Sunday, July 05, 2009

Journalists vs. bloggers: new book "Say Everything" dissects the debate

The gap between journalists and bloggers is increasingly porous, and Scott Rosenberg's new book Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters, offers a useful chapter on the question of Journalists vs. Bloggers, excerpted below.

The New York Times's City Room blog only includes news from the three dailies, plus other "professional" publications, so its "Morning Buzz" round-up of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's June 24 vote excluded my more comprehensive report (like, um, which had video). (My report did make Blogtalk, along with several pieces on biking.)

The gatekeepers of Google News, which deems "news" anything produced by an official, multi-employee news organization, no matter how secondhand (right) or boilerplate (below). So my blog has been rejected from appearing in Google News.

I understand the challenge. A blogsearch on "Atlantic Yards" invariably turns up blogs that simply reproduce press releases. (Actually, a news search does that too, to a lesser extent.) And Google should--but doesn't--have the personnel to make an examination.

As NYU professor Clay Shirky recently told Brooklyn the Borough, "the idea that there is a mainstream media and an alternative media on the internet – you know, that was looking like a fantasy even a couple of years ago – that’s done now."

Except not everybody knows.

Below are some excerpts from Say Everything, with my added reflections on the Atlantic Yards saga.

An unlimited supply of space

Rosenberg writes about how, as newspapers began losing longstanding ad revenue to new web-based forms, they found their authority questioned by bloggers, but this time the battle was different.

He writes:
There was an old saying that advised, “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” But this was something new: a fight between those who bought ink by the barrel and those who published without any ink at all. That meant there would, practically speaking, be no limits to how long the argument might last. In one lengthy public correspondence between blogger Jeff Jarvis and New York Times editor Bill Keller, Keller, apparently exasperated by Jarvis’s dogged, detailed replies, distilled his sense of frustration with the open-ended nature of the Journalists-versus-Bloggers dispute: “There seems to be no end to any argument in your world.”

Of course, editors are busy people. And one prerogative of an editor has always been the ability to declare, “This argument is at an end.” The job of a news editor is to say, “And now this.” The news cycle has turned! Time to move on. The trouble was, bloggers were under no obligation to pay attention to such marching orders. If you ran a blog that obsessively tracked the fluctuation of oil prices or the rise and fall of hemlines — or, for that matter, the arguments between bloggers and journalists — then nothing was going to stop you from continuing to post about it. You followed your own news cycle — just as Josh Marshall and his peers did in keeping the Trent Lott story alive after the newspapers and networks had left it behind. This characteristic of blogging became a profound irritant to editors who were accustomed to being able to set the agenda of public dialogue. The bloggers had said their piece, and the editors had responded; couldn’t everyone just move along now?


In other words, for example, the story of the MTA vote on June 24 was a minor issue; the Times, in print, chose to concentrate on the financing challenges facing Forest City Ratner. Except the justifications for the vote by MTA board members were stunningly dubious (video), and deserved attention. So AYR did not move on.

“Is blogging journalism?”

Rosenberg sensibly demolishes the question, oft-raised by the mainstream media, of “Is blogging journalism?”

He writes:
The answer has always seemed simple and obvious: writing a blog neither qualified nor disqualified you for the “journalist” label. Blogging could be journalism anytime the person writing a blog chose to act like a journalist — recording and reacting to the events of the day, asking questions and seeking answers, checking facts and fixing errors. Similarly, journalists could become bloggers anytime they adopted the format of a blog as a vessel for their work.


A blog is just a format, which anyone can use. Some try to apply the standards of journalism--what New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller calls "the journalism of verification." Most don't, but more should, especially since fact-checking is much easier on the Internet.

Rosenberg points out that the usefulness to news sources of knowing who's a "professional":
Journalism has long straddled the line between craft and profession. ...we have instead are ad-hoc rules for the rationing of scarce resources — primarily, that of access to powerful people and important events. For instance, political reporters who work for major media outfits get press passes to cover presidential trips and press conferences, while small-town papers and bloggers usually don’t. So journalists didn’t have much of an answer to “Who appointed you?” beyond “My boss.”

