That journalism prof again (last time, I promise)

There’s a fascinating post (and exchange of comments) in Nicholas Carr’s blog in which Jay Rosen plays a key role. (Matt McAlister’s blog tipped me off.) Carr (a former editor at the Harvard Business Review who attained semi-guru status a couple years back with the publication of an article called “IT Doesn’t Matter“) was making the point that the blogosphere is evolving into a hierarchy, with the elite displaying some of the same characteristics of, well, just about any other elite you can think of.

One of his examples was a q&a at a conference he had attended recently where Rosen was a speaker:

a woman in the audience expressed frustration about getting bloggers like Rosen to link to her site. She asked the professor if he had any suggestions. Rosen said that the best way to get a link from him is to write a post about one of his posts. He carefully monitors mentions of his work in other blogs, he said, and he frequently provides links back to them, at least when they have some substance.

Carr’s take: The blogosphere “has turned into a grand system of patronage operated – with the best of intentions, mind you – by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.” Which was fine, except that it didn’t seem to square with Rosen’s persistent advocacy of a more democratic media.

Rosen responded (this is well down in the comments to the post; it doesn’t appear possible to link to individual comments in Carr’s blog) with an actual transcript of the question and his answer. The transcript more or less backed up what Carr had written, although both the question and Rosen’s actual answer were a bit more nuanced than Carr made them out to be. (Sound familiar?) Rosen went on to say that “I haven’t claimed the blogosphere is egalitarian” and then, in an apparent attempt to disavow any claim to be an elite blogger, he mentioned that his blog had only just cracked the Technorati Top 1000.

Carr responded to thank Rosen for the fact-checking, but reiterated his assertion that what Rosen and other top bloggers did amounted a “patronage system.” Things got a little snippier after that. Wrote Rosen: “To me, personally, he who debunks attitudes and ideas to which no people and quotations or links are attached is cheating, intellectually speaking. Most debunkers do this constantly.” In Rosen’s estimation, Carr’s contention that inhabitants of the blogosphere think it’s more democratic than traditional mass media amounted to “cheating.” Carr responded with several quotations from Rosen and other bloggers making exactly that claim. Rosen complained that Carr’s use of one of his posts was “very crude,” and so on.

This was all somewhat reassuring to me, in that it’s clear that the way I started my essay on newspaper ownership simply rubbed an existing raw nerve of Rosen’s. He really hates it when people characterize something as a widely held view and then don’t provide examples and links. Academics have always backed up such assertions through the use of footnotes; opinion journalists have traditionally been very lax about it. I still think the important test is whether your characterization is accurate, not whether you provide links. (And I think Carr’s assertion and mine both pass that test.)

As to whether the blogosphere is in fact elitist, two observations:

First, I’m entirely in agreement with Rosen’s assertion (in his initial response to Carr’s piece) that the blogosphere is “more open than the access system controlled by professional gatekeepers, and in that way more democratic.” It’s not utopia, either, but Rosen never claims that it is.

Second, Rosen himself is totally an elitist. His original critique of my piece and his response to my response both drip with condescension for this poor journalist he’s never heard of who doesn’t know how to link. (He’s much nicer to famous journalists he happens to know.) Then, most tellingly, he brags in an update to his original post about having “learned to link” from blogosphere pioneers Doc Searls and Dave Winer. Gee, I learned to link by using the text editor that comes with my TypePad account. Does that make what I have to say less valid?

This is what happens when you mess with FASB

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a tongue-in-cheek post about how the real reason Joe Lieberman lost to Ned Lamont was his wrong-headed stance on stock-option expensing in the 1990s.

When the Connecticut-based Financial Accounting Standards Board proposed in the early 1990s that options grants be counted as a cost and subtracted from earnings, Lieberman led the successful charge in Washington to bully FASB into backing down. Among his most vocal partners in accounting crime was California’s Barbara Boxer, although I’m a little bit more sympathetic to her stance because it was pretty much impossible to find anyone in her (Northern) part of the state in the 1990s who wasn’t brainwashed into thinking that options had magical economic powers and expensing would kill the magic. Only after the corporate scandals of the early ’00s was FASB finally able to push through with options expensing (and even then Congress might have thwarted it if not for the resolute stance of, of all people, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee).

