I’ve argued that a blog is just a content management system, which can be used to publish journalism or just about anything else. But as a practical matter, the conventions of blogging — e.g. fast publishing, conversational tone, expressing opinion, linking — mean that a blog in the hands of a journalist will not, and arguably should not, yield a traditional print article.
That said, I do think it’s a red herring to suggest that news organizations and journalists must make an either/or choice between the blog format and the traditional print article format. I would argue that when the two are combined, the results are far more powerful than doing just one or the other.
I came across a great example the other day on the New York Times Bits blog, where Bits editor Saul Hansell wrote a post The Problem With CNet: No One Wants to Buy It in response to a piece by Andrew Ross Sorkin, which appeared in the print NYT — and which of course Saul linked to:
Andrew Ross Sorkin reports in this morning’s New York Times that an investor group has amassed a stake in CNet Networks and wants to put pressure on its management by electing new board members.
We’ve seen this script before in many industries. But there is something different here. Usually trouble-making investors find undervalued companies with management that is resistant to being acquired. CNet, I suspect, would be quite happy to sell, but its big problem right now is that it is overvalued, especially to the established media companies that are its most likely buyers. I’ve talked to any number of companies over the years about possible acquisitions. Whenever I mention CNet, the answer is always the same: interesting but too expensive. NBC bought itself nothing but ridicule when it spent $600 million for iVillage, which is to woman’s content what CNet is to technology.
Andrew’s article was a traditional reported piece, with data and new facts from inside sources:
A consortium of prominent investment funds has amassed a 21 percent stake in CNet and is seeking to oust the company’s directors and take over a majority of its board, according to people briefed on the proposal. The consortium sent a letter about its plan to the CNet board two weeks ago, these people said, which the company has yet to disclose.
The consortium is led by Jana Partners, an $8 billion fund founded by Barry Rosenstein that has mounted successful proxy fights against a number of big corporations, these people said. It also includes Sandell Asset Management as well as a venture capital firm, Spark Capital, and Paul Gardi, an entrepreneur who created the underlying search technology for Ask Jeeves, a unit of IAC/Interactive, these people said.
What’s interesting about Saul’s blog post is that his analysis is not just pure opinion — he references his own past past reporting: “I’ve talked to any number of companies over the years about possible acquisitions.”
Andrew sticks more tightly to evaluating the reported facts, focusing on whether the takeover of CNET might succeed:
While the consortium seeking to take over CNet’s board is likely to find support from disgruntled investors, it is unclear how far it can get because of a series of defensive provisions in the company’s charter and bylaws.
CNet is also likely to argue that the consortium is a much smaller shareholder than it claims to be because much of its stake is in the form of options and derivatives.
With Andrew’s solid fact base, Saul is able to advance a more speculative analysis of what the investors would seek to do if the CNET takeover succeeded:
We’ll see if the investors, and any board candidates they run, actually have a plan. Perhaps they want to keep milking the existing businesses by simply slashing CNet’s rather large 2,600 employee cost base.
But it appears that they don’t actually want to own CNet for the long term, nor even vote for the new board members they are proposing. Most of the investment appears to be in the form of options and derivatives—investment vehicles that provide a way to profit from a quick jump in CNet’s shares, but do not have the right to vote in shareholder elections.
Apropos of the topic of this post, I thought I would do some of my own reporting, so I contacted Saul to find out his perspective as a New York Times journalist on the blog format vs. the traditional article format. I also asked him about the critical issue of whether new online formats like blogs create more work for journalists:
I’ve always felt that blog was analogous to newsletter-a word that connotes format not content. There are newsletters that are great journalism, some that are commentary, some that are just bulletin boards. Blogger, to me, means no more than newsletter writer. The body of work talks.
We’ve always had many different formats in our pages. We have hard news, features, news analysis, columns in the news pages, columns on the op-ed page. On big stories, these multiple frameworks help give readers a lot of ways to understand what is happening. Blogs offer us exciting variations –speed, user involvement, linking–but they aren’t as much of a break with our past as it may appear.
As for work flow, The Internet makes more work. There is audio, video, links, and most importantly, the 24 hour news cycle. I’ve got it easier in one respect, I am largely full time on Bits. I don’t have a regular beat for the paper, although I do write every now and then where I am interested or needed. Also, we publish the Best of Bits every Monday in the paper.
I like Saul’s analogy to newsletters, and the observation that, when you consider ALL of the traditional newspaper formats, what they are doing with blogs “aren’t as much of a break with our past as it may appear.”
Saul concedes that online journalism is more work — but has the potential to drive value back into the print product. For some journalists, like Saul and Kara Swisher, there may be an opportunity to shift most or all of their work online.
Of course, the challenge is rationalizing the shift of editorial resources from a business perspective, since most of the newspaper business is still in the paper. And no one wants the shift to web to knock down the Chinese Wall that keeps journalists independent and able to do reporting that serves the public good but doesn’t necessarily generate a lot of page views.
There has been a lot of concern about turning journalism into a purely commercial product online — but it’s easy to set up a false choice between completely shielding journalism from economic realities and turning it into a pandering, pay-per-view game.
Saul offers a balanced view regarding decisions about editorial resources:
You can’t justify the Baghdad Bureau on a dollars and cents basis. Nor any other specific beat or story. Broadly, technology is very interesting to readers and technology products are a big category for advertisers. So making nytimes.com the best place for people interested in technology to read is strategically important for our long term success.
It’s notable that Saul still writes for the print NYT when he’s interested or “needed.” Online and print journalism need to collaborate, not a compete. Speaking of which, Bits is a team effort — if you look at contributions to the blog from other New York Times reporters, they don’t post daily, as Saul does as editor.
But everyone pitches in to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.