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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

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Monday, October 29th, 2007

Let’s have a real debate about Web 2.0

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Both of us feel so strongly about the National Union of Journalists’ recent statements about Web 2.0 and new media that we felt we had to challenge them. Although we’re breaking the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ rule, we felt these issues are too important to the future of journalism to be left unexamined.

In this post, we want to challenge Donnacha DeLong’s piece WEB 2.0 IS RUBBISH in the Journalist, the union’s magazine. The article is a one-sided polemic which not only mischaracterises Web 2.0 but also misrepresents the way that journalists and editors think about collaborating with their readers.

The article begins with the subhead: “Webfolk call the burgeoning interactive use of the internet ‘Web 2.0’.” “Webfolk”? That’s as dismissive and belittling as “boffins” or “nerds”, but at least it sets one’s expectations pretty accurately for the rest of the article. Whilst DeLong mentions in passing the fact that the web is “full of opportunities”, he chooses to focus only on what he sees as the “dangers”. This is unsurprising. Between us, we’ve come across this The peril! The peril!” attitude from many and various sources, online and in person, but it’s not a constructive attitude for the NUJ - or DeLong as its representative - to take.

DeLong’s first error is to oversimplistically equate Web 2.0 with “participation and feedback from our ‘users’.” As the Telegreph’s Shane Richmond says in the comments on a Jeff Jarvis post, this is no more than a convenient strawman to attack. As we have long argued here at Strange Attractor, Web 2.0 is far more than asking people “tell us what you reckon“. Rather, it creates an opportunity for journalists to find not just eyewitnesses, but also expertise from what Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience”. Any journalist worth his or her salt should be interested in talking to people that witnessed or who can shed real light on news events, and should be willing to go beyond the limits of their own address book - Web 2.0 enables that in a way we’ve never seen before.

Web 2.0 is also about mass collaboration, such as sifting through documents or carrying out research. After another Church of Journalism troll wrote a poorly researched and argued piece in the Los Angeles Times recently, Jay Rosen wrote a piece about the journalism that bloggers actually do. This is about networked investigation and research, not just soliciting feedback and opinion. In the UK, Ben Goldacre who writes the blog Bad Science and a column in The Guardian of the same name, asked his readers to file FOIA requests with Durham Council to get information about fish oil “trials”.

Then there are the database-driven online projects that these new technologies enable. Take a look at the Washington Post’s election coverage. You can see all of the candidates campaign appearances in a Google Maps mashup and even download their calendar. Both are great resources not only for the public but also internally for the Post’s own journalists.

And, of course, the journalistic benefits of Web 2.0 are not just about reader-facing stuff. Tools such as RSS, Google Alerts and social bookmarking help journalists efficiently gather and organise lots of sources of information when doing research. We often hear about how as a society we are overloaded with information, but these tools provide a way to sift through a mass of data to find what we need. Any journalist not using RSS and social bookmarking on a day-to-day basis is making life unnecessarily hard for themselves.

Having thus mischaracterised Web 2.0, DeLong then goes on to claim that it is “seen as replacing traditional media.” By who, exactly? Now, a good blogger would give examples, but we’re expected to take DeLong’s word for it. Obviously it’s difficult to include links in a magazine article, which DeLong’s piece originally was, but there is no reason not to provide sources on his blog post. The irony, of course, is that this is the exact sort of cut-and-paste from print to web behaviour that the NUJ complains about in its report on mulitmedia working. (Note: We haven’t seen the original report yet, so we will comment fully on that later, when we have.)

But neither of us can think of any traditional news organisation with a strategy - stated or otherwise - of replacing all their journalists with content sourced from the internet and/or their readers. And the discussion about the dissolution of the mainstream media in favour of 100% citizen journalism was had in (and outside, but mainly in) the blogosphere at least three years ago.

Then DeLong digs up the old chestnut that journalists alone can produce “truly authoritative content”, a claim that is patently untrue. Suffice it to say that long before we were even talking about Web 2.0, Dan Gillmor understood that his readers in Silicon Valley had expert knowledge that he could tap into to make his journalism better. There are thousands of experts out there - lawyers, professors, professionals - who are writing about their field in an accessible and interesting manner.

DeLong then says:

They have the ability to produce content that informs and fulfil an essential part of democracy – the widespread dissemination of information that allows the public to question those in charge.

This is over-egging the pudding somewhat. The good journalist does this, but many who should, don’t. We too often see press releases and wire copy republished with nary a challenge to the party line. Sometimes it’s only the dogged persistence of activists and experts - some of whom are bloggers, many of whom are not - who fact check, challenge and publicise inaccuracies that results in a more accurate story being told.

