Debating How Not-To-Debate Bloggers Vs. Journos in Amherst

bunkerjun2006DSC02836.jpgEditor’s note: Jemima Kiss second and final report from the Media Giraffe conference, held late last week in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In the wrap-up Friday, some rather earnest local citizen journalism types were slaying the “proper journalists” for reeling out the self-congratulatory participatory media spiel and then leaving early. No names mentioned, but New York’s journorati did make a swift Amherst exit yesterday morning leaving the rest of us to wallow in a worthy discussion on media education and the role of journalism in a democracy. It may not be as sexy as evangelising about Journalism 2.0, but it counts.


Jeff Jarvis, who can always be relied upon to give good soundbite, opened the conference on Wednesday night by saying he really hoped the debate would be moved from the tedious “bloggers versus journalists” to something new. It was left to the Knight Foundation‘s Gary Keebel to defend the big journalists this morning from the allegation that ‘they’ are just working out how to cash in on the citizen journalism movement: “It’s just not true that mainstream media doesn’t get it. The people here are leaders and should accept that role, but I don’t buy this ‘us and them’ talk.”

To save you watching three plus days of conference video, here are the highlights:

Stephen Gray from the Newspaper Next project explained how conventional business practice defies innovation. “Every dynamic in the business world tells you to respond to your upper-end customers,” he said. “But the blinders that you wear when you try and improve and existing product make it very hard to see the possibilities that exist below your customer set and below your profit margins.” So the blank slate approach to new products is essential, while maintaining the core product for as long as possible.

“Your focus on what gets lost means you don’t notice what gets gained,” said Gray. “You have the opportunity to expand your business and your advertiser base, but newspapers have to be willing to undergo the transformation in order to succeed.”

Adrian Holovaty, who described himself as the Washington Post‘s mad scientist, gave an impressive overview of ChicagoCrime.org in a rather nonchalant ‘here’s something I just whipped up outside work in 40-hours of my spare time’ kind of way.

Chicago Crime scrapes the official police crime data site every day and gives it the Web 2.0 treatment. Consequently users can vindicate their social paranoia in a variety of ways, searching for crime by type, date, time, block, etc. No plans to roll it out in other cities (Holovaty is from Chicago so this project was a matter of civic pride, he told me) though he has been asked. Also no plans to add corporate crime stats, though I suspect that type of criminal is generally more successful. The latest step has been to add written reports on selected crimes from the Chicago Journal‘s police blotters.

Holovaty defines this project as a new kind of journalism. A traditional reporter would gather a story by talking to people and researching, distilling the story by working with editors and presenting the story using conventional writing structures and laying it out on the page. The techie journalist instead gathers information by writing scripts to scrape data, distills the story by judging which queries are worth showing and presenting the story by designing how it appears online.

The delightful Paul Grabowicz from the University of California at Berkley gave some teasers from ten-step recovery program for newspapers.

Grabowicz suggested that, for one week, newspapers drop news reporting and just run wire stories. (Cue gasps of horror.) By the end of the week, see if anyone had noticed. He guaranteed that newspapers would get a far smaller response than if they dropped a popular comic strip. “Nearly everything we’re doing is wrong,” said Grabowicz. “We’re just not reaching people.”

EARLIER: New Haven Indie Media Guy: Right-Wing Media Monopolies Have Destroyed Our Cities

Jemima Kiss is a freelance journalist and London contributor to paidContent.org.