He also notes that expertise can arise anywhere:
Most journalists view themselves as quick studies and generalists; part of the job’s appeal is that you’re always in a position to be learning something new. Good journalism required a variety of skills, from speedy research and source evaluation to interviewing technique and explanatory storytelling. Certainly, mastery of these skills often gave seasoned veterans and ace investigative reporters a valuable edge over less well-trained competitors. But these skills weren’t exactly particle physics. And now anyone who started a blog had at least the opportunity, if so inclined, to try to practice them.

Indeed, didn't we learn a lot from an architect's BrooklynViews blog (suspended since 2007)?

Citizen journalism?

Rosenberg points to the growth of the term "citizen journalism” to encompass the work by ordinary people:
Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s popular personal technology columnist, liked to make fun of citizen journalism by likening it to “citizen surgery,” and the joke always won him a laugh. But it was a poor analogy. It suggested that journalism was a field like medicine, one that required an elaborate training regime and rigorously policed professional standards. That has never been the case. And if it were, if our lives really did depend on the quality of journalists’ work, then in recent years much of the profession lay open to charges of malpractice.

Actually, independent blog journalism also increasingly involves journalists with professional experience either working on the side or starting a new venture after a layoff.

Frustration from all sides

Rosenberg points to a history of discontent with the media, and for some good reason, notably regarding the Iraq war:
The judgments American journalists passed on themselves, like this conclusion from a report on a 2008 panel at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, were often as harsh as the attacks of the most livid bloggers: “Covering one of the most important stories of our time — the run-up to war in Iraq — our nation’s top reporters and editors blew it. Badly. Their credulous, stenographic recitation of the administration’s deeply flawed arguments for war made them de facto accomplices to a war undertaken on false pretenses.”


There's criticism from the left:
...Many liberal Democrats already believed the press had helped deliver the White House to George W. Bush in 2000 by relentlessly focusing on trivial blemishes in Al Gore’s record; they blamed the media for abandoning its adversarial role. Their view was summarized by blogger Glenn Greenwald: “Propaganda thrives — predominates — in our democracy for many reasons, the principal reason being that we don’t have the sort of journalist class devoted to exposing it.”

And from the right:
If anything, conservatives’ belief in “liberal media bias” was more deeply entrenched than any equivalent belief on the other side of the political spectrum. For many conservatives, the watershed moment for giving up on the media came not during the Iraq debate, but later, during the 2004 election cycle, with the event they came to call “Rathergate.”

What if the media's wrong?

Rosenberg writes:
...Just as the Iraq story confirmed liberals in their belief that the conservative White House held the media in its thrall, the Rather story confirmed conservatives in their belief that the press promoted a liberal agenda. The newsroom was taking flak from both ends of the political spectrum. That’s a situation that actually reassures many newsroom veterans. Everybody’s mad at me, goes the thinking, so I must be doing something right! But there’s always another plausible explanation: you could be wrong all around.

He suggests that the web has meant a ratcheting up of expertise:
It was painful for dedicated journalists to contemplate this possibility, but the more you looked at the field in the middle of the decade of the 2000s, the less confidently you could dismiss it. No matter what your beat was, if you were writing regularly about any topic, you now had to contend with a welter of competing voices on the Web. Some were ill-informed and unlikely to threaten a professional journalist’s standing. But many others were experts or self-taught obsessives who were willing to post about their fields around the clock and in far greater depth than any commercial publication would ever provide.

...Many journalists, content in the penumbra of respect and entrĂ©e conferred by the institutions that employed them, had complacently accepted an ex officio basis for their authority. Now they faced discomforting challenges to that authority in a new environment where who you worked for mattered less than how good you were, and how good you were had become a question anyone could argue. “A passionate amateur almost always beats a bored professional,” wrote Chris Anderson (the professional who edited Wired magazine). Here and there, of course, you could still find passionate professionals, and they were priceless. But the bored pros found themselves outclassed and outgunned as never before.


Rosenberg's prime example is the polling analysis web site Fivethirtyeight.com:
Something similar was happening across the board: in field after field, the new brigades of blog-based specialists were offering devastating, and in many cases unimpeachable, critiques of mainstream media coverage, exposing it as at best shallow and at worst entirely unreliable.

Indeed--while the New York Times's coverage of Atlantic Yards has been highly variable, its misses have been spectacular.

