January 27, 2005
Bloggers vs. the Mainstream? Not quite . . .
Monday's San Jose Mercury News carried an interesting article by Frank Bajak about the relationship between bloggers and the established press and news outlets.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The managing editor of The New York Times threw down the gauntlet as she stared across a big O-shaped table at the prophets of blogging.Aside from eliciting questions about the return on investment for the New York Times' vast logistical apparatus, (Did John Steinbeck possess such support when he accompanied allied troops across North Africa and wrote "There Once Was a War"?) Ms. Abramson is largely missing the point. In fact there are several problems here. Let's look a little closer.
Did they have any idea, asked Jill Abramson, what it cost her newspaper to maintain its Baghdad bureau last year?
The unspoken subtext was clear: How can you possibly believe you can toss a laptop into a backpack, head for Iraq's Sunni Triangle and pretend to even come close to telling it like it is?
For that you need a bulwark of experience, credibility and financial, medical, legal and logistical support. Not to mention a staff of savvy locals. And that cost Abramson's paper a million dollars last year, she said.
How is news created? Perhaps in three or so ways?
1. An event occurs. A journalist is dispatched to write, or take pictures, or record it. Often, these are spontaneous events. Just as often they are carefully scripted events meant for journalistic consumption.
2. A corporation, government agency, civic group, thinktank, or some other organization releases a study in a press release. This is then poured over by journalists and their editors to examine how best to write about it. The resulting product is offered to the public.
3. A journalist attempts to uncover what is really going on in a given locale, subculture, or with a certain person of note or celebrity. This takes the form of interviews, investigative journalism, etc. Thus the phrases, "behind the scenes," "on the ground," "exclusive interview."
4. Often, the above three methods are mixed.
In all of the above mentioned methods, the news is viewed as a product. The raw material is the event, the interview, the document, the press release, the footage. These raw materials are then crafted into what is consumed as news.
The first big change that bloggers have brought to all of this is a relentless examination of the original documents -- events, interviews, press releases, footage, etc -- that was previously unavailable to the general public. The editorial role of the news producer is on the decline. This is why blogs are growing in popularity. No longer does the reader or viewer only get the small, refined bits of news raw material that is dished up in any given old-media outlet. Bloggers routinely link to those original pieces of raw material themselves and their readers are free to examine each in detail.
The vast majority of politics and war blogs, like this one, offer an opinion, not an original piece of raw news material. Every now and then, a blogger will find him or herself in the midst of an event, or scoring an interview, or traveling through a newsworthy place. When that happens, he adds to the overall amount of raw material available for the general public to weigh and judge. But for the most part, bloggers aren't offering original, fresh news pieces.
Instead, a blogger is his own editor, and replicates the jobs of those who manage the content at the New York Times. And blogging is open to anyone. Plenty of blogs are authored by those who have more than established their bona fides in print journalism. The Becker-Posner blog is one example. The Victor Hanson papers is another. Kevin Sites not only shot footage in Fallujah, but also authored a blog while in Iraq.
The second big change that blogging brings to the media is really the kicker: the instant feedback mechanism. Even if some blogger found himself at the site of, say, a car-bombing in Iraq, or a political revolution in Ukraine, if he covered it in a way that did not ring true with others, they are usually welcome to comment on his site. Moreover, depending on the extent of their disagreement, they are free to set up a rival site and write their own interpretations of events there. This is true for anyone. Someone who takes issue with the majority of opinion here is welcome to comment (though please stay on topic and don't use profanity) or to set up, say, www.chesterhasnoclue.com. The corrections and feedback are instant. But not to dwell solely on corrections: the most enjoyable part of blogs is their conversation-like tone. In some blogs, regular readers will even have very robust discussions within the comments section -- sort of like sitting around a table with a vast number who share the same interests, though certainly not the same points of view.
The New York Times has no such feedback mechanism. Its editorials are strangely absent of authorship -- who even to respond to? who to email? Only the Times chooses which letters to the editor to publish. Yet despite all this, it claims objectivity. Objectivity is only worth something if you rely on the polished, refined, news-as-a-product that is the output of the established press -- and if you only rely on one outlet. If you want everything -- the good, the bad, the ugly, the contradictory, the confusing, the outtakes, and the raw materials -- you turn to a blog, you probably turn to several, and you know that you are seeing life as it is, not as it is polished up to be in Manhattan.
