by Doc Searls
Journalism is the one solitary respectable profession which honors theft (when committed in the pecuniary interest of a journal) and admires the thief....However, these same journals combat despicable crimes quite valiantly when committed in other quarters. —Mark Twain
On page 33 of the March 5, 2001 issue of eWeek magazine is a full-page story by Grant DuBois and Roberta Holland with a rather wordy title:
Emerging Tech // Peer to PeerLooking before they leapIT taking a wait-and-see stance on Jxta and .Net.
At the center of the page, just over the headline block, a large photograph bears the caption, “Brian Moura in San Carlos, California, questions the usefulness of P2P.” Here's how the piece opens:
Brian Moura needs to hear better arguments in favor of peer-to-peer networking technology before he gives it any consideration.
“Peer-to-peer is not on our radar screen”, said Moura, assistant city manager in San Carlos, Calif. “If we already have application servers and file servers, what's the advantage or value-add of letting each person's PC be a server?”
The whole piece is impelled by Moura's skepticism, which would be fine if Moura legitimately exemplified all of IT—or at least a significant wedge of the profession—but he doesn't.
Type “Brian Moura” into Google and hit the “I'm Feeling Lucky” button, and you'll go straight to Moura's home page. The top link there takes you to the San Carlos home page, for which Moura is webmaster. The San Carlos site (http://www.ci.san-carlos.ca.us/) has barely changed since Magellan (long since absorbed into Excite) gave it three stars in 1996. The site brags about this distinction, along with its “Best of the Web” award, also issued, fossil records show, near the dawn of Internet time. To be fair, the site itself is useful, as municipal sites go. The update page shows that somebody's trying to keep it fresh.
It's pretty clear from both the site and the quote above that Moura's main purpose in the piece is to substantiate a negative spin about P2P, an acronym the writers peg on Napster, Microsoft's .NET and Sun's Jxta. Ironically, the most widespread P2P phenomenon—the one where most of the action is taking place—is the web log movement. At their most institutional, “blogs” include downtown hacker hangouts like Slashdot, Kuro5hin and Advogato. At their most individualistic, they include dozens of thousands of public journals, most of which are hosted by Blogger, Userland or Pitas.
As Glenn Fleischmann put it in the Seattle Times recently, “Some blogs are closer to public diaries; others, the idiosyncratic or authoritative musings of experts and cranks.” Together they constitute a vast peer-to-peer network that performs a constant story-finding and fact-correcting mission for both their own readers and mainstream journalists who don't want to be caught fluffing nothing into something.
Thanks in large measure to blogs, the journalism of the future will be fed mostly by a peer-to-peerage of linked and syndicated writers and sources who endlessly report facts, stories and informed speculation. The nature of peer-review journalism is very much like the nature of peer-review software and, naturally, includes many of the same people. News, ideas, facts, jokes, interesting links and other items are constantly vetted, checked, challenged, credited, linked and spread. Underlying all of it, the main purpose is no less social than open-source code development: to share what we know and what we think. The goal is not to attract interest with bogus stories or to attract readers to advertisers—two common hidden agendas of traditional journalism, especially trade publications.
More and more journalists have blogs and use them as instruments of their professional work. This is the case with Glenn (who writes for many publications), with Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, with Deborah Branscum of Newsweek and Fortune and with a certain senior editor for Linux Journal. In some cases, we even vet nascent stories or hunches that might become stories, inviting responses that help inform those stories. That's what I did recently when Eric Schmidt ceased presiding over Novell's ongoing failure and became “part-time” president and CEO of Google. Glenn's account of what followed became part of his Seattle Times piece:
One experience I had recently illustrates how a blog works. Doc Searls recently posted musings (doc.weblogs.com/2001/03/27) about whether Google's (http://www.google.com/) hiring Eric Schmidt as chairman might result in the purchase of the search engine by Sun Microsystems, a company Schmidt helped found. I sent Searls some pithy comments and a number of others did the same. Searls posted an update the next day with our responses (doc.weblogs.com/2001/03/28). He also linked to an on-line-only column by Branscum at Fortune magazine's site about Google's success working with on-line advertisers.
This kind of mild dust-up happens all the time, with a mix of journalists, ordinary readers and subject experts responding to their colleagues with no intermediation and little compunction. These responses are incorporated into blogs, resulting in more cross-links and a richer vein of detail.
