By Kevin O'Keefe

Mark Obbie of LawBeat [LexBlog Q & A]

This morning I spoke with Mark Obbie, professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and author of the legal journalism blog LawBeat. Our exchange is what makes up today’s LexBlog Q & A.

In addition to his teaching and blogging, Mark is an associate director at Syracuse’s Institute for the Study of the Judiciary, Politics, and the Media (IJPM), a program that focuses its efforts on “the intersection of law, politics, and the media.”

His expertise in journalism and the law places Mark in a unique position to answer our questions about how journalism is changing, the impacts those changes can have on blogging lawyers and more. The details are – you guessed it – available after the jump.

1. Rob La Gatta: Why did Syracuse decide to start the IJPM, and what were your goals in getting it off the ground?

Mark Obbie: Actually, we started two things that are closely related, but they [each] had different starting points. Both of them were in 2005.

IJPM started at the request of Syracuse’s chancellor, Nancy Cantor. She was talking to a Virginia judge, who is an alumnus of Syracuse, about the Terry Schiavo case. They were upset: about the news coverage of the case, the politics surrounding it, and basically the public reaction to a legal decision. They were worried what that phenomenon says about threats to judicial independence.

Because Syracuse has not only a law school, but also the Newhouse School for Journalism and the Maxwell School for Political Science, they thought we really ought to do something interdisciplinary, and have all three schools begin to [look at] this topic of judicial independence [to] help our students appreciate what it’s all about. I was the designated Newhouse person, and I work with colleagues from the law school and Maxwell. We’ve put on a bunch of public lectures, and we turned it into a new course on law, politics and media.

While that was all getting started, the Carnegie Corporation asked the Newhouse School to join a program that Carnegie sponsors at select journalism schools around the country: basically, they give grants to develop new courses in reporting specialties. The idea is, “lets educate future journalists in the topics that they will cover, rather than just teaching them the mechanics of journalism.”

My dean David Rubin asked me and asked a religion writer to develop separate proposals for programs in legal reporting and religion reporting. I’ve kind of married that legal reporting program to the work that we’re doing in IJPM, so that they’re really intertwined. It adds a lot of legal focus to the work that we do at Newhouse.

2. Rob La Gatta: How much does new media play into this program? Is that its main focus?

Mark Obbie:

No, it’s not. It’s really platform independent. We talk about the impact of the Internet, of course, but we also invite television journalists and magazine writers and newspaper writers to campus, and the discussions that we have are about all forms of mass media, both in the legal reporting program and IJPM.

3. Rob La Gatta: Nationwide, do you think journalism schools are doing enough to prepare their students for the industry they’ll be entering, or do you find most of them are still stuck in the old model?

Mark Obbie: Well, there are a lot of things that we have to get better at.

I think the very good journalism schools know that it’s not good enough to teach just the craft of journalism. We didn’t need Carnegie to tell us that our students should have a solid liberal arts education and preferably a dual major in something substantive…we were already doing that. But this gives us the impetus to add particular specialties.

I think the good journalism schools around the country are working hard to make sure that their graduates are well educated and will know something about the world that they’re writing about. And separate from that, we’re all struggling with how to deal with new media, and what it’s doing to the media businesses. We at Newhouse are in the thick of that: we’re trying to overhaul our curriculum and really webify it, because it is focused mostly on traditional businesses.

4. Rob La Gatta: If lawyers continue to start blogging at the rate that they have been, do you see a situation playing out where lawyers and reporters end up becoming one in the same (with lawyers doing all reporting on the issues that they’re covering)?

Mark Obbie: Sure…I think it’s a branch of citizen journalism, and I think that we already are seeing this in a number of blogs: lawyers who have an expertise in a particular area are watching for news about decisions, and they’re not always counting on journalists to report those things first. That’s reporting…original reporting.

I [also] think reporters know that they should watch these blogs, because they’ll find out not only what’s going on, but what an expert thinks about it. So there is a blurring of the lines. The big difference is that traditional journalists have a built-in audience and a brand-name forum for their work, and bloggers have to build it from scratch.

5. Rob La Gatta: So how do you ultimately see blogs and citizen-produced media playing into the overall journalism business? Do you think there will still always be a place for newspapers?

Mark Obbie: I don’t know…I don’t think anybody knows. But I know what I hope. And I hope that citizens understand the role of the reporter.  It’s one thing to blog about what I think and what I just read in the L.A. Times. But we still need the L.A. Times to dig up the news. Not a lot of bloggers are doing that, and not a lot could figure out how to get paid to do that. 

Like many of my fellow journalists, I’m very concerned that during this transition, people are quick to denounce traditional media businesses and applaud when their advertising dries up and they lay everybody off. But there isn’t anything to replace them yet in real, original reporting; that to me is a huge threat to democracy, a huge threat to the public’s understanding of their courts and of the law, and it’s really worrisome.

I don’t want to sound like I hate the rise of citizen journalism and blogging; it’s the opposite. I think it’s wonderful, because it means more voices, more independent opinion and reporting…and for somebody who wants more depth in a story, there’s nothing that compares to the immediacy and the niche appeal of blogs.

If you care about advertising law, you’re never going to get all that you need from general media. You might find out that the FTC has just done something interesting. But you’re not going to learn all the ins and outs until you research it. And blogs are a great way to help us find out about those things in more detail than The Washington Post is going to give us.

Interested in hearing more? Recent LexBlog Q & A posts:

Or, see our full list of legal blog interviews.

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