August 22, 2007
Blowback: The journalism that bloggers actually do...
...has been published at the Los Angeles Times site, along with a cryptic editor's note, and a brief appearance by Michael Skube.
It’s my official, semi-crowdsourced reply to that instant classic in curmudgeon lit, Blogs: All the noise that fits. (“The hard-line opinions on weblogs are no substitute for the patient fact-finding of reporters”) by Michael Skube, August 19 in the Sunday opinion section. The original had no links, no comment section. Mine has quite a few links—including a tour of blog-style reporting—and I insisted on a comment section. See:
Blowback: The journalism that bloggers actually do. (“A New York University professor critiques Michael Skube’s recent Times Op-Ed questioning the journalistic value of blogs.”)
Blowback! That’s what you’re in for when a great American newspaper runs a Sunday opinion piece as irretrievably lame as “Blogs: All the noise that fits” by Michael Skube…
is how it starts. This is where the piece turns:
In Skube’s columns, there’s a teacher who doesn’t believe in doing his homework - any homework.
So I did it for him. I asked friends in the blogosphere to help me put together a list of examples that would confound Skube if he knew of them, but possibly interest his students. Blog sites doing exactly what he says blog sites don’t do: “the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence … the depiction of real life.”
Read the rest and discuss in the comments. You can find the draft version here: “Help make my Blowback post to Michael Skube a little more sound; LATimes.com to run with it…”)
Replying to Josh Marshall’s stark account of Skube’s cluelessness (see Annals of Reporting) the Times published an editor’s note that doesn’t quite— well, see for yourself. This is the note:
Note from Editorial Page Editor Jim Newton
August 22, 2007
A number of readers have contacted The Times in recent days regarding an Aug. 19th opinion piece by Michael Skube. In some cases, readers have asked whether Times’ editors improperly inserted material in Michael Skube’s piece without his knowledge or permission. That was not the case, as this note from Skube makes clear:
Before my Aug. 19 Opinion piece on bloggers was printed, an editor asked if it would be helpful to include the names of the bloggers in my piece as active participants in political debate. I agreed.
- Michael Skube
Readers will choose to agree or disagree with Skube’s conclusions, but I hope the above resolves questions about the editing of the article.
Editorial Page Editor
I predict it will not resolve all the questions people have about the editing of the article. Scott Rosenberg will now explain why that is. His reading parallels mine.
Wanna talk to the LAT? Comments on the note and Skube episode can go here, at a post by Matt Welch on the Times opinion blog. Thanks to Matt for asking me to do the Blowback.
Hey, let me know what you think of the list… post-publication adds are welcome.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….
Chris Allbritton says: “I am not a blogger.” (Sep. 3) Chris thinks Skube was right, and that my Blowback piece proves Skube’s point. He also says I should not have used his 2004 writings. “The articles that Jay linked that I wrote were all done when I was in Iraq for TIME Magazine. I’m not sure why he didn’t link to my reporting from April 2003 during the invasion, when it really was just for the blog, but there you go.” I had written about that 2003 work before, so I though I would vary it, but I thank Chris for the correction.
See also Amy Gahran’s reply to Chris: “Why this squeamish resistance to being called a blogger? Why must Allbritton paint the term as a derogatory label, rather than merely descriptive of how he publishes his work?”
Jeff Jarvis says he’s done responding to curmudgeon’s. “I prefer to just walk away from this game of Wack-a-mole now. I’ll consider Jay’s piece the definitive response to the professional curmudgeons and urge the rest of us to just move on and do something constructive.”
Lisa Williams is touching and wise in Church of Journalism Meets The Church of Blog. “Let us break bread together, we First Amendment faithful.”
Shane Richmond’s reaction from the U.K. is closer to mine (as italics are mine.)
What’s exasperating is that every time some journalist notices blogs (where have they been, for goodness sake?) and decides that they herald the end of civilisation as we know it, there’s some editor somewhere who will print their ravings.
And the reason I did the Blowback column was that editor and his continued influence. As Kevin Anderson explains:
These columns keep getting printed because they play to the professional biases of journalists. They play to the uninformed view that passes for conventional wisdom that there is a monolithic blogosphere, and that it is populated by wannabe columnists who try to get a foot in the door of the media by being louder and more irresponsible than the columnists they hope to replace.
Kevin’s attitude is a practical one:
Bloggers don’t want our jobs. Most bloggers write about their personal experiences. Yes, they write about their cats, their sewing, their kids footie games. But occasionally, they get caught up in a news event, and then they keep blogging. They commit random acts of journalism.