And the training that DeLong puts such stock in is rather a red herring too. Many excellent journalists come from non-journalism backgrounds, but bring expertise in specialist areas such as science, business, technology and the arts, to name a few. And many poor journalists went to J-school. Setting up journalists, collectively, as some sort of bastion of democracy and truth is rather an exaggeration.

Journalists aren’t the only people who can contribute to democracy. Where would journalists have been without pictures from “witness contributors” - to use the NUJ’s phrase - when covering the recent crackdown in Burma?

Much of this unnecessary angst about the threat of citizen journalism and Web 2.0 - and the deification of journalists that accompanies it - comes from the misperception that everyone wants to be a journalist. Only a tiny percentage of bloggers have any desire to go into journalism, and they would have made moves to enter their chosen profession with or without Web 2.0. But the vast majority of people who provide eyewitness reports of an event are there only through luck (good or bad), and expert bloggers are expert because they have years of experience behind them. Neither groups has any interest in changing careers.

DeLong goes on:

The media are not perfect. More often than not, they focus on issues the public is interested in rather than those that are truly in the public interest. But those who argue that Web 2.0 is the future want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The imperfections and exemplars of the media are entirely irrelevant to whether or not Web 2.0 has a part to play in the media’s future. More importantly, the media has to realise that it has no choice: It must embrace the internet, including Web 2.0, because the audience is already there and advertisers are moving there quickly.

The mainstream media is not leading the charge to the internet, it is following along behind its audience, laggardly, sullenly and defensively. Many journalists have spent ten years dismissing the internet as a fad and an inferior medium. They are equally dismissive of Web 2.0 without even knowing what it means. DeLong says on the NUJ New Media’s blog, “So there we go - a nice big debate about the issues”, but he has done nothing to move the debate forward and nothing to help of inform NUJ members. Instead, he has engaged in more scare-mongering about the threat of the internet and simplistically focused on perceived, but illusory, dangers to journalism.

Both of us embraced the internet because of the opportunities it presents. It’s the world’s greatest story-telling medium, bringing together the strengths of text, audio, video and interaction. The internet as a communications tool can help journalists tap sources like never before, making their stories richer and more balanced. Why wouldn’t journalists take advantage of the internet?

Yes, the job is changing, and we as journalists need to change with it. The internet may be posing a threat to the business model that support journalism, and it’s understandable that this causes anxiety. But misrepresenting the reality of that change won’t make it go away.

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11 Responses to “Let’s have a real debate about Web 2.0”

  1. Mike Says:

    Is Donnacha DeLong a real name? Looks like an anagram or a character in a Disney cartoon. Anyhow, it seems to me that the MSM are taking the whole issue of participation a lot more seriously. There are several examples of this, but one will do. As has been widely reported, CNN has cancelled its contract with Reuters to invest more resources into attracting UGC.

  2. Jay Rosen Says:

    Go, Suw and Kevin, go.

  3. Konstruktors Notes Says:

    Finally Some Critical Writing About the Web

    After writing the previous article ‘What is Wrong with the Tech Journalism’ and thinking more about the portrayal of the Web by off/online journalists, I have finally found a few great articles that try to critically assess the otherwise hyped “u…

  4. Thad Martin Says:

    It is a technology to be embraced. It allows the media to engage and expand their audience. It’s a threat to journalists and the traditional media only if they refuse to embrace it and remain ignorant of the almost limitless opportunities that it presents them.

  5. Paul Says:

    Phew, Suw and Kevin - why on earth do you write such lengthy quasi-religious tracts? Are they designed as expressions of faith? It all feels very cult-like.

    So 1,500 words duly delivered… without addressing her main points. No, not everyone can play Manchester United, let alone beat them. The taste of power is an illusion.

    Game and first set: Donnacha.

  6. matt Says:

    Factchecking is a good thing Paul.

    DD is a man:

    Donnacha Delong is a member of the NUJ Multi-Media Commission. He represents new media journalists on the union’s National Executive Council.

    oops.

  7. Kevin Anderson Says:

    Paul,

    As for quasi-religious, I left the Church of Journalism a while ago, and as far as point scoring, we’re not even playing the same game as Donnacha.

  8. Nick Reynolds (BBC) Says:

    Good article.

    Good writing and interesting opinion can be done just as well by citizens as paid journalists (and sometimes better).

    Newsgathering can be supplemented significantly by citizens.

    Rewriting agency copy and press releases increasingly seems a questionable activity when you can link.

