Monday, December 1, 2008

In Defense of Blogs; They're Not Taking Writer's Jobs

Will newspapers exist five years from now? Will bloggers overrun newsrooms? And what to do with legions of out-of-work career journalists unable to shift to the Brave New World of the Internet?

One of web journalism's pioneers, Michael Kinsley believes cyberspace is critically inundated with blogs, as he writes in his Dec. 1 article in Time.

Kinsley, who founded the web magazine Slate in 1996, would seem to be the one journalist able to see into the journalism's tangled future. Instead, like many long-time scribes, the ability to condemn blogging as a craft unlike any other form of writing seems easier than describing its possible benefits.

In a article for The Atlantic, long-time blogger Andrew Sullivan writes what may become the manifesto for the true meaning of blogging. In the current issue of the magazine, Sullivan describes blogging as an elusive middle ground between dialogue and writing. Because of the immediacy and unfiltered aspect of the blogging, he argues, a writer delivers crisp, unfiltered information.

Kinsley's article laments the sheer number of blogs that "need" to be read. Jason Linkins writing at The Huffington Post thinks this coming "blogopocalyse" is a bit of hyperbole with a simple solution.

I just don't recognize the human beings suffering from blog overload in the way Kinsley describes it, as creatures I have met in Real Life. Blog readers are not all mindless, passive drones on a Sarah Palin-esque quest to read "all of them." The simplest solution to the problem Kinsley cites, it seems to me, is for sentient beings, capable of making choices, to exist.

Beyond this, Kinsley veers back to a common dig at the bloggers perpetuated by print journalists. The key is to ridicule them as Kinsley wrote in a 2006 column for Time, asking, "So are we doomed to get our news from some acned 12-year-old in his parents' basement recycling rumors from the Internet echo chamber?"

One could argue that the underlying argument against the blog levied by journalists is buried beneath human nature – jealousy and spite – for the most part. In my own experience, I have two 25-year-vets of the San Francisco Chronicle as journalism lecturers. Both despise the activity and openly mock the craft. To them, being a reporter is about pounding the pavement and getting the story before the other guy. As Kinsley writes, "while an article a day used to be a typical reporter's quota (or in the leisurely precincts of newsmagazines, an article a week), reporters are now expected to blog 24/7 as well."

The bulk of the perception regarding the end of newspapers may actually be a related to the experience of professional journalists who pushed their way through J-school, worked the dreaded city council beat and forged a solid reputation for honesty, reporting and excellent writing and now see the younger generation have it way too easy.

Change is difficult no matter occupation you're in. The influx of computers in the office space during the 1980s surely made older employees nervous about doing jobs that once involved pencils, paper and giant accounting ledgers.

The other point of ridicule is to propagate the image of a slacker recycling the news, or as Kinsley said two years ago:

Meanwhile, there is the blog terror: people are getting their understanding of the world from random lunatics riffing in their underwear, rather than professional journalists with standards and passports.

Scott Rosenberg, one of the founder of the web 'zine, Salon, answers the question of blogging's legitimacy succinctly in an article for The Guardian last year. It is not about the ability of anyone on the planet to broadcast their thoughts and ideas according to the media, but what that power will do to their jobs.

Most journalists' understanding of the nature of blogging has been circumscribed by a focus on how it might affect our profession. We write articles about whether blogging can be journalism, we worry about whether bloggers can or will replace journalists, and we miss the real stories.

The real story is the democratization of thought that worries journalists who bash bloggers. The keys to the kingdom of information no longer sit in the locked offices of the publisher, but on simple, free blogging sites readily available on the web. In some ways the rise of blogs is similar to the decline of adult film studios and the availability of VCR's and video tape. Adult studios quickly ran out of business. Actors and actresses were no longer needed. Anybody could produce these videos and a glut of "entertainment" followed.

If you follow Kinsley's logic that every single blog must be read instead of making informed choices on the integrity and newsworthiness of each, then hordes of teenage boys would have never left their homes.

When it comes to the quality of blogging, it is compelling to think of John Milton's concept of the "marketplace of ideas." There are surely millions of worthless blogs, but like any good newspaper or book, the good one's can rise to the top, leaving the scum at the bottom of the cyberspace tank inconsequential and without significant page views.

"We're not going to run out of web space." writes Rosenberg, "and each of us still decides how to spend our time. What price is the world paying for the existence of blogging's universal soapbox? Unless someone has figured out how to make you read a blog when you don't want to, I don't see one."

The blog as most of us knows it is not the Wild West of writing that journalists will have you think, but a place well-known to the those same writers – The New York Times is of far greater gravitas than your free weekly tabloid dropped on your driveway in the same way The Huffington Post is of greater importance than the slacker posting in his underwear that Kinsley describes.

Unless you own stock in The New York Times Co., it is best not to lament the fall of newspapers. For every journalists out of work, a thousand citizen journalists will rise to take their place making society stronger with the power of truth and knowledge.

Michael Kinsley will be speaking Dec. 9 at The Commonwealth Club of California at 6 p.m. For tickets click here. Kinsley will give his thoughts on the current U.S. financial system and the politics involved.


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