October 01, 2011

Blogging vs journalism, cornucopian new media-ism and other issues

The title may be a bit harsh, but I don't care, totally. Besides, as I've blogged before, Jay Rosen and other new media fluffers are actually pretty clueless about traditional media, especially on the business side.

The subject? It's about bloggers, some of whom do do journalistic-quality work, and others, like journalism professors who haven't actually been in the trenches, who think they know it all about journalism, including about how blogging and everything else New Media is introducing us to a Kurzweilian cornucopian future. (Note: The next post in this series, especially addressing issues of the "citizen journalist," is here.

Well, they're probably wrong.

They're definitely wrong if they, like science blogger Bora Zivkovic (we've had a running discussion, most recently on Google Plus, and before that on Facebook, about various issues journalistic), think you can separate business from everything else, whether on the mainstream media, or on blogging, and still expect the same quality. You can't. Parallel to that, they're definitely wrong if they think that advertising alone can carry the bill for long-form news reporting in blogging-style online formats, while denigrating paywalls, or listing any other option besides paywalls to supplement advertising, like the Jay Rosens of this world.

First, let me stipulate that I've seen plenty of problems in traditional print journalism. I've seen writers who can't write their way out of a wet paper bag without heavy editing. I've seen said writers illustrate the Peter Principle in action. On national news coverage, I've seen stereotypical behavior of the "mainstream media" in action.

That said, let me also stipulate I've seen bloggers who can't write their way out of a wet paper bag get followings. On foreign policy coverage, and more, I've seen one big blog, Talking Points Memo, from "insider angles" through overuse of anonymous sources and more, be just as bad as the "MSM."

Finally, let me also say that, in traditional journalism, I've seen writers illustrate the Peter Principle because of penny-rubbing and penny-pinching cheapness, or brokeness, of journalistic owners. That's a good illustration of why you can't separate the business side of journalism, or the blogging you expect to, or claim will, replace it, from the editorial side. Unless you expect ever more bloggers with some degree of care to do investigative work on tip jars, $3 a month in Google ads, and occasional click-through money.

During the past decade and even more during the past five years, investigative journalism at the federal level has declined somewhat. At most states, at the statehouse level, it's slipped a lot. And, outside the biggest central cities and their ritziest suburbs, at the local/regional level, it's become nonexistent.

And blogging has NOT, NOT, NOT, picked up the slack. And yes, contra Bora, there IS slack. Also, contra Bora, you can have slack in a system that's not, nonetheless, a zero-sum system. (Sidebar: I'd like to shoot Robert Wright at times and burn every copy of "Nonzero." The words "non-zero-sum system" are used WAY too glibly and loosely, in my opinion.)

More, much more, on blogging "vs." journalism issues below the fold.

As for blogging's failure to pick up the slack, at the local and regional level, I can document that from experience. I've seen bloggers claim to be doing investigative news reporting when actually, they were mixing some news with as much opinion or more, and seasoning with a heavy dose of speculation, rumor and innuendo, to the point that if they actually has MSM-deep pockets, they'd be getting sued. Now, blogging cornucopians may claim that's a few bad apples, but it's more than a few.

Let's go to another state - Bora's until-recent home territory of North Carolina. Outside of Charlotte, because of banking, the Research Triangle, because of research, and a select couple of other areas, I have no doubt investigative reporting has declined a lot in recent years. I also have no doubt he's overrating how much bloggers have done to address that. And, to the degree he's right, he's overlooking special characteristics of the Research Triangle, like above-average income and education.

Now, some forms of blogging have proliferated, such as business blogging. But, that's usually an avocation, and for top business bloggers, and avocation "floated" by their day jobs in the business world. This is like saying community college adjunct professors stack up side-by-side with full-time university profs. That's generally not true. Secondly, other than actually being a journalist, there is no other job of "newsman" for hard news.

