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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