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Bloggers and Pro Journalists – Created Equal?

Matt McGee’s latest Hyperlocal Blogger post, Local Bloggers are Getting No Respect, caught my eye this morning with its reference to a NY Times piece on the current local news climate.
As a disclaimer, be it known that I so support the potential power and creative opportunities of hyperlocal blogging that I wrote a big 5 post series encouraging the practice last year. I find hyperlocal blogging to be one of the most exciting recent developments in the evolution of the web, and I empathize with Matt’s dissatisfaction with the apparent dismissal of this media form as ‘woefully incomplete’.
A Jewish news organization, JTA, recently drew serious criticism from the tech-savvy public by sending out newsletters which contained this quote:

Without a strong JTA, the storytelling will be left to bloggers, twitterers and non-professionals. Is this the best way for our future Jewish stories to be told and recorded?

I agree with the expressed opinion that statements like these appear to display both a mistrust of technology and a disdain for that class of writers being termed non-professional. Remarks like the above can come across as both old-fashioned and even aristocratic in sensibility. Nevertheless, I think there is a core of truth in the quotes Matt’s article is referencing, and I will play devil’s advocate for a moment here to outline why I feel this way.
The Worth of Scholarship
I, personally, don’t have a problem with making a distinction between a professionally-trained writer and a self-made one. It isn’t that the quality of writing is guaranteed to be superior when emanating from the trained professional, or even that professional journalists are better suited to writing by dint of talent, insight or skill.
Yet, a person who is so committed to the craft of writing that they have gone to school for it, or received training or an apprenticeship in some meaningful way in their approach to their trade has, I think unquestionably, shown a dedication to the field that appears more concrete than the unproven ground of the writer whose major preparation efforts have only included the acquisition of a WordPress account.
The Internet boasts blogs with exceptional writing and writing that borders on illiteracy. As blogging has evolved, the best bloggers have honed their skills to the medium, perfecting their understanding of the style, voice, length of content and formatting that succeeds in winning a loyal readership.
In point of fact, successful bloggers often act as writer, editor, publisher and ad man all-in-one, wearing many of the hats you will find in the traditional newsroom. But for most of these writers, the experience has been that of flying by the seat of the pants, learning the craft as the craft emerged, contrasted to the newly-minted journalist whose first professional steps fall in the well worn tracks of a tradition that dates at least as far back as the Han Dynasty of China, considered by some to be the cradle of news reporting.
Bloggers sharing tips with one another about paragraph length and maximizing conversions is a generous and meritorious fact of the industry, but it does not compare well with the romantic and time-honored image of the old news man apprenticing the newcomer to the skills of the trade, and no universities that I’ve heard of allow students to major in blogging. It’s tradition vs. evolution and as local newspapers across the United States continue to fold, I wouldn’t want to be guilty of failing to recognize the areas in which traditional news, to date, offers benefits that may not be assured in the hyperlocal blogging world. Let’s consider:
With the exception of news publications that trade on having a specific political or religious bias, news reporting is meant to be impartial. Professional journalists are trained to present the facts, subtracting personal opinion from the scenario in order to leave it to the reader to make up his mind on a given subject. A hyperlocal blogger, publishing under his own steam, has no professional obligation to report in a bias-free manner. He is perfectly at liberty to criticize public figures, institutions and his local neighbors based upon his personal experiences, if he so wishes.
If newspapers disappeared and you were the sole republican living in a town with only democratic hyperlocal bloggers, your chances of getting accurate reporting on local politics would be endangered, unless the bloggers have followed the lead of traditional news reporting.
Old Jobs/New Jobs
As a woman who makes her living from the Internet, I’ve come to think of work as falling into two classes: old jobs and new jobs. In my view, old jobs are the kind you go to at 8 in the morning and clock out of at 5. You have to fulfill a certain number of hours of office time a month to receive payment. New jobs involve getting work done in whatever time it takes, in whatever location you choose. Content of work and not minutes on the clock is what is valued in these types of scenarios that have been made abundantly possible with Internet connectivity. New jobs work excellently for responsible workers, and a dedicated hyperlocal blogger is just as capable of providing daily news as the New York Times.
But if newspapers disappeared, and your hyperlocal news bloggers were flakes, you might only get news a couple of times a month because the blogger didn’t ‘feel like it’ on a given day. In other words, newspapers are obviously committed to publishing daily news. Unproven bloggers may come and go as they wish. Reliability could become a serious issue in many areas of the country and world if newspapers were to disappear.
Basic Skills
Errors certainly make it into newspapers, but there is an editing process in place to catch the majority of them. Few solo bloggers, by contrast, have editors and a day seldom goes by that I don’t find myself reading a blog post that is speckled with typos, misspellings, grammatical oddities and awkward language. I have watched in a kind of amazement as articles rife with errors have skyrocketed to the top of Social Media sites, and have even read discussions between bloggers who claim that this kind of sloppiness doesn’t bother them if the content in question is good.
All writers make errors. This blog post I am writing right now may have an error or two in it, even though I will read through it twice before hitting publish. The New York Times has likely published hundreds of thousands of typos since its inception. But, sloppiness is not their hallmark, nor is it the hallmark of any publication wishing to be thought of as professional. Professional journalists acquire the basic skills of writing correctly, and when they make mistakes, they have editors to clean up the copy before it’s presented to the public.
If newspapers were to disappear, you could find yourself living in a town where none of the hyperlocal bloggers have polished writing skills or qualified editors and reading the news could actually result in people becoming less educated and literate than more so.
