ETech Adjunct: Weblogs and Journalism…

02/09/2004

I’m watching the panel on the role of journalism as part of the Digital Democracy and it’s the first teach-in of the day that feels like a teach-in. Nonetheless, I’m not sure that I’m finding it terribly useful – probably because I’ve thinking about the issues from a slightly different perspective at the moment. Which reminded me that a few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Kabir Chhibber asking about my views of journalism and weblogs generally, which I responded to with a whole range of thoughts. I was thinking about neatening it up and presenting it online in a more clearly worked-through form, but perhaps this is as good a time as any… So what follows is a rather rough and badly-written assemblage of replies to a series of question. Take from it what you will:

First of all, could you reflect on the following two quotes by Salam Pax? Do you think they are acurate? How do have any experiences which demonstrate or contradict his statements?

‘I think that I can tell after this experience what, for me, is the difference between a journalist and a blogger is. A journalist has to actively run after things, a blogger just watches (and lives his life) and takes things as they come.’

Salam Pax is an insightful and courageous writer, but I think (as he says himself) he’s talking more about his own experience of being a weblogger rather than anything intrinsic to weblogging in general. Certainly it’s my belief that the vast majority of weblogs are a representation of a person’s voice and that-as such-what they write about will be about their opinions, experiences and the events that occur around them, but I don’t agree that it’s necessarily quite such a passive experience. There are webloggers – many webloggers – who at one or more points in their online lives have decided to investigate something in more depth and have become for a short period of time amateur (by which I mean ‘for the love’) journalists – seeking out information, researching material and running after things. In a sense, then, some are born journalists (Dan Gilmore, perhaps), some achieve the status of journalists, and many others have journalism thrust upon them.

“The point about blogging is that it has to be very personal. Bloggers, you always have to remember when you are reading them, do not act like journalists. You’re just talking about your life and your opinions. You’re not writing something for a big newspaper where someone is going to take it as fact. Always be suspicious.”

Again I can see what he means – and it’s representative of the vast majority of weblogs out there-but I don’t think it tells the whole story. Again I think it comes down to weblogs being representations of people. If you met someone in the street for the first time, you wouldn’t believe their opinions. But if you had built up a relationship with someone over time, you would evaluate how trustworthy they were, how much you believed them, what you thought of their opinions generally. It’s almost exactly the same thing that happens with the press – journalists get themselves associated with brands that say ‘we fact-check’ and ‘we have a reputation to protect’ because individuals have come to have a relationship with those brands ‘they have come to trust them over time. And yet how many of us would still take the word of a close friend who had seen the events first hand over the reportage in a newspaper?

I think it’s clear that there are differences between journalists and webloggers. The first main difference is that webloggers aren’t associated with a brand and with a support structure that is designed to communicate the idea that facts have been checked, that the journalist is trustworthy and that the news they are reporting is of legitimate interest. That’s the first function of professional organisation and it’s based on the fact that we can’t know the reputation, skill-set or expertise of every journalist that we might encounter in the world. To an extent of course, this is changing-knowing webloggers means that you can start to evaluate their expertise-but I think it’s unlikely that there’s any real threat of all professional journalists being deposed from their positions of authority by this tendency alone.

The second difference is a nice easy one. Organisations with money that can support a number of journalists can afford to provide access to a variety of different research tools that individuals don’t have at their disposal. At the moment of course individuals have more access to more information than ever before (via the internet) but there remain feeds of data that are simply outside the scope of individuals to get access to. This includes photo libraries, research databases and detailed archives. This may change in time too.

The third function of professional journalism that can’t be met by the weblogsphere is that it’s designed to deal with a massive scale differential between the number of SUBJECTS of news (small) and the number of people who could possibly want to ask them questions (enormous). By this I mean that not every journalist or weblogger in the land can go to a preview screening of a film, or be in the White House press room or talk to the police at a crime scene or be invited to product launches. These things have limited space available – they are journalistic bottlenecks. And these bottlenecks are resolved by selection – the most established and trustworthy journalists are invited to participate in these events because they can communicate to the largest amount of people. And that’s never going to change. We might see a few webloggers transition into celebrity – there’s no doubt that if this happens then they’ll end up invited into these kinds of gathering, but for the most part there’s always going to be a distinction between the masses and the few when it comes to one-on-one access to certain primary sources.

Your blog started off quite personal and has become more political as it (and you) developed. I have seen this in other blogs too. Why do you think this is?

