Invisible knowledge

A few years ago the University of Oslo used to print its own telephone book. Some professors didn’t like that everyone could find them so easily, so they demanded to not be listed in the book. The campus is a pretty big place, and without a telephone number and address it could be really hard to find these people. Hence, they could go on with their research undisturbed. Nice!

The anecdote comes to mind as I’m searching for relevant literature for Project Undercurrent, which is now going into a more active phase. So how do you find the most interesting and relevant texts – articles, books, blog posts, texts of any type that might be of interest – about blogging/personal publishing and its relationship with journalism? I know the old, hard way – try to identify the seminal works in the field, check the authors’ sources, find new must-reads there (a process described by University of Chicago sociologist Andrew Abbott as an ape swinging through the trees. Via Daniel Drezner). There’s also the requirement to locate and read what your local scholars have been doing on the subject (even if you end up not being overimpressed by them, you should at least know their work). I am dutifully doing these things, and have indeed found interesting recent writings on journalism, for example work done for the Norwegian Power and Democracy research project.

There is however a structural problem with this established system of knowledge distribution. The web has something to do with it, and with the web, Google. With Google Scholar you suddenly have a very tempting possibility to bypass the old system, or swing through the trees at supersonic speed, if you like. The results you’ll get aren’t good enough yet, or should I say complete enough, but I still believe many people searching for thoughts and inspiration on a subject, at least those not about to write doctoral theses, will start with Google Scholar, or even the regular Google. Being visible there will then tremendously increase a scholar’s real impact factor, if not her academia-sanctioned impact, especially if the article/paper is immediately available in full text.

Cue the ongoing debates about the availability of research literature. The Open Access movement is gaining momentum worldwide, and the visibility effect of Google Scholar will only accelerate the process. It won’t be fun not to be found – hiding from the telephone book may have worked for some, the punishment for hiding from Google will be more severe. It took me much less time to find the fine Into the Blogosphere collection of articles than I had to spend to locate the University of Oslo’s Media Department project Participation and Play in Converging Media (where a blog was created in 2003, but has never been updated). The University of Minnesota is on another continent, the University of Oslo next door, but invisible.

A media studies classic from the 80’s is called “No Sense of Place”. The title was even better than the author could have imagined.

Two humble propositions and a sorely missed news channel

While it’s hard to keep up with developments in all areas of personal publishing – blogs, podcasts, photosharing, what have you – it’s not very demanding to spot innovations at Norwegian news websites. Fellows, we have only been doing web journalism for ten years. That’s nothing. We don’t have to stop here. Three ideas inspired by some recent developments:

  • Stop copy & paste: This week, a Dagsavisen reporter discovered that Nettavisen not only quoted one of her news articles – they published the same article, word by word. Nettavisen’s editor threw in the towel and paid her for the theft. But he should do more. Far too many poor online journalists have to spend their days quoting colleagues’ stories instead of producing their own original material. And it’s been like this for years. Sad. But when you have to quote others, then do it properly, by linking to the original if it’s available on the web (Dagsavisen’s story was). For years, web news editors have been banning the use of external links to competitors because they want the readers to stay on their site. Bloggers have shown what an unsuccesful policy that has been. Some will say I’m a web idealist for insisting on these things, but one thing I’m certain of: Working with the web’s logic is a precondition for success in the long run. Working against it will inevitably fail.
  • Invest in journalism: Aftenposten did a piece on the future of news this week, the headline claiming that “Soon the readers will have to write the news themselves”. Torry Pedersen, the boss of our biggest news website VG Nett, is quoted thus: “So far it is a deliberate policy that we’re not spending our resources on finding exclusive stories”. Let me try to understand this. VG Nett’s mother paper is losing readers, VG Nett is making a lot of money (reportedly), the company will necessarily have to “convert” paper readers to web users – and the editor is consciously not investing in journalism (priority is however given to the launch of a weight loss club). This can’t be sustainable. Today’s and especially tomorrow’s media environment will demand much more of journalists – not less. Yes, I know that VG this week was given the website of the year award by the Norwegian Media Businesses’ Association. We should still expect much more of them.
  • Rediscover importance: So many Norwegian news websites, so little real news overview. Here’s what I would read: A minimalist news website dedicated to reporting only the most important news – nation, world, economy, culture, opinion. Always updated with the five most important news stories from each of those sections. With selected links to the best original coverage available. A Google News made by people, without the noise. Or maybe it would be more like a super-informed, but un-opinionated blog. Why? Because the news websites have become so obsessed with maximizing clicks that the news drowns in funny titles, strange tales and showbiz. The result is that I stop going to news websites for news.

Hopeless task

Hans Kullin recruited me to this book meme craze. I obey of course, as lists should be taken seriously:

  • Total number of books owned:No idea, far too many. I try to get rid of some of them in a humane way.
  • Latest book I bought: Götz Aly: Hitlers Volksstaat.
  • Latest book I’ve read: James Joyce: Dubliners.
  • Five books that mean a lot to me (books I’ve read more than 3 times)?

    Three times or ten or once – irrelevant. Anyway:

    Sebastian Haffner: Geschichte eines Deutschen.

    Ernest Hemingway: A farewell to arms.

    Carsten Jensen: Rapport fra en parentes (Norwegian translation appearing in Alain Finkielkraut: Ave Europa, de døende hilser deg).

    Adorno and Horkheimer: Dialectic of the enlightenment.

    Thomas Mann: The magic mountain.

  • Tag 5 people and have them fill this out on their blog. All right: Hans Rustad and Gunnar Nyquist, Ben Schwan, Andreas Andersen and i1277.

It’s official

The threshold has been passed. The cow has been branded. The… Ok, stop, stop. It’s enough to say that now that VG, maybe the world’s biggest daily newspaper measured in circulation relative to population (350.000 to 4.5 Million), has dubbed its new page 3 column “VG-bloggen”, it’s official: It is no longer necessary to explain what a blog is every time we Norwegians write about blogs in non-blogosphere contexts. The launch more or less coincided with the business paper Dagens Næringsliv running a blog magazine piece (see jill for facsimile and summary). In retrospect, however, I’m certain it will look very strange that it took so many years for the Norwegian press to catch up.

In only the second post VG commentator Anders Giæver was confronted with the mighty power of bloggers, as they tore his short text about “Deep Throat” to pieces…

*Blog hyperbole generator plug-in suddenly coughs and comes to abrupt standstill*

…well, not exactly. Giæver wrote a hardly very ambitious, light text about how VG quoted a rumour about Mark Felt in 1999, and titled the column “VG revealed Deep Throat – first”. What Giæver then encountered was not some mighty blogger power, just the usual noise cultivated by among others his own VG in its discussion forums (a culture discussed earlier here).

More interestingly, Giæver used the occasion to quote and link to, one of the most widely read Norwegian blogs, that has existed for 2,5 years longer than the VG blog.

Some of us who experienced the dotcom boom and bust more or less from within have been excited, but stayed quite low key about the potential that personal publishing might have. We had heard our fair share of hyperbole and impossible revolutionary claims and wouldn’t feel good about pushing the repeat button. So let’s stay on the course of calm analysis, but remove our self-imposed mental and conceptual limits at the same time. A clue was given by veteran web journalist Paal Leveraas in Dagens Næringsliv’s story:

The audience will increasingly choose the voices they trust in a fragmented media landscape. For an increasing number of people, especially youth, it’s a blog and not the newspapers that is the portal to mainstream news. They go from the blog to the newspaper that the blog links to.

We will have both, the noise and the credibility. And much, much more.