It turns out, though, that I’d been beaten to the punch. Jack Ciesielski today alerted readers of his often-entertaining accounting blog to an Aug. 9 post by economist Dean Baker on the topic.

Wrote Baker:

There may not have been a single person in the state of Connecticut who voted against Senator Lieberman yesterday because of his harassment of FASB. Other issues loomed larger. But those who think that honest accounting is essential to the working of the economy might believe that some justice was done in this election.

It turns out Baker wasn’t even the first to bring this up. On Aug. 6, a Daily Kos poster named Treebeard offered a detailed account of Lieberman’s role in the options travesty. So maybe the issue did swing a few votes (although I guess any Connecticutter reading Kos was already voting Lamont). In any case, watch out, Barbara Boxer. The accounting purists may be coming to get you.

When journalism professors attack

Ever since getting broadsided by NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen’s 2,243-word July 14 lambasting of an 830-word piece I wrote for, I’ve been thinking I need to write about it here. But I figured I should wait until I could be more thoughtful about than I was in the somewhat snotty response I posted on Rosen’s blog. I’ve also been on vacation, if that’s any excuse.

I did get lots of reassurances from colleagues that it was all nonsense, Rosen’s a jerk, I should ignore it, etc., etc. But I can’t ignore it, partly because I’m an oversensitive weenie (always have been), partly because past experience tells me Rosen’s blog posts are often worth paying attention to, and partly because buried in his tirade was at least one entirely irrefutable criticism. Rosen himself never made it explicit, but a couple of the commenters on his site did. Back to that later.

As for Rosen’s chief complaint, I still think it’s nonsense. He claims that my opening sentence,

Now that Wendy McCaw has driven away most of the editors from the newspaper she owns, the Santa Barbara News-Press, a lot of people in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so–that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.

is "bull." Then he continues: "What conventional wisdom says (maybe) is that local independent ownership is worth a try again, and might work out better than corporate chains have."

Now maybe I am in fact "thick-headed," as Rosen put it after my  initial response to his critique, but I just don’t see a yawning gulf between those two descriptions of the state of affairs. I think Rosen and I would both agree that the return to private ownership has been a dominant meme in newspaper-junkie discussions over the past year or so, definitely ever since the greedy capitalists at Private Capital Management started pushing for the dismemberment of Knight-Ridder. Yeah, I stated it in starker, more sensationalist terms than he did. Or, if you prefer, he stated it in more boring, waffly terms than I did. But "salvation" and "might work out better" are both on the same side of public vs. private coin, and as a one-time newspaper journalist I’m of the opinion that my wording comes much closer to reflecting the at-times-desperate sentiments of my former colleagues than Rosen’s does. "Salvation" does not imply that private ownership is without flaw; it means that people in newspapers hope private ownership will save them from the depredations of Wall Street. Anyone care to claim that isn’t the case?

The next complaint from Rosen was that I didn’t provide any links to back up my statement. That’s true, I didn’t (although there were links elsewhere in my essay). Why not?  Mainly because the discussion among journalists wasn’t what I thought I was writing about. I was just using it to get to an issue that I ponder pretty regularly and that I’m (partially) writing a book about: The intersection between financial markets and corporations. And I wanted to get there quickly. Does that make me lazy? Maybe. I mean, I am lazy. No point in denying that. But the very assortment of links that Rosen used to back up his argument amounted to a textbook example of the limits of linking. Most consisted of people (among them my hero Joe Nocera) saying in nuanced terms that private, local ownership might work out better for newspapers than dominion by Wall Street has. They were pretty much the same things I would have linked to. In one case, Rosen linked to a Washington Post story about the "Push Toward Private Control of Newspapers" and cherry-picked the one "yes, but" paragraph to quote in his post, ignoring other parts of the article that seemed to back up my assertion.

What’s more, no one other than Jay Rosen has taken issue with that opening sentence of mine. My piece was posted on journalism site Romenesko, so lots of real-live newspaper reporters and editors surely read it, yet not one of them e-mailed me to complain about my mischaracterization. Of the commenters to Rosen’s blog (and there are admirably many), several applauded him for taking down a lazy big-media journalist and even more took issue with my assertions about Wall Street’s virtues, but unless I’m missing something, the only comments that directly addressed the question of whether people in newspapers think private ownership is their salvation backed me up.

