Here are some dirty secrets that journalists (and, to my great astonishment, Derek Powazek) don’t want bloggers to know about:
- All you need is $18 to purchase an AP Stylebook, which covers libel, slander and a variety of rules that will assist you in confirming facts.
- There’s a helpful little device called a telephone that will allow you to contact people who can comment on a topic or an issue. People will be happy to talk with you.
- The New York Times, among many other newspapers, makes factual mistakes on a daily basis, many of which are covered and discovered by bloggers.
- Traditional print journalists are scared to death of bloggers, because there’s now a new medium demanding accountability.
Definition 1 of my Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines “journalism” as “the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.” (Emphasis added.) And there’s the problem right there. Because when you’re adopting a professional, businesslike tone that subscribes to a particular style and format, the no-holds-barred arena of weblogging becomes compromised. While having no limits leads to journalism without limits (e.g., having no advertisers, a more journalistically inclined weblog can run a story heavily critical of the company), conversely, a weblogger’s contribution in this regard will be tainted by his own subjective viewpoint (link poaching, relying on others to do the work, falling prey to one’s own subjective take on the subject, rather than interviewing multiple parties). This, I believe, is what Powazek was getting at.
Fortunately, weblogs are covered in my dictionary under Definition 4: “writing that reflects superficial thought and research, a poupular slant, and hurried composition, conceived of as exemplifying newspaper or popular magazine writing as distinguished from scholarly writing.”
I think the weblogs that are concerned with information (and, more often than not, devoted to reporting their information accurately), sometimes in a manner that falls in line with current ethical standards and frequently with a tone that is as far as one can get from “old and dying,” represent a New New New Journalism (depending on how many modifiers you attach) lying somewhere between these two definitions. And whether Powazek and others like it or not, weblogs have arrived as new exemplars of journalism. The medium is admittedly still young and has a lot of room to grow, and often gets its facts screwed up. But then so do newspapers and television. Just ask Dan Rather.
I would certainly count the author interviews, accounts of bookstore signings, book reviews, and book review coverage summaries featured so prominently on litblogs during any given week as a new form of arts journalism. These reports are certainly subjective, but from what I can tell there is an overwhelming devotion to not only get the facts straight, but link to the other news sources and bloggers who are pursuing the issues. (For example, the Zoo Press scandal reported here last year involved teaming up with Laila, Kerry Jones, and other interested parties to determine how Neil Azevedo was spending contest funds. The story was then picked up by Poets & Writers Magazine.)
With enough trial and error, hard work, and dedication to ethics, any person can do this. That’s what’s so exciting about the information-oriented weblog. And what’s really great about this “learn as you go” idea is that this falls in line with how many of today’s journalists got their training: not with a journalism degree, but through diligent and consistent work.
In a post on his weblog, Powazek writes:
To become a journalist, you have to go to school, go to college, intern at some crap paper, work for crap wages, write whatever dreck the established writers don’t want, put up with ego-maniacal, power-mad, amateur Napoleon editors who will freak out if you put a capital letter in the wroNg place, and do this all for years and years before they let you near a story that matters.
This may be true in part (certainly the “crap wages” aspect is, although most editors I’ve had the pleasure to work with are hardly “Napoleonic” and have been very helpful to me). But here’s a list of journalists who pursued other interests while in college, many of them deciding later that journalism was what they wanted to do. Once in the inner sanctum, they were able to perfect their craft on the job:
Garteh Cook: Graduated in 1991 with a double major in International Relations and Mathematical Physics. Went on to work at Foreign Policy. (Winner: 2005 Explanatory Reporting Pulitzer.)
The point here being that journalists come from many backgrounds (although many of them are, predictably enough, English majors) and that actually performing the work of a journalist wll lead one to become better at it.
Even if you don’t consider a weblog to be journalism, it would be foolish to discount the remarkably symbiotic relationship between weblogs and journalism that calls for greater discovery and greater probing on both sides. If a weblog uncovers a clue, the journalist, with resources at his disposal, pursues it. If a journalist screws up a fact, then the weblogger is there to call him on it. What if the Apple leaks had been another missing detail about Abu Ghraib? Would that then be outside the purview of protection?
Of course, the ultimate problem with weblogs is the lack of editors and lack of accreditation. The horrid side effect of instant journalism is that once a story has been let loose or given a certain spin (such as the recent San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ proposal to regulate weblogs, which has already been discounted by statements from various Supervisors and the City Attorney), it contributes to the wild whorl of lies or a certain partisan spin.
But journalism has evolved to a point where reactionary definitions are obsolete. The Internet is here to stay. And those determined to dig deep will keep on digging, regardless of whether or not they collect their paycheck from a newspaper.
So perhaps instead of wasting precious energy complaining about what is or isn’t journalism or engaging in this tedious weblogs vs. journalism debate, maybe the time has come for those who are in the business of reporting to extend their hands across the table.