Time for original reporting

Rosenberg points to the potential of online journalism:
The world of the newsroom is a world of constrained resources — there are only so many reporters on staff, so many hours in the day, so many column inches to fill — and editors spend their workdays making choices within those limits. But bloggers lived outside these constraints... And they were just beginning to disprove the charge that bloggers only offered opinion or commentary and never pounded the pavement to provide original reporting.

When Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s lieutenant, went on trial in January 2007 for his role in the leak of classified information about CIA operative Valerie Plame, among the reporters who descended on the Washington courthouse was a small swarm of bloggers. The controversy was one that liberal bloggers had helped fan in the first place, and their readers were hungry for more than the occasional terse summaries they were going to get from newspapers and broadcast outlets. So Firedoglake, a liberal blog operated by former Hollywood producer Jane Hamsher, sent a half-dozen volunteers to the trial and tag-teamed their coverage. The result was something new: a national event where the best on-the-scene reporting came not from professional press articles but from blog posts by volunteers.


For the Atlantic Yards story, I'd point, for example, to my lengthy coverage of the May 29 state Senate hearing.

Lacking standards?

Rosenberg points to criticisms posed by "curmudgeons" like Pete Hamill, who said blogging had no ethics and standards. But the author points out:
The curmudgeons’ arguments all shared a starting point in the tenets of professional journalism as practiced in mid-twentieth-century America: political impartiality; on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other “balance”; impersonal voice. The whole bundle of “objective” attributes — what Jay Rosen called “the view from nowhere” — was etched into the journalism school curriculum. These values were held out as timeless verities, but in fact they were of relatively recent vintage.

...But the curmudgeons often got their facts wrong, which tended to take the air out of their arguments.


His examples, an embarrassing attack on Talking Points Memo by journalism professor Michael Skube in the Los Angeles Times and an on-HBO meltdown by veteran sportswriter Buzz Bissinger (in the midst of a piece that cites some truly nasty blog comments from sports fans).

Indeed, I've questioned the standard goals of objectivity and neutrality in covering Atlantic Yards, suggesting it can lead to the "mushy middle."

Can blogging replace journalism?

The curmudgeons, Rosenberg observes, have moved on to the argument that “Blogging can never replace real journalism!” He calls it a straw man, given that most bloggers have a symbiotic relationship with the traditional media.

He cites three arguments about the value of traditional journalism:
First, they asked, without media companies subsidizing it, who would undertake the expensive and politically perilous work of investigative journalism? Next they suggested that the proliferation of online news sources and the multiplicity of partisan blogospheres meant the triumph of the “echo chamber,” in which we only learn what we already know about, and only hear those with whom we already agree. Finally, they argued, the collapse of big media would cause the very unity of our culture to disintegrate, leaving us without a central narrative for our national life. Each of these arguments, unlike the most nostalgic carpings of the curmudgeons, was serious and substantive. And each provoked an important debate online.

However, Rosenberg suggests, the old media model didn't deliver all that much investigative journalism, and maybe the nonprofit sector is the solution. As for the echo chamber, he suggests that the web, "far from banishing serendipity, actually generated an oversupply of fascinating novelties and distractions." As for polarization, he suggests that "[t]his 'loss of a single national narrative' sounds grievous indeed, until you realize that such unity, if it ever did exist, represented only a short interlude in U.S. history."

Local reporting

What's missing from his critique? Analysis of who'll provide solid local reporting, the expertise that come from showing up and knowing the territory. I've seen the "citizen journalists" recruited by Brownstoner and The Local make errors or miss news, though surely something is better than nothing.

I do believe that journalists using blogs and citizen bloggers can help fill in many gaps in local information. Whether unpaid or low-paid locals, with professional backgrounds or not, can provide true "watchdog journalism" is another question.

2 comments:

  1. a few notes on an issue that has not been addressed well thus far.

    all of the hand wringing of whether the bloggers are able to supplant the mainstream media are pretty much pointless. they will because, as alluded to, the actual and perceived skill differential is quickly approaching zero.

    as is evident with this blog, no daily newspaper will utilize AYR until they have no choice. that is when AYR becomes news itself. until then why would they link to anything that clearly demarks a better journalism standard than they themselves have with regards to the topic at hand? once they do that, most intelligent readers will learn to take the mainstream media's angle as uneducated and/or biased fluff. pretty much facilitating that publication's circling of the drain.

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  2. better journalism, of course, but will we have AYR for as long as we need it?

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