“They get caught up in a news event, and then they keep blogging.” I don’t think anyone has put that point better than Kevin did right there. If you have a blog, you never know when you might be called on to also be a journalist. (See the pet bloggers and their story of mobilization. They kept blogging…) And that is why at the conclusion to my Blowback column, I say…
No one owns the practice of reporting or assigns the right to do it. It’s a democratic thing to tell others what’s going on and “show your work.” Some people will not be deterred from doing that. Most of them don’t care what you call them. They do care if their story stands up.
BBC Radio’s 5 Live has a show called pods and blogs, “our attempt to report the news members of the public are creating, discussing and sharing across the world thanks to the internet.” Host Chris Vallance did an interview with me on the Blowback piece, Talking Points Memo’s coverage of the US Attorneys scandal, and the expanded press with amateur and pro wings. Listen here.
Interested in curmudgeon lit and its case against The Blog? See A parody of democracy. “Error-strewn, insular and parasitic, political blogs tend not to enhance but poison healthy debate.” (Oliver Kamm in The Guardian in April ‘07.) Some classic hits, including Echo Chamber, No Factuality, You Go to Extremes, Too Much Time on Your Hands, Editors Rock, Parasite Blues, and You’d be Lost Without Our News.
- How one blogger has become a force in mainstream aerospace coverage.
- Durham in Wonderland’s reaction to the Skube article.
- Beth Lawton at The Digital Edge. (Blog of the New Media Federation within the American newspaper publishers trade group): “It’s really too early to tire of the conversation” where bloggers and journalists yell insults at each other, a frustrating but integral part of finding the future of news.
Joe Gandelman isolates a key factor:
Most journalists who worked at any time in their lives for mainstream media outlets had to jump through all kinds of academic, pay-your-dues-at-smaller-market and brutal office politics hoops to get where they are. Where are they? The Powers That Be have given them assignments to write and market their work. But bloggers are these people who didn’t have to jump through the hoops. They just took it — and write and publish online for all to see, without having to jump through hoops for anyone (unless they write post specially aimed at getting a link from a big left or right blog). They online, write and publish for all to see. Who gave them the right to do this the “easy” way?
Here’s Skube in his 2005 op-ed for the News & Record, showing how on-the-money Gandelman is::
I find myself doing something in my journalism class that gives me considerable unease. We’re discussing that often truculent tribe that calls itself bloggers. What’s more, we’re discussing them as though they were actually journalists - as though they had come up through the ranks like the rest of us, paying dues by covering the police beat or the local sewerage commission before landing any plum assignments.
Do blogs drive traffic? Check this out.
Top 10 opinion items of last week at LATimes.com, as measured by visits to the website, between Aug. 17-23:
1) Death by numbers, by Meghan Daum.
2) Not so fast, Christian soldiers, by Michael L. Weinstein and Reza Aslan.
3) The journalism that bloggers actually do, by Jay Rosen.
4) The misleading Vietnam analogy; Editorial.
5) Stonehenges all around us, by Craig Childs (from Feb. 16, 2007).
6) Blogs: All the noise that fits, by Michael Skube.
7) Debates that say something, by Newt Gingrich.
8) ‘Sanctuary’ as battleground, by Ronald Brownstein.
9) Drunk on ethanol; Editorial.
10) The lost Padilla verdict, by Stephen Vladeck.
Posted by Jay Rosen at August 22, 2007 6:49 PM
I think I am going to turn this into a separate post, but here it is for comment.
Josh Wolf, the blogger who went to jail for journalism, and who now writes at CNet, talks sense about the Skube episode:
It's clear that there are two camps on the issue, but it's uncertain what's fueling the debate. The advent of blogs have allowed a much larger segment of the population to fully participate in the marketplace of ideas. If professional journalists are so much better than their renegade counterparts, then it seems like Skube and others would have nothing to fear. On the other hand, if publishers think that the audience can't identify quality work and bloggers are willing to work at rates below press standards, then perhaps a fear that professional journalists will be replaced by bloggers at below-market rates is a rational concern. Of course, this isn't what Skube is saying, and discrediting bloggers is hardly the best way to combat this potential scenario.
Both bloggers and their news-media counterparts have the same basic goal: to inform the public about the world we live in. Their approaches vary and they both make factual errors on a regular basis, but this is a product of being human. What's important is for journalists from both the alternative and establishment camp to unify around our commonalities as opposed to proliferating barbs designed to diminish respect for the other's field.
I think Wolf has identified the hidden factor in these curmudegeon columns about bloggers. It's the words.... if publishers [or "traditional" journalists] think that the audience can't identify quality work....
Follow this with me: Skube and his fellow curmudgeons don't want to make this part of their argument explicit, because that would insult the very people they are trying to reach, the people they want to alert to the bloggers' reckless and fact-less ways. Y'all probably can't tell the difference, so I gotta warn you: these bloggers aren't real journalists.
