Fast-forwarding to the end of the conference, when something like a consensus view emerged, most of colloquium participants had either embraced, or appeared to be drifting, towards the conclusion that ''Who is a Journalist?'' is really not the most useful or relevant question. The more useful question nearly always, we seemed to agree, is ''What is journalism?''
The latter question keeps attention focused on the usefulness of a text, as opposed to the credibility of a person. And that focus in itself seems a paragon of usefulness because, as we all know, people are famously fickle and ever-changing in their views.
More to the point, whether they are presidents or parents or friends, sometimes people are credible and sometimes they are not. Even Moms tell stretchers from time to time, though they'll never tell you when they do.
Then again, people are basically unknowable -- especially ones you haven't met before, who make up 99.9% of the people who write for the world's newest and already most popular publishing format for news, the Internet. So whom can you trust? Especially in a world where, thanks to the Internet, nearly anybody can be a journalist at any time, asking ''who is a journalist'' sets the bar far too high above the limit of possible, practical knowing.
Whereas a simple journalistic text, for all its problems as a container of possibly social useful meaning, is much easier to assess. The facts are all there, the quotations are all there, the assertions are all there. Each of these can be placed under a microscope of close and sustained attention, plumbed for shades of meanings and associations, compared to other texts, and above all tested by the reader against reality.
Seen in this way, from the standpoint of the possible social utility of a journalistic story, asking ''what is journalism'' instead of ''who is a journalist'' emerged as much the superior question to ask.
The colloquium participants offered many definitions of journalism over our three days together, but nearly all of them touched on the notion of writing for public distribution about public issues, with the intention to help or heal. Working from such a definition, determining whether a given text is journalism or not is quite straightforward: Is it about a public issue? Is it written for public distribution? Is the writer's intention to help or heal?
Getting an answer to these questions, moreover, is no mere matter of purely philosophical or abstract import, because an answer in the affirmative means that a reader is holding a piece of writing that contains some possibly useful information or ideas for society which is, furthermore, worthy of some level of trust.
Exactly how much trust to accord to a given text is a second-level question, drawing in other considerations, that lead to a second-level answer: is a given text good journalism, or mediocre journalism, or bad?
Indeed it became clear to many of us, only a day or so into the three-day colloquium, that the question ''Who is a journalist?'' was a question of the highest abstract order, unlikely ever to yield much practical result. Because it is like asking, as some philosophers do, ''What is a coffee cup?'' or ''What is an automobile?''
Well, who the heck knows? If you take the engine out of a car, is it still a car? Now take away the doors. Still a car? Now the windshield, bumpers, dashboard, seats, chassis and wheels. Have we still got a car here?
But at this point of course the absurdity of continuing such a line of questioning, at least from a practical standpoint, becomes clear. We could have spent three days peering around every corner in some Platonic heaven, looking for a ''pure'' journalist in a trench coat and fedora.
But where would that get us, back here on earth?
Instead, we quickly saw the advantages of surfing to a web site, choosing an article, and asking: i's this journalism?''