Blogging pioneer calls out journalists’ handling of the tech industry at 20th annual ISOJ

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  • April 16, 2019

By Allyson Ortegon

After a chorus of The Beatles’ uplifting tune “Yellow Submarine” filled the room, Dave Winer, one of the early leaders of blogging and editor of the Scripting News weblog, proceeded to chastise the news media at 20th annual International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) on April 13.

DaveDave Winer (Erika Rich/Knight Center)

Winer encouraged everyone to sing along with him, to “get out of your heads” and be ready to ask questions.

The method proved effective and the conversation began with Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights project and a co-founder of Global Voices, interviewing Winer, whom she dubbed “Blogger Number One.”

Winer reflected on how he didn’t just wake up one day and decide to start blogging. Rather, it was a gradual process of many decisions over time that led to his reputation in the blogging sphere.

Beginning in the tech industry, Winer had plenty of contacts from various conferences and starting his own software company in the early 1980s. He wrote a script and sent out emails to a group of 11 people with reports about the computer industry.

“It was spam basically, but this was before spam existed.”

He then proceeded to have an epiphany about this script: He could send his own thoughts and opinions rather than those of others. With this knowledge in mind and after he sold his company, Winer began assessing other tech companies and sending them feedback.

He confessed they didn’t take his advice, but he ultimately received some responses. His posts of both his thoughts and the responses led to some attention at this new thing he was doing.

“This led to the next epiphany — that wow, this changes how everything works. This is different.”

The difference was he could do something just because he had the idea, not because he had any special position or means, according to Winer. He wrote a piece addressing a venture by Bill Gates and received a response from Gates, which he also posted.

“That made the Earth shake … and it just kept building.”

Winer pointed out there was no specific point in his years of experimenting and working that he deemed as the end. Even when blogging was understood and named, it wasn’t the ultimate goal.

“This is how technology evolution works — you’re feeling around in sort of a dark room and you’re trying to grab things here and there, and if you find that there’s something here, you just go in that direction for a while.”

Winer ultimately added writer to a list of credentials that includes working for Wired and earning a research fellowship at Harvard while rising in the tech industry ranks.

Although he had sterling credentials, he faced an obstacle he then used to shift the ISOJ room from a conversation to a call to action. The obstacle involved his experience with journalists.

“My appeal today is we should be working, we should be collaborating with each other.”

Winer said this wasn’t his experience early on. When he found himself working alongside journalists, it was more like they felt “threatened” and treated bloggers like they didn’t have the same qualifications.

This led to further critiques of journalism practices, including how often Facebook is only used as a distribution method rather than a place to gather sources from its users.

“They might not be bloggers, but they love being sources, and so we ought to expand our view of where we go to find our sources.”

MacKinnon took the reference and asked Winer to expand more on his opinion of Facebook. Although Winer addressed some faults, he emphasized how “Facebook presented a challenge to journalism, that journalism still has not risen to.”

“Why didn’t you compete with them?”

Winer said the journalism industry should have tried to create a competitive model as opposed to looking to either gain money from Facebook or demonize it. The place where the journalism industry fails and Facebook succeeds is the chance for everyone to contribute to the news, according to Winer. He said journalists act like the only people who care about journalism are journalists.

“There’s no barrier to entry there,” Winer said. “That’s why they get the money, and if journalism wants the money, it’s not going to come from Facebook with no strings attached. It’s going to come with the most odious strings imaginable.”

Winer also called for journalists to better handle the tech industry.

“It’s appalling to me how wrong they get it.”

He cited the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails in the 2016 election and said he felt there were things journalists didn’t understand, such as an email server is not a nefarious thing. The solution he offered was to run boot camps drawing journalists and computer science experts.

“It’s about time journalism took some responsibility,” Winer said. “Okay, y’all don’t have computer science degrees but you can get the story right.”

He concluded with advice for journalists to compete with Facebook, open up journalism to the people and reiterated a hope the tech and journalism industries work together in the future.

“We have to work together. That’s a plea.”

Livestreaming of ISOJ in English and Spanish can be found at isoj.org.