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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Len Downie: Online standards should match print standards

Leonard Downie, Jr., the longtime executive editor of The Washington Post, spoke at the Nieman Foundation’s 70th Anniversary Convocation Weekend Saturday here in Cambridge. Here’s the 23-minute video, the first of several from the weekend. (A full transcript of his talk is below the jump.)

Downie’s topic was the ethical and moral obligations of journalists online. (Or, since he seems to place the same onus on anyone who writes online, even commenters, he’s really talking about the standards he thinks everyone should follow.)

I’d differ with him on the idea that there should be, fundamentally, only one set of standards — or that the web would be a better place if everyone followed them. There’s plenty of room and demand for the high-church standards of the Post and its brethren; there’s also room for a low-church approach that will probably never meet Downie’s standards of news and information but nonetheless can often serve readers better than the old ways can. In any event, see for yourself, and share your thoughts in the comments. (Also, you’ll learn Nieman alumni apparently aren’t big fans of Lou Dobbs.)

Thanks to our Ted Delaney for shooting the video.

I’m really honored to be here. Alex [Jones] was kind enough to not point out that I actually applied for a Nieman Fellowship in the 1960s as a very young man, and I was a finalist and I flunked my interview. So I’m a failed Nieman finalist but they asked me come here and speak today anyway which is very kind. And I was also reminded — the interesting story about the riot here in 1961 over whether the diplomas were gonna be in Latin or English. Sort of illustrated for me the distance between Harvard and Ohio State University, where I was, in 1961 as managing editor of the student newspaper there, covering the biggest riot in the history of Ohio State University before or since. And it was over that fact that — hundreds of, I mean tens of thousands of students were in the streets, marching all the way down to the state capital, overturning cars, burning buildings, and it was over the fact that the faculty in their big, their only statement during the 1960s of academic freedom, voted to not allow the football team go to the Rose Bowl.

If I were sitting out there in the audience I would have two questions right at the start. What are we doing here? Right next door to the Kennedy School, not talking primarily about this historic election. The daunting challenges facing the new president, and especially, the challenges that covering it all poses for the American news media, at a time when they are being transformed by the greatest shifts in audience, economics, and technology, since at least the advent of television.

And why are we listening to this old geezer? A failed Nieman finalist. Most of whose career in journalism predated the digital world. By way of answers I will offer on the outset, as I guess any geezer would, two stories. On election night, as Alex said, I was invited back to the Washington Post newsroom to help out. My assignment was to call the winner of presidential election in each of the 50 states, using data from exit polls, our own polling during the campaign, the decisions being made by the television networks and by the Associated Press, raw vote tallies as they poured in, and reporting by our own journalists.

I juggled all this information in a number of computer programs on two big screens on my desk. I made my calls in a computer data matrix that fed them automatically to our newsroom staff, to our website, and to various interactive computer maps. That folks, is as high tech as I get. With that little bit of help from me, our news staff filled our website with countless stories, blogs, photos, videos, and graphics about this election. We even produced a continuous live video webcast on washingtonpost.com. On it, Post journalists analyzed the election and interview people from 6 p.m. election night until 1:30 the next morning. All of this was seen by millions of people on the web. Of course, we also printed, 700,000 copies of The Washington Post newspaper, for our subscribers, stores, and street racks around the Washington area. When they sold out, long before noon on Wednesday, long lines formed outside our building in downtown Washington, something I haven’t seen since Watergate.

People wanted a newspaper, so we printed another 700,000 copies of Wednesday’s edition of The Washington Post — and they sold out. People continued to line outside out building for two days to buy that paper. I know: Many of those papers would just become souvenirs of the election of the first African-American president in American history. But you could print out our homepage coverage on the web to do that. You could download and print a complete electronic copy of the newspaper, ads and all.

We even handed out full color facsimiles of the newspaper’s front page to the people standing out in line. But they wanted, and they waited hours and hours, to buy the newspaper itself.

My point is not nostalgia for the old days of print. After all, I spent my last years as executive editor of the Post turning our newspaper newsroom into a multimedia, multiplatform newsroom, that puts our content now in words, visuals, sound, video; on a variety of print formats, on radio and television, on computer screens, on handheld devices, including an entirely new application on your iPhone.

