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Friday, July 07, 2006

The Challenge: Hell No, I Don't Accept!

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.

8 comments:

Vivian J. Paige said...

[big sigh]
If you don't want to participate, that's OK. But please take a few minutes and read the proposition put forth by F.T. Rea. What he is trying to do is EXACTLY what you did with this post: offer personal opinion and not just a cut-n-paste from the lastest news service, which is something way too many bloggers have been doing.

All the "me-too" posts of the blogsphere makes for a very boring read, IMHO.

Melissa said...

AIAW:

The way I interpreted it (at least, what I am willing to disclose about my interpretation thus far!) is that we're going to have a weekend where the leftyblog wire won't be five hundred stories about "FELIX SUX" or repeating the same old material over and over in the same way or with slight twists.

You should know now that I have to explain this with economics. The problem is that the blog market is slowing down and drying up a bit. It's in danger of becoming the same damn product on every single page. It's like going to the store and there are 60 types of jam- the Iynegar-Leppars study (spelling?) on how much choice a consumer could have shows what troubles happen when the consumer has too many choices of one product- here the product is blog posts of similar subject matter. If there were only 3 types of jam, the consumer was more likely to buy a jam than if there were 30 flavors to choose from. Same thing here- there are 3 stories on George Allen, I'll pick one or two to read. If there are 30 (ok, here, more like 10) stories on Felix, I'll not pick one, because I will get frustrated and feel like I will never be able to pick the best one, and won't be satifised with the choice. (If you want, I will find a copy of the study on JSTOR and email it to you; let me know)

You could say that maybe the blog post on subject X is commoditized because everyone's talking about it. Competition increases, sure, but the product still kind of sucks, which isn't supposed to happen in the real world, but because we're all people and react with human emotions (most of us ;) ) it turns into a "You're lying!" "No, you're a liar" "Well, f**k you, I'mna start a blog about how much I hate you!" and so forth. Commoditization is like salt- you buy salt not because you absolutely MUST have Morton's salt or you will die; you buy salt based on "Well, this one's on sale..." THis is not based on the quality. This isn't good for a product like blogs that should not be commoditized in any way, even a little bit.

We're to try and spend a weekend being nice to one another and to not link to another blog's story and say "Right on! You RAWK!" without adding something substantial.

Call it a slow summer weekend, call it a horizons broadening experience, or merely call it yet another opportunity for me to wreck havock (I got permission this time to do so though!), I think it will be a fun thing to try.

F. T. Rea said...

Anonymous Is A Woman,

So you didn’t go to the Blog Summit. Therefore, you don’t know what any speakers there said, firsthand. You apparently haven’t read the original post at SLANTblog that got this thing started, or the subsequent posts there and on other blogs, which should have made you realize that a lot of what you wrote about Shear and Morse actually makes little sense.

Sorry, they didn’t suggest a Weekend Without Echoes. Still, you flip your wig and say, “hell no...”

I suppose this must be an example of the so-called “passion” I’ve read so much about on some blogs.

As it stands, you are passionate about discouraging an event that calls for bloggers to be creative, because you’re angry at Shear and Morse. You are passionate about discouraging writers from thinking for themselves, because of what?

Maybe you had a bad day. I hope you will give this experiment more thought.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Vivian, thank you for posting a comment. What I did, and what you recognize that I did, is what I always do. It's what most of the good bloggers do. They link to one or more articles, whether in blogs or newspapers, and use that as a starting off point for their own opinions. I've always done that so I don't have to take a pledge to do it for one weekend. It's what you do too, at least what I've seen when I've read your blog, which I do fairly regularly.

As for the bloggers who cut and paste without comment, I just don't go back and read them. In a sense the marketplace decides which blogs I continue reading. The ones with quality and original content build readership. Those who are simply echo chambers, are also empty echo chambers without much audience.

A bow here to Melissa. Yes, I know you have to explain it with economics, and I enjoy it. I would be interested in the study you offered to send. If you have the time and it's not too much trouble, I'd be delighted to see it. And I am familiar with the concept that too many choices confuse and frustrate the consumer and discourages him making any choice. Indeed, I've seen it in my own behavior.

And you're right that more and more blogs are clogging the Internet. I don't see an answer to that. Unlike a true marketplace, where an entrepreneur would go out of business if his product didn't sell, there is no way to control the quality of a free blog. If nobody reads it, does the blogger actually care?

There are a bunch of blogs out there that are not even about politics. They are devoted to obscure hobbies, the blogger's daily activities, and his opinions on everything under the sun. He could post about how thrilling it was that his baby burped.

Those blogs are intended for the blogger's five friends and family. And he doesn't care whether you and I read his blog. And he has every right to post it anyway. As long as Blogger or somebody else is willing to give us a free website, or a cheap one, we can do anything we want with it.

I certainly approve of any effort to encourage and boost the quality of blogs. That benefits us all. But there are thousands of blogs on thousands of topics out there.

I tend to agree with Lowell that it's a citizens' forum not journalism. I'll probably say more about that in a more in depth post. But I don't think blogging is journalism anyway.

However, good luck with the experiment and may it produce a better quality of political blogging. Nobody could object to that.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

r.t. rea, you get a whole different post for my response. Not to pick on you, but the other response was getting too ungodly long.

You are right that I did not attend the blogging summit and did not hear first hand what was said.

But as a matter of fact, I did read your original post and I have even read your opinions and objections that too many blogs are turning into an echo chamber. You are right about that. As I said before, I just don't read the bad blogs that are simply "me too" links with no original comment.

But even the best blogs are still not journalism. And I don't believe they should be. That's where I part company with you, Shear, Cross, and probably a good deal of the blogosphere.

I have heard Lowell Feld refer to the netroots as a true citizens' forum. I think that's what it is. If anybody thinks that an amateur blog should take the place of a good daily newspaper for getting information, I would beg to disagree about that.

Having said that, there is a backstory to my anger at Shear and Cross that goes well beyond what you are saying and has nothing to do with your weekend without echoes. In fact, I wish you success with it.

However, I think both the Washington Post and Shear have missed the boat on some of their own coverage. I tend to blame the WaPo editors more than Shear for that.

I am a former reporter (25 years ago). My husband is a former reporter. His best friend and college roomate is still a reporter after 30 years in the business. Most of my anger at the press is because I have seen the quality of reporting and editing go downhill. Coverage of politics, especially, is much more superficial and shallow. A lot of blogging is a reaction to the fact that reporting has gotten less accurate, editorial pages have become less diverse, and the number of opinions and points of view that publishers are willing to allow has shrunk.

Too many newspapers have turned into echo chambers too, most of them reprinting articles and columns from the same wire services and syndications. There is little real competition in the newspaper business today, with only a few national chains controlling most of the hometown papers. And much less original work or diversity of opinion than many people realize.

And the situation with radio stations is even more dismal. One or two major companies control most of what we listen to. They depend on national feeds and syndication too. The truth is that there is little original work there either. And venues for independent, original thought are shrinking in all the corporate-owned mass media.

Again I wish you success with your weekend without echoes. Anything that encourages a better quality of blogging is a good thing.

I just continue to think that most bloggers are amateurs who do it in their spare time for the love of it. And when it comes to reporting the substantive, original investigative work, I wish actual journalists would do their jobs better, rather than pointing at us.

By the same token, I oppose anything that discourages bloggers from doing what they do best, which is to provide more diversity of opinion and greater variety of point of view. I'd rather see them do that than screw up an investigative piece if they don't know what they are doing.

F. T. Rea said...

AIAW,

OK, I agree with just about everything you just wrote. But not all.

Having been involved with media, mostly of the alternative nature, for 35 years, I can hardly take issue with your observations of the current state of affairs, to do with journalism. I’ve been criticizing the mainstream media for decades. So, I’m delighted with the new channel the Internet has opened with blogging.

And, I don’t see political bloggers as merely storming the gates, because the new technology allows for it.

Many of us bloggers are being pulled into the most modern streaming marketplace of ideas by what feels to us like a vacuum. Why not? As far as authenticity goes, a vacuum exists now.

Slowly but surely, the standards for journalism have been degrading for many years, but especially since Bush moved into the White House.

With the merging of media corporations the number of daily newspapers in America has steadily declined over the last three decades. The weekly alternative magazines that once thrived in so many towns have mostly died off, or been converted into fluffy ‘zines of no consequence that are scared to cover politics.

That same trend has gathered up the diversity that cable TV once promised, leaving just a few players in that realm. Radio stations used to be mostly owned by local people all across this country. Now, with recent FCC changes, nearly all of them are owned by corporate giants.

So, we agree on a lot.

Where we part company is in believing that the hammering propaganda style of Raising Kaine, Kos, et al, is always the best way to fly.

Sure, I agree with a lot of what they are for, issue-wise, too.

But I am absolutely certain that copying the Karl Rove/Newt Gingrich low-road style of campaigning is not in the Democrats’ best interests. No. I believe the Dems need to show how different they are, instead of how much the same they are -- Republican Lite?

Since 9/11 the leadership of the Democratic Party has been dreadful. The party needs new leaders. So, I want Webb in the Senate precisely because I believe he will show some fresh leadership.

However, I refuse to act like a groupie and fawn over Webb, repeating chants, screaming insults at everyone who questions anything about his campaign, while insisting that will get him elected. I don't belive he will beat Allen with such a strategy.

Thank you for responding to my comments. And, I wish you well.

-- Terry Rea

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Terry, thank you for your thoughtful response back to me too. It seems like we do indeed have much in common. I too spent a fair amount of time involved with alternate media, in addition to a brief stint in mainstream journalism. More of my experience was in the alternate press and that is the work I am proudest of.

You are right that a lot of that diversity of opinion, which was spawned by the alternative press, has dried up as the newspapers either died out for lack of funds; lack of volunteers as their staff took on the responsibilities of adulthood like jobs and families; or as the papers simply transformed into fluffy entertainment papers.

Everything you say about cable TV and radio is also true. Especially tragic is how the once independent voice of locally owned radio has disappeared as more stations were gobbled up by giants like Cable One. A lot of that was fueled even further by Bush's deregulation rules that made it easier for media conglomerates to own greater numbers of newspapers, radio and TV stations all in the same market.

It's really led to what are no doubt very profitable ventures for the few giant corporations left in the business. But we've lost a great deal of diversity in the process.

So, we agree on all that.

I do respectfully disagree about political tactics. Not that I think we should be screaming propagandists who don't allow any criticism of our candidates. Indeed, we have to have a critical eye to let a campaign know when it's being ineffective and when it's failing to get its message across or even when the candidate isn't coming across well to the general public.

But I think we have lost a lot of races that we should have won precisely because we have been unwilling to hit back when attacked. I'm not sure if that's what you mean when you say we shouldn't adopt Rovian tactics.

I don't think we should be Republican lite either. But to me that means we shouldn't be so quick to stand in the center that people don't know what we stand for or why we are different from the Republicans. To me Republican lite means taking positions on issue that mirror Republican positions instead of providing a clear distinction between their values and our values.

On the other hand, I think some of Rove's and other Republican's tactics are very effective. Not just the being nasty. But some practical strategies.

At one time Democrats were masters of GOTV grassroots efforts, especially in large urban centers. Now the Republicans have built effective political machines that actually use the tactics the old Democratic party bosses perfected.

I don't want to see a return of all that was corrupt about the old Chicago machine politics. But could we please relearn some of the basics of identifying and getting out our vote again?

And I really think that when Republicans went on the attack against Kerry in 2004, with the Swift Boat attack ads, Kerry should have immediately put out an ad where he looked right into the camera and called them "damned liars."

The public was waiting for him to defend himself. They didn't see his silence as taking the high road. They saw it as a man unwilling to defend himself against lies. They knew it was lies too. But they wondered whether somebody incapabable of coming to his own defense against a bully would also be incapabable of defending this nation against bullies.

Nobody said it but that was the subtext to why enough voters rejected Kerry to give Bush a second term. It wasn't the values vote. It was just a slim majority afraid that he didn't have what it took to defend the nation because he wouldn't defend himself first.

Anyway, that's my take on it. And it's why I think Democrats need to be willing to fight back. Not take the offensive in making unfair and dishonest attacks on an opponent. I never want to see that. But I want to see our candidates fight back when they are attacked. Any attacker should find that when he strikes, he hits steel not a soft underbelly.

TCO said...

I would not be discouraged about the number of blogs. The tendancy for interconnectivity with sidebar linkage is a mechanism for sorting out which blogs are more worthwhile. There are even blogs that sort the links by subject (e.g. rightie/lefty). NLS's different ranking system is a nice innovation. I think a further innovation that I have not seen yet (but I'm sure it's being done because ahas are rarely new) would be to have some content on a site that gives a little description capsule (maybe a paragraph) of the linked blogs. This could be minimized or be something that works with a hover button or such, so that it does not hurt clean lines and executive summary look of a blog but would be avaialable for thoughtful types. Also there is the favorites setting on IE. In addition touts (and links inside stories) by larger bloggers will bring smaller ones to light (e.g. this is how I encountered Belmont Club). In addition, people vary in interest and in time availability and the blogosphere ends up being a sea that you can dip into as you choose.