Journalists and Bloggers – Conflict or the Future of Media?

Can an enthusiast blogger generate the level of experience and credibility of a card-carrying journalist?

In part 2 of our series on journalism, newspapers, and the new media, we look at a comparison of bloggers and professional journalists.  The question, recently voiced with strong emotion by David Simon (film producer and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun), asks whether or not bloggers can adequately research and write on topics traditionally reported on by professional journalists.

In a powerful speech given to the National Press Corps in Washington DC, Simon expressed concern that the art of reporting, performed by professional journalists, is being lost.  This is partly the result of local newspapers being shut down, or with local news being replaced by wire service content. 

Professional journalists and reporters spend years developing their skills, personal networks and sources, and are able to dig into stories at a level not possible by a casual or enthusiast blogger.  In addition, the reporter has editors and the media institution behind him, providing not only support, but also a professional team to ensure facts are straight and good form is maintained.

A blogger, in general, does not need to walk a beat, develop a core of informants and news resources, and in most cases will post their blog without any 3rd party or professional editing.  Fact checking and topical accuracy are not as important as blogging frequency and search engine optimization.

Rick Daysog, reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser is not as pessimistic as Simon.   While he agrees good journalism requires a lot of “gumshoeing,” he also believes there is a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge within the blogging community.  Daysog also believes there are many people who are “very good writers, but do not fall into an institutional framework.” 

This could be based on prior experience, or they have specialized skills in niches that a typical journalist might not be able to comprehend or effectively present in print.  Reviewing the Honolulu Advertiser website, there are no less than 50 featured blogs where professional and registered local bloggers discuss topics ranging from sports, to entertainment, to business news, to lifestyles.

As blogging and immediate access to news and web pages further evolves, we will need to accept the reality that blogging does come with some compromise.  We will see spelling errors, grammatical errors, and style errors.  We will need to assume anything we read cannot be consumed with 100% confidence, as there is no fact checking, forcing non-institutional blog consumers to assume a credibility margin of error.

Bloggers reporting on events, such as a school board meeting, may be able to record the event as a binary image.  Recording events forces you to believe in everything you see, and accept that as a reality.

In the Army, deception is nearly as important as reality.  You want to present a strength, weakness, or condition to a potential enemy, while masking the real information behind a façade.  Directly recording an event presents a similar danger.  While a non-professional recorder can make a tape, snap a picture, and transcribe the event into a blog, and professional reporter will probably approach the same event differently.

The professional reporter will develop resources, ask many “why?”  questions, play dumb to get the actors to open up and go into teaching mode, or simply drill into the facts to audit accuracy.  Then he will match information developed with the event he recorded, and the result will be a new story.  All with the advantage of professional editing and compliance with style.

As a police investigator may believe that crime witnesses are not credible, as they lack professional observation skills, the blogger may be considered a recorder of events and commit similar errors.

So the burden is on us – the blog reader, to determine if what we are reading is meeting our information needs.

In the next segment of this series we will explore the idea of paid .vs unpaid journalism, and the value of information.

John Savageau, Long Beach

The Death and Life of Newspapers and Journalism

The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Tribune Company (owner of LA Times and KTLA) are all recent examples of traditional media on the brink of closure. 

Circulation is down more than 30% at the Boston Globe since 2000, which is only representative of a trend hitting the print media market – people avoid buying newspapers if the news they need is online.

The online world of journalism and blogging is generally free, forcing media companies to deal with two sticky issues:

1. How to make money online
2. How to live in a world where everybody on the internet can become a blogging journalist

David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and current producer of mini-dramas such as “The Wire,” believes: 

“…the only hope for major news outlets to find a way to collaboratively impose charges for reading online, and to demand fees from aggregators such as Google News, which profit from their journalism. “

Simon goes on to make the analogy that in the past, all television was put up for free.  Most television revenues were produced by advertising in commercial spots scattered throughout normal broadcasting in the form of frequent commercials.

While free television is still around for local broadcast channels, a majority of Americans pay monthly fees to cable companies which not only give many more options to viewers, but also provide much more in-depth specialized reporting such as cable news, financial news, government news, and other non-broadcast channels.  Simon continues:

“If you don’t have a product that you’re charging for, you don’t have a product,” he says. “If you think that free is going to produce something that’s as much of a cost centre as good journalism – because it costs money to do good journalism – you’re out of your mind.” (The Guardian)

As local and regional newspapers fall to the attraction or need of selling out to large conglomerates such as Gannet, NewsCorp, and the Tribune Company, more changes are implemented which have a huge impact on local news. After acquisition, many newspapers are forced to reduce staff, offering packages to reporters – often reporters with the most experience.

Local articles and journalism also begins being gradually replaced by news service content (such as Associated  Press and Reuters).  All content of course that is already available online – and for free. 

While the local newspapers may take a stab at producing an online version of their news, this is difficult, as mashup sites like Yahoo and Google carry the same content, as well as many other value-added services for readers.  This may even include a newsfeed directly from the local newspaper, further diluting the value of the newspaper’s print and online versions.

Once local content becomes part of a mashup, the local online edition will lose whatever advertising revenue may have been on the home site, accelerating potential financial crisis for the local company.

Rick Daysog of the Honolulu Advertiser believes that newspapers must change to both understand and embrace new media.  People are online, and they want to take advantage of all opportunities to be informed. 

Hawaii may be a special case, as there are two competing newspapers (The Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star Bulletin).

“The local news is very complex,” say Daysog.  As a reporter you “have to compete in the local market, and that competition is in reporting the local news.”

Readers in Hawaii look to online wire services for national and global stories, and buy one of the local newspapers “because people in Hawaii are interested in what is happening at home.”

The Long Beach Press-Telegram follows a similar model.  While the LA Times produces a global news product with LA and California features, the Long Beach Press-Telegram is focused on delivering news highlighting Long Beach and surrounding communities.  National and international news is limited to a couple pages, and some  news in the sports section.

For the same reasons, the Long Beach press-Telegram continues to survive because they know their readers, and provide a product relevant to residents and those interested in the community.

Once a newspaper falls under the umbrella of a large media company, the chance of losing that local touch declines, as veteran reporters move on to other careers.  David Simon explains you are left with a model “such as USA Today, which boils down local news to one or two paragraphs.”

Daysog remains optimistic about the future of journalism and local news.  He is positive about technology, and lays the burden of change on the media companies. 

He cites the example of society pages in the old newspapers.  “Long gone, but I frequently read through the society pages in Honolulu newspapers from the 20s and 30s, and see how much change has occurred in past 30 years.  In the 20s, people were actually interested in what clothes a local debutant might wear.  Today’s readers have a very different requirement.”

The Internet is not going away, and the news industry simply needs to creatively apply themselves to using the tools a global Internet-enabled provides, and develop news models of using that technology to build sustainable value to the news industry.

Next in this series – the conflict and roles of journalists -vs- bloggers.

John Savageau, Long Beach

Rick Daysog is a staff writer with the Honolulu Advertiser.  Interview for this article conducted via telephone on 9 June 2009.

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