Even as our print circulation in the Washington region continues to decline slowly, the audience for our journalism, as a whole, has grown exponentially on the Internet, and now reaches around the country and around the world. Something that was not possible for us in print. I cannot turn back the clock and I would not want to.

The future of news is very unsettling and unpredictable, as you heard from former fellows this morning, but is also full of unprecedented possibilities. I am however deeply concerned about the future of our and other newsrooms that produce all that journalism about the election that engaged such huge audiences in print and online. Even after being reduced in size by about 20 percent during the last few years, the combined staff of The Washington Post print and web newsrooms is still large and quite expensive. And the infrastructure that sustains it and underwrites and protects its integrity is even more expensive.

So the big question for me is: In the digital world, who will pay for that newsroom and the journalism it produces in whatever form it takes in the future? Your question may be: Does it really matter whether there’ll be such an expensive journalism in the digital world? And that brings me to my next story.

Back at the beginning of September, at the Republican National Convention, in St. Paul, Minn., it looked like things were getting off to a slow start. Most of the first day’s activities, you may recall, were cancelled because New Orleans we being hit but what could be another devastating hurricane.

But there also turned out to be newsworthy turbulence is Saint Paul. A blogger known to this day only as ArcXIX, for some reason with Roman numerals, posted on the Daily Kos website a long detailed item, complete with photographs, alleging that Sarah Palin’s four-month-old baby was actually the child of Palin’s 17-year-old daughter Bristol.

That claim proved to be completely false, of course, but officials in John McCain’s campaign said that it forced them to reveal that Bristol Palin was pregnant with her own baby. It could be argued that the Palins and the McCain campaign could have made this known earlier, especially when so much was made about Sarah Palin’s family and her family values when she was selected to be McCain’s running mate. Or it could be argued that it doesn’t really have anything to do with Sarah Palin being a heartbeat away from the presidency, if they where to win the election.

What is unarguable, however, is that a well known website with a wide following among Americans interested in politics, had prominently posted a false story about the Republican Party’s candidate for vice president of the United States, and it had quickly spread throughout the Internet and into the bloodstream of the so-called mainstream media. The proprietor of this popular website, Markos Moulitsas, felt no “moral or ethical obligations,” to close the title I was given for this talk today, to determine whether or not that item was true or false before it was posted. Moulitsas later told Howard Kurtz, the media reporter for The Washington Post: “I feel a little weird about the questions being asked about it, but I also feel a little weird about saying ‘shut up, people.’ It takes a lot for me to make a step in and squash what’s on Daily Kos.”

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the text for sermon. The questions it raises are obvious: What is journalism in the digital world? Who are its journalists? Should they identify themselves and be accountable for what they put in front of us in cyberspace? Does their credibility matter in the digital world? If so, what is credibility in these news days, and how is it achieved? Or to beg the question given to me to discuss today: Are there moral or ethical obligations for journalism in the digital world?

If that question sounds silly to most of you, there maybe other people here, and we known there are millions of them in the cyberspace, who would argue that there are not any particular moral or ethical obligations for journalism in the digital world, beyond publishing whatever it is you wish to publish, and being open for everyone else’s response to it. After all, anyone could be a journalist in the digital world. You obviously don’t need a printing press or a broadcast studio or a licence or a parent news organization. Any laptop, cellphone, or digital camera would do. And journalism itself could be anything that cyberspace journalists and their readers want to be: information, gossip, rumors, opinion, advocacy, conversation, argument, even the sharing of random thoughts and mundane activities through a medium like Twitter.

I’m not gonna argue with those definitions, in part because they’re not even really new. Journalism began in our nation during the 18th century with pamphleteers and pioneering sole proprietors of small newspapers, who mixed only sometimes reliable information with unproven rumors, opinions and, of course, advocacy — including advocacy of revolution. From then through the 19th century, the kinds of gossip and scurrilous attacks published by often stridently newspapers about American politicians, would make the false report about the parentage of Sarah Palin’s small child look tame by comparison. In the early 20th century, the most popular big-city penny-press papers of the yellow-journalism era were often no more credible than many widely read blogs today. And the so-called New Journalism and alternative newspapers and magazines of the 1960s and 1970s raised same of the same questions about the definitions of journalism and journalist that we are now debating in cyberspace.

