December 17th, 2007

Can Blogs Do Journalism?

by

On the face of it, the question of whether blogs can do journalism is absurd — like asking whether sites published on Vignette can do journalism. A blog, after all, is just a content management system — revolutionary because it made web-native publishing free and easy for anyone — but at the end of the day still just a CMS.

So it would seem the answer to the question is an emphatic YES — IF the blog CMS is used by a journalist. Saul Hansel is one of the “bloggers” for The New York Times Bits blog, and I don’t think anyone would question whether Saul is a journalist, or that lowers his standards when he switches from the New York Times print newspaper to its blog CMS, ergo, blogs CAN do journalism.

To me, the more salient questions is whether the blog platform — which, as a web-native CMS, is more powerfully connected the online content ecosystem — will be used by more journalists. And whether more bloggers will start to do what can fairly be considered journalism. Which of course begs the uber-question of what is journalism.

Last week, I decided to accept one of the dozen daily PR pitches I get and do some interviews of a company’s clients — but with the intent getting past the marketing copy and really drilling down to find a STORY, i.e. an original set of facts that were worthy of being placed in a larger context and REPORTED. I’m still doing that reporting, so we’ll see how well I fair. (Look out for that post soon.)

And it seems that I’m not the only blogger interested in exploring a more journalistic use of the blog platform. Nick Denton set out to hire a journalist to be the new editor of Gawker.com, along with a journalist reporter. Jeff Jarvis called this, tellingly, “going to the bench.”

Here’s how Nick framed the shift towards journalism in his post listing the editor position:

It’s no longer enough to take stories from the New York Times, and add a dash of snark. Gawker needs to break and develop more stories. And the new managing editor will need to hire and manage reporters, as well as bloggers. Gawker.com receives more than 10m pageviews per month. Think of Gawker less as a blog than as a full-blown news site. The right candidate will oversee Gawker’s evolution.

And this from the reporter job listing:

At its most basic, the reporting may at times be little more than value-added blogging: a story in the news, put in context with a quick Nexis search, and deconstructed. At its most elevated, the new Gawker hire may experiment with a new form of reporting, unique to online, in which ideas are floated, appeals made to the readers, and the story assembled over the course of several items, from speculation, and tips from users.

And the qualifications:

  • At least two years of experience as a reporter at a daily or weekly newspaper, covering either crime news, business, or media and culture (yes, a print background is an advantage).
  • Ability to write five short items a day, some one-offs, some to further an ongoing campaign or investigation.
  • A reporter who appreciates the discipline of newspaper traditions, but chafes under them.
  • A natural gossip who loves the story and, even more, the story behind the story.
  • familiarity with blogging software, RSS readers and graphics editing tools a big plus.

What’s most interesting is Denton’s merger and of the “old” and the “new,” his clear intent to develop a web-native form of journalism to distribute on a web-native CMS.

By web-native, by the way, I mean that out of the box most blogging software has:

  • RSS – distributed content is arguably the most fundamental form of web-native publishing
  • Trackbacks – natively connects blogs via automatic links to related posts
  • Permalinks – facilitates and encourages linking, the fundamental way of connecting web content
  • Inline links – believe it or not, many news organizations still use a CMS that makes it difficult to embed links in content
  • Categories/tags – an article can be in multiple “sections” of the publication, not just one
  • Comments – because on the web it’s a “conversation,” don’t you know

Brian Stelter, another New York TImes journalist/blogger, did some original reporting on Gawker’s tilt towards journalism, including interviewing another Gawker Editor:

Maggie Shnayerson, the associate editor of Gawker.com, said the transition from gossip blog to news-oriented site was a natural one. “If you own a business in an industry that changes every minute, you always have to look at what you’re doing,” she said.

Since many news organizations are too busy focusing on the us vs. them polemic with blogs, it makes sense that someone like Nick Denton would have to step into the vacuum — which traditional news organizations so often create in failing to boldly experiment with new forms, because they appear to threaten the old. Well, that experimentation, and the resulting evolution, is going to happen with or without them — but I think journalism would be much better served it happened with them.

Anyone who still thinks that it’s constructive to focus on drawning distinctions between “blogging” and “journalism,” rather than seeing a blog as a platform to evolve the practice of journalism, would be well advised to heed Maggie Shnayerson.

  • What an interesting post you've written. It's certainly sparked some great discussion.

    However, as a consumer of media, I think there are some additional qualifications I'd like to see in a journalist blogger than what Gawker is looking for.

    In my dream world, I'd love for blogging journalists, as well as journalists who work in other media, to adhere to the following:

    1) Understand the difference between reporting and writing an editorial. Be upfront about which you are doing.
    2) If what you're giving me is in print and it's supposed to be a news story, please use the standard news format. Give me the who, what, where, when, and why in the first paragraph and then tier down. In this way, I can glean the facts quickly or peruse the story at my leisure, depending on what my schedule allows.
    3) Research your topic and get bona fide quotes. Don't repeat something that's going around the Internet blog-o-sphere without checking its credibility for yourself.
    4) Always present a counter-source. Even if you're reporting about your favorite subject -- such as your pick of the presidential candidates -- give me a taste of what the other side has to say. Present me with options in your story and let me draw my own conclusions.
    5) Watch your language! I'm not referring here to off-color words. I'm talking about not stuffing a story with leading or biased adjectives. Yes, I know that if you work for CNN or Fox TV, you have to do something to catch my attention with your lead. You also have to keep me entertained when repeating the same story over and over again, every hour on the hour. However, as a consumer of journalism, I'm most impressed when you attempt to remain an objective reporter. Yes, I am aware that there is not such thing as perfect objectivity. Even the choice an editor makes about which stories to report is somewhat subjective. Pleases try, however.

    Now, if you're editorializing and you are honest about the fact that you are editorializing, have at it!!

  • Very informative. I recently took an online journalism course at the University of Texas and we looked at Gawker and decided it wasn't what we as journalism students were trying to do. But if Gawker can use its resources to do real journalism, they'll probably make a big impact (and hopefully a positive one).

  • I agree I think amateur journalism is the way of the future.

  • In some cases bloggers can easily provide far more accurate information than a journalist.

    Any expert in any field who has a blog is probably superior to a journalist at providing accurate information on their topic of expertise. Sure they have their own biases but so do journalists. The days of non-bias journalists are long gone (did they ever truly exist?).

  • I don't know how anyone could not be excited by the transition of journalism to a more blogging style format. The first movement was off of the newsprint and magazines to the internet, but now with the 'blogging style' that the New York Times and others have adopted, it adds two noteworthy elements that were lacking before. Firstly and most obvious, the interactive element that allows authors instant feedback from the masses and the ability to respond almost immediately. Secondly, the dynamic nature of the news being reported can be easily captured through periodic updates and revisions. It is an amazing time to be a journalist with the latest advances of web 2.0 technology.

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