Blogging, Journalism, and the Future of the Jewish Press

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June 1, 2005
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Dear Rob,

Bloggers play an interesting role in the Jewish world, but it’s hard to argue whether or not it’s an important one. For disparate Jewish communities, blogs provide a meeting hall where anyone with the chutzpah to get up and make him or herself heard can engage in conversation with the wider Jewish community. Could you imagine what the Jewish world would be like if the Amoraim and Tannaim were blogging the Mishnah and Gemara? What shape might rabbinic Judaism have taken if the Babylonians and Yerushalmis had been keeping blogs simultaneously with the wider Jewish community chiming in? On today’s blogs everything is open to discussion, and nothing is out of bounds. Further, like talmudic debate, these conversations are very democratic in nature; everyone is welcome to participate in the discussion and bring some degree of insight to the table. On my site, Jewschool, for example, we engage in conversations about Israel that run the gamut of opinions from Chomsky to Kahane. People raise concerns from a very secular humanistic place and from a fundamental Torah-rooted place. It’s not always productive, but it’s always incredibly educational and thus valuable.

Blogging can put pressure on major news outlets to pick up stories that might otherwise fall beneath the radar. And whistle blowing seems to be rapidly becoming the norm; a number of sites are devoted specifically to calling out Jewish institutions and leaders on issues that the mainstream Jewish press would otherwise ignore for reasons of allegiance or, frankly, good taste. In a recent conversation, my friend Steven I. Weiss (who was the founding publisher of Protocols, an early and now defunct jBlog, and the creator of CampusJ, a new Jewish student blog site) said, “There are too many examples to count where it very much seemed like Jewish publications were taking scoops off blogs without giving credit, but it’s hard to point to a story that blogs were covering that made a traditional Jewish publication sit up and take notice.” Steven did point to one story that came to light because of significant coverage on Jewish blogs — Rabbi Michael Ozair, a sex offender who attempted to cover up his tracks by changing his name to Michael Ezra.

Dan

Dear Dan,

It’s very hard to talk about bloggers in general, as the frequency, quality, and quantity from blogger to blogger and from week to week vary so much. Substitute the word blogger for the word “typer” and you understand the dilemma.

So, to cut to the chase, good blogging is a boon to Jewish journalism, as it is to journalism in general. It adds insight, fresh voices, almost unlimited quality content, leads, scoops, and competition to a profession that could always use more of the above. It provides a very low barrier to entry into the Jewish community, which too often limits access to people who are not financially, religiously, or politically acceptable. Most blogs riff on journalism done elsewhere, and only a handful of them actually make or break news.

Bad blogging can be entertaining, but it’s ultimately just widely-distributed doodling. People quickly learn not to take it seriously; the blogger usually moves on to other things, like a job; blogs often have a short half-life.

The key for us fuddy-duddy print Jewish journalists is to figure out how to incorporate the best of blogging into our pages — the freshness, interactivity, fearlessness. At the same time, there’s no reason to be enamored of the worst parts of it: the lashon hara; sloppy writing, editing, and sourcing; the snide, predictable anger of sexually frustrated young Jewish men with sharp minds and no one with whom to share their ideas.

Rob

Dear Rob:

It’s easy to diminish the value of blogging. It’s something a lot of journalists seem to be doing these days because of the threat blogs pose to the profession of journalism. Bloggers endanger the stability of old media. People don’t read the papers anymore; they read ‘metafilters’ like Google News and weblogs that harvest and recontextualize news stories to identify biases and misinformation. Blogs have changed the way people both perceive of the media and the manner in which they digest it. This may not necessarily mean providing coverage in the same manner that a news outlet may, but it does mean offering a new paradigm in news presentation — and that’s not something to be taken for granted.

Thus, when you make remarks about “distributed doodling” and a “short

half-life,” whatever glimmer of truth there may be to this, you’re joining this same chorus of naysayers. And I have to wonder what sort of stake you have in making such remarks. You say you want to co-opt the best of what blogs have to offer. I say your days are numbered. The European Situationists referred to this practice as recuperation, which the free, open-source encyclopedia, Wikipedia, defines as “the process by which radical ideas and images are commodified and incorporated within the ‘safe’ confines of ‘spectacular’ society.” At a recent meeting of newspaper executives, Rupert Murdoch remarked that consumers want “control over the media, instead of being controlled by it.” In the face of blogging’s advent, Murdoch recommends that newspapers begin incorporating blogs into their websites in order to maintain readership. But you see, blogging is emblematic of the glorious anarchistic nature of the Internet. As a distributed media model, with millions of hands working at once, it does what centralized media outlets can never do: Tell the whole story. And so I’d argue that rather than the old media co-opting the tricks of the new media, the new media will co-opt the old media’s tricks and start taking its journalism more seriously — picking up the phone, conducting interviews, and checking facts for itself. And when that becomes the norm, you guys are finished. Dan

Dear Dan:

Nah, old media never die, they just become new media. We’re not in the printing business; we’re in the information distribution business. Whether we distribute information via stone tablets, paper, or fiber optic cables doesn’t really matter.

As new news delivery systems replace old ones, the key is to find systems that offer high quality content and a sustainable economic model. There are something like eight million bloggers in the U.S. alone, and I can’t imagine you’re saying that each is as worthy as the next. Some are superb, some blow, and most of them — even the superb ones — are still trying to figure out how to get paid for their work.

Technological advances will soon make blogging seem quaint. The new new Internet will be able to instantly transmit huge files (30 percent of worldwide Internet traffic now operates by BitTorrent, a high-capacity file transfer system), so why blog when you can just talk into a camera and interact in real time with a guy watching you on his cell phone in Shanghai? Let’s call it blabbing, not blogging. It will kill off you and your kind faster than you can say newsprint. Every blogger is his own Tom Friedman. Every blabber will be his own Geraldo. Mind you, the journalistic skills of news gathering, fact-checking, story-telling, editing, source-grooming, multi-sourcing, etc. will still make some blabbers as valuable as the best bloggers, who are as valuable as the best print and broadcast journalists. Most of the essential skills don’t change, and talent and hard work will still be of value, and ambition and quality will still be rewarded. It’s the technology that changes, more and more rapidly, while our human needs remain the same: for news, for gossip, for connection.

Rob

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Dan Sieradski, a Dorot Fellow in Israel, is Founding Editor of Jewschool.com (a Jewish ‘fringe’ weblog), director of The Open Source Judaism Project (founded by Nothing Sacred author Douglas Rushkoff), and founder of the multilingual hip-hop collective Corner Prophets. He is currently a yeshiva student living in Jerusalem. Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles (www.jewishjournal.com). Rob, who has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and Israel, lives in Venice, CA with his wife Rabbi Naomi Levy and their two children. Rob and Dan’s recent correspondence focuses on the nature of blogging, new journalism, and the future of the Jewish press.

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