Is this journalism? – A look at SeattlePI.com

by Jason Preston on March 24, 2009

Disclosure: I personally know a number people who currently work at SeattlePI.com, and that list includes my girlfriend. You might say I’m biased when people accuse her of no longer being a journalist.

I realize it comes with the territory, but I wish people would stop asking idiotic questions about the new SeattlePI.com, most especially: “is this journalism?”

Yes, of course it’s journalism.

Is Amazon a store?

The fact of the matter is that changing the medium doesn’t necessarily change the nature of the work that’s being done at the P-I. Nor, frankly, does the number of people working at the P-I affect the quality of the work being done by those who are still there.

Sure, there’s less of it. But it’s not as if these people have suddenly stopped being journalists.

Now, in all honesty, it looks like there are some changes happening at SeattlePI.com, and real changes can raise real questions about whether or not what’s happening is journalism. Let’s take a look at three of the big ones:

Linking out to other sites

This is a practice that gets a lot of crap, and I think it comes mostly from the competitive mentality that has been front & center in the news business for decades. It used to be that if you didn’t write it, you didn’t acknowledge that it existed.

Now, when everything is just a click away, and it doesn’t make sense to compete with content you can’t compete with (why should you write a piece from your desk when another news organization has a story from a reporter on the scene?), the link makes a lot of sense.

In the words of Jeff Jarvis, “do what you do best and link to the rest.”

So that settles the value of linking out from a news site instead of foolishly trying to cover everything. But is linking to other content journalism?

After all, if we accept that linking elsewhere is journalism, we might have to acknowledge that there are bloggers doing journalism, too. And if anyone can do journalism, what is a journalist? Is there such thing as a professional Journalist anymore?

I think that linking to other sites can be journalism, for a number of reasons. I think most people can reasonably agree that “journalism” involves bringing important news, information, and stories to the public. We could argue six ways from center what constitutes “important,” but that’s tangential.

The important distinction that I think needs to be made is this: you do not have to write the information yourself in order to perform journalism.

Is a (classic) editor a journalist? I think most people would say yes. Their jobs involve, more than writing, selecting, editing, and compiling stories into a narrative or deciding what is important enough to warrant space in the paper…or even where in the paper it should go.

Just because the internet provides a news organization with an infinite news hole doesn’t mean it should be filled to the brim. Linking to other content requires editorial decisions, and conveys an endorsement. It applies a filter of authority to available information, and presents it to the reader. To me, that’s journalism.

Blog-focused site structure

For better or worse, blogs have a bad name. They’re still the butt of the joke, especially when the joke involves pajamas, cats, or other inane topics.

But as I’ve said before, blogging is a format, and it can be used for just about any type of content.

Here’s what blogging changes about the way news is reported: it opens a conversation with the reader, it acknowledges that the reader is a real live human and wants to participate in the news, it favors deeper investigation of a story over time, and it tends to want smaller chunks of writing.

I can certainly see an argument for how all of those factors change the way journalism works, but I find it harder to understand how it takes the journalism out of the picture. The biggest difference is that readers get to contribute to the story before it’s “complete” – which, if you can get over your ego, means that you’re going to have a better, more complete account at the end of the day than you would otherwise have.

Mixing opinion with hard news

This is I think the most legitimate worry. With a paper product, it’s fairly easy to keep the physical pages separate – hard to get that mixed up. On SeattlePI.com, it’s sometimes hard to tell if you’ve landed on a blog post or a news story, especially if you’re new to their site. Perhaps more importantly, the site relies on the fact that you know who a clumnist is rather than telling you it’s a column.

At the moment, the audience for SeattlePI.com is probably a) fairly local, and b) familiar with the former print product. But as the paper product fades into the background and as the site draws an increasingly large audience, it will become important to have more than a simple “Art Thiel” at the top of the page to indicate that the reader is looking at a column, especially when it is in line with other hard news.

That said, I don’t think this is anything new. At least, in the time since SeattlePI.com was announced, I haven’t noticed the team intentionally “mixing” opinion and hard news in ways that they weren’t doing on the site beforehand. There’s more blog and opinion on the home page than there used to be, but it’s no differently presented.

