Archive for September 6th, 2008

Why are mainstream journalists so threatened by blogging? The question is starting to nag me, because the response is so widespread – and based, I believe, on some key misunderstandings.

The strongest recent expression of mainstream journalists’ discomfort is from Christie Blatchford of The Globe and Mail. A few weeks ago, she used her report from the Olympic Games as an attack on blogging. Blogging, she says, is “the unofficial end to journalism as I know it.” Claiming that she is not complaining just because she is a Luddite, she says that she objects to blogging because she only has so many stories in her, and she doesn’t want to fritter them away. More importantly, she feels that blogging will diminish the craft of journalism, because blog entries and reader comments open up an unfiltered conversation.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for Blatchford’s view. Frankly, I find many people who are famous for blogging a pretentious waste of time. However, the term “blogging” covers so many different types of writing – everything from a teenager’s angst-ridden diary of her love life to columns by both semi-professional and professional journalists – that I can’t accept her catch-all condemnation. So far as I can see, when Blatchford talks about blogging, she is referring to any sort of writing published online.

In other words, when she says it’s not just because she’s a Luddite, I have the feeling that, yes, it is because she is a Luddite. She sounds worried that the ability to write something publishable is debased by the Internet, but, mostly, what I hear in her complaints is the cry of the middle-aged, bemoaning the fact that the world has changed.

Mostly, I find her fears groundless. Yes, online-publication – whether you call the result a blog, a column, or an article – is now open to everyone. However, the ability to write a piece that someone will pay to publish remains the dividing line between the professional and the amateur. Expertise – to say nothing of the ability to make deadlines — still matters, and, so far as I can see, always will.

The fact is, writing remains writing, regardless of the medium. The ability to choose worthwhile topics, to research and express them, are not diminished by the Internet. They are still rare skills that people respect and will pay for accordingly. If anything, suck skills stand out all the more in the new tidal waves of illiterate and self-indulgent prose.

As the old signature tag used to say, it was once thought that an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know that isn’t true.

Admittedly, the ease with which readers respond online does create a new relationship with writers. And this relation is scary, and takes some getting used to, because readers assume an absolute egalitariansm with the writer, and do not automatically respect the writer. A professional online writer has to learn the give and take of such a relationship, and learn when – and when not to – take its demands seriously.

Much more so that the traditional print journalist, the online writer has to develop careful filters for reader commentary, knowing that much of it is worthless and that conflicting opinions often cancel each other out, yet remaining open to the small percentage of valid criticism. They have to learn not to take abuse seriously, nor praise either. Online writers also need to budget their time, to ensure that they do not lose too much time in endless debates with readers (my personal rule is to respond no more than twice to any except in exceptional circumstances).

But, if all the increased commentary gets irksome at times, online writers can at least take comfort in the fact that people are reading. They may be misunderstanding, taking thoughts out of context, and using your ideas as a starting point for their own rants, but they are reading. And, in the case of online publications, the audience can consist of millions rather than the tens of thousands for traditional journalists – figures that any writer is sure to appreciate.

I am equally dubious about Blatchford’s concern about running out of stories. Journalists don’t concoct stories out of pure imagination; they respond to the events on their beat. In my experience, the problem is not finding a topic, but deciding which one most deserves coverage or is most interesting to you or your readers. And deadlines, I find, are a marvelous antidote for writer’s block. Would Blatchford, I wonder, have the same concern about the number of columns she has left in her?

However, Blatchford has been a professional journalist much longer than I have, so I can’t completely discount the possibility that I won’t have the same concern when I have her experience.

Apparently, I am on the other side of the digital divided from Blatchford, even though I am probably not that far from her age. My own journalistic career is almost entirely online, except for a handful of print articles each year, and the conditions that Blatchford seems to fear are simply normal working conditions to me. But it seems to me that the worries of Blatchford and other traditional journalists are nothing more than a fear of change, and mostly groundless. Change happens, but most of it is far less revolutionary than the claims of its supporters.

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