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Mr. Klein and the New New Media

New Media vs Traditional Media: It's hard to tell the difference anymore.

By Elizabeth Spiers - November 23, 2004

"...you couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances, and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks."—Jonathan Klein, September 2004, criticizing bloggers who were thought to have exposed possible forged documents regarding President Bush's national guard service.

"Six years steeped in the digital information industry have helped me understand today's news consumers in ways never before available to media executives."—Jonathan Klein, yesterday, in a statement regarding his appointment as the new head of CNN's U.S. news operations.

The new head of CNN has a blog. He is also the ex-CEO of a digital media company.

So it's a little ironic that Jonathan Klein appears to be a traditional media snob. He's interested in new media, but only inasmuch as it directly replicates the conventions of old media.

Until yesterday, Klein was the CEO of FeedRoom.com, a website that aggregates digital video feeds. If you click on the link, you'll see a rectangular screen with buttons on the bottom. It looks remarkably like the familiar rectangular screens with buttons on the bottom found in living rooms across America, but without the usual large array of electronic appendages—game consoles, TiVos and DVD players, etc. And this, of course, is part of the website's genius. At FeedRoom.com, webcasting masquerades as telecasting, and the viewer doesn't have to adjust to new ways of consuming media.

His attitude toward blogging is very similar in that he perceives deviations from the conventions of traditional media to be a disadvantage of blogs. Of his own blog, Klein says, "it's my opinions about certain things in the world." And for Klein, this description is representative of blogs in general. "They are, you know, journals of opinion. And if they're taken that way, they can be useful. But we can't confuse the opinion of a guy shooting off an email from BuckHead, Georgia, as fact." Klein goes on to imply that blogs are unlikely to reliably report facts because they lack the checks and balances of traditional media.

Given that assumption, it's easy to imagine that had Klein been running CNN last March, he might have ordered reporter Kevin Sites to stop blogging on his personal blog, as the network infamously did out of similar concerns for checks and balances. (However, they've warmed to blogs since, and as a result, may have forced CNN.com readers to contemplate what would formerly have been the most inconceivable three-word sequence in the English language: "Bob Novak, blogger.")

Last week, Sites was reporting for NBC from Fallujah when he saw a Marine shoot an unarmed Iraqi. Within 48 hours the footage of the shooting was being broadcast by NBC, which subsequently encouraged viewers to visit Sites's blog, where he had posted a long, detailed letter to the Marine unit in which he had been embedded. As Sites states on the blog, the website is not affiliated with NBC News and Sites has no more checks and balances on his blog now than he did when CNN made him stop last March. Unlike CNN, NBC seems to be okay with it.

And they should be. In terms of accuracy and factual correctness, Sites has the exactly the same checks and balances on his blog that he would typically have were he reporting for a daily newspaper, which is to say that nothing is fact-checked by a third party. (And if it were, the fact-checkers would rely primarily, maybe even solely, on the reporter's own notes and observations.) In that sense, the checks and balances for blogs vis-a-vis traditional journalism aren't necessarily any different. So what is different and what is Klein really concerned about?

If I had to guess, it's that there's no guarantee that your average blogger is going to be as responsible with his or her notes and observations or confirm uncertain information, like Professional Journalist Kevin Sites. And that's an understandable concern, but what Klein misses is that there's a built-in deterrent to irresponsible reporting on a blog: an eventual loss of credibility and subsequent loss of readership. Even those who wish to assume the worst about the motivations of bloggers—that they're all doing it because they have an inflated sense of self-importance—have to acknowledge the disincentive losing readers and credibility presents to that inflated sense of self-importance.

But Klein's failure to make those distinctions isn't surprising, because conventional wisdom is that blogging is a subset of new media that's separate and distinct from traditional media. But now it's not, and here's why:

1. Media in general is becoming more fragmented.
And as it becomes more fragmented, niche media properties become more powerful. Blogs do niche coverage well (the economics are often better) and frequently compete directly with traditional media sources.

2. Hybrid forms of media make strict compartmentalization impossible.
The only difference between this essay as a 1,300 word column run as a feature on mediabistro.com and this essay as a 1,300 word blog post is that the former is more likely to be copyedited by mediabistro.com's deputy editor. If it were running in print, the only difference is that it wouldn't have had the links to provide you with more context, and it might have been fact-checked. But if it hadn't, would there be any material difference in the credibility of the information? And does it make sense to automatically compartmentalize different mediums when so much information is medium-agnostic?

3. The line between the professional journalists and the amateur bloggers is increasingly blurry.
When bloggers are simply stating their opinions, there's a case to be made that they're not practicing journalism in the sense that they're reporting, but neither are the op-ed columnists on the New York Times editorial page, and neither am I in only providing analysis. But when a blogger actually breaks confirmed news, it's justifiably classified as reportage. Why would a resulting paycheck validate it as "journalism" anymore than the act of actually doing it? And with so many professional journalists blogging, it's disingenuous and arbitrary to dismiss the format as a medium for reportage.

A recent Internet meme presents a dystopian view of what media will look like in 2014 as all three of those trends continue. In this particular scenario, Google acquires Amazon to form "Googlezon" and Microsoft acquires Friendster. Both continue on a rampage to consolidate every major source of data available to man, and fake media companies emerge that create news stories using that data and computer scripts that write pieces based on consumer preferences. Journalistic mandates are eventually subordinated to market demogoguery that provides the public with whatever it wants to hear. The earth-shattering consequence of all of this is that The New York Times (which, consistent with its institutional self-perception, is a proxy for all of traditional media), ceases to exist online and "becomes a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly"—presumably, out of protest.

It's hard to say "Googlezon" with a straight face, much less buy that extreme scenario, but the underlying fear isn't too far from what makes big networks nervous about blogging. The democratic nature of it means that it's not controllable on any broad level. And yes, if everyone began to believe bloggers who reported erroneous facts, if everyone wanted to believe bloggers who reported erroneous facts, and if bloggers were reporting erroneous facts intentionally and on a regular basis with no mechanism or incentives for correction, the results would be appalling. Bloggers would be just as bad for traditional media as a digital demogogue that makes up news, and Jonathan Klein would be correct in thinking that if it doesn't look like traditional media, it's less valuable than traditional media—and maybe even destructive.

But that scenario isn't plausible, because the new media/traditional media dichotomy is ultimately a false one.

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.

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