A now-infamous blog post by Jolie O’Dell, which touched on her ideas on the distinctions between blogging and journalism has sparked a good deal of discussion in the blogging community about what the two disciplines have in common.
The debate essentially boils down to a larger question of identity for bloggers. Is a blogger a journalist? Is there a sharp distinction between the two disciplines, or has time blurred that line to an extent? Everyone from Ms. O’Dell, to our own Alex Wilhelm and Martin Bryant, to traditional media sources have weighed in on the issue. Here’s where they stand.
Opinion #1: Blogging is not Journalism
When blogging first became a popular method of content distribution, this opinion was likely the most correct view. In the earliest days of blogging, even the best blogs incorporated a good deal of opinion and were relatively light on actual journalism. Indeed, this opinion still holds a fair amount of currency in today’s more-developed blogosphere.
In an exclusive interview with TNW, David S. Broder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post White House Correspondent, highlighted the lingering issues with the blogosphere in an interview, saying that “You can’t just sit on your computer all day. You need to get off your butt, go out there and interview sources, investigate the issue yourself and then write what you’ve learned.”
Broder’s criticism bears a fair amount of weight in today’s blogging atmosphere, where speculation can be erroneously reported as fact. A prime example was Monday’s revelation that a single analyst (Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray) asserted that an Apple television is on the cards for 2012, and many blogs jumped on the story, neglecting the fact that the same analyst made the exact same prediction at the exact same time last year. The unfortunate reality of the short news cycle is that bloggers sometimes have to take a flying leap onto a story to get it out there.
Broder doesn’t necessarily see this as a negative, though. Or at least he doesn’t see this as a negative for journalists. “In an average week, the Washington Post news room would get 2000 or so letters from readers commenting on or complaining about that week’s stories. Of those 2000, we could publish 100 at most,” Broder says. “This made those 100 people very happy, as you might imagine, but it also meant that we had 1900 people who were angry with us. These days, those people write it up on their blogs instead of sending us those letters.”
A cynical take, no doubt, but a worthy point nonetheless. Blogging has broadened the marketplace of ideas by allowing more people’s voices to enter the discourse.
Yet, as Broder makes quite clear, opinion is not journalism. At the crux of Broder’s arguments against blogging as journalism is the belief that there is little difference in veracity between blogs like The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Politico, FiveThirtyEight, Gizmodo and TheNextWeb, and personal Blogspot pages. To Broder, a blog is a blog is a blog. Referring to the Huffington Post, Broder says that, “I’m glad that some of my former colleagues are over there and that they’re getting paid to write, but I don’t consider it journalism.”
Somewhat ironically, TNW’s own Alex Wilhelm agrees, but for a completely different reason. Put simply, he’s happy that he’s a blogger because he thinks journalism is overrated.
In a post entitled “The Blogging v. Journalism Debate Explained,” Alex goes after the notion that there’s a quantifiable advantage to one approach versus another, saying “What we don’t need is for journalists to claim that they are the only useful… (writers) to be found. Yes, people do want the hard facts. And yes, they do want to know what they mean. That is where blogging comes in, we provide perspective along with the facts.”
Alex continues by saying that journalists provide “Raw information in, packaged information out, period. Now, that is all well and dandy, and we bloggers could do that. In fact, given the blogging writing culture, we could do it faster than journalists, and do our own copy editing and promotion to boot, but we don’t. You see, we prefer blogging to journalism any day of the week. Let’s get down a definition for blogging so you know what I am talking about: Blogging=Journalism+Opinion.”
In this way, Wilhelm and Broder are in agreement on one key point of view: blogging and journalism are two very distinct entities.
Opinion #2: Blogging is a Training Ground for Journalists
Other people see blogging as a step along the road to becoming a journalist. By cutting their teeth writing on things that they are passionate (on fan-blogs like TheOffside), proponents of this opinion say, bloggers can gain the tools to operate in a newsroom environment effectively.
A big proponent of this opinion is Shane Evans, Deputy Editor of Goal.com and Major League Soccer’s beat writer for the Philadelphia Union. A journalist by trade and training, Evans also does a fair amount of what could be considered blogging for Goal with his two weekly columns, The Full English and Fish and Chip Shots.
Evans sees the readily available nature of information as a boon to aspiring writers. In an interview with TNW, Evans said that “in today’s information-based society, where everything is at your fingertips, like the ability to create your own blog and have it show up on Google and in various other outlets, people are basically teaching themselves how to be journalists. Gone are the days when you need a degree to show how credible you are as a writer. If your blog gets a ton of hits and you have thousands of followers on Twitter, you get taken seriously.”
Indeed, there is a growing trend of enthusiast blogs and bloggers moving up to jobs with much larger news outlets due to the quality of their coverage and the strength of their following. A prime example of this is the aforementioned FiveThirtyEight.com, which has been bought out by the New York Times. Evans agrees, saying that “A number of Philadelphia-area sports blogs have recently been bought out by the big TV and Newspaper companies because they realize the potential of people writing for the people.”
In the end, Evans sees the question as being nuanced. “I may be an ‘official’ journalist with a title and make my living this way, but that doesn’t make me a better writer or reporter than some of the bloggers out there today,” he said. “Essentially, the line between the blogger and the journalist is much more blurred than it once was, and frankly, I’m quite pleased about this. It means that if you have an interest in writing or posting your thoughts online and get other people to read them, you can become a success.”
Opinion #3: It’s Not the Source, it’s the Quality
A third group sees the blogosphere as a mixed bag. Rather than judging the medium with wide sweeping strokes, this group judges on the basis of content.
