Awarding online journalism

By Felix Salmon
November 13, 2009
Loeb awards. A Loeb is one of the high-prestige gongs that important business and financial journalists love to award to each other, and it's a fundamentally conservative animal: the NYT and WSJ always get lots of nominations and awards, and the winners are generally the kind of long-form investigative pieces which, say, the Pulitzer jury loves as well.

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I got a phone call this morning from one of the judges of the Loeb awards. A Loeb is one of the high-prestige gongs that important business and financial journalists love to award to each other, and it’s a fundamentally conservative animal: the NYT and WSJ always get lots of nominations and awards, and the winners are generally the kind of long-form investigative pieces which, say, the Pulitzer jury loves as well.

So what happens when the Loeb jury tries to drag itself into the 21st Century and honor online journalism? My guess is that it’s going to be in baby steps: the first winners are going to be newspaper brand extensions like Dealbook or Alphaville, and maybe one of those labor-intensive interactive data dumps that the NYT’s digital team is so good at. (Up until now, the Online award has gone to big Flash-based projects on newspaper websites, which isn’t at all what online journalism is really about.)

But if the Loeb jury wants to go further and start honoring new and disruptive forms of online journalism, they’re going to face enormous difficulties. First there’s the difficulty in defining what even counts as journalism in the first place. If the awards need to go to professional journalists at accredited media organizations, that automatically excludes 90% of the internet, including highly-respected blogs — Calculated Risk, say, or Mark Thoma, or Nouriel Roubini. And insofar as a few great bloggers get picked up by larger media outlets (Mike Konczal, Baseline Scenario), that’s precisely because those media outlets recognized them as being extremely good online journalism before they were picked up. It’s silly to restrict your awards to people who feel like they can or should accept an offer of being hosted on a major media outlet’s website.

What’s more, the biggest and most successful game-changers online have been startups: Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Politico, and the like. In the business space, TechCrunch, The Business Insider, and many others are setting the pace for what can be done with imagination, hard work, and a lean, aggressive attitude. Yet at the same time it’s almost inconceivable that the Loebs would honor Henry Blodget for his work, given his $2 million fine for securities fraud.

And if they wouldn’t honor Blodget, they’d never dream of honoring a site like Zero Hedge, which has shown what’s possible when you throw out the entire journalistic rulebook and indeed attempt to disintermediate journalists altogether. Zero Hedge is undoubtedly an important game-changer, and is also rather influential, but it doesn’t really belong in a journalism awards ceremony — as I’m sure its founders would agree.

It’s harder than that, though: the problems with drawing the line are dwarfed by two bigger problems. First is the problem of nominations, which are normally, for the Loebs, handled by managers deep within the media bureaucracy. Executives at media organizations nominate their own stories, which are then handed out to the judges; who’s going to nominate blogs? If bloggers are asked to come up with a $100 entry fee themselves, only the most self-aggrandizing will do so, and that’s going to skew the results enormously.

Bigger still is the problem of judging. Blogs are a conversation, and a lot of the value they add lies in their comments sections and in the interplay between each other. The unit of quality for a blog is the blog itself, a living thing, rather than any individual blog entry or even series of entries. The only way to judge blogs is to read them and interact with them in real time. That just doesn’t work in the context of a Loeb jury, which consists of important and busy journalists receiving packages of printed-out entries and then sitting in their armchair reading them in sequence. It’s hard enough to get them to watch all of the broadcast entries; it’s simply impossible to ask them to start regularly reading a list of blog nominees.

So although the sentiment is admirable, I think the Loeb jury should think long and hard before trying to extend its own brand into the online space. If it wants to expand, maybe it should do so in print, by giving awards to punchier, more aggressive business sections — not just the FT, which rarely gets Loebs, but even places like the New York Post. A couple of awards for art direction, in magazines and newspapers, would fit into the ceremony much more easily, and would be a welcome sign that the Loebs award journalism which isn’t just Important but is also accessible and popular and easy to read. Blogs don’t need the Loebs to give them recognition, and any attempt to go down that road risks embarrassing all concerned.


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I don’t know if you read your comments, but I’ve got to adamantly disagree with you on this one. Call the judge back – tell him you’ve changed your mind. The answer is to integrate blogs into all the existing categories, instead of setting up a ‘blog of the year’ type category.

Let’s start with a counterexample. A couple of years ago, TalkingPointsMemo won a Polk award for its coverage of the US Attorneys’ scandal. It didn’t debase the awards. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like what it was – a recognition of some of the best and most important journalism of the year, which happened to appear online in a form that would scarcely have been recognizable if it had been printed out on paper.