Basically I think it’s a question of scale. Things you feel comfortable talking about to a small number of people feel more and more awkward when more people start reading your site – particularly when they start being people you know in a professional context. At a certain point you end up moving from writing about personal stuff into writing about things you care about. In my case that’s ended up being a mix of films, politics, social software and technology stuff. It’s still my voice, it’s just not talking about who I have or haven’t been dating.

What do you think about the current high-profile of weblogs? What kind of quality is out there – do you think it matches the NY Times or The Guardian?

I love the fact that weblogs have been getting such a lot of attention – and more particularly I like the fact that the bubble hasn’t burst yet despite frequent assurances by some nay-sayers that it would at any minute. People genuinely enjoy the ability to make their voice heard whatever the medium and even if they’re only talking to a few people with similar interests or aspirations.

I’m slightly nervous of the way the press treats weblogging, though. When journalists write pieces – particularly feature pieces – they’re not only trying to write something honest, they’re also trying to write something that people and editors will think is interesting. It’s a necessary flaw in mainstream journalism that means that writers are continually looking for the next big thing, or something enormous and surprising and transformative that they can present to their editors. And when they write the pieces they have to justify all that initial enthusiasm by producing a piece that explains why the thing they’re talking about is so very terribly interesting and important. I think weblogs have suffered from this a bit, as those journalists who like weblogs have written inflated and melodramatic pieces that then other journalists have then spent 400 words dismissing as rubbish. In the background-of course-webloggers just get on with it like normal, neither directly saving the world nor destroying it

When you have discussed big issues, like gay marriage and war with Iraq, what kind of responses have you gotten?

Very very mixed ones. Both of those have generally received responses that are measured and intelligent – whether they directly agreed with me or not. But a whole range of other people have responded very differently. When I said that a proportion of warbloggers seemed almost blood-thirsty in their need for war, dozens and dozens of sites started a competition called the Tom Coates Most Blood-Thirsty Warblogger Award in which they’d compete for the right to be the most vicious, and writing large tracts about what an ‘idiotarian’ I was and how stupid and weak my views and opinions were. It got down to the level of shouting abuse from them to the extent that I started to not write about politics at all. Considering that all the way through the Iraq war my main objective was to talk about the complexities of the issues rather than to back any side, I found that quite difficult to deal with. Some people take to that like a duck to water and find value in it, but just as often these little self-reinforcing circles of fury get completely out of hand.

Do you feel any need to be a journalist when talking about these things – be fair or objective? Or to discover the truth?

Personally I feel a great deal of pressure not to lie and a certain amount of responsibility to correct myself and apologise when I’ve made a mistake. I’m not sure I think it’s necessarily the responsibility of an individual weblogger to spend a lot of time researching their statements-sometimes it’s best to get initial impressions and throwaway thoughts-but I think that has to be left to the individual conscience of the individual. Again-it’s about establishing a relationship between weblogger and weblog-readers (who may be other webloggers)-and as such, unlike journalism where often the individual commentator is kind of effaced, it pays to put your cards on the table and be as open as possible. Let people understand where you’re coming from.

Do you write for an audience? As your audience grew, did you begin to feel any obligation to take their interests into account?

I am certainly aware of the fact that there are eyeballs out there that read what I write-sometimes it’s a lovely feeling, sometimes it’s a terrible thing. At times I feel a pressure to ‘perform’ that can be quite debilitating. And yes-I will scout around some issues rather than talk about them because I’m not prepared to get engaged in a long-term battle around them. But with regard to writing things because people want to hear about them, no-not really. I avoid some controversial areas that I don’t consider myself qualified to comment upon or wish to take considerable heat for, but otherwise I say what I want when I want. I don’t really think of them as an audience-they’re more like peers. I imagine most of the people who read my site have sites of their own, and that I’ll read many of theirs as well.

What role do you see for bloggers and journalists in the future? Will things like Insta-Pundit means journalists will be competing with their own audiences…?

As I’ve said, I think there are a few major differences between professional journalists and webloggers and what they’re able to accomplish. Certainly it seems that hard news material is unlikely to be replicable by the weblogging culture, and to be honest I’m more comfortable with that material being generated by these established organisations anyway. I see the role of webloggers being more of second-order journalism-the journalism that results in newspapers full of comment pieces and editorials, features and opinions. And those places are likely to be either heavily cannibalised by webloggery or to experience a renaissance of voices (because people will expect more varied opinions to be represented). That’s the area that webloggers excel in and where I think they act alongside news journalism-contextualising, correcting, editorialising and adding interpretation to it.