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Blogs and the values of journalism

For me, the defining moment at the "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility" conference held at Harvard recently came in an exchange between Jimmy Wales, creator of Wikipedia, and Jill Abramson, managing editor of The New York Times. Abramson was responding to the idea that blogs could displace traditional news-gathering organizations. "Do you know how much it takes to run our Baghdad operation?" she asked. "One million dollars."

Wales responded that the Encyclopedia Britannica is a $350 million operation but Wikipedia is "kicking its butt."

Several of the media people there reacted with hostility. But the way I took Wales' comment, he was saying something the established media ought to heed: Don't be so sure. Recent experience shows that having a large investment and being the established leader isn't absolute protection. So, be careful: Somewhere there might be a Wikipedia waiting to dethrone you.

Many of the representatives of the mass media in the room couldn't hear what Wales was saying for the usual, and very human, reasons: Not only do people want to ignore vague, dire warnings, but our own assumptions usually look like eternal verities. For a couple of centuries, newspapers have assumed that their value consists in fielding an organization that covers the world. Journalists are highly trained, dedicated professionals. It's easy for amateurs, like webloggers, to underestimate what it takes to get journalists everywhere they need to be and to underestimate just how demanding a craft journalism is.

And that's true. It is easy to underestimate both those facts. But it's also easy to overestimate how fiercely our culture will hold on to existing values. If you want to create a newspaper that reads like The New York Times (for example) and has the same standards of quality and accountability as The Times, you will have to spend billions of dollars. But, it's possible that we'd be willing to exchange some of those values for others. Maybe we'd trade the objectivity of The Times' faceless reporters--oh, sure, a few have become celebrities, but The Times works against that--for livelier, more personal writing. Maybe we'd be willing to trade the polished stories in which reporters pull together quotes and ideas for greater access to the voices of those they are interviewing. Maybe, and maybe not. The point is that newspapers like The Times rightfully pride themselves on maintaining certain values, and so long as those are the values the populace cherishes, The Times will rule. But if those values change, anything could happen.

I believe two values in particular are in transition: voice and transparency.

The Net is getting us used to hearing people speaking in a natural tone of voice, each unique. Reportage, on the other hand, is written in the voiceless voice of objectivity that strips out the reporter's unique point of view and way of talking. That, I think, is beginning to sound more and more artificial to many of us. Newspapers already accommodate voice-y writing: op-eds, reviews and features. There will, I believe, be pressure on newspapers to write more reportage as features. This not only personalizes the article, it gives us readers inadvertent metadata that enables us to account for the inevitable biases and points of view of the author.

The second value that's changing is transparency, i.e., letting us see through an article to its sources and to the author writing it. Already a few journalists are posting the complete interviews from which they drew a story. And it would be helpful to know more about an author so we can get a sense of who she is and how she thinks. Transparency accomplishes some of the same goals as the attempt to be objective: Objectivity tries to remove the reporter's point of view, while transparency tries to make that point of view obvious so we can compensate for it as we read the story.

Most of the journalists that I've met chose their profession because they have a commitment to making democracy better. They are idealists in one of the most intensely pragmatic jobs ever. They're sure not doing it for the money or the great hours. That sort of dedication can only be underestimated. It can't be replaced. So, while I genuinely don't know what the media landscape will look like in 10 years, I am confident that journalists--and their values--will remain at the core of how we learn about our world.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" , e-mail self@evident.com.

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