Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why New Media Doesn't Suck as Badly as Old Media Thinks

I read a column by Dan K. Thomasson earlier this week entitled "All the News Fit to Tweet?".  Although I frequently read his work, and usually like it, I could see where he was going with this right off the bat.  This was going to a be a "shut up, stupid internet" column.  I've seen this before.  It wasn't too long ago that Juan Williams, another reporter who I have great respect for (why do people say that just before they're about to take a swipe at you?), snarkily implied that Michelle Malkin  (whose work I also frequently enjoy reading) was just a blogger, not a real reporter.  The tone of Dan Thomasson's article is similar to this.

Now I want to be clear that I'm not trashing the whole column.  Most of the column is dedicated to mourning the loss of four great journalists who died over the past year or so.  They were David Broder, Jim McCartney, Bill Raspberry, and Jim Naughton.  We lost some greats, and his column is primarily an homage to them.  But his column also implies that the next crop of reporters is incapable of taking over where they left off.  I don't buy it. 

Here's where he went wrong in the column, I think:

It is hard to imagine how reporting on public affairs has been enhanced by the art of blogging or tweeting without the benefit of measured thought or the vetting of facts. But that is the future, God help us, of a profession once proudly dedicated to the proposition that the best defense of liberty is an informed populace. All the news that's fit to tweet – you have to be kidding.
The first sentence seems provably false.  Bloggers made their way into the media spotlight by ... vetting facts.  That's blogger patient zero - the fact checker.  Bloggers are not necessarily reporters by trade.  This frequently is a benefit.  For example, a reporter may misspeak about a matter of law, medicine, or finance.  When that happens, a blogging lawyer, physician, or financier can correct them.  After all, these professionals are experts in their fields.  The reporter isn't necessarily.  Bloggers can actually add something that regular reporters can't, because they may have greater knowledge on certain subjects.  And people like this are quite capable of "measured thought."

Bloggers like this may not be typical.  I understand that the blogosphere may be primarily a cacophony of uninformed voices.  I don't know this for certain, but I've seen some ignorant blog posts.  Even if dumb bloggers aren't typical, they're common enough.  But I don't see it as a problem, merely a stage of evolution.  This is because I know how the print press got started in this country. 

There was a time where the print press was just any random jackass with a printing press.  This goes back to colonial times.  These early journalists came in all forms: biased and unbiased, liberal and conservative, smart and stupid, sane and crazy.  Some of the early papers were not news so much as propaganda.  Like many blogs, these early newspapers frequently lacked credibility.  But from that early chaos, a few great ones emerged.

These days, a blog can be started by any random jackass with bandwidth.  Also known as...any random jackass.  Everyone has access to bandwidth.  Seriously, I've seen homeless people in internet cafes.  Although they could have just been hipsters.  It's hard to spot the difference.  Anyone can start a blog, and there are plenty out there.  Blogging is still in its infancy, and has the potential to develop into something that can enhance mass media.  In some ways it already has, but the jury's still out.

Tweeting is a different animal.  Many tweets are just sound bites, and they can exacerbate the sound bite culture of the media.  Sound bites were a problem long before tweeting, and we don't want to make it worse.  Other tweets are just mini-rants.  Bill Maher once referred to tweets as "brain-farts", and I think these are the tweets he was talking about.  Tweets aren't long enough to capture big ideas and they're far too short to be considered "measured thought." 

Fortunately, most bloggers and online reporters that I see tweeting don't use them in either of these ways.  Most of the tweets I see are from columnists and news websites with the title of a new piece and a link to follow to the site.  This is just the e-commerce equivalent of a newspaper boy standing on a corner yelling "Extra! Extra!  Read all about it!"  There's nothing offensive about that kind of tweet.  It's just the 21st century incarnation of a practice that's as old as the business.

Occasional condescension from newspaper reporters is unavoidable.  When television journalism first came out, newspaper reporters didn't consider it real reporting.  Now that internet journalism exists, both print and television reporters occasionally turn up their noses.  This isn't unique to journalism.  When movies first came out, theater actors thought it was crap.  Movie actors frequently think themselves better than television actors.  But these are just stages of evolution for the acting profession.  So too are newspapers, television, and the Internet stages of evolution for media.

So relax, Dan-o.  I know that there is a fear that internet reporters don't necessarily do the same type of in depth reporting that newspapers do.  Maybe they don't.  At least not yet.  But as long as there is a demand for that type of reporting, bloggers will adapt to meet that demand.  I miss the likes of David Broder, Jim McCartney, Bill Raspberry, and Jim Naughton as well.  But the new crop of reporters, even if most of them are bloggers, will fill their shoes.  It may be messy and ugly for a while.  Evolution is like that.  But eventually, I believe, it will mature into something that can inform the public as well as any newspaper.

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