By Jeff Walsh
There’s been a continual debate in the blogging community for some time over the issue of whether blogging is journalism. The ongoing debate has genuinely puzzled me (usually the defiant cries from the bloggerati that their words do indeed merit the official term of journalism), because I was never fond of being a journalist although that was entirely how I made my living for 13 years. One decade doing daily print stuff back in Pennsylvania, and three years at InfoWorld right when things were starting to get crazy a few years back.
As a journalist, my biggest complaint (aside from the money, and the tired debate that integrity more than compensates for the lack of pay) was that you technically don’t do anything. When I was in Pennsylvania, three weeks of my life would be determined by the fact that some guy killed his wife two years ago, and my job was to write stories about his murder trial every day. But on some odd level, I still felt that this person killing his wife had at least put himself out there and had actually done something, albeit something horrific. Whereas my professional life continually revolved around how other people lived theirs (person filed a lawsuit, mayor signed an ordinance, protestors gathering) or how nature every so often showed us who is in charge (blizzards, floods, etc.) But on a daily basis, a lot of daily journalists come in and see what the day will bring. You don’t leave work and say, “I’m going to write about a fire tomorrow.” The news is not made, it is reported (feel free to argue that debate elsewhere).
Now, there is one role in a newspaper where a person doesn’t have to play by the rules. They are opinion columnists. If they write about the same murder trial that I am covering, they can say the guy’s greasy lawyer got his patsy eyewitness to lie on the stand and make a mockery of justice. As the daily reporter, I can’t. If someone else says that, great. I’d quote them and be elated. And, if that is the takeaway of everyone in the room, you really do need someone to convey that information or else you have to get it across without making it your judgment. (Again, this is the job and how it is best performed, not necessarily how it is always performed).
When I worked at InfoWorld, and the stock market was going insane, I was forbidden to own stock in any company I might cover, which of course meant any technology company, since on a regular basis you could be thrown on any story. Even in today’s globally mergered environment, you see over the top disclosure statements throughout articles in Time Magazine whenever they praise or criticize anything else owned by AOL Time Warner. This is done across many global media conglomerates to make sure people don’t have any cause to read a story and say, “Well, of course, it’s a positive story, Disney owns them both.” But, I think this is important because I want people who help me to make decisions to make them without influence. I’m currently looking at ways to pay my bills online, and most of my research is in reading articles comparing and contrasting the different offerings. I don’t just go to American Express and Citibank for my objective take on their services.
As a reporter for InfoWorld, I’ll go out on a limb here and say nearly every story I wrote was something that was outside my technical abilities. When XML was a twinkle in Adam Bosworth’s eye at Microsoft, I was writing about it. I mean, I could use a visual authoring tool to create a web page, but not even use templates or do anything dynamic on a server, yet I planted myself in the middle of ground zero while SOAP was being created and Microsoft got serious about XML. I’d like to think I did a good job overall. Could you find stories in the InfoWorld archives now that are totally off-base? I guarantee it. But being outside of the process guaranteed on some level that any tangents weren’t my own. I was running on tips and e-mail forwards and trying to piece things together on tight deadlines. And, honestly, I’d rather have a somewhat wrong story published before our competition than holding on, getting it right, and risk being second. Only the first story that breaks tends to get linked, or matter to your boss.
What I used to do a lot during those times was to e-mail a list of influencers a series of questions, usually on a Friday. And instead of blind copying everyone, I left everyone on the To: line, and usually by the time I was back in the office Monday, a story (if not several) were in my in box, as people like Dave Winer, Kevin Lynch, Jeremy Allaire, people on the standards bodies, people at XML companies that have since disappeared, merged, or whatever. They would raise great issues, bounce ideas off of each other, point out problems that might arise. I always knew enough to understand what was being said, but whereas they could go in and code the stuff, I was content writing about it. The conversations were always on the record, and I don’t recall anyone being upset with the results. In 1998, Dave even thanked me in his Thanksgiving piece for “covering XML with a twinkle in his eye.” I won an internal award for my XML coverage that year, too. But, all of my insights came from talking to people on the inside of the debate, without having my own opinion about the debate. I really didn’t care. One reporter was covering “push” technology, another e-commerce. The trend I was assigned to watch (as I covered web authoring and standards at the time) was XML, so I did. It was not a matter of burning, personal interest.
