Wednesday, August 30, 2006

media - Blogger turned journalist raises important questions

ESWN has today a great post on the Foxconn case, but reaches far beyond that issue: it is about journalism and its future.
First, ESWN discovers he has been acting as an activist and a journalist, as he pleaded for the case of the two journalists who got sued by Foxconn and saw their assets frozen.
Clearly, at this point, I was not functioning as a traditional journalist with an objective eye. I was an undeclared lobbyist!
Roland Soong of ESWN has been carefully trying to avoid such a step in the past, he wanted to stay away from controversy and strong opinions. I always considered him to be a journalist. He decided for his readers what they could read or not, although he tried to decorate that with a nice sauce of objectivity. But he was making journalistic choices and there is absolutely nothing against that, unless you actually deny you are doing it. So, I consider this as a great step forward for a weblogger who is providing a valuable service.
What makes his entry extra interesting is the debate he enters (although a real exchange should still take place) with Richard Spencer of the UK paper The Telegraph who defends himself in his blog for not paying attention to the case of the Foxconn journalists. He has a lot of decent arguments why his paper and most other Western media ignored the issue, while they went into the highest alert when other Chinese journalists to into legal problems, or worse.
If you were my editor, and I came up with a couple of journalists who had their bank accounts frozen in a preliminary hearing, what would you say? For the reader in Chipping Sodbury, I just don't think that makes the grade.
Richards points here at a crucial challenge for the new online media. He has a clear picture in his mind when he writes a story: there is this auntie in Chipping Sodbury who has to appreciate the story. It might be an important story for China, for the media experts, but not for this auntie in Chipping Sodbury. With my background in traditional media I suffer from the same dilemma. I have been dealing with many different media, TV, radio, print and now the internet, but I do need to know for whom I'm writing the bloody story. Marketing people will call that target groups, but for me that often boils down to individual people I know personally. I need them as a reference point.
That person can vary, depending on the medium you are working for or the audience that is reading it. It can sometimes be my mother in the Netherlands, the academics on a China Internet mailing list or my business friends in Shanghai. Without such a reference point I'm lost. Sometimes I would call them in advance and discuss a story to find out what really makes sense to them.
Now, in theory the internet has destroyed much of the old barriers. Time, place and certainly the high costs of producing stories have been breaking down or are in the process of doing so. But does that mean I can work without those reference points? I do not think so.
The old question, for whom am I doing this, is still relevant, even though I have in theory a global audience I can reach every moment of the day. I see a tendency among many global internet projects of just ignoring that paramount question: for whom am I doing it? As a journalist the moral indignation Roland Soong showed at ESWN is important for making your initial choices, but that can only be a starting point. The next question is: where is my audience?
Now, obvious, sometimes that problem is solved by itself. Some online services work so well, they generate automatically an audience although the producers have never asked themselves why and how they are setting up their service. Call me old-fashioned, but I still need my mother in Maasbree, Mark Schaub in Shanghai or Randy Kluver in Singapore as a reference point. For the time being I want to cherish this little handicap.
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