Issue 5: September/October

Terms of Authority

Readers and Viewers — Rich Now in Alternative Sources of News — Are More Assertive and Far Less in Awe of the Press

Editors' Note: This is an expanded version of a piece that appeared in the September/October 2003 issue of CJR.

Several years ago, when the Internet was young, I saw a notice in The New York Times that the reporter Matthew L. Wald would be online that day, answering questions from the public. The Times said you could e-mail him in advance and it gave his address, a novelty then. So I bit. I asked Wald, whose beat was airline safety, whether he had any questions to ask the public. He sent me a polite reply, which I appreciated. It said he was happy to answer questions from readers, but didn't plan on asking any.

Wald's answer is the one most of his peers would give, and with good reason. Having an expert on a beat is a clean and professional way of handling curious readers who, on the Internet, have monitors (for incoming) and keyboards (for sending out). Which, by the way, means that everyone habitually called "reader," and handled in those terms, could also be called "writer." "Ask the Expert" (an especially comfortable practice when you're the expert) prearranges what we might call the terms of authority for a professional journalist. Wald is working full time on the sprawling subject of air safety — you're not. Send him your questions.

The priesthood of journalism stands to become more interactive and, in a sense, more accountable

In March of this year, Chris Allbritton, a former AP and New York Daily News reporter, became what Wired called "the Web's first independent war correspondent." He did it by asking readers of his blog to send him to Iraq at their expense. Allbritton raised $14,500 from 342 donors on a simple promise: that he would send back from the war original and honest reporting, free of commercial pressures, pack thinking, and patriotic hype. He needed a plane ticket to Turkey (where he snuck over the border and found the war), a laptop, a Global Positioning Satellite unit, a rented satellite phone, a digital camera, and enough cash to move around, keep fed, and buy his way out of trouble. While some reporters were embedded with the American military, Allbritton sent himself on assignment, never even asking permission to be in the country.

The Internet did the rest. On March 27, his reporting drew 23,000 users to his site (, thus proving, not that anyone in the public can perhaps be a journalist, but that anyone who is a journalist can have a mini-public on the Net. A Business Week report even asked of Allbritton's pay-to-read model, "Is this the future of journalism?" I doubt that, but it is an alternative path to finding the future. "The New York Times may have nothing to worry about," wrote Spencer E. Ante, "but Allbritton's story hints at a new business model that could remake the lesser tiers of the media world."

I don't know what Ante means by lesser tiers. But I suppose he means tiers where they make much less money. If journalism outlets were to be ranked by levels of independence, then Allbritton's organization — himself, plus readers and patrons — would be on top. "New business model" does not begin to describe what he created. Here you have a journalist collecting his own mini-public, a few thousand people on the Web, who then send him to report on events of interest to the entire world, via a medium that reaches the entire world. This cuts out "the media" altogether, reaching back centuries to some of the first people to work as reporters abroad.

Our idea of a correspondent gathering news for the public emerged from an earlier type, the correspondent gathering news for the benefit of private or well-placed persons. In sixteenth century Europe, it was common for wealthy merchants and bankers to have newsletters written for them by agents stationed abroad. Merchants had commercial interests in faraway places, so they needed current news. There were small networks of proto-correspondents ("intelligencers") who picked up scraps of information around town and pooled it in weekly letters sold to multiple clients - princes, state officials, businessmen, and church authorities. "We are dealing here with a form of private news," writes Mitchell Stephens in A History of News. By our definition this is an oxymoron, he adds. But it made perfect sense to the trader in Antwerp, willing and able to pay for intelligence others around him did not have. That business is alive today, in expensive newsletters for corporate clients. What's missing from the picture?

It's the public, of course. A private market for news, priced high and circulated among the few, came first. Information dealers later found there was more money in a public market for news, priced low and peddled to many. The newsletter became the newspaper, which begat the mass media and modern reportage. These market events had a political outcome: the birth of the news-reading public, whose opinions would later count as politics expanded to include them. From this developed "public opinion," a force that came into politics in the mid-eighteenth century. And eventually we got the public's right to know, which in the twentieth century set out the terms of authority for the mainstream press, providing a sketch of how things are supposed to work.

