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Friday, September 30, 2005

The whole blogging bites journalism thing has sprung again if you're A) a really arrogant blogger who B) loves reading things that probably aren't there into events. Check and check. So let's proceed. You may have heard about "Black Tuesday," the 1929 stock market crash that sent thousands sailing off rooftops and the nation into the Great Depression. If you haven't, now you have. It's a seminal moment in American history.

Or maybe it's the recent announcement that the New York Times and a couple Philadelphia papers are laying off about 600 workers between them, if you pay attention to online media about newspaper media. Perplexing to me, this nomenclature, since the ~600 workers make hardly a blip in the greater scheme of things. It seems, er, somewhat grandiose. The NYT is laying off approximately 4% of its staff--hardly a world-ender on the order of countless plant closings that have rifled through the rust belt over the past forty years. That's what happens when the economy shifts. When the flagship starts taking on water I suppose you sit up and notice, though. (Hopefully Warren St. John's position as staff dreamboat/author extraordinaire is secure.)

The reasons for the layoffs are clear: circulation is declining, ad revenue is declining, and readership is declining. What I haven't seen discussed in the multiple soul-searching tracts that have sprouted on the Internets since "Black Tuesday" is where it's going. I'm not going to be so completely insane as to say that blogs have anything to do with it, but that doesn't prevent people worried about the unedited masses from proffering dismissive, defensive snark.

So it's an interesting time for Bill Simmons, who I've previously called a blogger in spirit, and Chuck Klosterman, a writer at Esquire and Spin, to fire a broadside at us plebes getting our hate on. First Klosterman:

What will be interesting about the coming generation of people (at least if you're a writer) is that they will have a twisted concept of what the word "media" is supposed to mean. A term you hear people use a lot these days is "New Media," which really just means, "Electronic Media, Minus the Actual Reporting." This is what the Internet is, mostly. I constantly see all these media blogs that just link to conventional "Old Media" articles and pretend to comment upon them, but they add no information and no ideas. They just write, "Oh, look at this terribly archaic New York Times story. Isn't it pathetic?" But that sentiment is being expressed by someone who's never done an interview and has no tangible relationship to journalism. It all seems kind of uncreative. My favorite blog was always, but I think the dude who wrote it went on some kind of sabbatical.

New Media will never replace Old Media, because New Media couldn't exist without Old Media; they would have nothing to link to. But the net result is that all people are starting to assume that the media is inherently useless and that there is absolutely no difference between news and entertainment. This will make the coming generation even more cynical than the current one, which is mostly bad (but not necessarily tragic).
(Semantic aside: Klosterman has a twisted, narrow view of what the world "media" means. Blogs are media: "means of public communication reaching a large audience." Large is relative. I'm not large, but I'd say that Instapundit or Kos is large.)

What a strange and arrogant verb he uses when he says that bloggers "pretend" to comment on the stories they link to, and then to follow it up by asserting that we add "no information and no ideas," which is totally absurd on its face. How can I assert this? Well, people read blogs, don't they? How many people regularly read things that offer no information and no ideas (other than Drew Sharp columns)? I've seen blogs that are nothing but links to articles; they're generally not heavily trafficked because of the information and ideas thing. Let's just say that bloggers aren't the only ones capable of largely ignorant assertions about things they don't really understand.

I think Klosterman errs in making a gigantic generalization that the entire "media" consists of "Actual Reporting." The mainstream equivalent of the specific purview of this blog, sports, contains almost no Actual Reporting, if by that you mean "finding something out that's not completely obvious." Most sports reporting is a commodity. Anyone who watched the game can write a recap. Anyone who went to the press conference can pull a few quotes and weave a story out of it--and what a story it is. I've read them all a hundred times before. I understand and appreciate that someone like Bruce Feldman gets something useful by talking to coaches and I get something useful by reading his blog because of it, but there's a price to pay. More on that later. Now Simmons:
I liked your point about New Media. Everyone keeps talking about the Blog Revolution, but what does that even mean? If you were in film school and wanted to make movies for a living, would you create a movie from scratch, or would you just make documentaries about other filmmakers and how much they stunk? You'd make the movie from scratch, right? Well, what's the point of writing about people who write about sports/movies/politics/music if you're not backing up your words with your own columns or features? How do you have credibility then? I could write for a living, I just choose to rip everyone else. What? How does that make sense? What's the ultimate goal there? Why not come up with your own material, angles and thoughts? Wouldn't that be more rewarding? How do you get better? That's what I don't understand.

