Sunday, June 11, 2006

Professionals and the Public Sphere

Last month, I attended (for the first time) the annual Computers & Writing conference that was held, this year, at Texas Technical University in Lubbock. The conference was extremely useful to me (not to mention, it was a lot of fun). The high points were too many to mention. Every panel I went to offered me something; I left with a churning head and enthusiasm for my involvement in the future of the intersection between computers and writing. The low point (and I wasn’t going to write about this, but it stays with me so I changed my mind) was an after-dinner speech by an associate editor of Salon named Mark Follman.

Follman seems like a good guy. He volunteers with a literacy program and seems genuinely interested in more than just his own advancement. However, he didn’t seem to understand where he was or what is going on in the world of the blogs—which is rather peculiar, since he blogs himself.

He tried to warm the room by saying he was happy to be where, if he had any technical problems with any of his devices, someone could fix them. We all looked at him a little skeptically, for we aren’t techies, we computers-and-writing people (all right, some of us are, but very few). We’re not interested in hardware, but in what people can do with it and in what the impact might be.

Follman, who clearly did not know his audience, continued to, if not alienate them, at least turn them off to him. He said, for example, that he hates the word “blogosphere” (which didn’t gain sympathy from me: the title of my forthcoming book is The Rise of the Blogosphere: American Backgrounds to a Twenty-First Century Media Phenomenon) and continued the stereotype of the blogger as someone in their pajamas who simply comments on the world (me, I don’t even own pajamas, and I rarely blog from home), not exactly a good thing to have said in a room filled with bloggers.

When he followed by saying that bloggers are not real reporters you could almost feel the audience pulling away from him. He did admit that, occasionally, there’s reporting from bloggers, but he gave the impression that he believed the task should be left to the professionals. He spent a good deal of time talking about Salon’s new system of presenting letters to the editor—which is where, one sensed, he feels bloggers belong.

Even though he works for a web-based publication, Follman still has not managed to move beyond the sense of specialness, of difference, that the journalism profession sees as its own. There’s a real proprietary feeling among reporters towards their craft, and they don’t like it when outsiders, in their view, try to horn in.

And that’s exactly what bloggers are doing, horning in. Remember, it wasn’t the White House Press Corps who looked seriously at the ringer in their midst, Jeff Gannon (oh, a few raised questions—but the subject wasn’t really pursued). It took a DailyKos blogger named SusanG to issue a call for research into him. Information was found by bloggers that the news media then had to address—but the work wasn’t theirs. The organization that SusanG and others soon founded, ePluribus Media (of which I am a proud member), is dedicated to research and fact-checking online. It is a blogger organization that pays more attention to the down-and-dirty work of reporting than many of the established news media do.

Another thing that Follman doesn’t seem to understand about bloggers is that we aren’t simply casual observers and commentators. The people of ePluribus Media, for example (and we aren’t that different from other online groups), have a great deal of journalistic experience. Many of us have been professional writers in one capacity or another (a number have written books), and some are (or have been) teachers of writing. We are not amateurs.

Perhaps this is the problem: many in the news media view themselves as professionals and bloggers as amateurs—some of them talented amateurs, but amateurs, nonetheless. Until that changes, until they start to recognize that amateur/professional status is irrelevant in the new media age, people like Follman will fall further and further behind, no matter if they work for Salon or any other organization with a high-tech profile.

What we are seeing is an attempt by a part of the populace to reclaim what Jürgen Habermas calls “the public sphere.” We want the debate to be ours—and not as a spectator sport. Furthermore, we want the issues under debate to be those we have brought to the table ourselves. “Citizen journalism” is our mantra, and we hope, we hope we’re the wave of the future.

Certainly, attitude’s like Follman’s are things of the past.

I hope he wakes up to what’s happening. As I said, he seems like a nice fellow with a heart in the right place.

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