Blogging and journalism – reframing the debate

So I’m finally home after my trip to London for the London School of Economics’ debate about blogging and journalism, entitled The Fall and Fall of Journalism. I have an MP3 of very nearly the whole debate, but it’s 28meg and I’m not quite sure where to put it so I’ll blog again when I have figured that out. A number of people have blogged their notes already, from which I have drawn a few random excerpts – best to go read the originals for the full set of opinions.

Fellow panellist Leslie Bunder noted that John Lloyd of the Financial Times Magazine had taken a very traditional, old school point of view about the value and position of journalists compared to bloggers, but pointed out:

If you want to make a career for yourself in media, then having a blog is a good starting point. It shows you are being pro-active with writing. Also, why assume that just because you blog, doesn’t mean you can’t get scoops or access to information. A good blogger, like a good traditional journalist will get good stories if they put the effort into their reporting.

Mick Fealty from Slugger O’Toole made a good point about the fact that blogging has yet to reach the mainstream:

One member of the audience voiced concern over the provenance of the websites they encounter on the web. In other words, who is behind any given website and how do you know if can you trust them? This seems to go to the heart of the apparent discomfiture of both mainstream media and academia when confronted with what is still a fringe activity.

Jackie Danicki of the Big Blog Company took exception to John Lloyd’s comments about journalism being a ‘civic service’:

What I found somewhat disturbing about Lloyd’s comments later in the panel was his contention that traditional journalism is something of a civic service, and one that we should be very careful to preserve. This sentiment smacks of the current, hysterical cries coming from old media types who are far less aware than John Lloyd – the idea that journalists are the guardians of truth and that, to some extent, we should take a kid glove approach to this most holy of disciplines. The message is that those armed only with their own expertise and journalistic skills learned outside conventional bounds, never blessed with a sanctifying paycheck from an authorized credentials broker, should really not believe their own hype. Lloyd said – and I will give him the benefit of assuming he was joking – that traditional journalism is such a precious thing that we almost need a government-funded National Journalism Service, as Britain ‘needs’ (debatable) a National Health Service, to safeguard it.

She also didn’t like my use of the word ‘collective’, when talking about the way that bloggers cover a story. I think she thought I meant collective in the sense of a group of people deliberately collaborating on a project (a collective), rather than collective as in aggregated (collectively). The distributed conversations that make up the blogosphere do indeed, in my view, result in a collective hive mind, regardless of whether or not people are acting deliberately in concert or whether they are just chipping in with a bit of opinion off their own back.

Jackie’s account is very much worth reading, as it covers a lot of pertinent issues not discussed by the panel, due mainly to the format of the debate – questions were directed at individual panelists, so there wasn’t much room for real discussion.

David Brake was live blogging, and gives his comments on the debate in addition to a set of notes. Rob Andrews followed his lead and noted down some points live too.

Alistair Shrimpton of Six Apart was also there and I think makes an excellent point about putting journalistic and media-watch blogging into perspective:

Overall I believe this type of conference is hard to pull off. As Leslie Bunder said “Journalism is not blogging and blogging is not journalism” How true this is! There are tens of thousand of pass word protected family web logs, there are tens of thousands of corporate web logs, there are hundreds of nano publishing weblogs. Journalism is but a small part of the blogosphere and needs to be addressed in the context of a wider movement.

Finally, Louise Ferguson summarised the event as ‘a bit of a curate’s egg’ and was unhappy with the contribution of some of the panelists. She felt that we were ‘asked to respond to some fairly pointless questions’, leaving us limited room to communicate our own perspectives and develop any depth to the discussion.

Now you’ve read everyone else’s thoughts, here are mine.

The event was very interesting for me to be a part of on a number of levels, but also frustrating. This is only the second (well, third if you count ranting at Speaker’s Corner about copyright on Sunday) time I’ve done any public speaking on the subject of blogs so it was a great experience for me to be up there on the dais, attempting to think on my feet, recall relevant information and then communicate it in a coherent, interesting manner. It’s harder than it looks, primarily because the temptation is to slip into preparatory thought whilst other speakers are speaking, so I had to keep reminding myself to actually listen.

I’m not sure how many people were there, but I’d guess it was around 100. There were a good percentage of people there that I didn’t recognise, so it was nice mix of strangers and familiar faces in the audience.

