I was derailed from writing this post after SxSW by the Kathy Sierra stuff, but this post of Doc Searls reminded me I still needed to say something on the score of blogging and journalism. I respect what he is saying, I'm just going off on my own tangent for the rest of this. It's worth reading his post, but now for something completely different...
I'm not going to get into the high and lofty ideals, which a lot of folks have covered in blogs and in the press, about what reporters and bloggers have in common.
I'm going to talk about the day to day stuff, because I used to be a reporter. I did it for about 5 years (with some pretty hefty college internships at the LA Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post) so I can't claim to be a veteran, but I fell within the "3-5 years experience" required by many major metro dailies and it's safe to say I understand that weird socialization process called "news judgment", at least as it was defined in the early 90s.
I wore a pager and followed ambulances. I saw so many dead bodies I actually lost count (though of course nothing like war correspondents these days). I wrote obits. I saw a guy wrestle an alligator. I saw a lot of people cry and felt bad for being the stupid press person who still had to ask the question. And during one phase of my career I wrote a goofy Sunday column, which was still researched every week so not just me spouting off at leisure. :)
The big thing about daily life as a reporter was:
- you were always looking at the competitor paper to see if they "scooped" you
- you were checking leads, phone messages, emails, etc. to see if anyone on your beat was going to tell you something worthy of printing
- anything you wrote had to be as short as possible, because normally there was more news than ad-supported pages
- you had daily rounds you made to check on things - in my case as a city reporter, the towns I covered had ritual meetings, hearings, town halls, festivals that meant an obligatory "beat" to be walked or driven.
- your day could be scrambled in an instant - by a bad car pile-up, a hurricane, or appearance of a celebrity (I had a really boring stakeout of the former Mayor of Washington DC when we thought he was in rehab).
- your rolodex was the most important thing you owned (nowadays it would be the numbers in your PDA :) )
- you were a face people came to know, and a name people understood through your writing
So far, you can probably think of analogies to the blogosphere for most of these. But here's the other thing: I had days where there were no stories. The hot tip did not pan out. The research needed to do the investigative piece hit a temporary lull. Maybe that day I had hours and hours of court documents to read before the big hearing. Some other more senior reporter got to cover the "hot topic" that was on my beat (especially true if you were an intern assisting someone with their beat). Some days I wrote NOTHING for the paper at all, never mind page one.
I can't imagine a blogger shutting up in those cases. :)
I also can't see, unless the person had a steady salary, being able to do long scutwork sorts of stories - where you crunch the numbers and find a hole in the city budget (or transportation proposal or whatever). Watergate had its sources and tipsters but there was a lot of on the ground figuring out basics and logistics that would tire or bore the crap out of someone, and what if that someone weren't actually getting paid? What if they were paid per story, like a freelancer? Or by ad revenue on the sides of their blog?
Non-press bloggers often have the advantage of numbers to create a mosiac of the truth en masse, and for each blogger, the possible credibility of being an eyewitness. If everyone in the bad part of town had blogged what they knew about the guys being shot nightly, there might be less crime. It's hard to argue with someone close to ground zero of a 9/11 type incident who then blogs about it and uploads photos.
On the other hand, I can't see much of the blogosphere sitting through this one meeting about a Florida city employee insurance policy hearing that I sat through and almost fell asleep during (it was at night). I wish twitter had been invented then, but I don't think that would make the content of the proceedings less boring. Yet, for those employees, any cuts to the insurance policy would impact them and their families. Lives might depend on it.
Still, I breathed a sigh of relief myself as my editors killed my story that night. My (somewhat skimpy) paycheck didn't depend on me reporting ANYTHING no matter what. And likewise, my steady paycheck meant I could take the time to get the research right, to fact check or calculate sums, to get expert assistance if the problem of number crunching was over my head. Assuming I had editor (manager) support, I could be assigned to a "special project" where all I did was that kind of deep digging as a side project or a main project.
The Fourth Estate and the Blogosphere share some of the same lofty goals. Some of the best skills for both overlap mightily. But I still can't get over the time factor. In the end, the truth is all what you are allowed to have time to research.
Watch Robert Scoble - he runs at a mad pace, talking to people about their cool tech gadgets and projects, and he's got a camera in hand, but it's not the same thing as the tedious and relentless work that had to be done for this Seattle Times Special Project on "License to Harm" - misconduct by health care professionals.
The three reporters who worked on the project crunched 10 years' worth of data and had technical help to do it. You can see more of what they had to go through in the article "About the Series." - over 250 people interviewed, 100 public records requests and the newspaper had to go to court to get access to documents to expose the problems with the health care system. I can't imagine the average blogger managing that kind of effort. Even if you are geek enough to create and analyze your own db, are you really in possession of enough time to talk to 250 people, wait around for the government to honor your 100 public record requests, and hire an attorney?
As Doc Searls noted about Kathy Sierra's situation, getting at the truth often means a lot of work. While I think Scoble works hard to keep his audience learning more and more about the tech industry, and I have seen him run around busily - he's no slouch - I think the work he does is of a different kind. Having people tell you in their own words what they do at Microsoft or in the latest startup is a little more immediate, flashy,and you can get it over with in 15 minutes and have something to put on a Web site for sponsors to be happy about.
But if we replace journalists with bloggers, who will do the weeks of number crunching? Who will file the boring paperwork to get back the bland documents that contain the evidence you need? Who will go to court rather than expose the sources in their notebook (or laptop as the case may be)? Will the freelance blogger, whose site is sponsored by ads, really feel free to criticize the advertiser in the same way newspapers have annoyed advertisers for decades? Should there be a Bloggers Civil Defense Fund, to get guys out of jail who protect their sources? What about one to fund the bloggers when, well, they don't have anything to blog that day? Will abuses go by, and we won't know, all because no one dug down into the data?
Yes, I know there is trash journalism just as there is trash blogging. But it comes down to what a person can do on their own, every day. And that's what I have to wonder about journalism and blogging...what 10 years from now, the day to day life will look like. I am sure we will have both bloggers and journalists - but will we manage to have the same kind of days?