As bloggers we need to look at ourselves objectively

The debate rages on, as always, about blogging and the media. The Dublin riots was a high point in the world of blogging for 2006; it was one of the first occasions in Ireland that bloggers and self-proclaimed Citizen Journalists got one over on the traditional media. I have been one of many to applaud what I saw as a victory for blogging, but after much consideration I think the whole situation really amounted to a failure on the part of the traditional media rather than a success for bloggers.

I recently undertook an extended essay as part of my degree course; my chosen topic was on blogging and citizen journalism and it raised the question of what threats they posed to the traditional media (TV, radio and print) and what challenges both faced in the future. I entered the work with the opinion that citizen journalism will never, could never and should never replace its professional cousin but that it was likely to find itself ranked amongst those three in years to come. On completing the essay I am now less optimistic on the issue.

For me blogging is of growing importance to the media and so far it is under-used by the Irish media in all its forms but blogging cannot sustain itself as an independent part of the industry.

Firstly what potential I see in the medium. Blogging is a place where marginal stories have a home; while articles in newspapers are chosen based on the public interest (which is the pleasant way of saying ‘what interests enough of the public to bring us a profit’) blog topics are chosen on the basis of publisher interest (audience comes after the publishers interests). Blogs also act as a ‘Fifth Estate’; a watchdog to the watchdogs. In a country where the media is becoming increasingly consolidated it is important for a democratic and independent voice to be available to all; one that will criticise the media monopoly rather than avoid discussing it. Out of all the uses, however, what I feel is most interesting is the possibility of blogging as a training ground; where journalism was once a trade it is now education-based. For many this process is text-heavy and lacking in any real hands-on experience. Blogging requires no level of discipline (other than a willingness to publish) but it can provide people with their first taste of writing for an audience, and the more one writes the more their abilities should improve. As discussed previously it can then become a base-point for people to find out more about the writer and consider their form and style.

Now for the negatives; blogging is unreliable, unviable and abused. There is no guarantee or in fact likelihood that a visit to a blog or citizen journalism site will produce new information; generally they consist of other peoples news regurgitated. Citizen journalists hoping to have a go at news gathering lack time, money and training which is something that professionals have in abundance (well, not always). Finally when blogging does produce a story or writer worth reading it is swiftly taken out of its hands (but this isn’t something most bloggers would mind because more coverage is a good thing).

What all this means is that Blogging becomes no more than a resource to journalists and the media; a point of reference. A journalist might discover a story on a blog, or they might use some footage discovered by a citizen journalist. An editor might find their next big talent online too but either way blogging is picked up and put back down by the traditional media at their command and no-one else’s; basically any growth in citizen journalism is quickly undercut.

The problem with the debate on the future of blogging is that it is carried out by bloggers. When people discuss the viability of social media and citizen journalism they are met with varying degrees of support but never total opposition; people who blog aren’t going to see it as a sinking ship or a stagnant art form. What bloggers need to do is realise what the medium is capable of, and do so realistically. Blogs, in my opinion, are here to stay. The beauty of them is that they have no set direction and no set rules. With that in mind (and probably as a result) they have no potential whatsoever to become any more than they are. They will grow in popularity, numbers and size. The projects and ideas detailed in them will grow in magnitude and concept but they will never, ever be able to pose any threat to the traditional media. We can only hope that the traditional media quickly recognises the advantages blogs can have for their own transparency and development.

Blogging is generally a reactive ‘industry’; they react to events, news, discussion; Journalism is a pro-active industry, it finds information, facts and figures. Both industries dabble in the other side but neither will ever cross the line completely.

Below is a copy of an interview I conducted with Irish Times columnist (and self-proclaimed neo-Luddite) John Waters; as you can see many of his points are valid and usually unheard in the blogging community, much of them are no more than common sense when you compare the two mediums; that said I do disagree with him on many aspects especially in regards to his overall scepticism on blogging and the Internet.

