Scripting News: Access journalism is poison.

A picture named hippieVan.gifFelix Salmon is a smart guy, a very good writer, so I recommend reading this piece about what he calls “access journalism.”

He’s responding to Margaret Sullivan’s piece in the NYT about the Dealbook conference that was a huge demo of access journalism. I didn’t go to the conference (wasn’t invited) and neither did Salmon. But we’ve both been to conferences like it. And while Salmon is a journalist who believes in access, I am a source and subject of journalism who despises it.

  • BTW, I’m friends with Lance Knobel, who managed the program for the conference, as is Salmon (I believe). That’s how I know Salmon. We met first at the Davos conference in 2000 where Knobel was the program director. I know Lance well, and know he’s a realist about how these things work. However I speak for myself only.
  • If I were playing by the rules of access journalism I would temper what I said about this conference, for fear of losing Lance his job, or losing influence with Lance. I thought this disclaimer made a good enough demo to include in this piece, though imho it wasn’t necessary.

In an earlier life, as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I was good at the access game. I traded ideas and news with reporters, and in return they wrote nice things about me and my product. I’m sure many of them actually liked our products, but the reason they looked at them, or even heard of them, was this exchange of favors.

When you don’t do this, they pretty much ignore you, or worse. I’ve had a fair number of very negative jobs done on me by the press after I gave up the favor-doing. I had become a blogger, had decided to route around the mess instead of trying to deal with it. I had good reasons for giving up, because when I tried to do something that was so ambitious that it tweaked my platform vendor, Apple, the press turned on me. All of a sudden my product didn’t exist, I didn’t exist. Crushed by the Great Company who in reality had shipped a vastly inferior product. Didn’t matter. So we had to invent a different way to market. It’s harder to go direct, but it’s honest, and more satisfying. The people who control access to users through the press play a dirty nasty game. And many of them have business cards that say they’re journalists.

I am glad that Sullivan has decided to challenge this corrupt mess, I felt it was very unlikely that she would. That’s why I said she’s the first public editor the Times has had. Becuase the previous public editors tried to dish up the mess in a recipe that’s palatable to the journalists who are playing footsie with the people they cover.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having conferences like the Dealbook conference. But there’s also nothing wrong with saying the truth about it, that the system it exposes yields inbred journalism. People who are close friends with the people they cover aren’t really covering them. If that’s all there is, then we aren’t getting news. And that leads to huge problems. Open technologies are ignored because there’s no marketing budget for them. Housing markets are turned into gambling casinos by people who already have more money than they could ever spend. Ordinary middle class people are turned out of their own homes. There are real consequences to this system. And global problems going unaddressed because the reporter didn’t want to piss off some guy they use as a source.

We need dozens of people working at the Times doing what Margaret Sullivan does. I think Andrew Ross Sorkin needs to feel the heat, he needs to feel pressure to stab his friends in the back when they do something awful, and we need to get Felix Salmon to use his intellect to expose their mediocrity, not defend their parties.

Sullivan’s piece marked a beginning, perhaps. I hope.

A couple of postscripts.

  • 1. My mother, a NYT daily reader for a long time, wrote on her blog that she might stop reading the Times because they weren’t covering the Bradley Manning trial. She read about this in the Times itself in a Sullivan column. I said this is the reason to stay subscribed. That they now have the guts to criticize themselves so openly is a very positive thing for the Times, and a first. They are bending just a little to the advent of the blog. There’s hope. In the past we wouldn’t have known they were doing this. Now we do.
  • 2. I remember a column in PC Mag written in 1983 by Peter Norton, who was fast becoming the go-to guy for technical information about the IBM PC which was booming. I had used his book to guide my implementation of ThinkTank for the PC. And I read every word in every one of his columns. In the previous column he had said that the new version of IBM PC DOS was awful. It didn’t work. Crashed. Lost data. He was right. It was awful. But he had gotten reprimanded by someone — he didn’t say who — and he would never again question the wisdom of IBM. I thought it was remarkably honest of him to write this one last column. And true to his word, he never again challenged IBM. That was a very lonely moment. Up till then I felt like we were all in this together. Even IBM could benefit from honest criticism. That was the end of something important.

About Dave Winer

Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.
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