Draft ethics codes have circulated in the blogosphere, and the ideas in drafts posted at CyberJournalist.net and on the sites of bloggers such as Rebecca Blood and Tim O’Reilly would be familiar to those who’ve worked in major media newsrooms. It would be wrong, though, to assume that the blogosphere is likely to organize itself into mainstream-style professional groups with industry-wide standards (for that matter, mainstream media don’t follow one set of standards). “The blogosphere has no organization. None. It’s chaotic. That’s what makes it vibrant,” said Rosen.
When I asked Eric Umansky, a senior writer at the investigative journalism project ProPublica (and a CJR contributing editor) and a veteran of both old and new media, how standards of online journalism will be enforced, his answer was one that’s repeated often in cyberspace: “It’s going to be regulated essentially by the marketplace.” That means a blog, just like a newspaper, has to build credibility; people will stop reading if it’s “unreliable and unlikely to tell me anything new,” he said. The marketplace solution is not particularly reassuring to many traditional journalism gatekeepers. They don’t want mandatory standards, but as they open up their own thinking about the online world, they do want the blogosphere to recognize that journalism won’t survive on any platform without a common belief in some principles—among them, a commitment to accuracy and to avoiding (or clearly revealing) conflicts of interest. In one of his most recent ruminations on the transitional world of journalism, Rosen described the gatekeepers as a “tribe” now migrating from the failing business model of old journalism to a new digital platform. The migration, he said, offers the opportunity to build a hybrid model with online journalists.
Rosen’s hybrid notion shifts the focus from defining “who is a journalist” to “what is journalism.” That’s a necessary shift, and once it’s made, it may be possible to build a new journalism, combining, for example, the best of traditional shoe-leather reporting with exciting new citizen-journalist teams. But a hybrid would require true collaboration between old and new practitioners who are serious about sustaining journalism and its public-service mission. Old media will have to let go of some attitudes and assumptions that are no longer relevant, and new media will need to recognize standards that can infuse credibility and trust into this new journalism. Working together will require everyone in the bigger tent to drop their animosities and check their egos. It’s not about us, after all. It’s about keeping watch on those in power, about ensuring an informed citizenry, about maintaining a democratic culture that is strengthened by vibrant reporting on vital institutions.