John Berman, the ABC Nightline, Nightly News with Dianne Sawyer and Good Morning America stalwart, stated this opinion succinctly in an interview with TNW. “I think there can be great reporting on blogs,” Berman says, “but that all blogs do not necessarily contain great reporting.”
This view, which notes a distinction between the products of personal blogs and news sites, holds water in light of expert blogs. After all, if you’re looking for niche information, you’re likely to be better served by visiting a specialist blog rather than relying on the coverage of a writer less well-versed in that particular field.
Berman agrees, saying that “My friend and colleague Jake Tapper is a frequent blogger from his position as ABC’s White House correspondent. He often breaks news on his blog prior to putting it on TV, and frequently breaks news that never airs on TV. If you want to know what is going on at the White House, you would be an idiot not to read his blog. But equally, you would be an idiot not to watch his television reports.”
In the view of this camp, the issue boils down to the quality of the information, rather than its source. While a specialist single-issue blogger would not traditionally be considered a journalist, if they are tracking down unreported leads, following developing stories and reporting on current events with reliable information, they are doing what a journalist does.
Berman articulates this opinion, saying that, “Good reporting is good reporting no matter if it can be found on a piece of paper or on a computer screen or a TV on a stone tablet. Good reporting includes well-sourced, reliable material presented in a captivating way. Many blogs seek to include this type of content, as do many websites. However, some perfectly good blogs do not. Either they are more observational, editorial, or just flat out pithy. All of that can be great, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it journalism.”
However, this characterization inevitably and necessarily blurs the lines between the two disciplines of reporting. Since the quality of the information is priority number one in this scenario, the best sources will inevitably span a range of disciplines, from conventional media to blogs. In this way, the line between the two disciplines gets fuzzier.
Opinion #4: The Journalist’s Checklist
The idea of a checklist of characteristics a writer/blogger must possess to be a journalist was first proposed by Jolie O’Dell in her much-discussed blog post of last month. Much like Berman, O’Dell believes that the medium is not the most important distinction. However, unlike Berman, O’Dell sees the distinction as being rooted in background.
In O’Dell’s view, the primary distinction stems from the experience a journalist acquires, either from a formal program or from real-life newsroom experience. While the rest of her post enumerates a host of other factors, it’s implied in the post that these factors are all understood through the training that she refers to.
The crux of O’Dell’s argument is that “the journalist’s work has been pruned mercilessly by the red pens of professors, peers, and editors.” As a result of this relentless editing and critiquing, the journalist is not wedded to his or her words. Because of this detachment from the content of the story, a journalist is better able to be objective source, or so O’Dell asserts.
Speaking about O’Dell’s comments on journalistic technique, Martin says that “A big-name blogger once told me that tech blogging was “A very specific skillset”. That blogger was right; a good tech blogger can get hold of a big announcement from its original source and in less than ten minutes write an accurate 150 word piece about the who, what, why, where and when of the story. Not every journalist would be asked to do that and I’m sure some in certain fields would balk at the idea, but for us it comes with the territory.”
In short, both O’Dell and Martin see journalists as technicians practicing a certain skill-set with precision. However, as Martin has acknowledged, bloggers often do pretty much the same thing.
Conclusions: Who’s right?
All of these views on the distinction between blogging and journalism have redeeming points.
Those that draw a sharp distinction between blogging and journalism are correct in asserting that much of the blogging world has little interest in proper journalism. Indeed, a large portion of the blogosphere is still dominated by opinion writing.
By the same token, those that see the blogging world as a training ground for future journalists are equally right. In certain disciplines, a fresh new crop of journalists have learned the skills of journalism on fan blogs and have been snapped up by larger media sources because of their specialized expertise.
Among the more professional blogs out there, the quality and style of writing continues to approach, or even exceed, that of conventional media sources. This fact lends credence to the opinion that content is king, as stated by Berman, O’Dell and Martin. O’Dell does have a legitimate point, though, when she sharply underlines the differences in the skill sets of journalists and other types of writer.
If you believe Alex, this is where I take off my journalist hat and put on my blogger hat.
In the end, I believe that a combination of Opinions 2, 3 and 4 best encompasses the odd relationship between blogging and journalism. Blogging has undeniably allowed many aspiring journalists to learn the skills necessary to become journalists. Blogging teaches these writers how to organize their arguments, form coherent ideas and how to research their chosen issue.
As bloggers become better and more experienced, however, they can become some of the best resources in their given field, especially if that field is currently underserved. I don’t know what it says about the American political process, but for the better part of the 2008 election cycle, the best political coverage anywhere was available on a blog written by a guy who named himself after a chili pepper. Of course, when his site attracted more attention, he revealed his real identity and almost immediately became one of the US’ foremost political analysts, while his site was bought out by the New York Times. I am, of course, talking about Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com.
Part of what made Silver’s analysis so compelling, though, was how well he was able to spin it into stories. This was largely down to a little-known fact about Silver’s background: he’d been trained as a journalist. While he was a student studying Economics at the University of Chicago, he’d written for the school’s bi-weekly newspaper (a publication which also counts David S. Broder as an alumnus).
In the end, there’s little that distinguishes a good blogger and a good journalist, and the line between the two is hazy at best. A blogger may inject a little bit more analysis into a post than a journalist does in a news article, but when a blogger tracks down sources, does investigative reporting, and presents the facts clearly and fairly, that is journalism, plain and simple.
Thanks to ABC for the screen-grab.