To me, the journalism in the digital world is merely a new battleground for long-standing struggles over their moral and ethical obligations of journalists. That said, they raise important questions for us to consider. The seismic shift in audience and business models for established news organizations have actually hit at a time, as was mentioned by the panel this morning, the best professional American journalism may be better than it has ever been. Journalists today are better educated, better trained and more expert in the subjects they cover. They use better technology and they work to higher professional standards. The audience for and impact of their journalism has greatly increased in the digital world, on mainstream media websites and aggregators and portals and through search engines and links from other sites and blogs. The web has actually provided journalists with better tools for research and reporting, and it has enabled them to present their journalism in multimedia and interactive forms with greater impact than just print.

The internet has helped make journalists more accurate and accountable. Actually the blogosphere pounces on every mistake, so it is much more difficult to get away journalism that is not rooted in fact now. Even when the web itself spreads false information trough irresponsible blogs, or viral emails and text messages, the mainstream media has a role to play in investigating those rumors and reporting the facts. At the same time, major established news organizations, including metropolitan and national newspapers and network news shows, no longer have monopolies in the news for their targeted audiences. Anyone with access to the Internet could surf countless news sources on the web. Yet the continuing dominance of large brand-name news organizations among the most visited web sites, web news sites, shows that they still retain much of their importance as credible, original sources and verifiers of the news in the free for all journalism of the digital world.

There are also new kinds of news organizations that have established their own audiences and brand credibility on the web. They mix reporting, opinion, aggregation and reader participation, as most old media new organizations are now trying to do. But some of the newcomers has pioneered new forms of journalism that take advantage of the experience and expertise of bloggers, other contributors, and readers.

One example is John [sic] Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. It is a blog that has a newsroom in New York and paid reporters. Marshall has told The New York Times, “I think of us as journalists. The medium we work in is blogging.” The work of his reporters, however, is augmented by information contributed by readers — often very, very knowledgeable readers. And by aggregation of stories on the same subjects from other news organizations, including newspapers and web sites. Talking Points Memo won a George Polk Award for its revelations of the firings of U.S. Attorneys by the Bush Justice Department for what appeared to be political reasons, which is now the subject of a federal investigation.

That reporting included original work by Marshall’s staff; outside contributions including from lawyers and officials of the administration, insiders; and pickups from other news organizations. It is important to note that it was edited journalism however — closely supervised by Marshall himself in order to ensure its credibility.

Many other web sites with sizable audiences and influence also adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness that are recognized and expected by their readers, even when the sites are partisan or ideological in tone or mission. This differentiates them from web sites and blogs that simply throw out information and opinions without regard to their accuracy or fairness, for the agreement or disagreement of their readers.

Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and founder of the non profit investigative reporting project in New York called ProPublica, has characterized this dimension of the digital world as an enormously robust opinion sphere. And he said it has left a growing gap between that and the actual accumulation of information — the sort of information you get and write about after you conceptualize and meditate, as we also heard about this morning. Which of course is what much of the established media still does as much as it can in the 24/7 news cycle of the digital world.

Old-media news organizations like The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Guardian and the television networks, along with new media brands like Politico that play by old-media rules of journalism, are rapidly colonizing the digital world. The 2008 State of the News Media Report by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that more people now consume what the old-media newsrooms produce than ever before. The top 10 most visited news sites on the web are either old-media brands, or take most of their news from old-media brands — aggregators like Huffington Post. And that was before this autumn’s presidential campaign, in which news sites like washingtonpost.com experienced huge increases in traffic and readership. Why? Perhaps because brand credibility, information verification, and trustworthy original reporting actually matter in the digital world.

However, this does not have to be an either/or proposition. You can surf the web for sites that amuse, emotionally satisfy, or outrage you, and you can still go to sites that feature edited, verified news. And the old news media sites have become increasingly webby. Washingtonpost.com, for just one example, has dozens of blogs by reporters covering everything from politics and business to sports and entertainment. It has a wide spectrum of opinion blogs, chats with journalists and news sources, and reader comments on most of its contents. It has video of all kinds and interactive multimedia features. It is experimenting with the aggregation of content from other news sources — something that would have been unheard of just a little while ago. In all of its content except reader comments but including blogs that are not edited before they are posted, our web site adheres to Washington Post standards and ethics, and our readers know it. They expect that from our journalism. They are free to come to our site for that kind of journalism or to stay away if it doesn’t matter to them.

