Freewheeling and often frustrating, the blogosphere is finding its place in the news

Bienvenue en BBC: Blogosphère Britanno-Colombienne

Image by roland via Flickr

Over lunch the other day, my colleague Paul Niwa tossed out a provocative theory. He suggested deep cuts in the newspaper industry could soon turn the tables on print reporters, forcing them after decades of leading the pack to chase stories broken by their broadcast brethren. It’s all, he reasons, a matter of how many reporters each medium can afford to keep on the street.

As an old newspaper guy,  I’m not ready to cede the terrain of real reporting to the blow-dried boys. But if the blogosphere is a logical extension of print, some of what Niwa predicts is already coming to pass.

Remember when rip-and-read on morning radio drew every print reporters’ ire? Each morning they’d turn on drive-time radio to hear their stories presented, usually unattributed, as “breaking” news.

It still happens, but in its way, the tables have turned. Today’s blogosphere is something akin to the rip-and-read radio of the 21st century,  though at its best it comes closer to the Paul Harvey variety, with some style and story mixed in, than to pure headline news (more Twitter’s domain). Most bloggers do credit and link to their sources. And I imagine most of us believe that we add something by throwing in a dash of personality, a little attitude or a sprinkling of analysis. Still, there’s no escaping that like radio news, we’re more often than not giving the time-challenged an abbreviated version of someone else’s hard work.

If I’m causing my fellow writers on True/Slant to bristle, let me say that this is a “staff,” as such, with major creds, big-time experiences for big-time papers, magazines and television programs. But most of  us won’t be counting on True/Slant paychecks to put nightly meals on our family’s tables anytime soon. So we post fast, cheeky and sometimes raw. It’s intriguing and a bit dizzying.

At times, I feel like I’ve dropped into an  urban open house, a cocktail party of voice and musing, opinion and politics from all over the ideological spectrum (an exception in the blogosphere). I enjoy that.  But even more so, I like to stumble across original reporting, like, for example, some of the health care work on  Rick Ungar’s “Policy Page.”

That reporting is still the exception. But I suspect in time it will be the new breed of reporters, rather than the stylists or pundits, who emerge as the trend-setters  — that the future of a really robust blogosphere lies with those who dig, particularly as the diggers of traditional news get pink slips or tire of “doing more with less.”

We do live in a world of nearly endless reports, records and documents online and hearings on the airwaves. If I.F. Stone could turn Washington D.C. on its head in the last century by shunning public events and turning toward public documents, why shouldn’t more bloggers, with the aid of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube,  do the same?

I’m among those still adjusting to this new environment. As a writer, the freedom is phenomenal, the temptation to pick low-hanging fruit sometimes too strong.  As a reader, I’ve stumbled across saucy slices of life and bits about baseball, glimpsed real-time reports of suicide bombings, and seen snippets of Saturday Night Live on YouTube and the realtime comedy called Congress on CSPAN.

Often I’m still too impatient and too busy to click through all these posts. I want to go to a conventional news site, get the headlines and move on.  But there is something fresh about this cyberspace community on the fringe of news that, though still sorting itself out, will, I suspect, continue to grow in its role and influence.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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8 Responses to Freewheeling and often frustrating, the blogosphere is finding its place in the news

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Jerry Lanson - News Prints – Freewheeling and often frustrating, the blogosphere is finding its place in the news - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  2. Michael Roston says:

    Today’s blogosphere is something akin to the rip-and-read radio of the 21st century, though at its best it comes closer to the Paul Harvey variety, with some style and story mixed in, than to pure headline news (more Twitter’s domain). Most bloggers do credit and link to their sources. And I imagine most of us believe that we add something by throwing in a dash of personality, a little attitude or a sprinkling of analysis. Still, there’s no escaping that like radio news, we’re more often than not giving the time-challenged an abbreviated version of someone else’s hard work.

    I think that what you’re not accounting for is how hard it is for unaffiliated bloggers to break into the information streams that the print reporters are able to avail themselves of. For instance, there’s a lot of ‘original reporting’ that results from the early releases of information that later becomes more broadly available in the form of freely available press releases. Sources of privileged information tend to develop iron triangles with selected media outlets, and the rest of us have to rely on them to tell us “what’s going on in the world.”

