Earlier this month I watched Newsnight Review on BBC2 and saw Kirsty Wark and Paul Morley discussing the recent death of Christopher Hitchens. One comment of Mr. Morley’s rankled with me. He said “5000 bloggers are not worth one Christopher Hitchens”. “Hmph!”, I grunted and tweeted “…True, neither are 5000 TV critics in black polo neck sweaters”.
It is commonplace for the mainstream media to denigrate bloggers and attention is usually drawn to the mediums very real failings: Blogs can be abusive, poorly thought through, dreadfully worded, awfully spelt and the facts are rarely checked. Many blogs have all these failings and more but professional journalists whining about bloggers are a little like aristocrats sneering at working class speech.
If we invert the failings attributed to blogs we get the strengths of the mainstream media. Like all large organisations, newspapers divide work into specialisations. They have specialist proof readers, specialists fact checkers and specialist editors. Given this production line approach it is not surprising that the BBC scores higher than most amateurs when it comes to “production values”.
Should we, then, ignore blogs? Should we limit our reading to the mainstream press? We may as well ask if we should ignore Rock and Roll. Like Hollywood the mainstream news media are very adept at the techniques of their profession but the industrial approach can produced results which seem contrived and predictable. If blogging has any advantage it is authenticity.
Prior to the printing press most people would have been unable to read and public discourse would have been dependent on numerous personal interactions. A discerning individual would have given less credence to the boor and more to the wit but the onus on differentiating would be down to the individual.
With the arrival of newspapers in the 17th century the news began to coalesce around a standard version of the truth. In the 19th century wire services such as Reuters further accelerated standardisation by providing identical information to its customers. The style or opinions became what differentiated one publication from another.
For as long as I can remember The News Of The World had been full of gossip to be taken with a pinch of salt while broadsheets cultivated a reputation for more accurate reporting. As readers we learned the difference but though the style varied the agenda remained broadly the same.
As with much of our corporate 21st Century, the mainstream news media has come to resemble a cartel. If we visit the web sites of the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, BBC News we see that the agenda is very similar. While they report different viewpoints, they still represent a bottleneck for ideas and information and are effectively setting a standard news agenda at least at a national level.
The Internet is challenging this status quo as was shown dramatically with The Arab Spring and the Occupy Protests. Ordinary people are setting their own agenda and even have their own news wire in the form of twitter. As events unfold in real time the mainstream media are forced to play catch up. It’s messy and difficult but there are as many opinions as there are individuals and the blogosphere merely reflects this reality.
An article in The Economist (December 31st 2011) stated “..it is hard to argue that the internet has cheapened the global conversation about economics. On the contrary, it has improved it.” and went on to say “…blogs have brought experts … out of the shadows.”
The mainstream news media have become a vested interest and, as with lawyers or gas fitters, they scorn the idea that anybody else could do their job. They do this by raising themselves up as gurus and denigrating those who threaten to replace them as incompetent. The mainstream media still provide better standards of quality control but, if all they do is package news and disseminate it through web sites and apps then they are not much different from a blog. The difference is further burred by sites such as The Huffington Post or the Guardian’s Comment Is Free which feed articles written by bloggers into a more professional looking framework.
Certainly the writings of Christpher Hitchens were superior to most amateur blogs but then Mr. Hitchens did not have the encumbrance of earning a living in a different field. One reason that mainstream journalists are competent is that they have spent their professional lives honing their competence. Some, like Mr. Hitchens, may rise further by dint of personal attributes such as individualism, iconoclasm and determination. Others cling to the technical paraphernalia of their profession to distinguish themselves from the amateur. As the mediocre artist relies on dressing in black and a well groomed 5 O’clock shadow so the mediocre journalist relies on grammatical pedantry.
Like any other profession the real threat to journalists lies, not with amateurs, but with industrialisation. Companies are now emerging such as Wordsofworth and Vivatic which outsource article writing and proof reading to individuals via The Internet. Their business model is to source articles from competent but cheap writers and flog them on to multiple sites which use them to pad out advertising. These sites are not looking for inspiration or controversy, they are looking for “content” and they effectively reduce the value of articles to that of filler.
The hope is that new media will provide greater access to public debate and challenge entrenched opinions though this is by no means certain. As some bloggers gain credibility, some journalists will find themselves paid peanuts to write 500 words on cup cakes. Sean Parker, founder of Napster and Facebook’s founding president has said “What we don’t have are good organising tools so that institutions, which have hierarchy which have management, can actually leverage the power of social media to get things done in a consistent and sustainable way”. Presumably Mr. Parker is now developing tools to enable power to be leveraged by consistent and hierarchical management.
We may be living through an interregnum. The Internet is a disruptive technology but its long term effect on public discourse may be to just shake out the chaff. If the mainstream media want to remain relevant they need to focus on nurturing thoughtful journalists who produce pungent and insightful articles. In this respect the blogosphere may be a much needed kick up the arse.