The responses are also incorporated into the writer's stories and editorials, as Glenn and I both illustrate. Today I understand a lot more about Google, thanks to responsive blog readers that include a number of company insiders who are not my usual PR sources. So when I do write something, I'll have a lot more sources to call upon and information to work with.
Note that this doesn't change the nature of mainstream journalism one bit, except to make it more resourceful. The growing difference here, as with the Open Source movement that both surrounds and populates the software industry, is in the involvement of many more people in a web of trust and respect. It also resembles, in a raucous and noisy way, the traditional marketplace we call a bazaar.
I was delivered this realization recently when I sat in a plane next to an amazing gentleman from Nigeria named Sayo Ajiboye. A deeply thoughtful religious scholar who took eight years to translate the highly annotated Thompson Bible into his native language of Yoruba, he compared what I told him about both Linux and blogs to traditional marketplaces in his country. “Markets are not just about business”, he said. “They are about relationships.” In fact, he went on to say, they are constituted by relationships, motivated at least as much by the desire for relationships as by the desire to sell and buy.
Old media never go away, they just obtain larger contexts. Mainstream journalism will always involve publishing. But surrounding that mainstream will be a watershed of other people—journalists in the literal sense and their readers. The whole watershed becomes a marketplace; not just for shared passions, but for trust and authority.
A case in point. In February, Dan Gillmor made the mistake of quoting something Richard Stallman was drafting and sharing with a few other folks by e-mail, including Dan. When Richard and other peers caught the mistake, they called him on it. It wasn't a big deal, but Dan quickly admitted it, removed the web copy of the offending piece, and everybody moved on. In the course of the matter, Dan's authority increased.
The growth of highly cross-sourced journalism by folks like Glenn and Dan is moving toward the norm for journalism both in print and on the Web. It makes traditional newswire-fed journalism seem increasingly anachronistic, as well as unreliable. CNET, for example, is a source of many good stories but some provocative clunkers too. That's what we had in February when CNET ran a poorly sourced and credited Bloomberg News story in which Microsoft's Jim Allchin said some unkind things about open-source development and licensing. The story stirred up a huge fuss, but it lacked both context and authority in the literal sense. Who exactly spoke to Allchin? Where? About what? None of this was clear.
It's not just a coincidence that CNET leads the way in deploying huge new reader-averse, 240 x 400 “interactive marketing units” (yet another buzz phrase for advertising). Nor is it a coincidence that a current eWeek news piece about these huge new ads fails to include a single source from the opposition. The headline in the magazine reads “Online Advertising: Bigger Is Better”. But the headline on the Web in ZDnet reads “Online Advertising: Will Bigger Be Better?” Interesting difference, no? The last words in the piece are given to Beth Eason, VP and GM of DoubleClick. “Somebody needs to pay for the Internet”, she says. “Advertising needs to be the economic engine that drives it.”
The Internet she's talking about is what remains of a massive investment project proving to be little more than a fantasy. The Internet that existed before that project showed up persists uncorrupted. Its current conversational manifestation is P2P, which has nothing to do with advertising and is not driven by Microsoft, Sun or other large potential advertisers.
This kind of journalism will die of exposure, right along with the advertising projects its publishers continue to fund under the illusion that its constituency is an audience, rather than a bazaar filled with sources and fact checkers.
Also due for a change are stories about conflict for its own sake. Of course, conflict is what makes stories interesting. Without it you don't have a story. After all, stories never start with “Happily ever after” (if they did they'd be press releases). Conflict is what journalists naturally like to find and cover. Too often, though, it gets invented. That's what Stephen Shankland did recently in a CNET story about Maxtor dropping open-source products in favor of Windows. It's also what DuBois and Holland did in their P2P piece in eWeek and ZDnet.
The purpose of both stories was less to report than to conjure. The CNET piece conjured the illusion that there's a big fight between open source and Windows in the embedded applications market. The eWeek/ZDnet piece conjured the illusion that IT managers have some kind of problem with P2P.
The author Peter Rengel (who writes about sex and intimate relationships) once told me, “we choose the levels of truth at which we are willing to live,” and “the challenge is always to go to the deeper level.” He added, “there's always a deeper level.”
Journalism-as-usual lived at a certain level in a world without the Web. In that world, there wasn't a peerage of highly open sources. To live in the new world, it has to work at a deeper level, or it won't survive.
Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto.