When Bloggers Make The News

Internet | Lexicon
There have been increasing calls for integrating bloggers as “citizen journalists” in traditional publications, based on the premise that bloggers are now making the news. This deserves further scrutiny. There’s more than meets the eye here.

Bloggers as Stringers

Slate’s Jack Shafer, has criticized blogs in the past, but last week he signaled the pioneering webzine’s warming trend towards blogs. In If I Had a Blog, he wrote that he’d “encourage the press to use bloggers as stringers, as virtual assignment editors and as even as reporters, if they’re willing to apply to their work the sort of rigor we expect in good journalism.”

What was wrong with hiring stringers as stringers, since they are already familiar with the rigors of journalism?

I went to a meeting of the Boston chapter National Writers Union to meet real writers to check out this theory. Of the few that had heard of blogs, none had any concept that bloggers were itching to play in the big leagues. But they quickly connected the dots: Publishers are always looking for ways to cut costs, and, cutting off actual payment for reporting could be the next logical step.

A number of blog fans argue that blogging is a farm system for journalists. But so are college newspapers. We will certainly see more professional writers who have an online profile, and may even contribute to blogs. Other bloggers commit themselves to writing online as they would write elsewhere. We can call them “stringers” or stand-alone journalists, as Chris Nolan does.

But I’m still hard-pressed to wonder what advantages a “blogger” has over someone who is a “writer.” Shafer cites the “entrepreneur-loudmouth” Mark Cuban (the very model of the ringer archetype), who wrote

In every major conference, at every major speech, sitting at tables in restaurants, there is going to be a blogger or podcaster with microphone, PDA, Videophone, laptop or paper and pencil in hand.

Or how about the minor gatherings, which no one is even assigned to cover? (If there is one thing the mainstream press does not ever cover it would be meetings of the National Writers Union). In general, professional journalists do not take their notepads with them when they’re not on assignment. So perhaps a blogger can fill the gap. “Topics not warranting an assigned beat reporter (or even a paid freelancer) suddenly find a home when citizen bloggers decide to fill the void,” wrote Steve Outing, in a recent column in Editor and Publisher, In Defense of Citizen Journalism. Though something should be said in defense those beat reporters and paid freelancers who may find themselves voided. If bloggers want to get writing gigs, and don’t want to undercut professional writers, they ought to join some journalism associations, which should get them on the path towards applying some rigor– and respecting the full-time writers.

Bloggers as Outsiders

Cuban had major conferences on the mind, specifically, the one that just happened in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum. This conference perenially is a gathering of the world’s elite, though in recent years the organizers have opened it up a bit, by expanding the invite list, and starting a blog. One of the common folks, a medical devices entrepreneur from Florida was a new to it all, wrote his first blog post on January 27th after midnight:

Can the world really be made better by the people here, or is this just a giant networking event that allows those in power to stay there, and to keep contact with their peers? … For days the surgeons discuss what to do, they eat, they drink, and they enjoy themselves. Meanwhile the patient lays dying. Finally, at the end, one of the surgeons looks at the patient and maybe does a little work, but then he moves on to other things.

This is not the first time cynicism towards Davos has been voiced, though it may well be the first time it was broadcast publicly during, and from, the proceedings. A half-hour later, he followed up with this post:

The absence of major US leaders (Bush, Cheney, Powell, anyone!) from the WEF this year is glaring. … no one important from America decided to show up. Sure, a few senators are here, the guys from Google, Bill Gates…. There is an urgent need for the US to step in and become a fully engaged leader of the free world, as well as respectful partner (treating other countries as peers even if they are less powerful). Many leaders in the US government, and still a majority of the US population, could care less about what the rest of the world, or what they think. This is simply wrong, and it is apparent from many discussions at the meeting that this attitude breeds a sense of US hatred around the world, fueling and fermenting the basis for terrorists and many other problems.

But nobody remembers those posts, or a subsequent one, asserting that “[Bill] Gates all by himself could solve most of the major poverty and disease problems in Africa.” And few would have even bothered to find them, if the next night the author hadn’t written his third blog post Do US Troops Target Journalists in Iraq?— the shot heard round the world. The speaker who had dropped this charge was Eason Jordan, head of the news division at CNN. He thought he clarified his comments at the forum, but others did not, and this caused a storm among conservative bloggers who dubbed it EasonGate and called for his head. Jordan resigned on February 11th, two weeks after he had made the controversial comments.

Peggy Noonan celebrated this act in her Wall Street Journal column, where she has taken up the apparent cause of bloggers in their struggle against the mainstream media: “It was a blogger at the World Economic Forum, as we all know, who first reported the Eason Jordan story…”

That blogger– Rony Abovitz– had been a blogger for all of one day, as we can see from the above posts. (I have asked him to verify this, though I infer this as he references no prior blogging). He only around to starting his own blog a few days later. Within two weeks he was dispensing tips on this brave new world: “Some advice to politicians & media leaders: go hire some teenage hackers and a few twentysomething new media grads.”

Abovitz fits neither of those description; he is 34 and CTO of a medical devices company; when I asked him to clarify the comment, he said that “They are the fish with gills in the new sea. The rest of us are scuba divers.”

Prior blogging experience, or even identifying as a blogger, is clearly unnecessary for being celebrated. It was precisely because he was a fish-out-of-water. And also, if the World Economic Forum hadn’t set up a blog, the story would likely still have been reported, though perhaps in different form. Rebecca Blood asked point-blank: “Whose idea was it to introduce a Davos weblog? Off-the-record debate mixed with off-the-cuff publication is a recipe for disaster.”

The lesson here is simple: anybody can play the role of a blogger. Anybody can make the news: show up at a place where news may be made. It doesn’t take a whole lot of work to grow gills.

Bloggers as Bloggers

When I discussed the above theory with Rebecca, she suggested I was closing my mind to bloggers a bit too much. Indeed. Publications should hire bloggers as bloggers.

Certainly, it was a good thing that a couple of years ago the Washington Monthly hired blogger Kevin Drum to blog for them, in the classic sense. Several times a day he’s linking to news items and writing his own commentary. In doing so he’s competing for attention with the other liberal fingers: Talking Points Memo, Atrios, TNR/etc, TAPPED, Daily Kos. If he helps the increase theprofile of the Washington Monthly, that’s a good thing. On the other hand when he does puts up pictures of his cat (this is called “catblogging”), he may lose readers.

And also, I would argue, that it’s even more important for organizations which aren’t in the news business, but survive by being in the news, to consider how to be inspired by blogs (“boring old press releases … are totally ill-suited for responding to most PR issues,” Steve Lowry, head of PR at Novell, told the Economist last week) Though as blogging has been cast as a radically different form, organizations can’t help but tuck “the blog” away in a separate part of the website. That’s missing the point. Organizations should enable every atom of content to serve as the anchor for conversations.

As Steve Outing wrote In Defense of Citizen Journalism:

journalism can right some of what’s wrong with it by letting the public in and turning the old “lecture” model of journalism into more of a “conversation” model — regaining trust and credibility by losing the arrogance of the old way of doing journalism.

The ability to drive conversations— principally, to attach comments directly to an article so that others can see them– are a crucial component of the civ structure, which this website demonstrates. Oddly, though, they aren’t fundamental to blogs. And neither are they fundamental to the publication Outing was writing in, Editor & Publisher. I can’t write in comments in order to reference this piece. We’ll have to take the conversation elsewhere. E & P has no blog.