Questions answered on business blogging

By Felix Salmon
April 13, 2010

I got an email this morning from a journalism student with a few questions; I thought if I was answering them I might as well do so on the blog, for anybody else interested.

1) How and why were business bloggers able to gain so much respect in the business world that companies are now inviting some bloggers to press conferences?

This one, I have to admit, made me laugh. Companies will invite pretty much anyone to press conferences: you don’t need to be respected. One difference between bloggers and journalists is that bloggers actually want to go to press conferences, and are flattered to be noticed and invited. As a result, they’re much more likely to write about them than journalists are. So inviting bloggers to press conferences is a good idea for all concerned. Remember that press conferences aren’t meant to be private, exclusive affairs: they’re designed to get information out to as many people as possible.

2) In your opinion, why do you believe that some bloggers are able to gain a big following despite the fact the blogger may have no formal training in journalism?

As someone with no formal training in journalism myself, I don’t know whether j-school trains people to develop a big following. I suspect, though, that it doesn’t. In my experience, j-school graduates tend to be quite earnest people who care a lot about the important role that journalism plays in a democracy while being less good at throwing caution to the wind and making mistakes. But as I like to say, if you’re never wrong, you’re never interesting. One of the best posts on this subject came from Gawker’s Gabriel Snyder, after Ian Shapira of WaPo accused Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan of stealing his story:

Hamilton succinctly digested Shapira’s piece and gave his post a headline (“‘Generational Consultant’ Holds America’s Fakest Job”) and lede (“The fakest job corporate America ever created was ‘Branding Consultant’ — until now”) that probably resembled what Shapira wanted to write but couldn’t.

All too often, I fear, a “formal training in journalism” just means that journalists self-censor the good and funny bits of stories that bloggers naturally latch on to. What’s more, bloggers have a much more natural voice and personality than journalists do. So it’s only natural that bloggers will get more of a “following” than some guy who writes straight-down-the-line stories for the local newspaper.

Then, of course, there’s the very germane fact that many highly successful bloggers didn’t get a formal training in journalism because they were too busy getting a formal training in the thing they’re writing about — business, finance, economics. The likes of Yves Smith or Brad DeLong or Simon Johnson or John Hempton are popular partly because these people know what they’re talking about and actually do it; it’s surely an advantage to be able to use first-hand rather than second-hand knowledge when you’re writing about something.

3) What does business blogging do to the future of mainstream business journalism outlets?

Well, in the best-case scenario, it makes them much better. Mainstream business journalists, if they’re smart, will read a lot of blogs and get a lot of insight from doing so; that’s going to make their journalism better. What’s more, blogs will drive lots of extra traffic to the best business journalists. Today, WaMu is all over the news; the best reporting on that story to date has come from the Puget Sound Business Journal. A few years ago, their story would barely have been noticed outside Washington State; now, anybody can read it, and people all over the country and the world do just that. (When it isn’t behind a firewall, of course.)

Journalists are often very competitive and feel that if anybody else is writing about what they’re writing about, that’s probably bad for them — especially if the rival outlet is very popular. But blogging doesn’t work like that: most of the time, when it’s done well, it’s full of external links, often to original journalism. Blogs are a great way for good journalism to get noticed, instead of being buried and ignored on page B7.

4) What does a business blog offer that is not offered by other media?

Attitude, links, wit, expertise, voice… all of these things exist in other media, but they come together in the blogosphere and are often absent elsewhere.

5) In your opinion, why did the U.S. Treasury in 2009 reach out and invite well-known economics bloggers to meet with Tim Geithner, the secretary of treasury?

Treasury spends a lot of time talking to reporters. Most of the discussions take place between hacks and flacks, but a lot take place between hacks and those famous Senior Treasury Officials, including Geithner. All of those officials are political appointees, so it should hardly come as a surprise that they cultivate relationships in the media. But of course the media is bigger now than it used to be, and even after the two blogger meetings at Treasury, I’m sure that the ratio of time-spent-on-bloggers to time-spent-on-journalists is much lower than the equivalent time-spent-reading ratio among media consumers. What’s more, bloggers tend to ask deeper questions, and spend less time on insidery political horse-race issues; officials who want to grapple with substantive issues often prefer talking to smart and sophisticated bloggers.

Overall, my feeling is that if mainstream business outlets embrace the blogosphere, they’ll do well. If they shun it, however — and paywalls are one good way to do that — then they’ll have a much harder time of things.

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