Even thought it’s been nearly four years since I wrote for InfoWorld, going to Scripting News is still a morning ritual. I like to see what this corner of the world thinks about things. But, Dave seems to have this notion stuck in his craw that blogs are journalism and that everyone should just “get it.” Every time he goes off on his blogs as journalism rants, it brings me great amusement. Why people who are so on the front lines want to hook themselves to this old chestnut of a term is just amusing to me. But, here is why I don’t make the connections myself:
First and foremost, I have an insider’s view of journalism, and when I think journalist, I think “grunt.” I was a grunt at the daily newspaper, and a grunt at InfoWorld, senior writer or not. Grunts have to turn around copy. Grunts fly around the country to go to trade shows that don’t interest them to meet companies that don’t interest them to write stories that don’t interest them. I did it for years. I’m not complaining, it was a crazy, fun time. But, the actual stories I was flying around the country to pursue, I can never recall any of them impacting me on a personal level. At best, I get a story about how I met Bill Gates and he dissed me (true), how Steve Jobs and I had a frantic e-mail volley on deadline about me running a story that his new OS was going to run on Linux (true, that we had the exchange anyway). I also met a lot of great people and built some good relationships. But the technology? Eh, was never really my thing. I wanted to write novels, which is what I’m doing now.
Opinion columnists (and to some extent software reviewers) live in a different world. Their entire shtick is their take on things. It’s why their photos appear above their columns, they are clearly building a brand. The photo is there, all of the copy is first person, and they have absolutely no interest in being objective. Fair, sure. But they clearly can say “Microsoft is off its rocker if it thinks any of its millions of Office users want this.” No grunt can, at least not in their articles. Not unless they’re quoting someone.
So, if there is any connection to be made, I think bloggers are the opinion columnists of the journalism world.
First of all, there is no objectivity anytime Dave talks about other blogging tools, because he obviously built a blogging tool. I’m not saying he doesn’t strive to be fair and give people props when they do good things, but that I have to view everything he says through that lens. I won’t trust Apple to give me the lowdown on Microsoft, just as much as I wouldn’t trust Microsoft to tell me interesting things about itself. I want my high-level insights to come from someone not invested in the outcome.
If you go to dictionary.com, I’m sticking with number three as the definition of journalism I use: “…direct presentation of facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or interpretation.” As much as I love Dave and Doc and all these people online, and Arianna Huffington, Andrew Sullivan, and Dave Barry in the traditional press. I don’t go to them for my news. In fact, bloggers tend to link to the news first as a means of context for what they are about to say, which on some level almost seems to substantiate that they are not putting themselves in the role of delivering the news. They use links as a way to set up their opinions. A sort of “Go here and read this, then come back and read what I have to say.”
What people also need to know is that opinion columnists are the pinnacle of the newspaper. As far as pecking order, this is the best possible gig you could have, because most writers have to become editors and business people to further their career. They get away from putting together words, and instead start assigning stories, editing text, whereas the opinion columnist calls their own shots, develops their own style, and is at the top of their game. I don’t know and never met Dan Gillmor, but I’m going to guess he worked a hell of a lot to get where he is, so that he could share his opinion.
So, it’s one thing to call yourself a journalist, but entirely something else to self-proclaim and give yourself the best gig in the joint. I mean, when the Google and Blogger news broke, there’s a clear reason it went to Gillmor and not any self-minted journalists.
Can people find examples of people who are just going to city council meetings and writing up bulleted lists or what happened without any commentary on a blog? Perhaps. But they are never the ones engaged in the “blogs are journalism” debate.
My main issue isn’t that people want to adopt the term journalist and apply it to themselves. Hell, I think journalism as a profession is boring as dirt, so feel free. I’m not invested in it at all. I just think everyone is missing the big picture. Most of the people I read regularly are the people on the edge, who are building stuff, who make APIs and ensure their products talk together. Things I still don’t know how to do and will never know how to do, because I don’t care. I’m just glad you do, because think it’s important.
Print journalists who show up to write some “intro to blogs” piece? Of course they’ll get it wrong to the people in the trenches. I doubt a soldier reading USA Today the day after a big battle would say, “Oh my God, that’s just what happened! It’s like they were there.” Of course that would never happen. That journalist is trying to explain stuff to my mother, and her friends, and people who are very outside of this community. It’s a high-level piece. It should seem ridiculous and simple-minded to the people architecting this new world. Stop looking to them for encouragement or acknowledgment.
To wrap up, I think blogs are amazing, powerful things and that we’re at the beginning of a curve that no one can quite predict. I’m using this as a way to put all my thoughts in one place, and hopefully as a way to communicate once I publish my first novel (which is still being written, although obviously not tonight). I’m not interested in a lot of what people are doing with blogs. I have a friend who updates his blog with his pager or something like that. Others are getting into video. I’m a plain text guy. Well, I’m writing a novel, so I guess I’m a bigger fan of the power residing in words.
I just think for all the amazing things you’re doing, there seems an awful lot of chatter about trying to prove you’re part of something wholly irrelevant to the bigger picture. Although, I suppose it’s more interesting than debating whether warblogging usurped techblogging.