    It’s like the AP and CNN are sitting in first class, getting a glass of wine before the flight takes off, and the rest of us are back in coach paying for a soda 30 minutes into the flight.

    And for a lot of the content that’s produced by those outlets, there’s no reason it couldn’t be served up just as adequately by ‘bloggers’ whose primary mode is to think of themselves as journalists, and not strictly as commentators. Some of my big successes early on in online journalism, for instance, resulted because I badgered staff working for some other elected worthy to give me a transcript of something that hadn’t been distributed freely yet. It turned out a lot of people cared about information that the old media outlets were sitting on. Because I abided by journalistic conventions, I was able to ‘break news’ because I could get to something first.

    Let’s also not forget all the ‘rip and read’ that print outlets do – think about all of those news capsules you’ll find in the front of any paper on any given day, some of which is certainly sourced from bloggers these days.

    At heart, I think a lot of bloggers don’t want to be rip and read. For instance, look at all the news Gawker Media breaks these days across its network. But because we either can’t afford, or are not permitted to access certain information streams, we have to rely on someone else’s primary reporting to get there.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Thoughtful and really interesting comment, Michael. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I’d call it out just for your first class and cabin class analogy, which is lovely.
      A few specifics:
      1. There’s no question that you’re right. Traditional news media, particularly elite media, are leaked information on a regular basis. Not only are reporters paid to dig, but they carry the cachet of their news organizations. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a big advantage.
      2. By paying close attention, those in the blogosphere do without doubt help keep those in traditional media and in public life more honest. Whether pointing out a reporter’s ethical transgression or a politician’s conflict of interest, the blogosphere makes the club of elites less cozy, which I always consider a good thing for society.
      3. As I noted, I believe gradually bloggers will play a greater role in breaking news. They already are. What I am uncertain about is the extent to which their readers will embrace it or migrate only toward opinion-mongers who reinforce what they already believe. As a technological Neanderthal, I haven’t figured out how to link on comments. But check out “Rumors in an Age of Unreason,” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the Nov. 2 New Yorker. She writes about a researcher and author who finds the blogosphere has fractured society further because most blogs only link to and point to those of similar political affiliations and beliefs. That’s a concern. It’s also (and this is not an advertisement) one of the things I really like about True/Slant. Your writers here bring perspectives across the political spectrum.

  3. Afi Scruggs says:

    Thanks for a well-considered posting from a veteran print journalist. Like you, I’m trying to balance quick hits and longer analyses. I’m finding, however, that the blogosphere is more flexible than I imagined.

    I can post fast or quick or I can’t. The trick is consistency; a requirement I’m working to master.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      I’m with you Afi. On the one hand I’m trying to write things that are substantive, on the other I know part of the game is keeping your name out there. It can be a tough balancing act. Like you, though, I like the freedom of variety.

  4. Caitlin Kelly says:

    I enjoy one aspect of blogging that is unavailable to print reporters — the ability to respond within seconds if/when I see something I think worth sharing or commenting on. 1) I can do it fast 2) I can do it without asking permission of an editor or several 3) I don’t have to worry about treading on someone’s beat; if readers here are willing to read my take on sports, great; if not, too bad for me. To some degree, every single blog post is a bit of a trial balloon.

    The challenge for me as well is not knowing who our audience is; when I write for any of my print outlets, I have a very clear idea who’s reading or likely to.

    I don’t feel the constraints Michael refers to when trying to report a story and approaching sources; so far I have been pleasantly surprised when I call someone up or meet them at an event and say “I blog for trueslant” without any other Big Name affiliation to back up my wish for their time or attention. Anyone paying attention knows many of our traditional freelance paymasters are closing books and cutting assignments. So, when I can afford to do original reporting (and I have done some here) I just tell ’em: “This is for a well-read, respected new site – one that actually pays its writers.”

    The word “freelance” carries connotations of everything from lazybones in PJs to major award-winners…”blogger” can be anything we make it.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Thanks for stopping by Caitlin. I too love the interactive nature of blogging. I think it’s cool, by the way, that you’re reaching out to have lunch with some of the other writers for TrueSlant. Like you, I still feel every post is something of an experiment. Tx for the encouraging news that people you’re interviewing don’t blow you off because you’re calling them for a blog.

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