Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bloggers can't get no respect

Nor can meta-bloggers

I know John Hughes mostly as the nice guy who occasionally tells me that The Sacramento Bee can't run one of my missives* in the Letters to the Editor column. More recently, however, Hughes has been trying to make something of Ipso Sacto, an ambitious project to sift through the offerings of blogs in northern California. He idealistically thought that a major news organ like The Bee would be eager to take of the pulse of the local blogosphere, with its fervent advocacy and free-wheeling commentary.

He was mostly wrong.

(Jan. 3, 2007) When I started this site it was in close association with my employer. My situation at work has changed, and it no longer appears likely that any of my demonstration projects will be adopted.

What to do? I could simply turn off I own the domain, the server is housed in my home office, I work on this in my “spare” time. Bottom line: I get to decide.

In the 22 weeks that I have been working on this, I've come to genuinely enjoy reading the regional blogs. I would continue reading them even without this web site.

So what went wrong? It may well be a cultural thing. There are certain professions—journalism is one of them, teaching is another—where it is easy to have a sense of mission. Sure, life would be rough without plumbers and electricians, but journalists serve Truth (and occasionally Justice) by carefully and dispassionately dispensing the first draft of history in the pages of their newspapers and the sound-bites of their broadcasts.

Well, sometimes they do. Writing on deadline is tough work, and tight deadlines are the enemy of accuracy, limiting as they do the opportunity to check and recheck one's facts. I know a little something about this, having sampled the news writer's experience during a summer job in journalism several years ago. My first published article was less than a stellar exemplar of fact-checking. I had to learn fast—and write fast. (One of my acquaintances is retired Bee journalist Walt Wiley, who once laughingly told me that my ten-week fellowship as a science writer at the Albuquerque Journal was “more than enough” to turn me into a journalist. I suppose it was a decent apprenticeship.)

Journalists have also been lionized by their association with the famous Woodward and Bernstein, whose series of investigative reports at the Washington Post were crucial in destroying the Nixon presidency. One could get a swelled head. (Bob Woodward's cranial edema was so severe it clogged his critical faculties. It took three books on the Bush administration before he realized they're all compulsive liars.)

By contrast, what is a blogger? And what are the qualifications to be a blogger? These are easy questions, since the simple answers are, respectively, “anyone” and “none.” Who would want news and information from folks with no qualifications at all?

Well, frankly, lots of people. Haven't you noticed the exceedingly slender credentials held by most of today's noisiest opinion shapers? The talkers on radio are most skilled at heaping praise on callers who agree with them and cruelly taunting those who do not. The books by Coulter, Hannity, Ingraham, and Savage (even when largely ghost-written) are simply their on-air rants in print form. Essayists they are not. (In her last book [and pray that it may indeed be her last], Coulter devoted three chapters to attacking Darwin and evolution, cribbing almost everything from a couple of “intelligent design” apologists.) When the so-called mainstream media are being denounced for blandness and irrelevance, why should journalists not feel defensive? Hughes has certainly encountered this sentiment himself:

(January 4, 2007) As if my self-esteem as my employer's principal blog-watcher isn't low enough already, I get to edit and publish this opinion from a co-worker:
The initial source of Boxer's concern was the blogosphere, that sometimes subterranean sewer of suspect journalism, where reputation-besmirching rumor runs rampant.
Thank you very much.

Yeah, bloggers get no respect. And neither does the effort of John Hughes to track the local blogosphere. Say, wouldn't it be nice to go visit Ipso Sacto and show John some support.

Oh, and add Ipso Sacto to your link list.

*Hughes once gave me one of the nicest rejection notices ever, when he took the trouble to tell me how much he liked a bit I did on UFOs, men in black, and black helicopters. It was just too long (and probably no longer timely). I'd run that piece today as a blog post if it weren't long lost in the ozone of my abandoned CompuServe account. I doubt that John's archives go back that far.


skatermom said...

Yesterday, Time Warner announced the reduction of its publishing work force by almost 300 due to a revamping of the traditional paper publishing empire.

"Marquee publications such as Time magazine, Sports Illustrated and People magazine absorbed many of the cuts, as Time Inc. seeks to revamp itself for a digital age.

"The layoffs are about the restructuring of our editorial staffs as we move quickly into a future of flexible, multiplatform content creation," John Huey, Time Inc.'s editor in chief, e-mailed staff members yester day. (Washington Post, 1/18/07)

Apparently The Bee feels that being the only large circulation newspaper in the region does not require being a media leader or innovator, since they only timidly and cautiously tested the Internet waters with tippie toes after watching other markets go first.

Obviously, the old-school writer who called the blogosphere a "sewer" is typical of those who are afraid to venture too far into the future interactive media frontier.
Entities that don't lead will end up being quaint antiques of a by-gone era.

As an educator, you know that the future workers, voters and leaders are sitting in your classroom, and they are on the Internet and blogging. If The Bee tries to hard to wall in its turf, it will find itself isolated and irrelevant in 5 - 10 years.

John Hughes said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Having edited letters to the editor for The Sacramento Bee for 19 years, I think I can be excused if I see blog posts as mostly letters without paper. Some letters are more authoritative. Some letters are better written (pick your measure for "better"). Some are dumb. And some are simply wrong. That's both the good and the bad of blogs.

Unfortunately, the people who run newspaper are control freaks. I have known this for some time. After all, I've been working in newspapers since 1975. But until I tried to get raw blog content into sacbee, I didn't realize just how institutionalized that control is.

Newspaper editors own every word published in the paper. Even the letters can be said to be owned since an editor picked the letters and edited the letters, making value judgments about content while also doing rudimentary fact checking.

I suppose, with my years of experience fighting to get more space for letters, I should have expected the obstacles that I discovered as I tried to get more blog content into both the newspaper and online. It is certainly not surprising that the only part of my efforts to see the light of day has been the Sunday Blog Watch article, less than 800 words advertised as representing everything about the regional blogosphere. Talk about false advertising.

As newspaper circulation has declined the focus has shifted to the broader "audience." That's where the attention to online content comes in. I still think carving out a niche at sacbee that provides one-stop monitoring of the region's blogs would be a valuable audience draw.

Newspapers will have a place in the future. But the printed paper will only be a part of the broader information stream. What's needed is a collective realization that rather than control, what's needed is a focus on aggregating news and facilitating its consumption. Management must understand that the value of a newspaper's role as watchdog is not diminished by accepting the contributions of independent voices.