’s old-vs.-new media tussle between Ron Rosenbaum and Jeff Jarvis was to wonder “can’t we all get along?” A tiresome sentiment, I know. But is it any more so than replaying the arguments that these two heavy-hitters bring to the endless circular discussion about 21st century journalism?

Shorter Rosenbaum: Jarvis is cruel to those traditional journalists and old media outlets getting hammered by job and budget cuts. Jarvis ignores what they bring to the table –  reporting on real life events – while focusing on the new forms journalism should take. And his self-regard has become unbearable.

Shorter Jarvis: I’m just telling it like it is: if traditional journalists don’t stop whining and adapt to a rapidly changing environment, they’re doomed. And I’m not unbearable; the truth hurts. Nyah.

Rosenbaum is his typically entertaining self: Jarvis’s oracular pronouncements and descriptions of his jet-setting do sometimes verge on self-parody. But I think Jarvis is, on the whole, correct: radical innovation is the only way forward for journalism, and is incredibly promising. Whining about the bygone days (five years ago!) of newspapers and magazines may provide a necessary emotional outlet, but it’s a huge waste of energy and a distraction from the challenges at hand.

But Rosenbaum does identify a weakness that runs through the pronouncements of many a new media guru: the obsession with, and fetishization of, technology and new forms. That’s good as far as it goes, but it’s still not clear what truly great post-dead tree journalism looks like. Oh, there are more and more examples out there – TPM, Spot.us, Grist.org – that combine reporting with technology, Internet, and social networks in compelling ways. And examples of the big media outlets adapting, such as the Washington Post’s decision to include blogger Chris Cillizza as part of its incoming White House team.

However, there’s a certain chicken-or-the-egg factor here. Do emerging technology and the social changes that follow from it naturally beget quality journalism (if you build it, they – journalists and readers – will come)? Or is there a risk that if you focus on technology and the changing relationship between the journalist and the news consumer, the fundamentals get lost in the shuffle? This is a problem at many newspapers, which in their relentless race to cut back and innovate simultaneously are literally trading journalism talent and experience for technical expertise.

The focus on technology, form, and social networking is a big part of the puzzle. But content should be given its due. What are the problems – in communities, the nation, the world – that deserve investigation and exposure with these wondrous new tools?

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