Do you think that blogging is something that will influence the traditional media (print, TV and radio) at all, or do you believe that it is a passing fad? While some would believe that blogging has the potential to replace existing media others have a more reserved belief that it will work alongside it. You yourself said that you don’t see it becoming any more than a sideshow; do you think that it is possible for blogging and print to work together perhaps in the way that the Guardian newspaper has been welcoming blogs through its “comment is free” section online and the daily run-down of discussion usually printed on their second page?

I regard the printed newspaper as an almost ideal format. It is compact, portable and extremely flexible. Nothing in the development of technology in the past three decades or so has indicated that a more adaptable format is on the cards. I therefore see the Internet as an interesting but essentially overrated channel of information, most of which, by definition, lacks the credibility of that published in an old-fashioned newspaper. I’ve no doubt that blogging will provide material and talent for traditional media, but I don’t see it supplanting any of the traditional forms.

Do you think that print, tv and radio need to adapt to concepts like blogging, or perhaps adopt some of its merits in order to stay on the cutting edge? Obviously print newspapers report on a daily basis while blogs have the potential to report and comment constantly, this means that something printed in a newspaper could be outdated by the time it goes on sale while blogs can stay on top of things at all times; for that reason do you think newspapers could take better advantage of their websites? Rather than using it simply as another place to publish what is available in the shops they could use it to report breaking news, have extra comment, extended interviews etc.?

I think this typle of question presupposes that media are consumed by people on a more or less non-stop basis, whereas most people use the media in quite a controlled manner, focussed within particular periods of the day – morning and evening predominantly. Blogging, to my mind, is a preoccupation of media and political groupies, who are far from typical of our societies. I believe there is a disproportionate emphasis on the innovations represented by these styles within what is essentially a marginal idiom. I’ve been listening since the early seventies to discussion of how the Internet is going to supplant the traditonal newspaper. Certainly, the Internet has made certain forms of information widely accessible, but this has not meant that people have less need or apppetite for more traditional forms.

The concept of “citizen journalism” is a growing one in Ireland, with the rise in internet connectivity, video phones etc. do you think that there is some advantage to everyday people having the ability to influence readers on a, perhaps, smaller scale to newspaper or TV? Do you think there are risks in people taking the role as a journalist when they lack training and are perhaps willing to do thinks that the profession would not (infringe or privacy etc.).

Again, I think this is over-emphasised. Journalist, by its nature, is much more than the publication of things. Behind the process of publication is (usually) a fairly thorough system of checking and verification, which bloggers and ‘citizen journalists” are unable, either by virtue of training or resources or both, to match. There is therefore – and wil continue to be — a “trust deficit” in relation to what is conveyed in the newer forms. There will alsways be instances where the new technologies will enable the ordinary citizen to become a player in a particular story, but I don’t see this becoming a generalised phenomenon.

After the Dublin riots earlier this year many critisised the broadcast media (particularly RTÉ) for their failure to give proper coverage to the events, however, while RTÉ had limited coverage on radio and TV until after the events many websites were giving streaming updates on what was going on, many also included video and pictures taken amongst the crowd. Do you think that this was a once off incident or is it a sign of a changing media that may rely on viewer/reader submitted images or video in order to report certain stories? Could this also be a chance for print media to use the internet as a way of bringing news as it happens or is the current situation for the print media, where it acts as a source of comment and more considered news articles, the right niché for the industry?

Again, I think you’ll find that only a small proportion of interested individuals will seek out news in this way, and I don’t see this changing much. What will happen, perhaps, is that the new technologies will shange somewhat the way traditional news gatherers go about their business. In other words, the new technologies and methods will be adopted by and adapted for the tradtional media. There will always be a need for centralised information dispersal, so , even if the technology allows for a more fragmented means of delivery, the public, being by definition a fairly monolothic entity, will always seek a mainstream source.