Taken all together, I think you’d have a hard time arguing that what SeattlePI.com is doing in Seattle isn’t journalism. Yes it’s new. Yes it’s different. Yes it feels a little weird and unfamiliar, especially if you’re used to reading (or writing) a paper product. But the internet could well be the most powerful news medium ever invented – so don’t be too quick to dismiss it.

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{ 20 comments }

1 dw 03.24.09 at 11:43 am

Your bias is duly noted. :)

Right now I see an organization that is trying to find itself. It’s smaller and leaner, but they just climbed out of the sinking ship into this little dinghy and they’re still trying to figure out how to paddle.

They’re doing OK. But I think they need to find a vision soon and run with it before they get rolled.

Oh, and they really do need a site redesign. Desperately. And they need to pay cash money for it from a top-shelf cutting-edge firm and not try to take it on themselves.

2 Tyler Hurst 03.24.09 at 12:05 pm

Journalism doesn’t require a physical medium, only an outlet in which to get information to the masses.

3 Jason Preston 03.24.09 at 3:56 pm

Dylan – I would have agreed with you on the redesign a week ago, but I’ve heard from a couple of people (who would know) that for a news reading audience (not, say, a bloggy tech audience), a redesign is often received as a big fat “F YOU,” and at a time when they’re trying desperately to retain their audience, it seems like a bad idea to throw a wrench in the gears.

I haven’t seen the numbers myself, but I’m going to take their word for it.

Tyler – Exactly.

4 rikin 03.24.09 at 5:46 pm

Jason I normally agree with your thoughts on the newspaper industry but I think your bias has gotten the best of you this time.

They have a term for people who link to other content – they’re called aggregators. Using your logic you’re saying aggregators are synonymous with journalists. Matt Drudge is a journalist?

I agree that what SeattlePI is doing journalism when it comes to the minimal content that they do produce. And also agree that even though the quantity has decreased the quality has stayed the same. But linking to AP stories (I’m sure most of it is automated and not editorialized) is not journalism.

5 Benjamin Lukoff 03.24.09 at 8:12 pm

Rikin–of course, by that token, much of the current Seattle Times, and the former print P-I, isn’t journalism–that large percentage that simply runs wire stories. But it does take editorial judgment to decide WHAT to pull off the wire….

If the P-I was JUST a random link farm, then I’d say it was no longer journalism. But it’ll shut down before going that route.

6 Curt M. 03.24.09 at 9:13 pm

Full disclosure: As a former seattlepi.com producer, I’m also biased.

rikin: Everybody, even the NYTimes, links to AP and other wire sources. As Benjamin notes, the journalistic judgment comes in deciding what to link to. I don’t think linking to AP makes you less of a journalist. Even the print paper had AP (and Reuters, years ago).

Sites like seattlepi.com are going to be more aggregators than they were before. As I’ve explained to people: That’s a service they can provide. In effect, it’s saying to readers: We trust this material and so we’re passing it on to you.

They can’t do all the journalism they did before. Few sites will be able to. As the news biz breaks down into many different sources, part of the problem for news consumers will be finding the stuff they want. Aggregators, including seattlepi.com, can help.

Given that seattlepi.com is figuring all this out as they go, I think they’re doing a good job and they’ll get better.

7 Steph 03.24.09 at 9:42 pm

Aggregating can indeed be a service and be journalistic. I just hope that the staff-written content gets better. Here’s a random example of something that seemed like it could be interesting, but is just no fun to read:

This week marks the anniversary of a long-forgotten cold case, in which a Seattle cop was killed on duty.
Charles Legate was walking his beat near what’s now 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street and used a police call box about 1 a.m. on the night of March 17, 1922.
That was the last anyone heard from him.
Shortly after 2 a.m., a patrolman called for Sgt. E.W. Pielow and the two started searching. Pielow thought to check a garage at what was then 1242 Main Street – now a parking lot of a building in the 1200 block of South Main Street.
They broke a lock on the garage and found Legate in the back of his car, with three bullets in his body and Legate’s service revolver in his hand.

The story goes on, but I didn’t. Reading it was just too much work.

8 Steph 03.24.09 at 9:57 pm

Also, the front page real estate turned over to PR types is astonishing!