My main disappointment, though, was that the talk rapidly focused on one very small part of the blogosphere, the political bloggers, and in my opinion discussion about whether or not all bloggers are right-wing politicos with hidden agendas just isn’t all that useful. John Lloyd’s rather dogmatic, defensive views about bloggers also didn’t strike me as particularly constructive. I had really hoped to explore more middle ground, but instead I found myself continually trying to find ways to counter his misunderstandings. I think this is probably at the root of some of Jackie’s misgivings regarding whether any of the panel knew what they were talking about or not because it meant we never got to anything all that meaty.

Lloyd obviously has a lot of valuable expertise about traditional journalism, but he didn’t seem to have really found out all that much about blogging. I spent a lot of time preparing for this debate, and it would have been nice if other people had done the same, rather than just turn up with a bunch of opinions and preconceptions. Ironic, considering some of the arguments, that the most bloggish blogger on the panel seemed to have done the most in-depth preparation.

(As an aside, I ended up with a mindmap the size of Canada by the time I’d finished my preparation, but most of my work went entirely unused, so I am going to attempt to find the time to put it together in a blog post or several over the next few weeks.)

I would have liked to have reframed the debate from ‘bloggers vs. journalists’ to ‘bloggers and journalists’, as there is much room for not just co-operation, but active collaboration and mutually beneficial learning. There are things that journalists and publishers could learn from the blogosphere, e.g. the links, the transparency, the richness of first person narratives. There are things that bloggers could do with learning from the best journalists, e.g. good research methods, thoroughness, balance. But as in any field, there are good and bad bloggers just as there are good and bad journalists, and we need to be looking at the best to establish good practice and the worst to establish how not to do it.

Another problem with the debate was that when one person takes an extreme viewpoint it lures anyone in opposition into making generalisations which results in sounding just as extreme, and one thing we can’t do with impunity is start generalising about ‘bloggers this’ and ‘journalists that’. For example, I do not believe that journalists have no place in modern media, nor do I believe that bloggers are going to replace them. That really should be fairly obvious, bearing in mind that I write for publications such as The Guardian, but it’s too easy to interpret the point that bloggers can be valuable sources of information as an implication that journalists are an anachronism or in some way useless, which it’s not.

There are so many situations where journalists are and always will be required, e.g. as when providing news to a deadline in a specific format for a specific publication or agency. (Bloggers are, by nature, writing in their spare time, not to order. If they were writing to order they’d be called journalists.) Investigative journalism is another area where bloggers would be hard pushed to make headway, simply because that sort of work takes time and resources that most people don’t have. Equally, the use of journalists as intermediaries is never going to change, and shouldn’t – you can’t open press conference to everyone because you’d never fit them all in the room, although letting in a few bloggers wouldn’t go amiss in my view.

And bloggers can do something journalists can’t always do – they can spend a lot of time and energy forking over a story and digging up background and information and little nuggets of data that can change the way a story is perceived. The rates that some news organisations pay means that in order to earn a decent living, journalists must turn stories around quickly. The desire for breaking stories 24/7 is leading us (some would argue, has already lead us) to a position where the news is quick and dirty, a situation which benefits no one. Bloggers are also free to give their own opinions, rather than toe the party line in the way that some journalists have to.

But this is all swings and roundabouts. What are we really saying here? Bloggers can do some stuff well, journalists can do some stuff well and, oh my god, there’s some stuff they can both do well. Or badly.

Is this news? No.

I was talking to Tom Coates about all this before I went up to London, and he was saying how tedious this discussion has become, and how he was having it years ago, and why haven’t we moved on? That’s a good question. I think the answer is that there are still not enough people (including but not limited to journalists) who truly understand blogs or their implications. There’s just too much defensive thinking, too many assumptions and not enough real communication. Blogging isn’t a difficult concept, it’s not complicated, but it does require an open mind and the willingness to explore.

I’d like to see another debate, a different, more constructive debate that includes people like Neil McIntosh from Guardian Unlimited, Mick Fealty from Slugger O’Toole and Michael Tippett from NowPublic (more on that soon) about how journalists, bloggers and their readers can all benefit from new technologies and citizen reporting, and how blogging is simply the tip of the iceberg.