Having said all that, Mrs. Abramson appears equally wrong about the logistics required to produce journalism. Consider Robert Kaplan, who started as a travel writer, and has authored in-depth works on the future of the world, based on his many travels. He will admit that writing such work certainly requires a patron of some kind -- but he is also on the record as saying that when he travels to a place, he often does so with nothing more than the clothes he's wearing, and a backpack with a book or two and paper to write on. Hard to see how this cannot be replicated by just about anyone with either independent means or free time.
In fact, it already has been. Consider Steven Vincent, author of the book, "In the Red Zone." [See Vincent's blog here.] Vincent went to Iraq alone and with little or none of the massive logistical support which Mrs. Abramson describes, and created an excellent work about the experience.
Returning to the Mercury News article, let's examine a bit more:
The best single war story I've seen out of Iraq, a piece on the fight for Fallujah by Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lassiter, I learned about from a blog's RSS feed.Bajak makes several errors. He confuses credibility with original authorship. Certainly we can all agree that there are many credible judges who didn't author the case law on which they render opinions.
(Note to bloggers: You've got to build credibility and respect before you'll be allowed like Lassiter to accompany soldiers into combat. I don't doubt that will happen in the future, but for now at least, bloggers do very little original reporting).
But how to gauge a blogger's authority and reliability? Easy: reputation management, something eBay does well. Reputation tools for bloggers are needed and one of the most respected voices in tech journalism, Dan Gillmor, is looking to technologists to develop them.
Bajak doesn't seem to understand the issue of the correspondent either: in the future -- and it might be a bit off -- journalist-bloggers won't accompany troops into combat in places like Fallujah. The troops will BE the bloggers, in one way or another. Perhaps the journalists will just be in a sort of facilitating role. Who knows? The technology won't be quite like it is today. It will be better. But whatever its form, it will allow more of the raw news material than ever to be in the public domain.
As to his need for a technology-based reputation management tool, this is laugh-out loud funny. Bajak clucks his tongue at those of us who don't get paid to write -- and are therefore presumably untrustworthy. Yet somehow, an organization like the New York Times, which had a huge false-story scandal not long ago, is immune from the need for a reputation watch. Can the public post comments below a New York Times editorial? Is the Times' regular readership offered the opportunity to view such comments? Certainly this is unwieldy for the print version, but perhaps something like it could be avaialable online. The online version is free after all.
But that ignores the bigger issue, mentioned earlier: bloggers do have a reputation management tool. It's our readers. If a blogger started publishing rants about a given topic with little evidence of raw material to back it up, it won't take long before few will read anymore. [Eventually though, he'll get a lucrative deal to replace Maureen Dowd when she finally goes completely bonkers . . . but that's neither here nor there.]
One of the best analogies for the blogosphere phenomenon is that of open-source software. A friend in the tech industry mentioned this yesterday. Rather than producing a finished piece of software, programmers create something that can be edited by users to suit their needs. Much is the same with the blogosphere. The follow-up question, is how anything is interesting if it only fits the needs, preconceptions, and tastes of a single person. The answer is that the market for ideas continues to exist. It's just been rapidly expanded.
Hugh Hewitt discusses many of these ideas in his new book, "Blog." He likens the effects of the technological advances that have created the blogosphere to those of Martin Luther's time. In this case, established media are the go-betweens, who are employed to be arbiters of truth, just as the Catholic Church was once employed to dispense pardon and pennance.
So, to answer the question, "Are bloggers more reliable than the mainstream press?"
Sometimes yes, sometimes no, and it's up to you to sort it out. Just like life itself.
Some follow-up thoughts:
Note that Howell Raines, in an interview in The Atlantic in the first half of 2004, stated that if the New York Times did not exist, nothing like it would be invented to take its place. [Sorry -- can't find the link -- should be a cover story for the April to June timeframe.]
Don't miss the discussion on this topic over at Belmont Club last week. Wretchard always has some interesting things to say. In this case he asks whether the media is truly merely a polisher/refiner of raw news material, and whether or not traditional media isn't occasionally complicit in the production of the raw material itself -- as in the case of the recent assassination of Iraqi election workers in Haifa street in Baghdad and the serendipitous presence of AP photographers in the exactly correct place in the exactly correct time.
Posted by Chester at January 27, 2005 11:14 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry: