September 04, 2003

Blogging Explained - in CJR

Matt Welch explains blogging to journalists in the Columbia Journalism Review with an article that Welch describes on his own blog as "an attempt to persuade skeptics that this is indeed an interesting phenomenon, so it might seem pedantic to outsiders."

Welch recasts the tired question of whether blogging is journalism and instead asks and answers it this way:

"A more productive, tangible line of inquiry is: Is journalism being produced by blogs, is it interesting, and how should journalists react to it? The answers, by my lights, are 'yes,' 'yes,' and "in many ways.'"

A more interesting question asked and answered by Welch is: "So what have these people (bloggers) contributed to journalism? Personality, eyewitness testimony, editorial filtering, and uncounted gigabytes of new knowledge."

The best of the bloggers, says Welch, "are connecting intimately with readers in a way reminiscent of old-style metro columnists or the liveliest of the New Journalists."

Blogging - whether by "amateurs" or professionals - is indeed part of what Welch calls the "journalism conversation," a apt phrase because that is what journalism should be: A three-way dialog between the sources of news, the producers of news and the consumers of news (roles that can be interchangeable).

Certainly, bloggers can benefit from the verification discipline of good journalism, but journalists can gain equally from the unbridled enthusiasm of blogging.

Jeff Jarvis, a former colleague of mine at the San Francisco Examiner, and now president of and producer of BuzzMachine, explains why blogs are so popular: "I think it's because they have something to say. In a media world that's otherwise leached of opinions and life, there's so much life in them."

Welch expands on that theme:

"For all the history made by newspapers between 1960 and 2000, the profession was also busy contracting, standardizing, and homogenizing. Most cities now have their monopolist daily, their alt weekly or two, their business journal. Journalism is done a certain way, by a certain kind of people. Bloggers are basically oblivious to such traditions, so reading the best of them is like receiving a bracing slap in the face. It's a reminder that America is far more diverse and iconoclastic than its newsrooms."

Some newspapers realize that and are attempting to diversify through their own blogs or niche market products like the Chicago Tribunes' RedEye or the spate of new Spanish-language dailies. [ Read: Los Más Nuevos Periódicos ]

The media pyramid, once dominated by newspapers and the networks, has collapsed. To survive in this less hierarchical world, newspapers must relearn to engage with the public. Blogging is an enabling tool for that part of the journalism conversation.

Tom Mangan has more on the Welch piece at Prints the Chaff. He pops the you-don't-need-to-know-code blogging balloon ("customization requires hours of anguished noodling") and offers this analogy:

"Bloggers are much like copy editors in the way we rip the work of reporters but do no reporting ourselves. In a newsroom, editors and reporters need each other, so there's a symbiotic relationship. In the blogosphere, bloggers are more akin to pilot fish: the sharks tolerate them because they have a small role to play. Maybe a marine biologist can correct me on this, but it looks like the pilot fish needs the shark far more than the shark needs the pilot fish."

Tom's right about the relationship equation, although I don't agree that all bloggers don't report. Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo is a good example of a blog that mixes reference and reporting.

Let's change Welch's phrase from "journalism conversation" to "journalism ecosystem," which I think includes (to continue the marine metaphor) the big fish of newspapers and the little fish of bloggers. It reflects the inherent interdepency of an ecosystem. Without mainstream journalists providing a flow of reporting, news bloggers would have little to write about. Without bloggers, journalists lose an impetus for change.

None of these points addresses the issue of quality, but as Welch points out: " … 90 percent of news-related blogs (are) crap." Anyone care to put a number on the percentage of newspaper stories that are crap?

 Columbia Journalism Review Blogworld: The New Amateur Journalists Weigh In

Posted by Tim Porter at September 4, 2003 10:30 AM