Seattle Views today is an all-PR extravaganza, featuring John D. Hough (Rockey Hill & Knowlton, retired) and Pat Fearey of The Fearey Group. “Change Means Opportunity” indeed. Opportunity for polished professional communicators to step into the vacuum once occupied by actual journalists. How ironic that Fearey’s piece is a love letter to the Fourth Estate. “Embrace the new without losing the best parts of traditional journalism,” she says, and I agree. But to me, and believe me, I’m no idealogue, the best parts of traditional journalism do not include PR types on the “front page.”

9 Tamara Sellman 03.24.09 at 10:13 pm

Excellent points.

If I hear someone say there is no more journalism, or there are no more journalists, I might have to get a little grumpy.

But then I realize we’re in the middle of a revolution, folks, a time when false rumors, bad attitudes and misinformation can define a moment (not a movement). People will catch on.

Eventually!

10 rikin 03.25.09 at 8:02 am

@benjamin & @curt – I think this is a question of semantics rather than philosophies itself. There’s a thin line between journalism and aggregation; however, the two do go hand in hand. Aggregating – essentially using discretion when picking things from the wire – works best when there is some journalistic involvement and an eye for good content. However, I disagree that the act of aggregating IS journalism. This is really not a stab at the SeattlePI as I think that given their current situation they are doing a tremendous job and that their heads are in the right place.

The post says that ” ‘journalism’ involves bringing important news, information, and stories to the public.” Agreed, it does and this definition is similar to the one on Wikipedia ” journalism – the gathering and dissemination of information about current events, trends, issues, and people”

I hate to site them as a quality reference but Wikipedia goes on to address how, “journalists put the information in their own words, making it creative in their own way so it will catch the reader’s or viewer’s attention.” I think this part of the definition distinguishes what is essentially a thin and blurry line between journalism and aggregation.

Does the future of Journalism involve aggregation – I believe it would be foolish to think it doesn’t. Are all “aggregators” also journalists – I believe it would be foolish to think they are.

So to answer Jason’s questions of “Is this journalism?” Yes, the SeattlePI is still practicing journalism BUT only because they are still self-producing content that is both original and interpretations of existing content. I’m sure we’d all agree that if the site went simply to linking/aggregating content then they wouldn’t be classified as journalists.

11 dw 03.25.09 at 10:04 am

rikin –

The PAST of journalism was aggregation. Stop arguing semantics — if journalism didn’t have aggregation as a core element, there never would have been an AP or UPI. Every newspaper or news website is a combination of original material, wire copy, and syndicated material. No newspaper in this country is 100% original material.

As was noted recently, as much as 50% of a newspaper website comes from wire services. Saying that the Seattle Times “is” journalism while seattlepi.com “isn’t” is like using those USDA rules to determine what is and isn’t ham.

12 Jason Preston 03.25.09 at 10:10 am

Steph – re: PR on the front page, I hear you on this: it is weird to see political/community leaders given space on a newsbrand home page to, essentially, promote their story. But if you look at it from the perspective of the P-I, it starts to make a lot of sense.

How do you stay relevant when anyone can publish their own site and go directly to the public? How do you ensure that you can house the discussions that sprout up around the thing these community leaders write?

When you can no longer count on economics to hold your relevancy monopoly…I think it was smart of the P-I to snag these household names before they realized that they didn’t need the P-I to reach the public.

Rikin – I think you’re right that we’re all more or less on the same page here.

I think you and I may disagree on the value of intelligent aggregation though. I don’t think you need to re-write something for your actions to be journalism. I think that’s an accidental artifact of the old system whereby journalists could avoid plagiarism and still cover the same information as others.

If you’ve written something fantastic, there’s no reason that me rewriting it (unless, for some reason, I could create an almost objectively better account of it) would be anything but a waste of time for the reader. When accessing your site and your story is as easy as clicking a link, I’m acting in the best interest of the reader by sending them straight over.

I think that at the moment it’s weird to think of a collection of links as journalism, but if it is intelligently culled, I think it’s journalism. Best example I can think of: Romenesko.

I think that the work of writing original content (classical journalism) will become superdistributed between tens or hundreds of thousands of “prosumer” writers, and the high-visibility portals will practice journalism with a much larger amount of link-management.

Is that different than what journalism was? Yes. Does it still deserve to be called journalism? I think so.

13 Jason Preston 03.25.09 at 10:12 am

dw – true, although I don’t think that Rikin is saying the SeattlePI isn’t journalism:

“Yes, the SeattlePI is still practicing journalism BUT only because they are still self-producing content that is both original and interpretations of existing content.”

It’s the larger extrapolation we disagree on.

14 dw 03.25.09 at 10:13 am

Jason — I’m advocating for a redesign because I feel like it’s time to break out of the design they’ve been in for the last 6-7 years. If this is a new enterprise, it should be a new look that emphasizes the things what’s different about pi.com vis-a-vis other news sources. A well done design will attract more than they turn away.

And I really do think this is the time to go big. I have a secret list of firms and designers I’d love to see given the opportunity to rethink pi.com. At some point I’ll share them.

15 Jason Preston 03.25.09 at 10:26 am

dw – as far as what route to take IF a redesign happens, I agree, they should contract for it and get something really freaking good, HOWEVER, I’m more and more convinced that a redesign would not be welcome. Even Facebook, which is a tech-friendly site, is facing massive anger over their recent redesign.

Yes it’s a new enterprise, but it’s one in which they are actively trying to draw parallels to the old enterprise, rely on the power of the old brand, bring traditionally dead-tree readers to the web, and rest on the authority of a paper product that no longer exists. Breaking from that would probably lose them more credibility than they would gain.

I think the changes should and will come in incremental changes. The front page already looks different than it did six months ago, and I think the slow-morph process is the way to go for a mass-media publication in most cases.

16 rikin 03.25.09 at 10:56 am

Ok fine – to maintain amicability I’ll give in but I think only time will tell on the journalism issue.

I agree with@ dw though and had a massive redesign in mind after reading in the farewell letter that “the new seattlepi.com is an innovative experiment and I think that the eyes of the country and this industry are going to be on what we do in Seattle.”

http://disaster.seattlepi.nwsource.com/articles/403793.html

17 Jason Preston 03.25.09 at 1:12 pm

For what it’s worth, the logic fibers in my brain say that a redesign is an essential component of launching a new site, but I’m (foolishly perhaps) trusting the hard data (which I haven’t seen) proving that it would result in fewer readers.

18 Paul Balcerak 03.26.09 at 1:38 pm

Few days late to the party here, but I feel compelled to weigh in.

(Disclosure: For those who don’t know me, I’m also acquainted with current and former P-I employees. SeattlePI.com has also linked out to my company’s site a few times, if that matters.)

I enjoyed your post, Jason, but can we just scrap the whole “what’s journalism?” thing (asking this openly and rhetorically to everyone)? Who cares? I still visit SeattlePI.com; so do a lot of other people. SeattlePI.com provides original accounts of events that happened and links to original accounts of events that happened. Is it reliable? Is it trustworthy? We’re on the Internet here — quality and truth rise to the top.

Look, any of us who read the P-I (in print or online) before it went online only know damn well that a lot of people were asking “is this journalism?” back then, too. Frankly, if those people don’t like it, they can go read the Times. (Oddly, many of them keep coming back.)

I don’t think anyone doubts that the P-I is trying to put out a news product. Sure, maybe a few people visit the site less often because there’s less original content, but if what the P-I is doing can make money and sustain the product, that’s a win.

For the record, I visit SeattlePI.com just as often as I did when the print product existed.

19 Jason Preston 03.27.09 at 11:21 am

Paul – I agree with you that, from a practical standpoint, if they’re serving the community (and they are), then let’s forget the semantics and roll with it.

However, I don’t think it’s a rhetorical question or debate – there are a lot of people who don’t see how journalism in a new medium is still journalism, and I think that part of the transition we as a society and as an industry are going through is making that mental gear-change.

20 Paul Balcerak 03.27.09 at 12:14 pm

I agree; all I’m saying is those people can go climb a tree. I think modern journalists have enough to deal with without holding everyone’s hand and explaining what journalism is and isn’t (plus it seems to make us appear pretentious when we try and make that distinction and people don’t like it).

Ultimately, people are going to judge for themselves whether each individual piece of content on the Web is journalism or not journalism, so I don’t think it’s worth our energy to try and categorize it all.

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