    But good investigative journalism which requiries investment and committment could be one of the key growth areas.

    http://nickreynoldsatwork.wordpress.com/2007/10/31/strange-practices-and-other-opinions/

  9. Mark Deuze Says:

    Although I appreciate the fair criticism about a less-than-enthusiastic reading of “Web 2.0″ and indeed a rather archaic deification of The One Journalism myth, it does seem that most online responses (this one, Jeff Jarvis, and so on) equally suffer from a less than realistic or at least grounded view.

    Parallel to the Web 2.0 and convergence/multimedia trends in the news industry are reports on a constant stream of outsourcing (of editorial jobs to India and elsewhere; the WSJ calls this “remote control journalism”), downsizing and lay-offs, reporters forced to stay deskbound to rewrite agency copy, investments that go almost exclusively towards new Technology rather than new Talent, and news sites that proudly announce to go “hyperlocal” (in a celebration of Web 2.0) while at the same time firing tens to hundreds of reporters.

    Now you may be very excited about all of this, but this is has nothing to with natural selection, with weeding out the good from the bad, and you cannot expect the “real” journalistic talent will come out on top, regardless.

    in a very real sense the profession is being dismantled and depopulated from all sides. newcomers and young journalists will never ever receive fulltime or permanent contracts let alone benefits, money for training, or paid overtime.

    yet at the same time our expectations of the work of professional journalists skyrocket (and rightly so). but let us not forget the vast majority of professional journalists have to do their work in a context where they have seen their co-workers fired, their innovative ideas squashed (by a self-interested managerial culture), and their chance to tell stories outsourced to “citizen reporters.”

    I’m not defending a rigid, outdated view on journalism - but i AM defending the right of hardworking professionals to be supported and empowered in trying to do their work.

    let us not forget that the vast majority of people in our countries (whether US or UK or elsewhere) are NOT online, do NOT read blogs, and are equally important citizens to be served by quality information that has been gathered and selected by people who can be held professionally accountable.

    oh yeah: Web 2.0 is great.

  10. Suw and Kevin Says:

    Mark, thanks for your comment.

    You say that we “suffer from a less than realistic or at least grounded view”. Our views are influenced by working in or with news organisations and in social media. Both of us are working ‘at the coal face’, dealing with these issues on a day to day basis. We’re far from having our heads in the clouds. The reality is that news companies are working to grow the digital side of their business as quickly as possible. And executives are working to grow the digital business to support quality journalism and the ’social mission’ of journalism, as one New York Times executive called it recently.

    But as Steve Yelvington pointed out (http://www.yelvington.com/20070815/why_henry_blodget_is_wrong_about_newspaper_business_models) earlier in the year, the newspaper industry has seen a decline in readership stemming back to the early 1970s, long before the internet became an issue. He says that the problem is “not a migration of consumption from [...] print products to [...] internet products. The core problem face by newspapers is a loss of readers across the board.”

    The way that the industry is responding to this pressure includes outsourcing, layoffs and “downsizing”, some of which is necessary, but some of which is being done clumsily, to say the least. In no way do we condone poor management decisions, but the internet is not to blame for that. A lack of understanding of the core problems faced by the media - and even less understanding of the internet, its effects and opportunities - amongst both management and journalists is a serious problem and recent discussions such as this one show that there is still a long way to go with that. If there is investment in “technology rather than new talent” as you say, it’s because news organisations, especially newspapers, have under-invested in technology for the last decade to adapt and take advantage of the internet. The view that somehow news organisations are ’stripping’ their traditional businesses to support digital ventures exaggerates a shift in funding priorities.

    We don’t believe that there’s any evidence to show that there future is as bleak for journalist graduates as you paint it. Yes, there may be fewer jobs and that graduates may have to have a broader skillset, but this sort of issue is not restricted to journalism. Indeed, Suw graduated with a degree in Geology, but come graduation one needed a Masters or Doctorate to get a job because many of the traditional entry-level jobs had dried up as the oil companies put a freeze on recruitment.

    Certainly, saying that journalism students will never get a full time or permanent job is an exaggeration. Equally, sticking heads in the sand and saying that journalists shouldn’t have to learn new skills is deeply unrealistic. All sorts of people in all sorts of careers are having to learn new skills because of recent advances in technology - secretaries are having to learn how to use wikis, for example, something that I suspect no one would have predicted even five years ago.

    As for this being an extraordinarily grim time in journalism, Kevin can’t remember a time during his 15-year journalism career that the business has not been under pressure or, indeed, full blown crisis. Shortly after getting his first job, a spike in newsprint costs led to a hiring freeze. His second job was at a local television station. After a change in ownership, in typical fashion a new general manager led a Stalinist purge of middle and upper management, installing his own people. And after the dot.com crash, most of his friends in online journalism lost their jobs. Many left journalism entirely.

