Welcome back, my friends, to the argument that never ends

Jay Rosen has written an intelligent piece about New York Times editor Bill Keller’s admission that he doesn’t read Romenesko and other media blogs. Jay traces Keller’s aversion to blogosphere chatter through a series of comments about “self-absorption.” This term is closely related to navel-gazing, and somewhat more distantly, to “inside baseball.” These are all terms journalists use when they fear that shop-talk and meta-conversations about their profession will bore the readership. (Sometimes they also fear that such “self-absorption” might lead to embarrassment, loss of authority or a little too much light shed on the profession of light-shedding.)

Of course, the blogosphere has opened an inexhaustible faucet of such meta-conversation. This brings us to the most interesting part of Rosen’s piece, to me. “There seems to be no end to any argument in your world,” Keller complained to blogger Jeff Jarvis in a public e-mail exchange last year. Well, right, Rosen says. He sympathizes with Keller’s concern that all this transparency and online dialoguing might place infinite demands on a busy manager’s time — and that’s a legitimate concern for anyone who is trying to lead a newsroom while also representing it to the wider world, online and off. But really, Rosen argues, the complaint is off base: “Do arguments on the opinion pages normally ‘end?’ How about arguments about higher taxes, racism, war or globalization as found in the Times news columns? Do they end?”

I largely agree with Rosen’s retort to Keller — which is to say, look, of course this thing is a time-sink, but so is any communication of value, and there are smart and time-conserving ways to use your own blog to engage in dialogue with your critics without having it become an infinite loop of self-justification and “self-absorption.”

But I think Rosen has missed one central element of the “no end to any argument” argument, and that has to do with the matter of who gets to say when an argument is over.

Because, until quite recently, for most of the career of the editor of the Times, or any other leading journalist today, it was the newspaper’s editors who nearly always got to say, “This argument is at an end.” An editor operates in a world of limited resources — limited staff, limited time in the day, limited column inches in the paper. The work of editing is almost entirely the work of making choices about how to deploy those limited resources. An argument becomes an argument in the first place because an editor makes a story assignment, decides to highlight the story, assigns a follow-up. And the argument is over when the editor decides, okay, enough of that — now this!

Add up those choices taking place in newsrooms around the country and you have “the news cycle” — that arc of coverage from “breaking story” to “analysis” to “follow-ups” and so on that governs the media today. The news cycle is finite; stories lose steam and are replaced by other stories with their own cycles. This is often because a story has run its natural course. But it is also because editors, forced to choose between expending resources on continuing to cover yesterday’s news or jumping on today’s, will almost always choose to start a new cycle. After all, they became editors because they’re excited by news.

The blogosphere presents an entirely different structure for the flow of information. There is no single news cycle here. If you are blogging about, say, campaign finance reform, or global warming, you will keep dogging that subject day after day. You aren’t going to be reassigned to cover an aspect of the next breaking news cycle. No one is going to tell you that there’s no column-inches (or air-time) left for your beat, and besides, didn’t we already run a big take-out on that topic last week? None of those constraints apply. Keller is right: Here, there is no end to the argument.

In the end, that, I think, is what is so unnerving about the blogosphere conversation to him and his coevals. Gone are the familiar newsroom rhythms — in which last week’s chatter about Andy Card’s resignation is replaced by this week’s chatter about Tom DeLay’s resignation, which will be replaced by next week’s chatter about next week’s resignation.

Certainly, the best editors and publications — among which the Times certainly belongs in the front rank — transcend the news cycle, with long-form features and long-term investigations that make news rather than respond to it. Certainly, too, the blogosphere responds to resignation chatter and other news-cycles; its ripples and waves most often start from newspaper or TV splash.

The difference is between a closed system, one of limits, and an open system, with no boundaries. The editor who assigns three reporters to a six-month investigation of some fraud knows that those reporters are not going to be available to cover City Hall. The blogger who’s got a case against the local school board, or who thinks that Dan Rather (or the New York Times) is biased, is never going to stop. The whole point of a blog is that no one can make you shut up.

So I think, when we hear an editor complain that “There seems to be no end to any argument in your world,” we are hearing the reflexes of a professional who has spent a lifetime deciding, “It’s time to move from this story to that story.” It’s the voice of someone whose whole expertise lies in assessing when one news cycle is ending and another is starting.

When such an editor surveys the blogosphere, he hears a multitude of voices who do not operate in such a zero-sum world — and who stubbornly refuse to give up talking about this issue or that story even if the cycle has rolled on. For the old-school editorial mind, engaging with such voices isn’t just an exercise in futility — it’s an act of self-torture. The world of “no end to any argument” isn’t just a world that challenges specific choices editors make; it’s one that eliminates the very editorial occupation of argument-ending.

UPDATE: More thoughts from Dave Weinberger: “We are not going to settle our arguments. There’s enough room on the Web to permit that…The big question is whether we can adapt this lesson of the Web to the real world with its finite space and inescapable proximities. If we’re never all going to agree, can we at least all keep talking?”

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