The situation is even worse in foreign news. Sure, Yahoo lands a Kevin Sites, but does he make up for how much AP has cut back on foreign staffs? Even more for U.S. television cutbacks? True, Al Jazeera HAS picked up for that, if you get it in the U.S. ... but Al Jazeera is just as professional as NBC. It's not a bunch of videobloggers.

As for the Net freeing news up from a filter straitjacket, true. At the same time, it's also freed it up to be more readily manipulated by PR organizations, precisely because they know that with shorter staffs, more and more journalistic outlets will run well-packaged PR material with minimal editing.

Again, Bora, you can't separate the business side of journalism from the editorial side. People, even if they're at least partially idealistic, still like to eat.

Beyond that, here's other ways in which money matters.
1. How many bloggers can afford to carry liability insurance, speaking of suits and deep pockets?
2. How many, if they claim to be serious investigative bloggers, can pay lawyers' bills to help with FOIA requests after the feds stiff them?
3. How many, if they stand by their claims to be journalists, have joined state journalism associations?

None of this is to belittle top-level blogging. It IS to say there's little "top-level" and original blogging. Below that level, bloggers who do their level best to pick up the slack where slack has been left get kudos from me, especially if you are doing it while avoiding opinion and innuendo in straight news blog posts.

Anyway, back to the main thread, my running discussion with Bora (and with him as a proxy for cornucopian new media-ism in general).

I then presented Bora the counterexample, after he claimed I was being defensive about career fears, of what if an all-GOP federal government cut science research funding by 50 percent and, in essence, told research scientists to write grants to the private sector, seek advertising to sponsor their research (more than is done already), or else hang out their tip jars.

As expected, he has poo-pooed that idea, claiming the analogy doesn't hold up, and otherwise claiming that bloggers offer often amazing quality, beyond "the local rag" of even 20 years ago ... Bora's words, including direct quote, have a gauzy veil. At the same time, even though bloggers have been around 15 years, he says, "When the system is in flux, you cannot expect that the new system will be in place and operating perfectly immediately - it takes some time.

Wait - I thought we already were in the age of Internet Aquarius.

Finally, Bora claims good journalism "isn't expensive."

Well, in many cases it is, or can be, and that's either ignorance or more Rosenitis.

That said, good journalism IS expensive, Bora. How much money do you think it takes to do six-month undercover pieces? Why do you think TV networks have almost zero foreign bureaus any more?

I asked Bora to play along with the 50 percent cut as a gedankenexperiment, to use a science word. We shall see if he does or not. As for the "science is expensive" claim, let's extend the thought experiment: why not just simulate everything in a computer?

But, why not, Bora? Yes, I admitted I was defensive and worried, as partial motivation, for my whole thread of responses. But, it sounds like you're trying to protect your own guild, too. Goose and gander and sauces, Bora. So what if the Webb telescope gets axed. Ask Richard Branson to fund it!

One last thing. There are bloggers and there are bloggers. Lumping the person blogging on occasion about a small town city council with someone at Discovery or Scientific American is, per Gilbert Ryle, a category mistake.

So, too, is extrapolating from specialized science blogging to news blogging.

Also, let's not mix online news agencies, like ProPublica, which do independent reporting of the type a Josh Marshall does not, with bloggers. But, even ProPublica is partially dependent on the whims of its foundation funders. And, assuming ad rates continue to drop, will be even more so.

Here's a great example of how that's dangerous.

As Wendy Kaminer reported a few years back, the ACLU's executive director, Anthony Romero, was busted telling the Ford Foundation how to comply, yes, comply, with the Patriot Act. Well, some ACLU board members had a problem with that. So, Romero and then-president Nadine Strossen launched a purge. No other word for it.

Now, let's say the Ford Foundation is one of the funders of ProPublica. Do you think ProPublica is going to do a story about this, if it existed five years ago? Do you think the Ford Foundation will continue to fund it if it does?