That's the actual argument. But it's easy to see why the Skubees shrink from saying it plainly. (One irony, of course, is that curmudgeonly style pretends to be plain-spoken. But some things are just too plain to be spoken.) So instead they leave out of the text their actual fear--oh, no! people are too scattered or ill-informed to tell the difference between us and bloggers--and in its place the writer typically uses stylish put-downs of "Internet evangelists" and unnamed bloggers who are allegedly claiming that professional news operations can be replaced by the blogs. Almost always there are no names associated with this belief, no quotes, no links. That's because it's not a real argument; it's substituting for an argument the cra-mudge is too timid to make. (Second irony: cra-mudges very often identify their belief system as "contrarian," as Skube does. But some beliefs in the system are actually too contrarian to be mentioned.)
Wolf again is sensible. "If professional journalists are so much better than their renegade counterparts, then it seems like Skube and others would have nothing to fear." (A point also made by Emily Bell of the Guardian in her superb reply to celebrity curmudgeon Andrew Keen.) It's like Skube said in his first version of this column: people don't have time to read blogs. If that's true, then there is nothing to worry about.
But there is a fear, and since they lack the balls to state it, their columns tend to twist facts, evade issues, attack nameless opponents and come out in a distorted fashion that the bloggers jump on and mock. (And a "contrarian" writer often takes this as confirmation that his views usefully provoke others.)
These columns appear to be about bloggers vs. journalists. But the bloggers aren't really the subject at hand; they're foils and symbols. In reality it's traditional journalists writing about what they fear: a public that cannot discriminate once the gates are down.
> Rather than disparage citizen journalism, why not help it along? Why not use it to enhance the professional product?
Why not? it depends on your real goal; there may be good reasons not to.
Maybe your goal is a lizard-brain one - to protect your position by putting down the upstarts. If so, it makes sense to emphasize the overall low status of the upstarts and to try to keep them there.
Or maybe your goal is a public-service one.
One public service goal would be to ensure that readers are as well informed as possible - in which case it makes sense (if it doesn't take too much investment) to lend the cit-js a hand ("cit-j education"), and welcome their appearance.
Another public service goal would be to to help clue readers in as to what quality looks like, to educate the epistemologically challenged. In this case it makes sense to explain what is and is not good reporting. (And I think such education is needed; empirically, it's clear that a lot of people are epistemologically challenged, and we as a society would be much better off if they weren't.)
Superficially, this ("reader education") is what Skube et al. (e.g. locally here) are trying to do.
But I don't think "reader education" is the real motivation, for 2 reasons -
1. If you educate your readers well, it'll have lizard-brain blowback: if you epistemologically sharpen your readers, they will rely on the better blogs for (much of) their information.
2. If you educate your readers well, the terms "Fox News", "payola pundit", and "talk radio" will come up frequently. But they don't; we hear about "bloggers" instead.
Personal perspective - back when I was a grad student, when I heard others speak respectfully of the knowledge&wisdom that amateurs in my field had accumulated over decades, I found it extremely threatening - I felt their expertise effectively devalued what (comparatively little) I knew.
I'd be surprised if this wasn't the motivation for journos' dissing bloggers.
"I just don't think that a blow against every misguided shot print journalists make is worth the time or advances the discussion."
Neither do I, Ferdy. Who does? As far as I can tell, no one.
Recognizing that just firing back at Skube would accomplish little, I tried to make my reply informational by pulling together that list of blog reporting projects. In my view that does advance the discussion.
Ferdy: "I say let the curmudgeons have their way for a while. I feel for them." I'm not planning on engaging any more "bloggers, you suck" columns, but I don't think we should go easy on the curmudgeons, and I don't feel for them at all. They are anti-learning. That does no one any good.
Anyway, here's a Beth Lawton post it. She thinks we need to have these bloggers vs. journalists, print vs. web discussions.
a number of them (Anna's, Ferdy's, mine...) argued against what you said...
Actually, they didn't. You did, Delia. Because that is what you do.
I think Anna had this part right: "Back when I was a grad student, when I heard others speak respectfully of the knowledge & wisdom that amateurs in my field had accumulated over decades, I found it extremely threatening - I felt their expertise effectively devalued what (comparatively little) I knew. I'd be surprised if this wasn't the motivation for journos' dissing bloggers."
I have seen this myself in (some) NYU students reaction to Assignment Zero. I emphasize "some."
It's not that there isn't value for young journalists in paying your dues; there is. Anna's point was that the perception that some people aren't paying the same dues might explain curmudgeonly reactions-- and the young curmudgeons sometimes found in J-school. So if we are trying to understand those reactions this is one place to start.