Here we go again...not that bloggers vs journalists debate
Yesterday I asked the question whether you could trust a media blogger, looking at my own account of Adrian Monck's recent book launch. The answer, that I hoped people did trust my account, and that I expect I have a much stronger relationship with my limited band of readers than many mainstream broadcasters or journalists can have, revived the age-old journalists vs. bloggers debate.
At Adrian Monck's "Can you trust the media" event, Andrew Gilligan said that 'even if everybody on the Internet wanted to be a journalist, they couldn't be". There still seems to be an assumption amongst 'proper' journalists that anyone who blogs is doing so because they want to be a journalist. This is demonstrably untrue.
Not every blogger wants to be a journalist
As I said yesterday, one of the problems with new media we have as a culture at the moment is that we have a new model of communication that we are unused to. We are familiar with the one-to-one model, and if you end up listening to one side of a mobile phone call on a train you don't expect it to be anything other than innane. And we are used to the one-to-many model, which traditional publishers and broadcasters have been based on for centuries. But we are not terribly familiar with the one-to-some or 'famous for fifteen people' model.
The growth of online 'fanfic' is a classic example of a niche activity that used to be confined to bedroom diaries or fanzines with limited distribution. Now it flourishes because the network effect amplifies and connects the number of people doing it. It is just one example of many types of content that the Internet has enabled, which has little or nothing to do with journalism.
Journalists don't have a monopoly on 'journalistic' skills
Listening to some journalists talking about the unique and sacred tools of their profession, you'd think you needed a degree in events management in order to attempt to get together the proverbial pi$$-up in the brewery.
Of course journalists bring a set of skills to their work, but bloggers bring a diverse and over-lapping range as well. Students of English will be aware of 'tone' and 'register' when writing, whilst profession copy writers will bring a keenly honed directness of expression.
My academic background is in studying history, and I've spent years assessing and comparing different sources and accounts of the same event in order to synthesize stories. I do much the same now when writing about distant sporting or technology events - collecting an array of accounts, finding pictures, trying to draw parallels or contrasts with current events, all packaged in a way that I hope is interesting to someone who lands on the page.
Journalists are not domain 'experts'
More often than not journalists are writing outside their area of expertise. I've never read, for example, a story about the development of search engines in the mainstream media that comes anywhere close to the reporting and analysis of the industry that you get on SearchEngineLand or amongst the community at Sphinn.
Which is fine - because the purpose of the mainstream media is to get a range of informative content before a generalist audience. However, it also means that journalists are completely wrong when they argue, as Gilligan did last week, that the audience cannot pluck their own news out of the 'cloud of news' available on the web. He said that argument was 'bo||o%k$'. Actually, for the search engine industry, it is regularly the mainstream media that publishes misleading and factually incorrect article after article after article. Now, that is bo||o%k$.
"When I write [a blog] post, I know more about that particular topic than the average person who’s going to read it. But I don’t know more about the particular topic than some of the people reading it - so if I can get them to contribute then everyone (me and the other readers) will have benefited. (And of course if I don’t know more, or suspect I don’t know more, than the average reader, I should go away and find out some more until I do.)"
New media doesn't 'end' journalism - but it certainly changes the game
Is new media a 'threat' or an 'opportunity' for media organisations?
Well, it is certainly a threat to their business model, but it is also a tremendous opportunity. Robin Hamman's work trying to automatically extract eyewitness account and pictures of explosions and bombs from across the Internet is just one example of the potential for mainstream media to get amazing footage and first-hand accounts fast and for free. You don't need to despatch a three-man crew to cover the space where an event happened, because the chances are someone will have captured it on their mobile phone.
Meanwhile, initiatives like MY Sun cost money to set up, but enrich the media's online output with a truer reflection of the audience's voice, and provide some free content along the way. It is also true that new media provides a tremendous opportunity to waste money and fail. The BBC's Action Network has apparently cost £1.3m, and has been totally out-flanked by grass roots use of freely available tools that were niche or difficult to use when iCan was conceived. The Telegraph's new innovation hothouse will no doubt also produce some misses as well as hits.
The cherry-picking examples syndrome
When journalists talk about the nobility and immense social value of their profession, they always point to incisive investigative journalism over things like Watergate or WMD. They never point to the Meerkats or Giant Sharks or miracle-growing fingers. They judge their profession by the highest standards it can reach.
Conversely, people looking to say that new media and citizen contributions to news-gathering are of little value point to some ramblings on 'Have Your Say', blogs about kittens, crackpot conspiracy theorists and angry gun freaks.
Of course the 'quality' of blogging is variable, but I compare the situation with that of the development of recorded music. If you wanted to be a musician before the advent of recorded sound, you had to find someone to teach you. You had to rigorously learn written notation in order to understand whether you had played something 'correctly' or not.
The advent of recorded sound changed that. You could, without needing a teacher, repeatedly listen to a performance and try and copy it. That meant that you got lots of people, me included, playing the guitar really badly in their bedrooms. But, as a result, you also got The Sex Pistols and Joy Division.
Just because some blogs are inarticulate, splogs, are about pet cats, or are simply boring, doesn't mean the format itself is without value. Or that it is exclusively populated by wannabe journalists.
Tomorrow I'm going to start articulating why I think the development of the newspaper industry has a lot in common with the development of the movie industry, but how their reactions to new media have differed - putting movies in a better position to survive than newspapers.