How blogs have changed journalism

March 16, 2011

Benzinga’s Laura Hlebasko sent me some questions about blogs and online media for a feature she’s writing. Here they are, along with my answers:

1) As an established journalist, what is the difference between you writing an article for traditional media and you writing an article for a blog? What do you like and dislike, or see as the benefits and limitations, of those mediums when you are reporting on a topic?

I find pretty big differences in how I write, depending on whether it’s for a traditional media outlet or for the blog. I have a more conversational voice on the blog — I think of any given post as being part of a much broader conversation between bloggers and between me and my readers. Nearly all of my posts are reactions to something elsewhere online, and I try to be as generous as I can with links. I’m also not one of those bloggers who likes breaking news: often I’ll actually wait for the news to be broken elsewhere before weighing in with my view, since it can be dangerous to mix subjective opinions into the reporting of hard facts.

Traditional media outlets, by contrast, generally have an incomprehensible love affair with Microsoft Word — a piece of software I loathe and try to use as little as possible. It’s generally more difficult to insert links, especially when I’m dealing with people who edit for print first and who then just put that edited copy up online. The pieces have to be much more self-contained, and you have to be much more careful about assuming any kind of expertise on the part of your readers: if they’re reading your stuff on paper, then it’s much harder for them to Google anything they don’t understand.

The upside of traditional media is that you generally put a lot more time and effort into reporting, editing, and illustrating stories. They go through many iterations before being published, and nearly every iteration makes them better. What you lose in quantity, you often make up in quality.

2) Most of the talk about blogging and its impact on traditional journalism has centered around declining readership and revenues for traditional print media, questionable credibility of blogs, etc., etc.,– what are some of the unseen, underreported, or not-yet-fully-realized impact of blog reporting vs. traditional journalism?

The main impact I think is the way that blog reporting can iterate. In traditional media, you report the story and then you publish it; with blogs, you can start with something much less fully formed and then come back at it over time in many ways and from many angles. Every print journalist knows the feeling of publishing a story which is read by great sources who then provide lots of really good information which would have been great in the original piece. Bloggers don’t worry about that: they just put up a new post, or an update.

Blogs can also geek out in a way that traditional journalists can’t. There’s no space constraint online, and so if I want to spend 5,000 words writing about vulture funds, or a reporter at HuffPo wants to spend 4,000 words getting into the weeds of regulatory reform, they can. Or look at the Ars Technica reviews of every new Macintosh operating system. That kind of material can be incredibly popular, but it just doesn’t work in print. Blogs have a reputation for being superficial, but they can also be much more detailed and accurate than traditional journalism. Not to mention the fact that they’re often written by genuine experts in their fields, rather than by journalists.

3) How do you think blogging has changed the nature of the news and information people consume? Since blogging allows for more reader-driven content than traditional newspapers, what do you see readers choosing to focus on in terms of news?

Blogging has clearly given readers a much wider range of news sources to choose from, and it’s great that readers are no longer confined to getting their news from a handful of outlets. Everybody’s different, though: some people become loyal to certain sites, others get their news from Twitter or Facebook or Google Reader, others still just follow links from the AOL home page because they haven’t updated their browser settings since 1996. In aggregate, it’s easy to see what people are reading: just look at the ubiquitous “most-read” lists which are on pretty much every news site these days. But the aggregate figures hide a wonderfully diverse range of unique individual reading patterns. And the more you generalize, the less useful the information you’re getting becomes. The web is much better at narrowcasting than it is at broadcasting.

4) How has Twitter impacted journalism?

It’s made news reporting much more distributed: no photojournalist produced anything like this, for example. It’s massively increased the velocity of news: people now know what’s going on before it’s formally reported. It’s made it easier to find things you didn’t know you were interested in. It’s given journalists a much more human voice, an outlet where they can be themselves. It’s helped build a culture of linking to wonderful stuff. It’s made the world smaller, and it’s made news travel faster than ever. Overall, it’s been great.

5) Are there any aspects of journalism that are “untouchable”, that won’t (or shouldn’t) change no matter what new technology comes along?

I think that depends on what you mean by journalism. Professional journalists should always be beholden to high standards of professionalism, ethics, and accuracy. Random people with a Twitter account, not so much. And of course there’s a spectrum between the two, there isn’t a bright line.

6) What is/are the main way(s) blogging has evolved since you began, and how do you see it evolving both on its own, and in its effects on journalism, in the future?

Old-school blogging, where an individual puts their own work up on a dedicated website in reverse chronological order, is clearly on the decline. It’s been replaced by Twitter and Facebook, on the micropublishing end of things, and by big professional sites like Business Insider or Huffington Post, at the other end of the spectrum. Mainstream news organizations have all embraced blogging to a greater or lesser extent, although a lot of them use the existence of blogs as an excuse not to do much in the way of external linking elsewhere on their websites. In general, news sites are becoming bloggier, with more assiduous editorial standards, while big blog sites are becoming newsier; that trend is likely to continue. But it’s still possible to make a name for yourself by starting a blog! And it’s also a great way of improving your writing and general communication skills. More people should do it!


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