06 April 2009

Bloggers: Now we're a scare tactic?

Due to holiday preparations, I'm a bit behind in reading my e-mail. Today's messages included delightful and dismaying news.

There were three emails from President Elisa Spungen Bildner of JTA.org. They appeared to be solicitation letters aimed at different segments of readers. I don't have a problem with funding requests - we all know what it's like out there. However, the one titled "The Future of Jewish Storytelling," offered this phrase:
"Without a strong JTA, the storytelling will be left to bloggers, twitterers, and non-professionals. Is this the best way for our future Jewish stories to be told and recorded?"
What? Come again?

As the author of JTA's very first blog (Tracing the Tribe) back in 2006, I wondered what she was thinking when she wrote that? Is it possible to be that out of touch with digital media and the blogosphere?

Of course, just five minutes before, I had learned that Tracing the Tribe was ranked #10 in the 25 most popular genealogy blogs of 2009, listed by Progenealogists.com. This blog got its start at JTA, and I have always been grateful for that impetus, but I was really confused by the letter.

I checked JTA where I found this response by digital media editor Dan Sieradski, in part:

I will therefore be the first to admit that Friday's fundraising letter was ill-advised and regrettable. The characterization of bloggers and Twitterers as "non-professional" and unreliable was not only counterproductive but arguably false. Worse yet, by seemingly attacking the blogosphere and Twittersphere, JTA has turned itself into a straw man in the battle between old and new media.

And - because I was a bit late to this - I also found Elisa Spungen Bildner's apology, in part:
A fundraising email appeal JTA sent out Friday under my signature contained words I did not specifically approve, words that seemed to criticize bloggers and Twitterers. Understandably, they ruffled a few feathers in the blogosphere.
She didn't read her words before someone hit the button? "Seemed" to criticize bloggers and Twitterers? Ruffled a "few" feathers?

Somehow her apology sounds less sincere than Dan's - perhaps because he was a very active blogger and understands the blogosphere. His full apology details the fact that JTA's blogs are actually its top-viewed content and it has launched its own blog aggregator to highlight Jewish bloggers' content.

As a journalist who began blogging at JTA's request nearly three years ago, I'm sort of in the middle.

In any case, I went looking for more on the blogosphere's reaction to the letter and found it. The talented Esther Kustanowitz was (I believe) the second blogger invited to JTA in 2006, and she summed it up nicely (read her complete post here); here's some of "Jewish bloggers are not the enemies of Jewish storytelling."

... But this particular email, headed "The Future of Jewish Storytelling," seemed to be using bloggers (and Twitterers) as a scare tactic designed to elicit donations, the way other organizations use terms like “aging Holocaust population,” “Jewish singles crisis,” and “rise in anti-Semitism.”

Unless you act now, the message seemed to say, “bloggers, Twitterers, and nonprofessionals” will take over Jewish journalism entirely and (the ultimate implied leap from any scare tactic used in Jewish fundraising) cause the demise of the Jewish people.

But that couldn’t be what they were saying, could it? I used to blog for the JTA. I've watched with delight as the site revamped its look and content, including blogging and Twitter as two additional tools in the arsenal of Jewish journalism. ...

... In speaking with a friend and fellow blogger about this email, it became clear that JTA sent at least two versions of their solicitation letter today. I got the one that must have been designated for Jewish education professionals, while hers seemed to have a business edge, invoking the "instant journalism" and fast-changing "news business," as well as a mention of Bloomberg News and the noticeable absence of both Passover imagery and blogger/Twitter denigration. The email's title: "The Info You Need, When You Need It."

"The Info You Need, When You Need It" - why not stick with that as a service motto, instead of resorting to threats or scare tactics? Demonizing a group of people who are united only in one characteristic - the technology they use to ensure that their stories are heard - constructs unnecessary barriers between mainstream media and the communications wave of the present.

If you ask me, the news, personal reflections or opinions that resonate with people who blog or Tweet or Digg or Facebook message are becoming - as much as any piece of current news or element of our written history - a vital part of our Jewish storytelling, for the present and future.

Jewish bloggers are not the enemies of Jewish storytelling: if anything, as bickering, economic collapse and technological confusion compete for communal attention, they just might be its salvation.

But what do I know? I'm just a blogger.

Esther hit it on the head.

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