Print media has been written off on numerous occasions, with the advent of radio, television, the internet and now blogs; do you think that the print media will always survive? What reasons do you see for the print medias constant survival, is it their ability to adapt or the freedom granted by the way the media operates (as in journalists have more time to work on a single story than one on a rolling news station or radio station; this allows them to delve deeper, investigate and find more)?

I think the big issus is confidence. The public needs to know that the pedigree of its information sources are relable. Also, the new technologies, for all their advantages, are unwieldly and unfriendly compared to the humble newspaper, especially the tabloid/compact format (which I see as the single most significant response of mainstream media to the computer).

Finally do you think blogging serves a purpose as a training ground of sorts; where journalism used to be a trade where apprentices learned the ropes over time, blogging could now be the place for young journalists to earn their stripes, get used to writing for an audience and get their name known amongst the public?

I agree. Undoubtedly, mainstream media will increasingly draw upon the talent and energy which will emerge in the new formats. If anything, blogging offers a challenge not so much to mainstream media as to the existing peripheral media like magazines and so forth, where aspiring journalists used to go to cut their teeth.

8 Comments

  1. On one point — Waters says: ‘I think you’ll find that only a small proportion of interested individuals will seek out news in this way, and I don’t see this changing much.’

    By saying this, he assumes that the existing ways of reading news (and blogs) will not change. I’d beg to differ; one thing that has been a constant fixture in the blog world is that the ways of consuming this info have changed. Initially, one would visit the blogger’s website to read stories there; then RSS readers came along and one used that instead; now, we have aggregators (like the various “planet” systems), and in some fields, we have people who specialise in summarise “what’s going on in the [X] blogosphere”.

    Next will probably be some form of automated summarisation and cherry-picking; this is already the case in the link-blog field with HotLinks: http://dev.upian.com/hotlinks/ .

    Just because the current form of blogging is used and consumed by a small population of “early adopters”, doesn’t mean that it won’t get easier with new tools and systems as time goes on.

    I mean, look at blogging itself; initially it required editing HTML, FTP, all that web-development trickiness. Nowadays you type into a textbox in your browser at blogspot.com.

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  2. Administrator 12/05/2006 at 04:32

    @Jason; I think the difference is that all the developments you reference were adopted by the same small group of people who like to get news on a constant basis, that number is growing and will continue to grow but it will never, in my opinion, be bigger than the number of people who buy a newspaper once a day, watch the six:one news and that’s it; from personal experience I find there are a huge proportion of people who generally don’t consume the news at all, going on that basis news junkies like myself are a niche market. Even in a time where blogs are RSS feeds are used by everyone, they won’t all be used for news and info gathering, they’ll be used for social interaction
    I wouldn’t be of the opinion that those who do consume news once or twice a day will do so through the same mediums as always; it’s bound to change, I just don’t think blogs are an effective carrier of anything other than comment and debate but that’s not a bad thing. I’d love to see a day where the Letters page of a Newspaper, which in my opinion is one of the most backward aspects of any newspaper, is dropped. In its place is a link to the newspapers website where people can leave comments after the article or even the respective journalist can give a detailed account of the work that went into the piece, and their views on it… The Guardian is leading the way with Comment Is Free, I hope Irish papers begin to take note.

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  3. ‘I just don’t think blogs are an effective carrier of anything other than comment and debate’

    Hmm, that seems a very broad generalisation. IMO it depends on the field; if you compare “blog journalism” to print journalism in some fields, the bloggers win out by a mile. The old media types fall down badly on anything computing- or science-related, for example.

    I grant you that in other fields, however, the bloggers have a way to go.

