Knowing a lot less than your readers

I've resisted getting into another confrontation with Dave Winer, preferring to leave it to Nick Carr and Donna Bogatin to respond to one of the dumbest overgeneralizing "insights" Dave has ever published, that journalism is "like cooking dinner" and that it is "easier for readers to become reporters than it is for reporters to become readers.

Anna PolitskovskayaI've resisted getting into another confrontation with Dave Winer, preferring to leave it to Nick Carr and Donna Bogatin to respond to one of the dumbest overgeneralizing "insights" Dave has ever published, that journalism is "like cooking dinner" and that it is "easier for readers to become reporters than it is for reporters to become readers."

Then, I read this obituary for murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya:

SHE was brave beyond belief, reporting a gruesome war and a creeping dictatorship with a sharp pen and steel nerves. It may be a chilling coincidence that Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Vladimir Putin's birthday, but her friends and supporters are in little doubt that her dogged, gloomy reporting of the sinister turn Russia has taken under what she called his “bloody” leadership was what led to her body being dumped in the lift of her Moscow apartment block. 

Winer wrote last week, in a posting I'll take point by point:

Dan Gillmor says his readers know more than he does, of course they do, this is another way of saying that you have more than one or two readers. It's so obvious, but that's okay, people often miss what's obvious. Sometimes the more obvious it is the more people miss it.

Unfortunately, Dan didn't mean that reporters should give way to their readers, but embrace a humble approach to the information they gather, engaging with rather than simply talking at, their readers. Dan Gillmor has not advocated surrendering the practice of journalism, with all of its fact-checking, striving for objectivity and a dedication to reporting even information that they do not find "important" because it is part of their resposibility, their beat, to do so.

What's happening to news is what's happening to everything. The readers are becoming the writers. Anything the LA Times does that fails to embrace this phenomenon will not work.

The readers are becoming editorialists, for the most part. Every study of blogging shows that little original information is sourced by bloggers, who by and large depend on the press for original research. The proof of this is in the fact that those blogs that have developed original information have quickly become journalistic business operations. It actually pays when you do it right, just like coding does.

News is not like the symphony, it's like cooking dinner. 
I'd ask Dave to clarify his language. It's very easy to say "news," but what do you mean, Dave? A newspaper or site consisting of a comprehensive selection of stories that portray the world today or a single article? If the former, please define the editors' roles without using any reference to coordination or synthesizing of information, then you can keep your news-symphony simile. If you're talking about researching and writing a story, can you show that the ingredients are simply sitting on the shelf waiting to be used? I don't think so, but you are convinced you know how reporting works—where, in fact, do facts come from and how do they get on the page, Dave? 

And should we really be trying to save the news organizations we have? This is a serious question. I go back and forth. At breakfast yesterday, a group of us were discussing the Foley scandal. We had also watched a Bill Moyers show where they revealed the details of the Tom Delay (sic) scandal, which was much deeper and more insidious than the Foley scandal. Yet the press has focused on the less interesting one, presumably based on the assumption that the reader or viewer would not understand the Delay scandal. But be clear, it was their choice to go this route, no reader or viewer made the decision, they did. I think it was because they knew how to proceed. It was a question of Who Knew What When. Iraq, Katrina and Delay do not fit that template. So I have to wonder whether we should be concerned if CNN or MSNBC or the LA or NY Times are in trouble, if the only story they know how to report is WKWW.

Amazingly, Dave Winer condemns the news by citing its working well and people talking about its product over breakfast. The DeLay (corrected from "Delay"—Dave's spelling error spread to me) story was well covered and he is out of office and the Republicans don't even stand a strong chance of holding the seat. It happened a while back, relative to the Foley scandal, so you seem to be exercising a very selective memory to justify his position. Scandals like DeLay (corrected) and Foley don't fit the "breaking news" mold like a hurricane—one doesn't send a reporter outside to say "it's raining" when a Congressman breaks the law.

But, more importantly, there's no evidence that anyone is trying to save these news organizations by freezing them in a pleasant 1992 model where the mass media is in charge. Dave, wake up and smell the reality—news is changing constantly and completely, including far more interaction with readers. 

In any case, I've laid out the roadmap quite a few times. When we look back in a few years, I'm totally sure this will have turned out to be the way it went. In ten years news will be gathered by all of us. The editorial decisions will be made collectively, and there will be people whose taste we trust who we will turn to to tell us which stories to pay attention to. Instead of three of these, there will be thousands if not tens of thousands. One for every political persuasion, one for every mood, demographic, age range, maybe even by geography. The role of gatekeeper will be distributed, as will the role of reporter. Very few people, if any, will earn a living doing this, much as most of us don't earn a living by cooking dinner, but we do it anyway, cause you gotta eat.

I would, at this point, suggest Dave read about Ms. Politkovskaya (murdered for her reportage on the Kremlin), Ernie Pyle (killed by a Japanese sniper on Iwo Jima), Edward R. Murrow (flew repeatedly over Germany during World War II), Ida Tarbell (had herself committed to an asylum to see how patients were treated), Kimberly Dozier (wounded in Iraq, while her colleagues James Brolan and Paul Douglas were killed), Michael Kelly (killed in Iraq) and many, many others, including the almost 100 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003.

Winer, in blind pursuit of his point, completely misses everything that happens before he picks up his paper or his "river of news," thinking, apparently, that the value of news is all in the sifting, not actual reportage. 

Change comes slowly but change comes.

Yes, Dave, it does. It's happening all around you, but you're choosing only to see what you want to see. This is exactly why your scenario where we choose someone's "taste" in news for our filtering is a lousy idea. There will be many more filters, but sourcing news is still expensive and dangerous. Not quite as dangerous as a self-reinforcing world view encouraged by a media that "tell us which stories to pay attention to." Dictating what was important was the problem with the old media, too. 

You can try to hold the world in place so your life continues to make sense, but the world is too big and you're too small, change comes, eventually, no matter how much you think it shouldn't.

Excellent advice for you, Dave, to take to heart. I am sure that the last thing Anna Politkovskaya was not: "I tried too hard to hold the world in place so that my life continued to make sense." A journalist is trained to question the world, not just hold it to a standard they imagine is moral, which would be the definition of bias.

It's easier for readers to become reporters than it is for reporters to become readers.

Rest assured, Dave, that every reporter starts as a reader. Have enough respect for people not to dismiss the foundations of their chosen profession; this statement is the equivalent of a reporter characterizing all coders as "people with no lives." What we need are more people of courage to gather inconvenient facts, not just more filters to show us what we want to see.

Without a doubt, this was the Worst Winer Posting Ever, because, Dave, you know a lot less about this than you think.