This differentiation also exists for web content that is not produced by professional news organizations. Bloggers become known for their ideologies, for the colorfulness of their expression, or for the credibility of what they publish in the digital world. The Center for Independent Media news network in the public interest, currently consisting of professional looking news blogs in Washington D.C., Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan. Its independent journalists follow a code of ethics that is based on the detailed code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Cyberjournalist.net, a news and resource site for bloggers published by Jonathan Dube, director of digital programming for CBC News [sic], also has promulgated a model bloggers’ code of ethics that appears almost indistinguishable from the standards and ethics of professional news organizations.

It states that bloggers should be honest and fair in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. They should treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect, and they should be accountable for correcting mistakes, disclosing conflicts of interests and avoiding unethical practices. As Dube states on his website, these are just guidelines; in the end, it is up to individual bloggers to choose their own best practices, so that they will be trusted by their readers.

Robert Cox, the President of the Media Bloggers Association, has pointed out that bloggers face the same risk as professional journalists do in the digital world. Risks like libel suits and invasion of privacy suits or violation of copyrights. He told the Columbia Journalism Review that the more professional you are, speaking to bloggers, the better your standards, the more defensible your position.

I’m a First Amendment purist. No journalism can or should be regulated by any one in this country. So I believe that the moral and ethical obligations of journalism in the digital world are those that journalists impose on themselves and that their readers expect from them. What do I think they are? I believe all journalists should accurately identify themselves, and the habit of not doing that on the web drives me crazy. That includes bloggers as well as people who post on blogs, even though that conflicts with the currently prevailing culture of the Internet. Look at cable television. We can be appalled by the bombast, bulling, and factual distortions of a Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann, but at least we know who they are and who they work for. Identification creates some measure of responsibility and accountability.

Readers also should know who is financing journalism in the digital world, and many websites, but not nearly all do disclose that. Conflicts of interest should also be disclosed, if not avoided altogether. I believe that news and opinion should be clearly differentiated on any platform. Of course, some of the best and most thought-provoking opinion contains news. That’s fine, so long as readers can tell the news from the opinion, even when they really don’t care, so that they can evaluate the credibility of the news. Appearances matter; for example, Lou Dobbs should not be anchoring a network news broadcast, especially one containing coverage of immigration. [applause] Somebody tell him you applauded.

Similarly, photography and video should not be doctored or misleadingly used, unless it is obvious it has been altered only to entertain or express opinion. And, perhaps quaintly, I believe journalism should serve the public interest rather than the personal whim of bloggers or special interests of any kind. The most important journalism for me is accountability journalism, the journalism that holds those with power in society accountable to everyone else. That can be accomplished by an ambitious blogger like Josh Marshall or by a large news organization like The Washington Post, but it can seldom be done alone or cheaply. To be effective, it must be accurate, credible, free of conflicts of interest, and defensible if it comes under attack.

It is difficult for me to see how the moral and ethical obligations of that or any other form of journalism in the public interest would be any different in the digital world. In sum, I simply do not see the digital world as some kind of alternative universe for journalism. Rather, I see it simply as another medium — albeit a very dynamic medium with infinite possibilities for the presentation of journalism as it is always been practiced, whether by news organizations or individuals. That necessarily includes good and bad journalism, both equally free to be practiced under the First Amendment. But I hope and expect that journalists who want to be taken seriously in the digital world would strive to meet the same moral and ethical responsibilities as responsible journalists always have.

The more important question for me is how good journalism in the public interest will be financed in the digital world. Are the old print and broadcast models of subscriptions and advertising revenues irreparably deteriorating? What might replace them in the digital world? New forms of subscription or advertising? Non-profit support, which is currently burgeoning in various experimental forms? Subsidies from government or special interests, which I doubt? Direct reader contributions, or some thing else entirely? Professional news organizations are expensive to maintain, and even bloggers have to eat and afford places to live. Too much concentration on the philosophical questions about journalism in the digital world runs the risk of ignoring the most important question before us. Who will pay for the news? Our mission must now be to find viable answers to that question. Thanks for listening.

[Hello, readers from Romenesko, and welcome to the newly launched Nieman Journalism Lab. We hope you'll come back every weekday for reporting, commentary, and conversation about the future of journalism. Here's our front page, here's more about us, and here's our RSS feed.]

                                   
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