Bill Keller, the New York Times’ managing editor, just doesn’t “get it” in so many ways, but especially in regard to blogging. Business Week reports on his talk to the Association of National Advertisers conference on October 7th:
“Most of what you [one assumes he means bloggers] know, you know because of the mainstream media,” Keller said. “Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That’s not bad. But it’s not enough.”
Keller pointed out that it cost the Times around $1.5 million to maintain a Baghdad bureau in 2004. (It cost one Times freelancer much more last month: He was murdered.) “This kind of civic labor can’t be replaced by bloggers.” The Times’ assets: “A worldwide network of trained, skilled [observers] to witness events” and write about them, and “a rigorous set of standards. A journalism of verification,” rather than of “assertion,” and maintaining an “agnosticism” as to where any story may lead. And, borrowing a key buzzword of the day, he said the Times practiced “transparency,” or, in math-teacher terms, “we show our work.”
Keller made repeated references to the extreme partisan nature of current discourse, and cited voices that he said urged the Times to “give it up. Embrace your biases,” and write about them “openly.” To this, he said “I object. It’s like saying since genetics account for so much, we should abandon being parents.” Still, he conceded that “a lot of people want journalism that thrills them by telling them what they believe.”
It seems typical of the old guard in whatever field, that when confronted by new technology, new practices or new viewpoints to circle the wagons, protect their own and the old ways. As a result, the old guard fails to credit the positive innovations represented by the “new.” And they fail to understand how the “new” can improve their own traditional ways of doing things. That’s how I explain Keller’s unnecessary defensiveness in this passage. One has to wonder about the Times’ vaunted new policy of integrating NYTimes.com with the New York Times print operation. If Keller so misunderstands blogs, how do we expect him to understand the value or opportunities represented by the Times online presence?
Such Neanderthal attitudes toward blogging may explain why NYTimes.com has been so slow to enact basic changes that would render the site much more web-friendly (and blogger ‘compliant’). For example, links within articles to external sites, allowing reader comments on online articles, allowing trackbacks/pings to external blogs ( the Washington Post does), and creating an easily usable forum feature (decidedly not the current one).
Bloggers are not trying to replace the fine work of NY Times reporters in Iraq or other such places. I, for one value & rely on these reports for my own blogging and have said so in this blog (but I guess Bill thinks what I’m doing here is pretty insignificant and a pale reflection of the Times’ own glory). But there are times when a NYT reporter cannot quite say in print what might be obvious to a blogger. And it’s important that someone be able to expand upon, or amplify such reporting by adding moral or value judgments not permitted a reporter.
In addition, when NYT doesn’t report a story at all or does so imprecisely or incompletely it’s very important that bloggers take them to task (as we are regarding the Miller/Libby/Wilson investigation).
I first read about Keller’s less than enlightened views on blogging in Jeff Jarvis’ long exchange with him recounted in Buzz Machine. They were pretty frustrating then and I’m sorry to say Keller hasn’t learned much since then.
Second, Keller makes another big boo-boo when he makes fatuous claims of success for TimesSelect:
Keller hailed early returns on TimesSelect, which grants online access to the paper’s columnists only to Times subscribers and those who pay $49.95 a year, saying a “couple hundred thousand people” have signed on for the service. However, a Times spokeswoman later clarified this figure, explaining that it includes current Times subscribers, who get TimesSelect for free, saying that the paper was not disclosing how many people were paying for TimesSelect.
I guess I’m one of the those he included in his tally of new subscribers to TimesSelect. But I signed up for nothing as a current print subscriber. So to include me, who paid nothing, along with the handful of people who paid is misleading. In fact, it reminds me of those circulation scandals in which newspapers inflated their circulation figures in order to boost ad revenues (though I’m not claiming Keller’s statement rises to the level of illegality, of course). What Keller needs to do is tell us how many people PAID for this uninspiring service. That would tell us something. The fact that neither Keller nor the Times has been willing to do so tells us a good deal about the program’s current level of success.