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Can Blogs do Journalism? January 13, 2008

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Civic Media, Convergence, Essays, Journalism, News, Social Media, Trends, Web Video, YouTube.
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There’s a zero-sum flavor to the arguments of Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, at the Hugo Young memorial lecture in London. Misdiagnosing the threat facing media today, he warned that reliable news reporting is dwindling in the face of bloggers.

Dubbing the Internet a “media tsunami,” Keller flailed at blogs and pilloried sites like Wikipedia and Google News, insulting the Web products for not having things like foreign bureaus in war zones and because they don’t create content but aggregate it from other media.

“The civic labour performed by journalists on the ground cannot be replicated by legions of bloggers sitting hunched over their computer screens,” he declared. Hold it a sec. Google News and Wikipedia never claimed to be a news organization.

While the dinosaurs lay their last eggs and take swings at the new pamphleteers, perhaps we should revisit the history of The Press to remind ourselves why it exists. Perhaps at the top of their pyramids, old media dinosaurs fail to see that they have lost their monopoly on information.

Rather than being the sole source of information they once was, the press and TV are now part of a new information distribution structure. Content will always be king, and readers will go to wherever they can get the highest quality, most credible news. Good journalism is always in demand, whoever delivers it.

There is room for bloggers to contribute to the conversation. Instead of competing, bloggers and journalists should focus on good reporting. No model has worked so far. In a truly robust press, trained journalists and ordinary folks work to improve understanding of the communities. Professionals form the backbone with citizens in their various communities providing ideas, information, and old-fashioned legwork.

Well and good, problem is why would people offer time and knowledge to help out the journalists? The results of the Assignment Zero debacle portend the potential of citizen journalism. The concept of user-generated content is in danger of becoming a distraction from the real discussion about how professional journalism will navigate the rapids of technological evolution.

Steve Outing said recently in an item on the demise of his user content-powered Enthusiast Group, “I believe that what user content needs to succeed as a business is professional editors to be the ones to sift through it all to find the stuff that people will care about.”

Crowd sourcing works fine if you want to buy stuff and exchange verifiable info with peers in a Web forum. But news consumers want accurate, reliable, fair, credible, relevant and useful information which the citizen journalism model has yet to provide.

Michael Hedges notes in his Follow the Media post that citizen journalism, a term invented by accountants, is past its prime when listeners, viewers and readers lost interest in ‘reports’ from the 16-year old on the corner with a cell-phone camera:

Blogs, touted as giving voice to many, became, largely, ranters ranting to themselves or PR people posting the daily spin. Blog creation has peaked, wrote the Pew Research Center in a 2007 report. The successful became niche publishers, albeit of the traditional media model. The rest are just out there, hanging by the Web.

User-generated content is another concept designed to warm the accountants’ books. Couple it with the much vaunted social networking sites and zillions of web hits are created. All content may, indeed, be equal for 20 year old user/creators but an adult looking for knowledge and clarity is left empty. Unfortunately, sources for adults have evaporated into the dither of click-through ads

All said, is there a self-sustaining Website that actually practices journalism out there? Kara Swisher, who covers technology for the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital said this of Keller’s speech:

Actually, I think Keller’s real problem is the audience, especially young people, who are increasingly using those sites and others. The fact of the matter for an awfully long time now is that consumers of information are sampling all over the Web and don’t just rely solely on the New York Times for info.

That’s too bad for Keller, I guess, but not bad at all for consumers, who Keller never assumes are discerning at understanding what they are getting. But they are and are simply not a mass of dumb sheep just taking it all in and not questioning anything.

But I cannot imagine he lives in the present-day world when he claimed in the speech: “Most of the blog world does not even attempt to report. It recycles. It riffs on the news. That’s not bad. It’s just not enough. Not nearly enough.”

This is simply not true going forward, and he should have done some reporting on the subject to find out. There is an ever-increasing number of online outlets who are doing most excellent online reporting.

Read his full text here.

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