No Doubt, Money Is Key
If bloggers lack a professional, traditional commitment to impartial reportage, consistent production of content and basic training in the correct use of the English language, they can only provide a very unsatisfactory replacement for the print news we know today. However, I can think of a factor that has the power to change all of these ‘ifs’ fairly rapidly, and that factor is money.
Should hyperlocal blogging actually become the public’s preferred information resource, and should that scenario provide a true living wage for the bloggers in question, I predict that hyperlocal bloggers would:
1) learn to write impartially when dealing with news in order to avoid scandal, lawsuits and reciprocal personal attacks
2) commit to publishing on a scheduled basis in order to maintain reader loyalty and, obviously, in order to maximize profits
3) be able to hire skilled editors to ensure that an acceptable quality of content is being maintained
I do believe that, given serious financial backing, there is good reason to predict that hyperlocal blogs will follow the same path that print newspapers once did – evolving from somewhat haphazard and small concerns into truly professional publications. If hyperlocal blogging entities can find the funding, make the commitment and pair this with a sense of responsibility to the public welfare, then there is simply no reason why they cannot succeed.
Lest I’ve Sounded Too Negative…
Hyperlocal blogging is new. Where I live, there is no single hyperlocal blogging entity in place that would truly be capable of replacing the major local newspaper…yet. It’s hard to know whether a picture will emerge of single blogs covering single areas of specialization or whether multi-author blogs may function as newspapers do, with each blogger focused on his own beat. Maybe the big fish will eventually swallow up the little fish, or maybe people will be fine with going to numerous sources for all of the kinds of information they once found between the front and back pages of the daily paper.
Greg Sterling recently told what I found to be a rather poignant anecdote about subscribing to a print newspaper in order to give them a little support in troubled times, only to find that, by the time the paper was delivered, he had already read the major stories it contained on the web. Greg is what you might call technologically adept, but his experience might safely be seen as a foreshadowing of the experience that may come to the common man in the coming years. And certainly, this change of loyalties and habits would become a necessity very quickly if newspapers were to disappear.
I don’t like the feeling I have when I hear someone say it’s the end of an era. I think about people’s jobs and their psychological well-being; I think about the Han Dynasty, about America’s first rough and raw newspapers, so fresh and full of the love of liberty. Rushing gaily ahead, burning bridges behind me, is not an action that appeals to me, especially when those bridges connect to a powerful, fascinating history. But, if hyperlocal blogging, in some form or another, is to become the way future humans gather key information about their local world, here are 3 things I urge the news men and women of tomorrow to seriously consider:
Don’t Sell Out
Money is key, yes, but if your deals with the wealthy mean you have to print slanted nonsense that serves industry rather than public good, you aren’t doing your own society any favors. Too many of America’s news sources are now simply mouthpieces for moneyed interests whose motives are the opposite of philanthropic. If you’re going to revolutionize news delivery, try being truly revolutionary by finding backing from clean sources run by people who love truth and liberty as all Constitution-honoring Americans should.
Edify The People
If, a moment ago, I sang the praises of newspapers making correct use of the English language, I will now take a moment to deplore the modern approach of both print and television news of speaking to the worst student in the class.
Traditional media have consciously chosen to dumb down spoken and written language to an extreme that has left reporters looking just this side of literate and fluent. While there is something to be said for making news accessible to the broadest possible audience, abandoning scholarship and eloquence has not created a more learned public. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario in which speaking stupidly to people has wound up with people speaking stupidly. I’m saddened and alarmed by the poor communication skills and paucity of vocabulary I encounter in the business world and amongst young people.
Distilling news into little more than a text messaging hiccup may make sense when paper and air time are so costly, but hosting costs pennies a day and you have all the space in the world, so to speak. Why not use that space to elevate literacy by making robust usage of our idiom? It can only create a more educated public.
Win With Grace
Google is winning the local information game, turning Yellow Pages into nothing more than a memory in many households. And yet, Google has yet to win the game intelligently, and has instead produced a highly flawed, highly inaccurate web publication of local data to replace the relatively organized and correct old phone book.
The Google Local Business Center, as it currently stands, does not deserve to beat out Yellow Pages, but it is doing just that because of what I see as a combination of massive visibility on the part of Google and a never-ending hunger for whatever is newest on the part of the public.
Our parents and grandparents were raised to worship anything that could be labeled progress and my generation and people younger than myself seem almost impelled to reach for whatever is the latest thing, often carelessly casting behind us whatever is so last year.
If hyperlocal blogging one day becomes The News, I would like to see hyperlocal bloggers be smarter than this. I would like to see them learn from the history of journalism, and from traditional journalists, themselves. I would like to see journalists making smart career changes that put them in the blogging seat, equipped with their experience, skills and traditions. And, I would like to see this transition enacted with grace and recognition for the worth of older media forms rather than a sneering disregard for yesterday and a headlong approach into the future without taking any real time to learn from the past.
I would like to see truly serious bloggers consider these three points as they attempt to create the future of news. If for no other reason than that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it and that bloggers must look to the day when blogs will become obsolete, now is the right time to look at how journalists and traditional publications are handling the changing times. For anyone who believes that an educated public is dependent upon informed and educated media, it’s a good time to give thought to these things.