Bloggers and Journalists

I’ve been thinking a bit about a chance conversation I got involved in at the Social Computing Symposium.

There’s so much anxiety among journalists working for mainstream newspapers and magazines about bloggers and blogs. I think a lot of the anxiety is unwarranted when it comes to opinion, which is most of what the blogs provide. Let’s face it: very few bloggers on a one-to-one basis are providing political or social commentary which overwhelmingly surpasses what you can read on the op-ed pages of the major dailies or in the major commentary magazines like Harper’s, The Nation or National Review. Yes, I think there are some heralded political bloggers who could do a better job than the entire army of anointed commentators presently getting paid to spout off. Most of them, though? They’re just people who got in early, got a lot of links, and aren’t any better than the Kristofs, Dowds, and suchlike. In some cases, they’re worse: people who can’t write a substantial piece, just people who can link and snark.

The lesson when it comes to commentary, analysis, or features isn’t to match up the most-read bloggers against the most-read op-ed columnists, and get a few more of the former in order to cash in on the blogging phenomenon. That’s not what the blogs are, in relation to journalism. What they are that’s better, when it comes to analysis or commentary, is two things. First, a bigger world. The op-eds are a small town, full of gossips, the Peyton Place of news analysis. You can write what they have to say in advance: you’ve read it all long since. Most of the dominant news bloggers aren’t any different. They’re just the operators listening on the lines, recirculating the gossip. But the blogs as a whole? Richer, deeper, more fascinating by far. Explore for even a while, and you’ll find someone interesting who in no way resembles anything you’ll find in the WaPo or the NYT, in the Atlantic or Harper’s, in the National Review or the Nation. Someone beautiful, someone unexpected, someone lyrical, someone provocative. Something you’ve never seen before. No matter how long you walk the linking road, there’s always a new sight (or is it site?) over the next horizon. The papers and magazines, by contrast, are exhausted quickly. They’re inbred. They’re the kid in Deliverance, poking on his banjo and grinning his mutant grin down at the rafters drifting by.

That’s the big thing that the papers and magazines could learn. Go out, find something new. The rest of what the blogs do, they can’t do and I don’t expect or want them to. I don’t expect them to get the basic advantage that open source or free culture solutions do: more eyeballs on the problem. One blog by itself may not be much; ten thousand blogs on the same issue amounts to a public sphere bigger and more powerful than a single paper could hope to be. That’s as it is. If the newspapers and newsmagazines envy that, let them come out from behind their stupid software walls and rejoin the conversation. The other thing I don’t necessarily expect from the big outlets is active comment sections. Not all blogs have great comments. Most don’t, in fact. But when they do, it’s a kind of added value a newspaper or magazine can’t achieve. They don’t have to aspire to that: it’s just what blogs do and they don’t.

What they could do, and don’t, is reach outside their worlds. The sad thing so far is that when they screw up their courage and try, all they do is hire the people who are basically just like all the people they already hire. Or worse yet, people even more mediocre than the people who presently write analysis for them.

That’s just commentary and analysis I’m talking about here. When we get into reporting, that’s a completely different matter. On that point, so far, the blogs are a pretty miserable failure. They have nothing to compare to the original reporting of the major dailies and newsmagazines. They don’t make news, create new facts, investigate underneath the surface. I’m not sure they ever will: at best, I imagine that blogs might become a kind of reporting infrastructure that covers the subjects that the big outlets can’t afford to bother with. Bloggers will have to get a lot more reliable and responsible before that happens, though.

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6 Responses to Bloggers and Journalists

  1. hestal says:


  2. skyfaller says:

    I’d like to point out that War News Radio is a podcast/blog 😉 Sure, we’re getting syndicated on FM radio now, but a blog is just a format, and there’s no reason why there couldn’t be more blogs/podcasts like ours which do serious investigative journalism. Personally, expanding our model to other schools etc. is something I hope to work on this summer while I’m interning there.

  3. Doug says:

    Also on reporting, TPM Muckraker and Americablog.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    War News Radio is a great example! Thanks, Nelson.

    TPM Muckraker, eh, yeah, some, but inconsistent. Americablog I haven’t read so much: will go take another look at it.

  5. Tom Scudder says:

    Chris Albritton and Michael Totten do real journalism, and has lately had a lot of first-person accounts from bad stuff happening in Egypt, as has Baheyya.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I can’t say that I see Totten as an alternative to existing reporting: to a very large extent, he sees what he wants to see. I only read him in intermittent spurts, so if you have an example where he’s confronted the gaps and problems in his own worldview through going out into the world and seeing it in all its messiness, please point me to it.

    Now this is true of a lot of reporters, mind you, but what I think bloggers are going to have to bring to reporting is something different: coverage of small local beats, stories and angles and issues that the MSM is simply too big or expensive to deal with. Or a kind of patient data-mining that the MSM can’t do, a la IF Stone.

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