Washington Post writer, Michael Shear, and Daily Press writer, Gordon Cross, must have impressed a lot of bloggers at the recent Sorenson Institute Blogging Summit. I wasn’t there, but from what I’m reading, they apparently laid down the gauntlet to bloggers to produce original work rather than linking to other stories, especially those already in the mainstream media.
Well, a group of well-respected bloggers, people whose work I admire, enthusiastically and somewhat uncritically took up the challenge.
F.T. Rea, at Slantblog, actually issued the challenge for all bloggers to spend a weekend, July 21-23, producing only original copy. Vivian Paige and Rea signed on with the enthusiasm of teenagers being invited to their first prom. JC Wilmore, at least, made the point that bloggers, unlike professional journalists, especially those with large, well-funded dailies, often do this in their spare time and with far fewer resources than even the small town farm weekly newspapers. But only Bearing Drift gave this whole suggestion and the intellectually dishonest journalists who suggested it the proper response. If I may indulge in an old 60s hippie exclamation: Right on!
These journalists are taking you guys for a ride.
First of all, bloggers are not journalists. Pure and simple. Unlike the well-paid reporters at WaPo, most bloggers actually have day jobs. Eight hours a day, day jobs! Often with overtime and long commutes. So where a reporter spends 8 to 10 hours a day being paid for his reporting and writing, a blogger may only have an hour or two a night, maybe a little more on the weekends to produce his work.
Reporters also get expense accounts. My husband ran into New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in the M & S Grille, a pricey Washington, DC seafood restaurant, interviewing a source over lunch. I don’t think the average blogger could afford that. Most of us pay our own way out of our own pocketbooks. So, no, we can’t cultivate sources the way Friedman can.
As for original work, even a modest sized newsroom subscribes to more than one wire service, probably has a police radio scanner and receives a mountain of press releases. Without even trying, they are plugged in. I’m not going to say that the best reporters don’t generate their own news stories. Of course they do. But they don’t do it in the isolation of a suburban living room. They have lots of technical and professional support and information flying at them all day. And of course they have done the homework of cultivating sources that feed them stories.
And some bloggers do roughly the same thing. Not Larry Sabato is probably one of the best at it. Although frequently inflammatory, Ben Tribett produces a lot of original work that comes from personal sources, not just links. He’s the closest to the type of blogger/journalist that Shear and Cross are trying to encourage. But Ben also doesn’t have a day job. He's an entrepreneur who has devoted his days to making his blog his day job. He's a pioneer in attempting to get a blog to the professional status where it can support those bloggers who want to make it their career.
But for others, it’s just not a realistic expectation for them to act like a journalist given their limited resources of time, money, and opportunity. So, they just don’t function as reporters. But then neither do some of the most well-paid and respected newspaper writers (I’ll have more to say about that below.)
Not every blogger has to be a reporter, let alone an investigative reporter, as Cross would like us to believe. Suggesting that we cover the stories the media misses is simply disingenuous. Where would we find them? And even more important, if those stories are actually that important, why the hell aren’t the mainstream newspapers digging them up and covering them? They’ve got the resources that we don’t to do it better.
In fact, I wouldn’t want to see an inexperienced amateur attempt an investigative piece. He could do more harm than good if he gets it wrong. There are a million pitfalls for the inexperienced when it comes to investigative reporting.
Does a blogger have the investigative skills? Do all bloggers actually know the difference between a source giving you a quote that is “not for attribution” versus “off the record” or “for background only?” If you’re dealing with a public information officer or seasoned politician who does know what those terms mean and you agree to them without knowing what they are, you could embarrass and betray a potential source. And if you get sued, do you have insurance as a newspaper does? Money to pay a lawyer? Are you willing to sit in jail for the 18 month life of a Grand Jury to protect your source’s identity? If not, don’t even go there because a good reporter will do that. Indeed he has to or all reporters will never be trusted by their sources again. Jail time is an occupational hazard of being an investigative reporter and you learn that in journalism school.
Those are just a few of the pitfalls of an amateur blogger trying to act like a professional journalist.
But this challenge from Shear and Cross is deeply dishonest on a whole other level.
Many newspaper writers also aren’t reporters. They don’t go out and investigate original news stories. They are columnists who do think pieces and opinion articles and editorials. Basically, they refer to other reporters’ news stories and comment on them.
That’s pretty much what the best of the bloggers do. We too look at the day’s news, interpret it and offer our opinion of what’s going on. And that’s every bit as valid a piece of writing as front-page newspaper reporting. In some cases, bloggers also are reporters. But in many ways we are more an extension of the editorial page or the op-ed column.
Indeed, some of the best writing, not just in op-ed columns, but in magazines builds off the reports of others but features the writer’s unique take on the events. It’s not original reporting but the commentary is still fresh and inventive. How much original reporting do Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, David Brooks or George Will do as opposed to offering their comments on others’ news reports?
So, as far as this challenge goes, Michael Shear and Gordon Cross just threw you guys a red herring and believe me, it stinks like three day old fish.
You have absolutely no obligation to do original reporting. And you can refer to other writer’s work and link all you want. In fact, think of links as an electronic footnote.
The other thing those two didn’t tell you is that when scholars do original work, it’s still built upon the work of those who have gone before them. No academic article or book would go to press without extensive research and footnotes. And if that’s good enough for academia, it’s good enough for me too.
Bottom line: Michael Shear and Gordon Cross can’t tell me how to blog and I won’t tell them how to report the news. So, hell no, I don’t accept their challenge. And neither should you.