Anyway, I'm not going to convince Bora, or Jay Rosen, that blogging is NOT going to replace traditional news media in the near term future, nor that its increasing partial replacement of traditional news media will be even bumpier than he thinks, and that the eventual fallout will probably be a mix of faux populism and a Gilded Age level of partisanship.

But, it likely will be, Bora, whether you want to believe it or not.

Finally, Bora appears to have a "beknighted" image of bloggers in general. Well, for every beknighted image, I can counter with one of some blog spammer from the Demand Media warehouse, the now-combined AOL/HuffPost conglomerate, etc.

And yes, Bora, and Jay Rosen by proxy, it is fair to call those people bloggers just as much as your beknighted citizen journalists. If you're going to tout the Internet's effects on journalism, you can't have it both ways. (That said, there's actually real journalists, or former real journalists, at least, who work at sites like that.)

Oh, and the size of AOL/HuffPost, Demand, etc., show that money matters indeed, in journalism. And in "journalism."

Updates: Speaking of cornucopian futurism, I'm surprised that Michael Shermer hasn't weighed in on the bounteousness of things like this, too.

Second, claiming that one likes to set up and demolish a lot of strawmen is ... er ... ironic at least, when said person then puts up a post about rational argumentation on a social media thread. Or, that could be an additional hint at me. (And, it's wrong.)


Majid Ali said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
coturnix said...

You love erecting and demolishing lots of strawmen, don't you?

Gadfly said...

A. It's not a strawman.
B. I'm not alone in my observations, to be sure. Note Leo Lincourt's comments on Facebook.

I know I'm not going to get you, or the Jay Rosens of the world, to think otherwise.

However, there are others that agree with me ... including those who have written broader books about the dark side of the Internet in general.

Shecky R. said...

The 6-yr.-olds of today (growing up with their iPads), let alone their children and grandchildren, are not going to communicate in the long-form English of journalism or other traditional writing -- they won't even have the attention span for it. Over time, language is going to evolve into some hybrid of twitterverse, texting, and internet slang, not because it's beautiful but because it's functional, efficient, and time-saving (I'm not saying I like that; just saying I can't control future generations).
Business and journalism, as most of us have known them, may indeed die in the process, or at the very least evolve into a form barely recognizable today.
Bora and Jay Rosen have been covering the blogging scene for a long time, and have pretty good track records for recognizing what's coming down the pike (the main question is how quickly will it get here?).

Gadfly said...

Shecky, I agree Bora/Jay et al may have "some idea" of what's coming down the pike ... even as they overestimate quality/depth of coverage.

That doesn't mean that what's coming down the pike is *good* - again, not just me saying that, either.

After I, I had some idea of "what was coming down the pike" on the debt negotiations clusterfuck. It didn't make that "good," either.

And, that's why I lump people like that in a subcategory of cornucopian futurists. Some things, like good investigative journalism, take both good long-form writing and money. So, if both are drying up, we'll naturally get less in Bora's new ecosystem.

That said, I don't know how courant Bora is with *news* blogging vs. other areas, too. And, finally, let's be careful to distinguish *online newspapers* like ProPublica from blogging, as I did in my post.

teacher dude said...

As a "citizen journalist" myself (not crazy about the term as it sounds like something out of The Terror) I think that there are different kinds of journalism that citizen journalism is very good at and others where the results are, at best disappointing.

I think that bloggers are very good at news stories which involve a wide range of participants, especially when those groups are ones which traditional journalism does not usually have access to.

I found that coverage of the Greek uprising of 2008 by bloggers was vastly superior in accuracy and depth to the mainstream media, both inside Greece and abroad.

On the other hand the kid of investigative journalism you mention is still very much the province of trained preofessional journalists for a number of pratical reasons. They have the skills, connections and financial resources to get such stories out.

Unfortunately, this kind of reporting is poorly served in the long term by blogging and it's worrying to see that its being cut by news organisations in the race to reduce overheads.