June 11, 2005

"A New York Times reporter is just a blogger who..."

The NYT takes issue with a column by Julie Hilden about copyright problems that might develop with more sophisticated newswriting software robots. Currently, Hilden writes, Google News is "lawsuit-proof" because readers need to click a link to get the whole story and so Google is increasing the readership of the news media it links. In the future, Google's software might combine tiny snippets from many sources into a readable article that wouldn't stimulate click-through. Then traditional media might sue and win. But if it did, Hilden writes, Google might switch to nontraditional sources and compose its articles from blogs.

Here's how the Times quotes her and reacts:
"Traditional media, of course, is hardly dead yet," [Hilden] concludes. "But with tools like these, new media may drive a few stakes in its heart."

A reporter for The New York Times, she writes, "is just a blogger who happened to attend college; impress some bosses with his or her talent; get some training through experience - and possibly (though certainly not always) journalism school; and receive a podium for his or her pains."

Which is a little like saying a lawyer is just someone who likes to argue who happened to go to law school, pass the bar, and get a job at a law firm. There is little doubt that blogs are transforming the news media, mostly in positive ways. But what the "blogs will destroy the media business" argument misses is that there are fundamental economic reasons that it can never happen.
The Times ends it at that. It's just a cute squib for them -- at least in print. Maybe in person, they are quaking about the economic implications.

Let's look at the Hilden quote in context. Read the Hilden piece. I've given you the link to it. (The NYT only linked to the Findlaw website, but I tracked down the link.) Hilden has ideas about how software might be designed to identify bloggers whose reliability compares to traditional media.
Much-linked-to sites tend to be reliable. Blogs that do well on the "fantasy market" for Blog shares tend to be reliable. Sites that report local events tend to be reliable. (Bloggers have the ability to provide the most local reportage possible - doing it literally street by street; so do local news sites and the like.)

Of course, these proxies for reliableness - links, market evaluation, geographic proximity - wouldn't be perfect. Far from it. But it's worth noting that neither are traditional media. Remember, a New York Times reporter is just a blogger who happened to attend college; impress some bosses with his or her talent; get some training through experience - and possibly (though certainly not always) journalism school; and receive a podium for his or her pains.

Indeed, certain institutional features suggest bloggers (or other local reports) may actually be more reliable than traditional media when it comes to local topics.

Recall, for instance, the New York Times's problem with "touchdown bylines" - where a Mobile, Alabama byline, for example, could merely mean the reporter's plane touched down there briefly - while the reportage came from a local, uncredited freelancer unaffiliated with the Times. Might not credited reportage by a Mobile-based blog be more reliable than the Times's "Mobile" story?

Similarly, consider Newsweek's headline-making - but now-retracted - reportage on alleged desecration of the Koran. Wouldn't an anonymous blog by someone within the military -and vetted by others in the military, who could anonymously comment -- have been more likely to get the story (or lack thereof) right?

Moreover, and crucially, Google would not have to rely on proxies for reliability such as links, fantasy markets, and the like. Instead (or in addition), it could limit its sources to blogs (and other sites) willing to incorporate a system to further guarantee reliability.

How would this system work? It could ask readers to rate content for reliability - and to rate other raters as to how accurate their ratings were.

Systems for rating raters already exist - though they are not yet legion. Transparensee (for which I have worked, and from which I have stock options) has developed a dynamic system by which writers' ratings are adjusted based on readers' evaluation of their postings; top-rated writer's posts would appear first for readers. Daily Kos also uses a rating system for those providing comments.

Google could also require disclosure -- through which a content writer or producer could, in effect, make an argument for his, her, or its reliability.

For instance, one rater (or source) on economic issues might disclose that he has a Ph.D. in economics from, say, Stanford. Readers - and raters - may infer that he probably knows what he's talking about in economics (but not necessarily when it comes to, say, wine tasting).

Long-established brands like "Stanford" wouldn't be the only ones that counted: The Wired brand, the Wonkette brand, and individuals' names ("Anne Rice" is a brand when it comes to vampire knowledge) would matter too.

Video game scores could be proof of reliability regarding knowledge of video games; "top Amazon book reviewer" status could indicate knowledge of books. People could also vouch for each other's reliability, just as they often do in real life.

Finally, a writer who couldn't resort to any of these brands - a rare occurrence -- could just make an argument: "Why you should believe me." In this way, content itself could vouch for reliability: After all, expertise doesn't always come from a degree; it can come from experience or access instead.
So we see the NYT omitted a lot as it made its wisecracking analogy to lawyers and nonlawyers and bluntly concluded that new media replacing traditional media "can never happen." Having read Hilden's piece in full, however, I'm inclined to wonder if it could happen.

ADDED: And, yes, you don't have to tell me: you can't trust people just because they happen to have law degrees either.


Bruce Hayden said...

Of course, you can't trust all lawyers.

But some differences between lawyers and journalists should be obvious. First, we (lawyers) actually have to go to school - usually at least an additional three years, and for that trouble, we receive a doctorate degree, and Ann gets the money for her TT. (Yes, I think there is still a jurisdiction or two that allows reading law instead, but that is rare and pretty much nontrasferable).

Secondly, attorneys are licensed, regulated, and subject to ethics. Not the type that journalists have, which are purely aspirational, but ethics that can get you disciplined, including disbarment, if transgressed.

More on the copyright issues later, after I dig through the article. But some bells are going off already from what Ann has posted.

Bruce Hayden said...

Well, getting back a bit sooner than I expected, but...

From a legal point of view, I thought that Julie's take on the law was very good. She hit the high points that she needed to, while missing the pitfalls that someone who hasn't practiced in this are would hit.

The NYT article on the other hand had almost no content. It seemed to say that there really isn't much difference between lawyers and journalists and that there are economic reasons that journalism will survive. And nothing more. What are those economic reasons? The reader is left hanging.

Arguably, this is one example of why the blogosphere, etc. (have to include the etc. since Julie isn't really blogging here) is likely to grow in comparison with the traditional media - that it already provides more credible content in many places - you just have to find it.

But we are obviously heading in that direction. Julie mentions the effect that traffic has on credability. Google does its part too.

Obviously, the NYT is not going away any time soon. But, they seem to be starting to play defense, and not doing all that well at it.

Bruce Hayden said...

I did have one more thought. Julie glosses over the fact that news, in and by itself, is not protectable by copyright because it is fact. So, any real analysis of potential infringement would have to apply that filtration before even getting to her point on Fair Use.

What is potentially protected is expression, and you are going to get at least some of that when you use snippets of someone else's writing.

So, if Google could theoretically sanitize the news snippets of their original expression, retaining the pure news content, they could theoretically avoid even getting to Fair Use, if they ever build what Julie suggests, a tailored news conglomerator.

Uncle Jimbo said...

The Times and other news outlets have seen the possibility that blogs can represent AP or UPI style agencies that are focused on a particular topic. They can be reality-checked by the methods discussed or something proprietary like the TTLB ecosystem.

If the NYT needs commentary on a legal issue affecting midwestern colleges I imagine Ann and other bloggers could easily provide more informed commentary than a J-school globetrotter.


Uncle J

Military Matters

FX MC said...


Looking for more information.


FX MC said...

The NYT faces a new scandal which will rate second on to the Jayson Blair fiasco. Apparently DC NYT writer Carl Hulse may have written political columns for Times celeb Maureen Dowd. Details are sketchy at this time, but rumors suggest the final story will have all the seedy appeal of a pulp novel.
Looking for more sources. Please advise