But maybe the way to make this case is by addressing your specific objections. The first thing to remember is that the Loeb awards, like most journalistic prizes, are mostly given for an individual story or package of stories. These stories are judged not only on the quality of the writing, the importance of the topic, the originality of the information – but also on an unstated criterion, the breadth of their demonstrable impact. Loeb doesn\’t hand a prize to the WSJ for providing the most useful business coverage, day in and day out. (SABEW does, but it\’s fundamentally different – a guild recognizing its own.) A writer can win a prize by penning a single superlative story, even if the rest of what the newspaper in which it runs publishes is unreadable. So your objection about the emergent qualities of blogs may be valid, but is no different than the status quo ante – jurors never read the totality of the work, and always make their decisions based on isolated examples that may miss an essential quality of the writer\’s opus or a publication\’s general utility.

So we\’re not talking about awards for general excellence. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I\’ll suggest that you imagine submitting your coverage of Ben Stein. You\’d assemble a limited number of blog entries (more, I think, than the three-story maximum for print outlets – 5? 10?) and offer them to the judges as a package of links. That way, they could click-through on the hyperlinked text, and browse the comments and reactions. The nomination, and award, would be for a specific story. And it could be judged against other stories.

Very few blogs would enter such a contest, but not because of fear of self-aggrandizement, or the cost of the entry fee. Very few blogs would enter because, for the most part, this isn\’t what blogs do well. Most good bloggers aggregate, provoke, question, and provide a steady stream of content. That\’s great – and there\’s no reason that old-line awards programs should try to judge that. Very few perform original research, or make the phone calls or wear out the shoe-leather to obtain fresh data. And that\’s fine. But on occasion, blogs actually do contribute high-quality reporting that drives a story of national importance, outpacing and outclassing other outlets. And when they do, they ought to be recognized by the same criteria as any other journalist.

That leaves the last, messiest category – the prize for commentary. Many financial bloggers would, in theory, be eligible for this prize. And very few of them would deserve it. How many bloggers offer as informed a perspective or as influential a voice as last year\’s winner, Joe Nocera? Some certainly do; a few, arguably, do better. But again, we\’re talking about a very, very small number of potential entrants. In 2008, for example, the award might have gone to Tanta. Not for \’blogging,\’ any more than Nocera won for \’newspaper writing.\’ It\’s not about mastery of a given form. It\’s about insight and influence.

So it wouldn\’t be that hard, I suspect, to open the contest up. The key would be to avoid placing \’blogging\’ in a segregated category of its own, but instead, to integrate it among the other entrants in existing categories. It would probably require a few other tweaks as well, like a different form of submission and a larger number of posts. Loeb/Anderson should also waive the entry fee for any entrant not employed by a professional news organization. The crank entries and marginal contestants would be easy to weed out. For the most part, the people who would take the time and effort to submit their own work or that of a colleague would be those who genuinely believed that work to equal or exceed anything else published in the past year in the category. And once you frame the question that way, I think it becomes clear that there is some stuff in the blogosphere at that level, but that it\’s as rare there as it is in print. And when it happens, it deserves to be recognized alongside the best work that’s appeared in any format.

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To that lengthy screed, let me add two other points. The first is that if Loeb is actually trying “to encourage reporting on these subjects that would both inform and protect the private investor and the general public,” then it really needs to pay attention to the blogosphere. A huge (and rapidly increasing) number of Americans go online to get their news, and that’s probably more true of finance than of other categories of reporting. If Tim Geithner is serving cookies to bloggers and trying to woo them, then for Loeb to ignore them would be to seal the irrelevance of its broader mission.

The other is that we’re not talking about blogs, but bloggers. And many bloggers do, in fact, crave and deserve the recognition that a major award provides. It’s a brutal media environment. Job security is scarce. Independent bloggers often have day jobs, even if they’d rather blog full-time; bloggers working for major media organizations are no more secure than most other reporters, and subject to some pressures (page view counts, for example) that they are not.

But media outlets treasure prestigious awards, and have traditionally been willing to make large investments in order to obtain them – and handsomely rewarded those journalists who win them. A Loeb is business journalism’s closest equivalent to job security – not necessarily at any given media organization, but even if a Loeb-winner loses his job, he has a decided leg up on getting another. I know journalists who would kill for a Loeb, a Polk, a Pulitzer. And I know bloggers who would, too. It’s more than respect, or recognition from the dinosaurs of the print world. It’s about proving that blogs offer journalistic value far beyond their economic pay-off – and that, surprisingly, isn’t always the way they’re viewed by old-line news organizations. Where awards go, resources follow. So this has more than symbolic importance.

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