Every single time I get asked by someone for my opinion on the whole “weblogs as journalism” thing, I give pretty much the same response. First things first – there are differences. That should be pretty obvious. One clear difference is that working for an established organisation or brand gives you access to the newsgathering machinery. By that I mean from the low-grade, cost-dependent things like being able to afford to get Reuters newsfeeds all the way up to the stuff that’s all about being ‘in the club’ – ie. everything from being invited to movie review screenings before the film is released through to being able to be present in the press room of the White House. These latter things work on the principle that it’s not possible to let all the world in to ask all the questions they might like, so there are representatives from the newspapers who ask those questions for them. Fair enough – to an extent that kind of thing is unlikely to be heavily democratised, and quite rightly so.
The other difference between weblogs and established mainstream journalism is in terms of the brand – and more importantly the mechanisms that are supposed to lie behind that brand. The trusted brand is supposed to reflect an organisation that makes sure its journalism conforms to good standards of fact-checking, that it is guaranteed to be professional, that it asks the questions that its readers want answered and that if it is not there is a space and a process whereby redress that can be made. This is what I normally argue when asked – that although there is a lot of overlap between mainstream journalism and weblogs (particularly around opinion pieces, editorials, reviews and … less fortunately … regurgitated press releases), there are some things that – for the most part – are done better by the professionals. Webloggery – as yet – cannot even think of competing with the professional newsgatherers.
Well that’s what I normally say anyway – despite the fact that absolutely anyone who’s ever been featured in a news story (or ever seen a news story about anything they actually know about) knows full well that journalists routinely seem to get quite important and easy-to-check facts wrong. Here’s today’s example in a piece about (what else) weblogging by Bill Thompson from the BBC: “All over for blogs?”. And the typically offending line?
“The earliest bloggers have been at it for two years now – how many days can someone keep on posting to their LiveJournal site, or visiting Blogger to add more details about their cat’s mysterious illness? ” [my emphasis]
Decent journalists, according to my training, when they put a date or a figure in their work are either supposed to check that figure and mark it as checked, or their sub-editors are supposed to check it for them, grudgingly and with a certain amount of irrtation. I don’t know where the gap in professionalism was that allowed this ‘two year’ figure to go to print, but I do know that it started with the person who wrote the damn article and should have checked in the first place.
The earliest webloggers have been going for two years, then? That should make me positively primordial, since I’ve been posting regularly since November 1999. Meg Meish in the UK was also posting around then, I believe. Cal Henderson and Matt Webb were both definitely posting regularly over three years ago. There were loads of other people across the UK and the US who started posting around or shortly after that time. And we’re all children compared to the long-haul people…
And what’s this? If you do a basic Google search for History of Weblogs you get seven articles about the origins of weblogs on the first page? And what do they say? That, “In 1998 there were just a handful of sites of the type that are now identified as weblogs (so named by Jorn Barger in December 1997). Jesse James Garrett, editor of Infosift, began compiling a list of ‘other sites like his’ as he found them in his travels around the web.” [Rebecca Blood] So that’s five years for certain – five and a half for certain if we include kottke.org (one of the most linked-to and visited weblogs on the internet). If we look further back, then Dave Winer started Scripting News in April 1997, a few months before the term ‘weblog’ was invented by John Barger of Robot Wisdom. So now we’re nicely over the six year mark – and with what? Thirty seconds worth of research?
So where does that leave us with weblogs vs. journalism? Well I still stand by my word – for the most part proper news gathering is better done by paid professionals with the budgets, access and accountability. There’s still space for professionalism. And as soon as I find that professionalism evidencing itself in the opinion section of the BBC News Technology supplement, I’ll let you know…