    Of course hardworking journalists should be paid for their work - we don’t argue otherwise. But that job is changing, and that change is inevitable. The journalists best placed to take advantage of the changes that the industry is undergoing are the ones who embrace it.

    You say that not everyone is not online - but internet adoption in the UK is at 61% according to National Statistics (http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=8) and generally speaking, adoption is increasing. The truth is, people are getting their news online, from both traditional news outlets like the BBC or the Guardian, and they are increasingly referring to blogs too. It is, of course, important that we have professional journalists, but this isn’t an either/or world - we can have professional journalists *and* bloggers *and* eye-witness reports.

  11. Mark Deuze Says:

    Thanks, I appreciate the chance to continue this important debate.

    You write: “We don’t believe that there’s any evidence to show that there future is as bleak for journalist graduates as you paint it.”

    I understand that belief, but the statistics show otherwise. Consider the gradual decline of fulltime employed journalists in the US, as reported in “The American Journalist in the 21st Century” (book published by LEA in 2007). The representative surveys show the overall number of fulltime journalists working for mainstream, English-language traditional news media dropped from an estimated 122,015 in 1992 to an estimated 116,148 in 2002. The largest drops were for journalists working for daily newspapers and radio stations. The largest increases were for those working for weekly (or nondaily) newspapers and television (information courtesy of my IU colleague and co-author of that book David Weaver).

    Another good source are the Annual Surveys of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates (conducted since 1988), which are designed to monitor the employment rates and salaries of graduates of journalism and mass communication programs in the United States, including Puerto Rico. Let me quote from their website: “Graduates of U.S. journalism and mass communication programs confronted a weakened job market in 2006 and early 2007 [...] the journalism and mass communication job market still lags behind what it was in 2000, the year that represents the most favorable market for graduates in the last 20 years.” (see an earlier debate on this issue between Nicholas Carr and Mark Glaser).

    So yes, companies investing in technology play catch-up, but this at the same time depopulates the field of journalism.

    Also, studies of workplace cultures in news organization show consistently that journalists that ARE employed today spend almost ALL of their time at their desks/computers, as all this great technology forces them to manage more and more content (that is indeed the job title of many journalists today: content manager) rather than going out to “report the story.”

    Then you state: “Certainly, saying that journalism students will never get a full time or permanent job is an exaggeration.” No, it is not an exaggeration, I’m afraid. Statistics offered by a 2006 report of the International Federation of Journalists & International Labor Organization show that at least 30% of ALL journalists in Europe and North America have “atypical” work (that means: temporary, subcontracted, project-based, part time, freelance, or otherwise contingent). That percentage for those reporters under the age of 30 is higher: its the majority.

    Additionally, I’ve been talking with freelance journalists and their associations in many countries over the summer (USA, South Africa, Netherlands, UK), and one thing they all confirm is that many, if not most young/newcoming journalists do not even show up in these numbers because they earn more than 50% of their salary not from news organizations, but by PR/advertising/marketing work (copywriting mostly), as all the work in journalism has been fragmented - much like is quite common in the film and TV industries.

    to be sure, I appreciate the comment that none of this is new - it has always been tough getting into journalism. the change is: supportive working conditions and legitimate expectations of employers investing in the careers of their workers. those things are, generally speaking, gone.

    also, your observation about internet penetration/adoption rates. I suggest you look at the statistics of the people of the Oxford Internet Institute and the World Internet Project. their research consistently shows the digital divide is not only structural, but also deepening.

    furthermore, internet adoption is not the same as actual usage. The experimental studies I know on media access and use suggest that most people - even those happily online, higher educated, high socio-economic status - have a hard time understanding online formats/genres.

    Finally, you state: “The truth is, people are getting their news online”. Generally speaking they do not: just about every scientific survey among a representative sample of the general population - and THAT is the group journalism has a social responsibility towards - shows local/national TV and newspapers are far more used, trusted and relied upon for general news than internet.

    Again: I am pro-Web 2.0, excited about participatory media culture, and agree that journalism as a whole can benefit from all that this has to offer.

    but you can only expect reporters and editors to do so if they are supported in meaningful ways, if they are included in managerial strategies, if they are empowered to innovate from the bottom-up - rather than being told to either adapt to the brand new 3-million dollar Content Management System or get out.

    it would be interesting to find out which news organization truly “get it”, and invest in their workers, engage with their communities, embrace technology to the extent it really contributes to quality reporting, and where all stakeholders (reporters, editors, audiences, clients, sponsors, sources) feel part of the conversation?