But enough defensive stuff. My little essay was an assortment of thoughts about public vs. private ownership that had been running through my head for a while, thrown together with some breaking media news from Santa Barbara, and given a bold headline ("Why being publicly held is best"). For someone familar with the public-vs.-private discussion that’s been going on for several years now in corporate circles, all that was probably okay. I even got an e-mail from one such person, NYU accounting professor Baruch Lev, saying he thought the piece was swell. But I made no attempt to introduce that discussion to those unfamiliar with it (that is where I could have used some more links).

So Jay Rosen, who I imagine doesn’t pay many visits to the business school at NYU, read the piece, and must have thought, "They ran this in Fortune magazine?!?" In fact, it didn’t run in the magazine. What’s more, it never would have survived Fortune‘s editing process intact. It was too tentative and rambling for that. I wrote it instead for our website, as one in a series of columns that I’m supposed to deliver weekly (although I haven’t kept to that schedule lately.) When I write these pieces, I tend to think of them as equivalent to blog posts–trial balloons for ideas. I don’t put huge amounts of time into writing them (and I don’t really get paid for them either). But there’s no easy way for readers of the and websites to tell them apart from magazine articles that took weeks of work.

This is going to change, and within a month or so my online-only pieces will be presented as part of a blog, with readers invited to add comments. That hasn’t happened yet, though, and it’s ridiculous for me to expect them to be treated as mere discussion starters when there’s no opportunity on the site to discuss them. I am in the habit of engaging in lengthy e-mail discussions with readers, and often post reader e-mails on the site. I’ve also been begging our Web people for years to do more to enable reader conversations on the site. But there’s no way Rosen or any other first-time reader could know any of that. At least two commenters on Jay’s site remarked on this, and they’re absolutely right.

Blogs are a great platform, possibly the best, for opinion journalism. When I go to Jay’s site, I can read his Q&A about where he’s coming from, peruse his past posts, add comments, and get a sense from others’ comments of the community of readers that frequents the site. That is, I can put his opinions in context–and I can argue with him if even with all that context I still think he’s full of baloney. I can also use the comments section to point readers of his blog to my writings. This is all wonderful stuff.

It doesn’t mean, however, that "the bar has been raised on opinion journalism," as Jay put it. In fact, the bar has been dramatically lowered. In the olden days, I never would have written that essay and gotten it published, and Jay almost certainly wouldn’t have found anyone willing to publish his critique. There’s simply a whole lot more opinion journalism being committed than there was before. Some of it’s great, a lot of it isn’t, and the means by which the good stuff finds its way to readers is vastly more democratic than the old method of letting the op-ed editors of the New York Times and Washington Post decide.

Chris Anderson has a thoughtful discussion of this in the book that every last person in America seems to be reading right now, The Long Tail. Long Tail phenomena, like music on the Internet, or blog posts, "have a wide dynamic range of quality: awful to great," he writes. "By contrast, the average store shelf [or, I would add, the op-ed page of the New York Times] has a relatively narrow dynamic range of quality: mostly average to good." The key to navigating a Long Tail world is finding filters that steer you toward the great stuff and away from the crap.

I’m pretty sure that neither my original essay nor Jay’s critique will end up in the much-linked-to, much-read realm of modern opinion media stardom (at least I sure hope Jay’s doesn’t, although I guess by writing this I’m only drawing more attention to it). But does that mean I shouldn’t have written it? No way! Sure, I’d write it differently now. A more interesting approach might be to do a rundown of what kind of companies are best served by public ownership, and which are better off being privately held–and try to figure out where newspapers fit in that spectrum. Maybe I’ll write that piece soon, after I’m set up as a blogger on That’s what’s so great about the Internets. Page counts aren’t limited. You can address a subject again and again until you get it right. And it’s only when you do get it right (or spectacularly wrong, I guess), that large numbers of readers (or smaller numbers of the right kind of readers) will find their way to your work.

UPDATE: Matt McAlister has had his say on this subject on his "Inside Online Media" blog. (So my strategy of being nice to the chubby 12-year-old little brother of my high school pal Mike McAlister has finally paid off!)