Loebs and blogs don’t mix

By Felix Salmon
May 25, 2010
I had some advice for the Loeb judges: don’t start up a blogging award, it won’t work. They responded by making me a judge — not of the blogging award, but of the Magazines category. The preliminary judging was held in Los Angeles in March, where the shortlists were decided. Today, the shortlists were announced, and I believe that the winners have now been decided.

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Back in November, I had some advice for the Loeb judges: don’t start up a blogging award, it won’t work. They responded by making me a judge — not of the blogging award, but of the Magazines category. The preliminary judging was held in Los Angeles in March, where the shortlists were decided. Today, the shortlists were announced and I believe that the winners have now been decided.

Reuters nominated me for the Online Commentary and Blogging category and I didn’t make the final four. And this is the point at which according to convention I should talk about how wonderful the nominees are and how any of them will make a worthy winner. But I won’t, because this award is broken — and indeed is even more broken than I had thought it would be when I first wrote about it in November.

To understand why, put yourself in the position of an editor who asks a writer to start up a new blog. The writer agrees, but the blog never takes off. The writer insists on filing carefully honed and balanced self-contained news analyses and does so only every few weeks. After a handful of these things, the blog is abandoned as a failure and the writer continues doing the old-fashioned journalism he’s clearly good at.

Well, a blog just like that is a finalist for the Loeb award. After filing the grand total of 21 blog entries over the course of all of 2009, Jim Prevor, or his editors, picked the best three and submitted them, along with a $100 check; the blog had already been killed by that point and Prevor has posted nothing this year.

The judges were under quite specific instructions. First, they had to judge the blogs by exactly the same criteria used by all the other judges:

* News Value: insight, informative qualities and durability.
* Originality and/or Exclusivity: enterprise and discovery.
* Reportorial Quality: thoroughness and balance.
* Writing Quality: clarity in dealing with description, concepts, findings and complex issues.
* Analytical Value: application of current economic thinking, breadth and depth of coverage, contribution to helping readers see complex issues in a new light.
* Production Value and Visual Impact: (where applicable).

Without violating any confidences, I can say that the judges did just that and did indeed, for instance, look for “balance” in the entries they were judging. That was, after all, their job.

But it gets worse: the judges were also told that although they had to judge the entire submission, they could judge only the submission — and remember that the submissions comprised the grand total of three blog entries. Everything which makes a great blog great was, essentially, placed out of bounds by this restriction. Here’s what I wrote in November:

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.

At least I thought that they would try; that a number of different blogs would be submitted and that somehow the judges would attempt to pick the best ones. But in fact it never even got that far. The Loeb award for Online Commentary and Blogging is an award not for a blog but rather for a submission of exactly three blog entries, with the concept of a blog being stretched far enough so as to include another of the finalists, the Economist’s Online Debates.

The other two finalists are more familiar to the blogosphere: Francine McKenna‘s single-minded blog on auditors and David Pogue‘s chatty blog at the NYT, where he interacts with the readers of his technology-review column. Certainly it’s impossible to imagine either of them being nominated for any other prize at the Loebs, but that just underlines how weird this award is: it’s meant to recognize that great business journalism has moved online and into the blogosphere and should be awarded when it appears there just as when it appears in print or on TV — but in doing so it seems to be happy to give up some quite specific standards of what great business journalism should be.

If something like Pogue’s Posts would never get a Loeb nomination if it was a front-of-the-book column in a weekly tech mag, what’s it doing getting a nomination here? It was certainly helpful to me, during my deliberations as a judge, to ask whether I felt that this particular article was worthy of winning the most distinguished prize in business journalism. But it’s hard to apply that question to the two new categories this year — blogging and Personal Finance, which by its nature is servicey and tends to retread the same ground repeatedly. Indeed, one of the finalists in that category was at heart a reworked version, with more of a personal-finance perspective, of a story which appeared in the same newspaper more than two months earlier. Does it matter to readers if a personal finance story doesn’t break news? Of course not, so maybe that shouldn’t be a criterion. But then you’re treating that category differently from all the others — and if you’re going to start doing that, then you should definitely start judging blogs for what they are, rather than as something which can be judged by reading three posts.

“Cynic”, in the comments to my blog in November, says that while blogs deserve to be considered for Loeb awards, they should be considered for existing awards, rather than being shunted off into a new, unhappy category which many bloggers didn’t even bother to enter. (Yves Smith, for instance, genuinely considered the email from the Loeb awards to be spam, since it sent her off to a funny-looking Australian awards site which then asked her for cash.) There’s already a Commentary award, featuring three great finalists and Michael Wolff; it would be great if that last spot were taken by, say, Ezra Klein or James Kwak. Then, I think, it might really mean something if a blogger won a Loeb. Instead, someone is going to go home on June 29 with the blogging award, having beaten out three other finalists whose work bears no resemblance to what they themselves do. The fact that all four finalists are online doesn’t make them similar in a way that allows judges to judge them against each other; in reality they’re so different that such a determination is to all intents and purposes impossible.

Every so often, I’m approached by someone who has an idea of giving out some awards for business and finance bloggers. I normally try to scare them away by telling them that simply judging such a project would necessarily involve a lot of work. The Loebs took that incredibly difficult task and tried to make it manageable for the judges; in doing so, they failed themselves. And so the Loebs’ first foray into the blogosphere is, as I feared it would be, both unbecoming to the Loebs and utterly irrelevant to the blogosphere.

Update: Cynic’s comment is well worth reading.

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