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  4. Administrator 12/05/2006 at 06:06

    Well that is true, the print media has serious issues with the reporting of technology news etc. and blogs are more comfortable covering this topic, but that kind of goes with the issue of newsworthiness too; sure sometimes newspapers report tech issues as if they haven’t a clue, but most of the time they don’t cover it at all; that’s not because they don’t understand it, it’s because they don’t see it as interesting enough to gain readers… if it was a  big money spinner you’d be sure to see people who write for SiliconRepublic getting jobs in print etc. As far as current affairs goes though, most discussion is regurgitated from the print media; as I said that’s not a bad thing, it just means they can never be an independent source.
    I am happy to see bloggers interview politicians themselves though, like what’s going on at IrishElection.com; it’s a great way to cut out the middle man and perhaps source your own news.

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  5. Adam, good piece. I’m sure you’ll have no problem getting a print job once you’re out looking for a journalism position.

    Have to disagree with you about papers dropping their letters pages. (Though I haven’t seen the Guardian’s Comment is Free – but most people won’t be going online as well as reading the hard copy)

    Letters Pages are a great way of developing a story by provoking reactions from those concerned by certain news stories. And because of email – letters can be printed in the following day’s edition so they make a newspaper quite interactive and responsive for something published every 24hrs.

    The Irish Times especially is quite good at stretching out stories and themes by doing this.

    They have been quite brave recently in printing a batch of pro and anti Kevin Myers letters recently – some even saying the IT will not be as good a paper as it was with him. This independent voice wouldn’t be carried in the paper under any other format really…

    Newspaper people say that the letters page is the first page most readers go to when they open a paper.

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  6. Administrator 13/05/2006 at 04:09

    Many thanks Mark, and fair point on the letters page; the IT should certainly be applauded for printing letters like that, even ones critical of the newspaper and yes, the modern letters page doesn’t have to rely on the post. I also agree that many won’t use the internet instead either; that said I do think things like blogs (Again to Comment is free) offer a real time debate to those who want one, maybe it isn’t a replacement for the letters page, but it’s a good development all the same… I’m not sure if the Guardian have yet to use a comment made in a blog in their print letters page too…

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  7. Hi Adam,
    very interesting. I just want to explore 2 points raised by John.
    Firstly, he talks about “trust deficit” and I agree with him to a degree. Bloggers who are amateurs, don’t have the time and resources to diligently check everything and are in most cases not well trained in the art of writing/reporting.
    However, against that, bloggers are not subject to political control in the way that Fox News appears to be for example. But for sure, there is a trust deficit.
    I guess the second point, he is making is that the mainstream public is not clued into blogging and technology in general…. “the public, being by definition a fairly monolothic entity, will always seek a mainstream source”. I am just wondering about this. Its absolutely true of my generation, I know. But I am looking at the next generation, the massive amount of kids who are using social tools like Bebo, Myspace. These people will all be technically literate when they enter the workforce, at least to the extent that they understand blogging, linking etc. So I don’t think its too fanciful to conclude that blogging will reach mainstream consciousness eventually.

    What impact will broadband have? This is anecdotal I know, but I was on holidays recently and was pretty taken aback by the amount of people I saw using video conferancing in internet cafes to chat with their friends and family. These were obviously people coming from countries where broadband is widespread and cheap…sigh! An awful lot of people are becoming comfortable with video and internet technology. Laws of evolution would suggest that a small percentage but significant number of people will become experts.
    I guess newspapers have been around for several hundred years, blogging and the internet are really only in the gestating period by comparison. I guess that explains to some extent the amount of self conscious, navel gazing thats going one… like this post for example. People are just trying to work out whats happening, guess? It does get annoying though, I think I’m even a little bit annoyed with myself for writting this?:)

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  8. Administrator 29/05/2006 at 02:12

    It is very hard to compare the two media, as one is so old and established and the other is only really developing.
    I am as guilty of the navel gazing as anyone else, and I think it’s all part of the natural process of this mediums evolution, but that the same time it shouldn’t take over the conversation; I generally discuss the media and as a result end up on blogging an awful lot, but even then I find myself more inclined to talk about blogs than the other media, and I find discussion in strongest from that (partly because we’re all still trying to solidify our positions!)

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