Blah, Blah, Blog

By: Jesse Oxfeld As these things go, Reuters' Tuesday night panel on blogging and journalism was top-notch.

There was, for starters, the venue, a luxurious wood-paneled event space on the 30th floor of the news service's Times Square tower, with views north to Central Park and southeast across Manhattan to Brooklyn -- and was that the Atlantic in the distance? There were the refreshments, a long, curving table topped with a cornucopia of cheeses, meats, vegetables, and breads, all complemented by an open bar pouring, among other things, three different scotches.

Finally, there was the panel, which included omnipresent blogevangelist Jeff Jarvis; The Wall Street Journal's John Fund and BusinessWeek's Stephen Baker representing, one presumed, old media; two buzzed-about young bloggers, CJR Daily's Bryan Keefer (formerly of and FishbowlDC's Garrett Graff (who recently became the first blogger accredited to the White House briefing room); and the moderator, Reuters' editor for political and general news, Paul Holmes, who oversaw the proceedings with a dry wit, a serious news background, and the sort of English accent that can make anything sound important and sophisticated.

And yet -- though perhaps I would have felt differently had I sampled more than one of the scotches -- I couldn't wait for the damned thing to end.

A month ago, I was in Washington for a series of panels on related topics put on by The Week magazine. They were similarly top-notch, in similarly fancy venues, featured similar usual suspects (David Brooks, Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown, Margaret Carlson, Wonkette), and were overseen by similarly well-credentialed moderators (Walter Isaacson, who remains the embodiment of New York Media despite no longer living in New York or working in media, and Sir Harry Evans, who has edited London's Sunday Times and Random House Books and lots of other things, and who possesses both a charmingly avuncular mien and a plummy English accent of his own).

There's also, you'll recall, that National Press Club panel on blogging and journalism set for tomorrow, the one that breaks up the panelist monotony by featuring the inimitable Jeff Gannon/Jim Guckert alongside standard folks like Fishbowler Graff and the Wonkette.

And don't forget that big blogging panel at Harvard in January, where Jeff Jarvis may or may not have shaken his head in disgust when The New York Times' Jill Abramson pointed out that for all the big talk about independent bloggers and how they're replacing traditional media, did anyone have any idea what it costs the Times to run its Baghdad bureau?

Or the keynote "super-panel," as it was called, at the Online News Association Conference in November, where Huffington and Slate blogger Mickey Kaus and Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi and various others discussed, natch, blogging and journalism, this time in the context of election coverage.

This has been going on, already, for half a year, at least. So I realized I couldn't wait for the Reuters panel to end simply because it's wearying listening to pretty much the same people saying pretty much the same things: Blogs are great. They're changing media. They're taking the corporate media to account. They're self-regulating. There's no barrier to entry.

Yes. We know. Tuesday night's event was billed as a "Reuters Newsmaker Debate" -- moderator Paul Holmes used the term several times -- but nothing was debated. Even the designated oldsters on the panel were bloggers, and the only disagreement was to what degree participants share Jeff Jarvis' conviction that blogs are a total, complete, unmitigated, unprecedented good, capable not just of transforming media but also of forging Mideast peace, providing a clean and renewable source of energy, removing ring-around-the-collar, and cleanly slicing a tomato even after sawing through an aluminum can.

That's not to say that all the agreement is wrong. It's to say all the agreement is moot. "Debating" whether blogs belong in the journalism is debating whether the genie should have left the bottle: Whether you like it or not -- and most do like it -- it's done. And it's time to stop discussing it at panel after panel.

There can be real debate, and interesting panels, if instead they look at how this new news environment can function as a business.

A brief mention was made of an article in the current Carnegie Reporter by Merrill Brown, the founding editor in chief of MSNBC who's now an independent consultant. Brown's piece documented the degree to which younger generations are getting their news not from the morning newspaper or the evening newscast but from online sources, and emphasized that that isn't going to change, that these young Web readers won't turn into print newspaper readers just because they get older. "[T]he future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news," he wrote.

But even as that's happening, and for all the utility of blogs and other online sources for directing me to news, of finding shortcomings in news, of analyzing news, the actualreporting of that news, from which all the analysis and watchdogging and bloggery and so forth arises, is still largely done by those same old traditional news outlets. Which, as Abramson noted at Harvard, still costs a lot of money.

I read the Times, but I read it online, referred to various articles by various commentators and bloggers. I'm relying on Abramson's expensive Baghdad bureau for the original reporting I read on her site and the meta-analysis of it I read elsewhere. But because I'm not buying the paper, I'm not seeing the print ads that allow her to pay for that Baghdad bureau, and because I'm following links to the stories, I'm not even seeing most of the (much cheaper) online ads located throughout her site

Let's have our panel discussion look at that question: How can the news industry succeed when, abetted by blogs, young news consumers get their news online? Who will pay for the original reporting, which will always cost a lot of money?

The closest Tuesday's event came to a debate was when Steve Levy, Newsweek's technology guru, asked a question from the audience: "How do we know we're not in a blog bubble?" I don't think he believes we are in a blog bubble; I think he was just playing devil's advocate, some counterbalance -- a debate, even -- to the complete blog boosterism onstage.

"I know at least we're in a bubble for blogging panels," someone replied. Which, thankfully, means it will burst.

But not until after the blogging and journalism panel I'll be moderating at Editor & Publisher's annual Interactive Media Conference, to be held in New Orleans in June, which -- thanks to what I learned Tuesday night -- won't be about how great blogs are. It'll acknowledge they're part of the landscape, and the panelists will then move on consider what a bloggy news business model will look like. I promise.


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