The journalist is supposed to represent somebody other than herself, her company, her political party, her clan, her class, her king. There is a public out there to serve, to whom you send back reports that are in the common interest. In the sixteenth century the terms were, "I'm in Venice, you're not; I'll send you my reports, you pay me something." But this was a private transaction; the public hadn't been "invented" yet. It was beyond the imagination of the day that average citizens were like merchants who had interests abroad and so needed news. Or that we all lived in a common sphere of events. It was not thought that all opinions counted when it came time to decide for the nation.

The public is an idea because it takes imagination to conceive of such a thing - the great mass of people spread out over the nation but in touch with the same events, leading private lives but paying public matters some attention. It becomes more than an idea when people act on it, as Jay Leno does in his nightly monologue on the day's news: "You all saw this, right? . . ." In 2003, Chris Allbritton said, in effect, I can get to Iraq, you can't; I'll send back reports, post them on the Net, and some of you will pay me something. Trust me, it will work. This was a public transaction, and it did work. It had an idea built into it that journalists have been reworking since about 1760 or so.

"I was fully aware of why I was there," said Allbritton in an interview. "Journalists are the agents of their readers, their proxies in environments the average Joe can't or won't go. As such, I felt a great responsibility to them." This included getting assignments (or at least suggested assignments) directly from the site's users and sponsors. In a form letter sent to anyone who gave him money, Allbritton wrote: "If you'd like me to check out a story and it's physically possible, let me know and I'll do what I can." In a social contract like this, the idea of the public is being worked out again — online.

First we had readers at the other end of the journalistic act. Then in the twentieth century came radio listeners, then TV viewers, and along the way we picked up news consumers. Now we have "users," which has become a conventional term for the audience on the Internet. These are all ways of further describing the public, while inscribing an image of what a public does. Thus, we speak of the reading public, the listening public, the viewing public. But a computer and Internet-using public is not really in the same genealogical line as readers, listeners, viewers, consumers. They were all receivers of information. The Net user, it has been said many times, doesn't fit that mold. It's a much more active identity, requiring more active nouns and verbs, which is why it hardly makes sense at all to talk about an Internet "audience."

The age of global interactivity that is now descending changes the terms of the transaction not only by upgrading what publics can do for themselves, but also by granting new powers of invention to journalists. In that long historical arc from the first correspondents writing letters to today's pros uplinked by satellite, there have been several revolutions in journalistic authority. The last big one was in the mid-twentieth century, when journalism evolved from a low-status trade to a higher-status profession. By pledging themselves to fairness, accuracy, and disinterested truth-telling, American journalists improved their cultural authority, separating it from partisan politics and the struggle to shape opinion. They became, in a sense, experts in the public's daily business. This worked well enough, and it still works.

The crowning achievement of that system is, of course, The New York Times, an institution with unique standing in American culture and the press tribe. But the terms of the Times's authority never stay frozen in place. In the continuous and subtle transaction by which the newspaper's influence prevails, there can be decisive changes. The onset of personal bylines was one: authority subdivided by writers, who then come to the fore of the public transaction that maintains the Times's reputation. The editors have always been fussy, often courtly, about bylines for that reason. Incidents — disasters — like Jayson Blair and to a lesser degree Rick Bragg's overuse of stringers are vexing to conscience not because they involve such huge acts of misinformation, but because they strike at the basic tools of truthfulness. The dateline is extremely basic to the commanding news voice of the Times, and if in three, five, or thirty-five cases it was a lie, the problem is not the total amount of lying the paper did. It's the exposed foundation, the apprehension of fragility in the system of trust that makes news reporting, let alone "credibility," possible at all. These things shiver the system, raise anxiety levels, and then come outbursts of action. Poof, Howell Raines is gone. A newspaper unique in its truth-telling authority cannot afford a temporary crisis in that department.

But underneath that, something else is going on. The terms on which the Times can maintain its professional aura and define what is news have been changing, as this huge and conservative (about journalism) institution meets the next age in media and public conversation. Slowly, but very slowly, the Times is realizing that it has to become more interactive with its environment. This means becoming more open to citizen scrutiny and peer-group criticism, more willing to give reasons for its actions and discuss them publicly, less the citadel of news judgment and more conversant with the political culture — and with the public, which can reach the paper more easily than in eras past. It's not only the ease of sending an e-mail, but the vast data-sphere available to Net users with a few clicks of the mouse. Medical authority is simply not the same in a world where patients do their own research on alternative drugs and treatment regimes. It would be surprising if authority in elite journalism remained the same when the very readers the Times cultivates (educated, affluent, curious) are themselves rich in alternative sources of news. Do Net-surfing patients stop trusting their doctors? No, but they are less likely to be overawed. Something like this is happening in journalism, making users more assertive. Remember, it was a call from a reader that did in Rick Bragg.

