Sunday, May 13, 2007

Some thoughts on journalists and the blogosphere.

Daily Kos via truthbus: Some thoughts on journalists and the blogosphere.

...I was struck by this comment, containing the following quote:

You're going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I'm up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn't left the efficiency apartment in two years" — Brian Williams, anchor of the "NBC Nightly News," speaking before New York University journalism students on the challenges traditional journalism faces from online media.

Well, that's obviously pretty annoying and insulting on its face. But it should be noted, of course, that we're guilty of some of the same generalizations. Every time we issue sweeping indictments against "the Mainstream Media," we do the same sort of injustice to most working journalists. So, OK: Sorry.

Here's the thing, though. Journalists are, I think, by the nature of their business, limited in their ability to bring a mass audience "the Truth" in doses sufficient for everyone. What I mean is that they're limited in several critical ways, most of which are beyond their control:

  1. Personal knowledge/understanding/expertise in ever-changing subject matter -- they are, of necessity, generalists
  2. Space constraints -- even if they wanted to report on every intricacy, most traditional media don't have the time or space for it
  3. Deadline pressures -- even if they knew everything there was to know and had the time/space for it, they couldn't get it all done by 5pm

This list, too, is a generalization. It's obviously not going to be true of all journalists. But it describes what I think are some of the key constraints of the trade which don't exist in the same form for bloggers, and which I think contributes to the ongoing tension between them. While bloggers are also often generalists, there are no commercial pressures requiring that they maintain a capacity for general subject matter. The other two restraints on traditional journalists simply don't exist at all for bloggers. There are no space limitations, and there are no deadlines. And as a result, bloggers can go into excruciating detail on their chosen subject matter (and it is their chosen subject matter -- no assignments from editors to unwanted stories), and keep after it forever. That can have the effect of turning them into experts, in the best cases, or extraordinarily verbose idiots, in the worst.

But I think that Williams' comment, even taken in the best possible light, misses one of the most fascinating things about the online revolution, that being that you no longer can be sure from just what corners of the known universe you'll find insight and expertise. The two-way nature of online publishing now reveals the mysteries of what's going on inside the previously anonymous and silent audience's heads. These thoughts, of course, were always present in the minds of readers. But never before have the professional journalists who inspire those thoughts really been able to know what they were. Letters to the editor? Please!

And so it has come to pass that the Brian Williamses of the world now have to hear from the Vinnys of the world. Only, here's the catch: what if Vinny has spent those two years inside his efficiency in the Bronx studying (after his fashion) the very issue that Williams put in -- say, to be generous -- a whole week researching?

Have you ever read, seen, or heard a mainstream media account of some event in which you've been personally involved? Or in which you have developed, under whatever circumstances, some sort of expertise? Ninety-nine times out of hundred, people with that sort of personal or specialized knowledge of the events covered will come away with some sort of substantial complaint about the quality of the coverage. Now, much of that is attributable to the three major restrictions, listed above, under which journalists are typically working. The reality is that those restrictions often make it impossible for their understanding or relating of those events to stand up to your own. But for a general audience, it is often more than sufficient.

Why, though, should the general audience settle for "sufficient?" Or perhaps more to the point, why should audience members with specific knowledge of the nuances, shortcomings, omissions, etc. have to settle for it, or keep it to themselves? As I said above, the Internet and the blogosphere now make it impossible to predict with certainty where true expertise lies. The traditional assumption that expertise -- or at least its approximation -- has its locus around a podium and a bank of microphones in the Capitol, or the editorial boards of major newspapers, or around a passed platter of hors d'oeuvres at some soiree in Georgetown is being challenged by a model in which the net is cast far wider. While Williams' complaint has merit, and we may indeed haul in a lower percentage of "keepers," we are also finding that we are catching them in greater numbers.

Who, for instance, among the battery of professional journalists sent to cover the Scooter Libby trial was able to do so with such thoroughgoing knowledge and insight as the business consultant from Ann Arbor, Michigan, known as "emptywheel?" To this day, there is simply no one on the planet with the offhand command of the facts surrounding the case that she has. Certainly Brian Williams comes nowhere close. And yet he'd have emptywheel pigeonholed with Vinny in the Bronx.

I'm not sure exactly what the point of these observations actually is, but hey, that's my prerogative as a blogger. And if I'm no more clear-headed in my conclusions, nor advanced the ball any further than your average pundit's weekend brain dump, then so be it.

The good news is, you have a forum to tell me what a waste of time this has been. And I count that as a good thing on a slow Saturday afternoon.

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