I'm not killing all blogs here -- some of them are useful because they find me stories that I couldn't find on my own, and some of their comments or features make me laugh and think. When the goal is to keep everyone on their toes, have some fun, provide an alternate take on things and remain at least somewhat objective, that's great. If you're using a blog to constantly ream everyone else, that's depressing. Also, how can we have so many libels/slander laws in place for newspapers, and yet the Internet is like the Wild West? People can steal material, slander people, rip them to shreds, make up news ... I mean, you can get away with anything now. Do you know how many times an NBA Web site reported having sources that confirmed some trade that ended up never happening? It was embarrassing. I could go on about this forever.
Isn't it clear that the only times these guys read blogs is when they run across them during their obsessive self-googling sessions (NTTAWWT, I've done it--it's totally easy when you make up your own word)? Jay Rosen's latest post sums this mentality up exactly:
Media people want to believe in the figure of the “who cares if its true?” blogger, the one who will run anything, who has no editorial standards, who can be duped or dupes others. The image still tends to dominate their imagination, perhaps because it puts the most distance between what bloggers do and what they do.
Here we see it in action. Yeah, 90% of blogs are crap. It's Sturgeon's Law, and there's a lot of venting there, but this passage from Simmons is indefensible. A blogger is not a message board poster, largely anonymous and indistinguishable from the rest of the chatter on the board. I have a reputation--a brand even--that goes under that banner at the top and whatever trust I have I had to earn by not being completely useless and have to maintain by not slandering people. The major difference between myself and a newspaper is that I don't get the accumulated credit anyone writing under the imprimatur of an established media organization does, but increasingly neither does anyone else.

Not to mention that Simmons--who hasn't exactly done any investigative reporting on Page 2 unless it's an experimental look into how many Daniel LaRusso references he can pack into 4,000 words (8,000, it turns out) and implies that certain announcers should be stricken with throat cancer in every NBA column he writes--is the last person who should be dissing the "Electronic Media Without the Actual Reporting" wing of media, since he is its undisputed king. And that's fine. It's great, even. Sports reporting is overrated. Access is useful in some ways but it's a handcuff as well. All you have to do is wander over to the Wolverine or GBW to see its neutering effects. I mean no offense to either site, but what criticism exists is highly muted because they rely on access that can be taken away if they were to publicly call for people's heads on a pike. And even though I haven't called for bepiked heads and I probably never will, since I've nothing to lose you know it's because this is the way I actually think--and if you want some blood there are places you can get blood.

This thinking sort of swirled around in my head when Boi From Troy sent out an email soliciting ideas about how bloggers can get the same sort of access that your mainstream media types do. I realized that I didn't want access. I couldn't add anything that the professionals at the local newspapers or GBW or The Wolverine couldn't with access. I'd hear the same things, be denied the same interviews, and sit in the same press conferences. I'd also write the same articles, because access corrupts. Absolute access corrupts absolutely. I'm not one of those malcontents who believe GBW and The Wolverine to be the functional equivalents of Pravda, but it's undeniable that there are things they can't say because their access is their major selling point.

Since I don't have access, I've got to come up with another selling point, a way to differentiate myself from the rest of the Michigan sports media world. This is venting and snark in some portion, but not in whole. It appears that it's mostly bigass tables... bigass tables that you'll never see in a newspaper because instead of seeing with their own eyes they're listening to what someone else tells them.

As I've said before: I'm not a journalist; that's the point. This is now an acronym: IANAJTTP.

(The Mighty MJD also tackled this subject thoughtfully here.)