Friday, March 02, 2007

bloggers and journalists

Tim Lee, at the Technology Liberation Front, posted an article discussing the similarities between blogging and newspapers, on the one hand, and open source and the traditional software companies, on the other (think Eric Steven Raymon's The Cathedral and the Bazaar). His article, in turn, links to a Richard Kuttner piece on the Columbia Journalism Review. I've been thinking about a similar topic a lot, recently, and the conjunction sparked a few ideas.

So, leaving opinion writing aside, what do newspapers have that blogs don't?

Lee, a libertarian blogger, seems to say "not much," at least long term, outside of specialized areas like war correspondence. He points out that pervasive technology means there's most likely to be a blogger somewhere near where things are happening, and the information will get picked up by other blogs. He also points to investigative journalism that's now happening in blogs, and that newsmakers can now communicate directly with the public.

In contrast, Kuttner, a long-timer journalist and columnist, says that "the best material on the Internet consistently comes from Web sites run by print organizations." But I'm having trouble finding why he thinks that's so--not surprising since his focus is really on how the newspapers can survive. However, if we don't know why it's so, we can't justify faith that it will continue to be so.

One point Kuttner seems to make, with which I agree, is that depth is expensive. Most of what I write here is opinion, because opinion is cheap. You won't find many really in-depth articles because I don't have the time to research them. If you paid me a salary to do it full time, that might change, but as it is I--like many bloggers--am sharply limited in how much time I can devote to this project. While Lee bridles at the term "amateur," I am exactly that: blogging doesn't put food on my dinner table, so I have to budget my time accordingly.

Two other points Kuttner raises are civic-mindedness and, implicitly, journalistic integrity. Journalists take classes on journalistic integrity, though there are some cases where I have to wonder whether they're universally effective. Blogging is a new enough medium, run by people who generally lack journalist training, that it's still grappling with issues like disclosure. For example, Joel Spolsky writes about being approached to do product reviews and being allowed to keep the product, raising a potential conflict of interest. It's possible a popular blog could support its author full-time, but that author may quickly find herself at sea and losing credibility without a commitment to integrity, full disclosure, and balance. Similarly, without that commitment, civic-mindedness can quickly become punditry and nothing more. The other side of the problem can happen with the bloggers doing fact gathering that Lee mentions: their main incentive to be fair and balanced is reputation, but how do you track the reputations of millions of amateur reporters in the field around the world?

So I think that's what newspapers can really offer to the mix: ideally, they can concentrate enough people with the proper training and resources to bring consistent depth and balance to their reporting. To the extent a newspaper just reports the facts or echoes a press release, it contributes very little beyond the convenience of gathering that information to a central place. Its real value comes from context, fact checking, and balance. If you leave out the actual printing press, I see blogs on a continuum with newspapers--most blogs are like one-person papers, usually opinion-heavy, often run on a shoestring, much like 21st Century pamphleteers. As you start adding people, expertise, money, and resources to a team blog it begins looking more and more like a newspaper.

Correction: the author of the CJR piece is Robert Kuttner, not Richard Kuttner. My apologies to Mr. Kuttner.

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