Glasnost has come to West Forty-third Street. A stunning openness descended on The New York Times during the Jayson Blair crisis, with e-mails flying to Romenesko's site and rebounding into the office. The Times became, during the height of the storm, an almost transparent institution, an odd position for those who routinely visit transparency on others. Raines himself became gradually more willing to speak with the press about questionable calls, and the new editor, Bill Keller, has announced that he will hire an ombudsman, or "public editor," a symbol of openness and interaction.

There will be other changes — some drawn from the fifty-eight-page "Siegal Report," an internal investigation headed up by assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegal and made public July 30.

This is a remarkably candid document. Among its major themes is the call for more accountability - internally and to outsiders — and more transparency in the way the Newspaper of Record makes decisions. The report urges senior executives "to bring order and transparency to the Times's often makeshift and opaque actions." Among the items that had become opaque were datelines and bylines, which were sometimes close to a lie. "Our use of bylines and datelines is inconsistent and occasionally dissembling," the report states. Among the possible embarrassments was the "toe touch." This is when a reporter who did the bulk of his research in New York about a story unfolding in Ohio, catches a flight to Cleveland, spending only a few hours there so that an out-of-town dateline can be "artificially justified."

It's not that no one at the Times knew about the toe touch. It's that under the new conditions of increased scrutiny, no one knew how such a practice could be publicly explained, let alone justified. The newspaper's stylebook says that "believable firsthand news gathering is the Times's hallmark." But the Siegal report found: "In the aftermath of the Blair scandal, as we tried to explain our standards to outsiders and our own staff, we concluded that much confusion had been sown by our internally-generated pressure on reporters to 'get the dateline' at any cost."

A dateline showing a reporter on location appears to give the reporting more authority, suggesting firsthand observation at work. As long as it's not a total lie (after all, the reporter was "there" for a few hours) the paper could be satisfied with the device. But this works only so long as the Times can avoid interacting with the public and explaining itself to outsiders. And that is what's different today: the interaction cannot be avoided. Thus, the authority to decide that the toe touch is enough has vanished. The report notes that reducing the opacity of editorial decisions and policies "will grow in importance as the newsroom continues to expand through ventures in television, the Internet, new sections and the International Herald Tribune."

Has The New York Times lost authority? No, not in any ultimate sense; its influence only grows in a wired world. But for the stewards of our greatest newspaper, it's not going to be the same transaction as more action shifts online. Even the high authority, the priesthood of journalism, stands to become more interactive and in a sense more accountable. (Ask Raines.) The big ethics task of getting the separations right — distinguishing press from state, newsroom from boardroom, journalist from publicist, editorial from advertising — is still there. Added to it, however, is an equally hard problem: getting the connections right to a public that is out there, paying attention, sometimes bringing its own expertise and curiosity to the party and willing to sustain serious journalism.

Matt Wald, following the standard Times model, interacted as an expert in air safety. Chris Allbritton believed the terms of his authority compelled him to ask a question of his miniature public, "I'm in country, you're reading the other news sources; what should I investigate?" Readers became editors, Allbritton told me via e-mail, and even his copy editors: "Once, after getting into Iraq by crossing through the mountains on the Turkey-Iraq border, I said the trek was like the Bataan Death March," he wrote. "Boy. That got me a lot of heat from people who took great offense at what was called an overblown metaphor. They had a point, and I kept language like that down after that event. They were also assignment editors, which was an explicit part of the deal . . . I did an entire story on the role of the Turkomen in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kirkuk because of [a reader's suggestion]. I never saw a single story about their role anywhere else. It was a minor story, but it might have been big, if the Turkomen had convinced Turkey to intervene on their behalf."

This is not only an alternative way of financing serious reporting, but of grounding its authority — interactively. The terms of the transaction imply a new kind of public, where every reader can be a writer and people do not so much consume the news as they "use" it in active search for what's going on, sometimes in collaboration with each other, or in support of the pros.

"Why did I listen to them?" Allbritton said of his site's users. "Because they gave me money — directly — to find stuff out for them, so I feel there's a moral responsibility there . . . . We tend to trust people who listen and respond to us."