Friday, June 1, 2007

On Jay Rosen's "A Blog is a Little First Amendment Machine"

Main stream media journalists are about to be blogged to death.

I would like to call attention to a piece written by New York University professor Jay Rosen in today's Huffington Post, "A Blog is a Little First Amendment Machine," where he discusses the impact that journalistic blogging has had on the main stream media, and the potential it has to set a new agenda for newsgathering in the future. Rosen writes:
The most famous words ever written about freedom of the press are in the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law..." But the second most famous words come from the critic A.J. Liebling: "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one." Well, freedom of the press still belongs to those who own one, and blogging means practically anyone can own one. That is the Number One reason why blogs--and this discussion--matter.

With blogging, an awkward term, we designate a fairly beautiful thing: the extension to many more people of a free press franchise, the right to publish your thoughts to the world. Wherever blogging spreads the dramas of free expression follow. A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine.

Rosen notes that the blog "Firedoglake" showed up the MSM at the Scooter Libbey trial, and showed everyone else how real journalism is done:
Firedoglake got handed a golden opportunity by the reluctance of big news organizations to spend money on the information commons. At the Libby trial, there was no broadcast, no taping allowed. No posted transcript for anyone to consult. Thus the most basic kind of news there is--what was said in court today--was missing.

Converging on Washington, the team from Firedoglake felt they represented people back home who wanted to know everything. And so they decided to live blog the trial. Typing at fast as they could, they produced the only blow-by-blow account of the trial available to the public. They also provided expert interpretation because they knew more about the case than most of those being paid to cover it. In fact journalists covering the trial began to rely on Firedoglake's accounts because it had the most complete coverage.

Although I have used the blog format to publish rich media-based papers (See "The Savage Mind on Madison Avenue" and "The Heart of the Matter" through the links above), blogging, so far, is largely an analog for text-based print media. Many bloggists, like Joshua Micah Marshall over at Talking Points Memo, have experimented with reporting via video inserts in their blogs. While interesting in its attempt to incorporate rich media, the blog remains largely print-oriented. I can imagine a new type of blog coming along at some point in the near future that combines the best parts of traditional blogging with YouTube and Facebook.

A number of years ago Apple Computer produced a think piece about what the computing experience of the future might be like. A man enters an office that contains a leather-bound book on a desk. There are no wires, no keyboard or monitor. The man opens the book to reveal a fully interactive touch screen. A small "personal assistant" (I think he was called an “avatar”) appears on the screen to inform him that he has messages and to assist with whatever tasks he needs to perform. Though obviously animated, the avatar represents a realistic CGI depiction of a small human being. All interaction initially is through speech, although the man is able to call up a chart and change its contents, both by spoken words and by touching the screen. The personal assistant could also call any real person the man wanted to talk to, and he or she would appear, in video, on his book-screen. I don't know if this short film has found its way to YouTube. If anyone has seen it, please let me know.

I think the future of blogging lies along a similar path. Most blogs are conveyed by writing now, but blogging will be delivered by speech and pictures in the future. The cost barriers to producing video continue to fall, and the capability to produce professional quality work is being honed on YouTube as we speak.

If my vision of the blogging future is correct, it suggests certain dangers. As Neil Postman noted, it is the nature of television (that is, image and sound communication as opposed to print communication) to degrade news reporting and political discourse to the point that we are "amusing ourselves to death." For example, it is the height of irony that critics of Al Gore’s Assault on Reason still focus on his manner and appearance rather than his argument. If increased bandwidth and transmission speeds allow bloggists to emulate the output of the broadcast media, what will prevent them from following the same path?

Rosen notes that in blogging there is strength in numbers:

On March 20th of this year, the Justice Department released 3,000 pages of documents to the House Judiciary Committee, which was investigating why a group of seven federal prosecutors were fired last year, a scandal that continues to make headlines today. Over at TPM, a investigative site started by the political blogger Josh Marshall, the guys who work for Marshall were wondering how they were going to sort through those 3,000 pages to see if any clues turned up. And then they realized: "We don't have to. Our readers can help."

The Judiciary Committee had put the document dump online in the form of PDF files. And so Marshall's guys asked readers to pick a PDF and read through the documents. "If you find something interesting (or damning), then tell us about it in the comment thread below," they wrote. Readers finished in a day or two and made some intriguing finds. The significance is obvious: potentially hundreds or thousands of hands available to work on a single story.

This is the “open source” approach to journalism research. Blogging reverses the media flow from "one to many" into "many to one." Blogging in the future may also incorporate aspects of video conferencing, with real time content delivery and response. This ability will allow the blogging information commons to emulate the give-and-take environment that Postman lauds in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Conversations won’t be limited to 30 or 60 minute timeslots, and all participants will have the ability to post questions and get responses. Instant recall of any video or audio piece from the internet "memory well" will hold speakers accountable for what they say and do and what they have said and have done.

As a bloggist myself, I heartily agree with Rosen's assessment. The main stream media doesn't know what's hitting them and when their reading and viewing public disappears almost entirely, they will still be scratching their heads in consternation and wonder.

No comments: