December 8, 2004

Mainstream journalists could learn a few things from bloggers.

And by doing so they just might ensure their survival in a media world turned upside down by the Internet.

Blogging isn’t just a Wild-West free-for-all of publishing with no rules or ethical guidelines. Bloggers are making up the rules of their emerging and increasingly powerful medium as they go, and they do indeed have ideas to offer those practicing traditional journalism.

Bloggers and journalists do not need be the Red States vs. the Blue States — though in some quarters both sides have acted that way lately. We’re heading into a period, I hope, where each group takes tips from the other to enhance their own craft.

Bloggers and mainstream journalists likely won’t end up as twins, but perhaps cordial cousins.

What’s a blog?

At this point, I probably don’t need to explain what a blog is to most people. But it’s worth defining the type of blogs I refer to in this article: those written and published by independents, rather than blogs produced by journalists under the brand name of their employers. It’s not that journalists who blog aren’t bloggers; they are. Yet it’s the independents who are doing most of the innovation — and thus have the most to teach traditional journalists.

Are bloggers journalists? That’s a loaded question, and not one I mean to take up in this article. Suffice it to say that among the millions of people now publishing blogs — and among the relatively small number who blog professionally and/or have built up huge audiences — some act as journalists, some do not. Some bloggers see themselves as journalists; some do not.

No-restraint journalism

If there’s a leading complaint that traditional journalists often make about bloggers, it’s this: Some bloggers are too quick to publish anything that falls into their laps — without bothering to vet the material to determine if it’s accurate, or to consider the consequences of publishing it. In some cases, such “careless” publishing can have far-reaching results. Even bloggers, the traditionalists say, have a responsibility to the public not to trade in unsubstantiated and possibly dangerous rumors.

The poster child for just-about-anything-goes is Ana Marie Cox, otherwise known as Wonkette, who does a popular daily news and gossip blog covering the Washington, D.C., political scene. Cox insists she’s not acting as a “journalist” with Wonkette, though she is a journalist by background.

On November 2, Cox was one of the bloggers who received leaked early results from exit polls in the U.S. presidential election — the ones that led many to believe early in the day that John Kerry was on his way to victory. Cox’s popularity has left her with a big group of sources — people who feed her interesting tidbits and sometimes leaked material. People with access to exit-poll numbers sent her leaked numbers; she posted them quickly, with cautionary words to the effect of, “don’t take this too seriously.”

Cox acknowledged during an interview that she didn’t think much about the ethics of it all that day, though she’s well aware of the controversy surrounding exit polls affecting voting in states where the polls haven’t yet closed. “Exit polls are like crack,” she quips, and just like curbing drug use, no one is likely to stop early publication of them by bloggers as long as there are people with access willing to leak the results.

“It’s impossible to maintain privileged information” in an environment where anyone can instantly publish leaked information to a potential worldwide audience on the Web, she says.

But there’s more to Wonkette’s method than “I publish anything because I can.” Cox points out how she also posted pre-election reports sent to her of rumors that presidential candidate John Kerry had an affair with a young woman. “I posted the Kerry affair stuff and said it’s stupid,” she says. (The affair rumor turned out to go nowhere.)

Cox’s point of view reflects a libertarian notion that it’s fine in a democratic society for people to receive most any information. This line of thinking suggests that the publisher’s responsibility lies in being clear about what’s been confirmed and what hasn’t been, acknowledging that the information, depending on circumstances, could be accurate or could be groundless. Let readers decide for themselves whether it’s useful information, in other words, but be transparent in explaining where you got it and how much of it you’ve confirmed. Respect the intelligence of the audience, this argument goes, and don’t try to play nanny by deciding what you will and will not publish without audience input.

The key word in the paragraph above is “transparency.” Many bloggers feel that it’s OK to publish just about anything if they make it clear where it came from, what they know about it, and that it may or may not be accurate.

The news, faster

Could such an approach be taken by mainstream news organizations? Let me suggest that current trends are pushing them toward a new way of doing journalism that is a bit more blog-like.

The Internet, of course, has speeded up the news publishing cycle. No longer is it easy for a news organization to sit on a big story and publish it at a set time, when all the dust has settled. (Think of how the Monica Lewinsky story played out — when blogger Matt Drudge published leaked reports of a Bill Clinton affair that Newsweek was investigating but wasn’t ready to make public — to understand what I mean.)

“Newspaper people (especially) still have the mindset of putting out the edition and then they’re done with it,” complains Glenn Reynolds, a law professor best known as the blogger behind Instapundit, one of the most popular blogs on the Internet today.

In an interview, Reynolds explained that the way he approaches information that comes his way is profoundly different than how a traditional journalist would. For instance, he says, if the infamous “Rathergate” documents about George W. Bush’s military record ended up in the hands of a blogger like him rather than CBS News, the approach likely would have been to publish them immediately. Rather than find an expert or two to review the documents, a blogger would recognize that among members of his audience would be people capable of doing credible analysis. Imagine the ensuing conversation as the story started in one blog, quickly spread to others, and people far and wide started discussing the credibility of the documents.

It’s not hard to imagine a different outcome than what actually happened: CBS News got dragged through the mud when it became obvious that the Bush documents were faked and CBS messed up.

Yes, it is hard to imagine the New York Times or Washington Post taking this approach, I admit. Yet it might make sense in some cases.

Imagine, say, the coverage of Watergate being treated in part this way. Rather than Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward being the sole storytellers, blog-influenced journalism would have had them in part leading a conversation about the scandal — and probably turning up new sources in the process. What if Woodward and Bernstein had accompanied their Watergate investigative pieces with a blog that facilitated public conversation and brought in tips from government insiders? I suspect that a Watergate investigation in the blog era would have come to a conclusion faster.

News is a conversation

“Big media has to learn to be more honest,” says Jeff Jarvis, a media executive who moonlights as a blogger, “that is, to level with its public, to reveal its prejudices, and process as citizen journalists (bloggers) do.”

The popularity of bloggers is leading to a new way of thinking about news. Jarvis said in an e-mail interview that the most profound thing he learned when he started blogging is this: News is a conversation, not just a lecture. The story doesn’t end when it’s published, but rather just gets started as the public begins to do its part — discussing the story, adding to it, and correcting it.

Jarvis is by day president of Advance Internet, the new-media arm of Advance Communications; by night he is the popular independent blogger behind BuzzMachine. As a 50-something media executive with a lengthy print-journalism background (including as a reviewer for TV Guide) and a new-found enthusiasm for blogging, he’s well suited to advise the profession on striking a middle ground between traditional journalism and blogging.

“The news isn’t done when we print it,” he says. “That’s when the public can add questions, corrections, perspective. That will improve news. And it also will change our relationship with the public.”

Bloggers have adopted this credo, and mainstream news organizations would be well advised to do so, too, at least to some extent.

“We have owned the printing press for centuries; now the people have the power of the press” through blogs, Jarvis says. “They are speaking and it’s our turn to listen and engage them in conversation.”

To do that represents a profound shift in the type of journalism practiced in the U.S. and most Western countries with a free press. Engaging the public at the level Jarvis suggests would likely mean inviting readers to contribute to the end product, either in the form of published reaction to articles written by professional journalists or by reader-produced content in such forms as blogs or “citizen journalism” entries.

Personality journalism

Most blogs are highly personal, usually reflecting their authors’ personalities. If you have favorite bloggers, you probably know their political views and even a fair bit about their personal lives.

With the exception of columnists, you probably know next to nothing about a newspaper’s staff journalists. Reporters keep their opinions to themselves, for the most part, to comply with newsroom policy and longstanding journalistic convention.

But what if reporters were allowed to reveal more about themselves? Would the journalistic world end? Many bloggers doubt it; indeed, the refusal of mainstream news organizations to allow their journalists to reveal their opinions and personal perspective is a leading criticism leveled at news companies by bloggers.

Perhaps Slate, the successful Microsoft-owned webzine (and not a blog), suggests a coming tidal shift. Before this last U.S. election, Slate announced that 45 of its 49 editorial employees planned to vote for John Kerry. Can you imagine the New York Times announcing a breakdown of how its employees planned to vote? That would represent quite a departure from the traditional candidate endorsements the paper publishes, without bylines, on its editorial page.

Some bloggers would say that kind of opening up is a good idea, and maybe mainstream news organizations would be smart to acknowledge the obvious — that their staffs of professional journalists do have opinions. How surprising was it that Slate‘s staff leaned heavily to Kerry? Would it surprise anyone, say, if Fox News employees overwhelmingly supported President Bush? As I said, this probably wouldn’t cause the media world to collapse.

Indeed, you can view this loosening of the grip on editorial employees’ personal lives as a way to better connect journalist and reader — to forge a stronger relationship between them and in theory support greater loyalty by readers.

‘We were wrong’

One significant difference between mainstream journalism and blogging is the way each handles its mistakes. On this one, the bloggers seem to have an edge.

Although the working styles of bloggers varies considerably, some of today’s leading bloggers take a similar approach to mistakes: They prominently post corrections to errors, publishing them quickly. Reynolds typically posts a correction of an earlier item as a new item at the top of the blog if the item in error has scrolled down the page, so his readers are sure to see it.

And because most bloggers embrace interactivity with their audiences, they hear about it when a mistake is made (via the comments areas on their own blogs, and from other bloggers noting and publicizing the error if it’s significant) — and so do all the other readers.

Contrast that with how the typical old-media news organization handles mistakes. It’s a rare day when a TV news program announces a mistake in the previous day’s coverage; newspaper corrections typically are relegated to an inside page in a special corrections area, unseen by many readers.

Perhaps bloggers rank higher when it comes to corrections because they are in more direct touch with their readers. When a blogger makes a mistake, his or her readers make it known; there can be no ignoring it. As mainstream news organizations evolve to have more direct interaction with their readers and viewers, they’ll have to change how they acknowledge and handle mistakes.

A different reporting style

While reporting styles among bloggers of course vary wildly, you do often see (among those bloggers who do reporting, not just commentary) a different approach than what’s typical in mainstream reporting. After all, many bloggers are not journalists and have not had training in traditional reporting techniques. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from this fresh perspective on reporting.

In covering a technical story, you sometimes see bloggers go far down the corporate ladder; perhaps it’s partly not having the access to or experience at reaching people at the top for comment. The conventional journalist will seek out company executives or go through the PR department. But bloggers sometimes get their information from people further inside an organization — the programmers. It makes for a different type of storytelling, as new and different voices are heard.

Again, it leads back to the theme that bloggers often get closer to the people than do mainstream journalists.

Of course, in many instances it’s the people “down the corporate ladder” doing the blogging themselves. Take, for example, the blog Call Centre Confidential, written by the anonymous team leader of an unidentified phone marketing call center.

Other lessons

What else can mainstream journalists learn from bloggers? Perhaps …

  • That publishing unpolished thoughts (written by smart people) can be valuable — that in the lightning-fast Internet era, unrefined commentary and analysis has a place. And the polishing process sometimes takes place after the Publish button has been pushed — as the audience adds its knowledge and perspective to keep a story alive well past the point when it is first published.

  • That fast-to-publish content like that on blogs doesn’t have to go through a rigorous editing process — that there’s value in the speed of blogging that can be applied to mainstream journalism. (If that sounds scary to editors, remember than when reporters go on live radio and TV programs, there’s no editing there either. It’s a matter of trust in the journalist to be given such freedom and responsibility.)

Meeting of the media

From an old-media perspective, the ideas presented above may sound unreasonable. Indeed, presented in 1990, they would have seemed outlandish. Yet in today’s world, they represent possibilities that traditional news organizations should be considering.

I’m not suggesting that newspapers and TV news operations mimic blogs, only that they experiment with some of the ideas that blogs present.

Choire Sicha, editorial director of Gawker Media, one of the leading publishers of independent blogs (including Wonkette), said in an e-mail interview of the difference between mainstream journalists and blogs: “I think there’s really not that much to distinguish between journalists and bloggers except for a formalized edit process before print.

“Nearly all journalists traffic privately in gossip, anonymous sources, and thinly veiled juicy items — they just don’t usually get to throw those things into print, and so they IM these tidbits to us bloggers,” he says. “Bloggers are really just the id of the journalism world.”

Put another way, by Wonkette’s Ana Marie Cox, “On blogs, it’s all chocolate cake and no potatoes.”

And if you really want to get a sense of how blogs and mainstream journalists are coming together, Sicha offers this: “Here’s a little peek behind the curtain over here at Gawker Media HQ: I just had a two-hour meeting with a blogger who edits one of our sites. We discussed new staffing assignments and rotations, some feature ideas, and six-month goals. Sound familiar, print people? Sound boring, bloggers?”

With much in common as well as many differences, bloggers and mainstream journalists should be looking to one another for ideas on how to navigate our newly revised media world.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the blog Call Centre Confidential.  

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Steve Outing is a thought leader in the online media industry, having spent the last 14 years assisting and advising media companies on Internet strategy…
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