Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 22, 2008 7:05 AM

Newspapers Are A Conversation But Some Journalists Disagree

A traditional journalist is always going to flare up their own Google Juice when they write a piece titled, I'm Not Blogging This, Mark My Words, like Christie Blatchford did yesterday in the Globe and Mail (full disclosure: I write a twice monthly business column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun - both Canwest Publishing properties). A whole bunch of thoughtful writers have posted their own thoughts about it (my two favourites are: The Praized Blog - News Is Conversation and Matthew Ingram - Blatchford Pines For The Monologue), and I highly recommend taking some time to read Blatchford's piece. It's a living testament to one of my favourite quotes of all time: "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." (General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army as quoted by Tom Peters in the book, Re-Imagine).

Blatchford's piece is a must-read because her actual reasons for not Blogging and the value this new media brings to society highlights how much the world has shifted.

"...now there is blogging, and comments. Readers may take 30 seconds to post a comment on a story or blog item that a writer dashed off in a minute. On The Globe website, our slogan is 'Join the Conversation,' but in the blogosphere, what follows isn't usually a conversation but a brief, ungrammatical shouting match. You can have more pensive chats in a bar fight... And journalism wasn't meant to be a conversation, anyway. It was maybe a monologue, at its most democratic a carefully constructed dialogue. If readers didn't like or agree with the monologues in paper A, they bought paper B. What was most important about their opinions was that they thought enough to spend the coin."

It's a tough pill to swallow. I thought that newspapers were always meant to be the way a community informed itself? Everyone could not know everything and be everywhere, so we appointed scribes (writers, journalists) to gather this information, package it and distribute it to the masses. As a Journalist myself, I always knew that my role was to ask a musician the questions that the public wanted to know, take that information and feed it back to them as a service. If I wasn't asking the right questions or getting the appropriate answers, my loyalty was to the readers. The only way I would know if I was doing my job is feedback and having very passionate conversations in person (or through the mail). Granted, there wasn't much wiggle room for a conversation in that type of media, but isn't that the whole beauty of Blogging and where technology is taking us? Now, the last period at the end of the last sentence of any news item is where the real story begins.

"It is not true that anyone can write. It is not true that anyone can write on deadline. It is not true that anyone can do an interview. It is not true that anyone can edit themselves and sort wheat from chaff. It is not true that even great productive writers like The Globe's Jim Christie or Ms. DiManno or Mr. Farber can hit a home run every time they sit before the laptop. But the odds of them doing it are greatly increased if they haven't already filed 1,200 words to the Web, shot a video, done a podcast and blogged ferociously all day long... Most important, Michael Farber is right. We all have a limited number of things to say, informed opinions, funny lines, quirky observations. We have only so many words in us. Do we really want to spend them on something as ephemeral as a blog?"

I think anyone can try to write (and has the right to express themselves). That being said, writing isn't the issue, readership and audience is. Who cares how many newspapers, Blogs or Podcasts are out there? If someone finds value in any of this content, they stick with it. If they don't, they move on. I've seen terribly written newspapers with huge readership (just go check out the tabloid section of your local newsstand) and I've seen the most brilliant of Blogs build up readership that trounces the New York Times, Washington Post and Time Magazine combined. This is what I call Digital Darwinism - your content does not evolve because you are using the latest and greatest technology. Your content evolves when people read it, connect to it, share it, tell others and continue to pay attention to it.

I also disagree that writing is based on the scarcity model. As someone who has been writing professionally since the mid-eighties, I find the more words I put out there, the more channels I try, the more creative I get, the easier it is to find my words, the more I self-edit and the more creative I get. I'm not going to become a better writer by doing it less... I'm going to get better by doing it more. I don't Blog less when I'm writing a book (as I am doing now). If anything, I find the need to flex those muscles more. My self-defense coach, Tony Blauer, used to say, "practice does not make perfect... perfect practice makes perfect."

In this new media world, "time to press" and new technology is not the enemy. One's attitude towards the changes and reality of a world where anyone can publish for free and express themselves is the new enemy. I cherish Blogging because I can embrace the haters, freaks and geniuses. I can gage the value of my content based on the readership and comments (or there lack of). It forces me to think even more about what, exactly, I am going to say when my readers are now my fellow community members and their words and thoughts get the same featured value.

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Ramiro Caso
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch, long time since my last comment. I just wanted to say that I totally agree with you. I think readers are the heart of blogging and that, despite all the junk that may be out there, people should give it a try and express themselve, because you never actually know when or where you are going to find something of value. I´ve learned that from Clay Shirky´s ted talk (have you seen it? is great!) and his blog. He ideas on cognitive surplus are great, and it´s all about all the value that regular people are creating when they start to share information.
    Have a nice weekend!
    P.S: I´ve followed the advice you gave in Toronto and it´s been working great!

    Reply
  • Posted by Joe Boughner
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch,

    Great post. I read Blatchford's column and I can't believe some of her arguments. She does make some valid points but they are buried in the self-righteous, ill-informed nonsense you rightly identified.

    Your point about the scarcity model. I don't believe that I have a limited quality of good sentences in my head. I think writing is craft; one you get better at with practice.

    I also found it really, really rich that it was Blatchford herself who wrote this. I find her writing to be absolutely terrible. It's a matter of opinion, of course, but it's hard for me to take her seriously as she defends the purity of the craft when she churns out what I consider to be high school drama class prose.

    And as a parting shot, I think your tweet about this post was very generous in calling Blatchford a journalist. She's a writer, for sure, but I don't consider what she does journalism. She's an opinion writer that occassionally gets sent to cover news events (and don't get me started on columnists crossing over into straight news land).

    Reply
  • Posted by Amrita Chandra
    Mitch Joel

    Any time there is a shift in a market there will be a camp that decries it. It was the same when film photography was being introduced as an art form and now when people are going digital.

    I agree with your points, particularly that no one is forced to read a blog any more than someone is forced to read a newspaper so the wheat will separate from the chaff in all media.

    Final point - even in traditional media, people are being hired for reasons other than their talent or ability so they are not automatically above the level of other folks who may choose blogging as their medium.

    Reply
  • Posted by John Carson
    Mitch Joel

    Hey Mitch,

    Nice long post. The point that Blatchford missed is that editorials have always been blogs. I expanded on that here:

    http://blogs.gcigroup.com/fineprint/2008/08/21/fyi-there-is-joy-in-blogville/

    Cheers,
    John.

    Reply
  • Posted by Laura Corcoran
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch,
    I think that any time we engage in conversation it's a result of someone or something reaching/touching us - otherwise why bother participating?
    How could that possibly be a bad thing?

    Reply
  • Posted by Rob
    Mitch Joel

    Pertaining to this line of thought, I recently read a blog post titled "What makes the "severe contest" more severe?" from The Economist (http://theeconomistonline.blogspot.com/2008/08/what-makes-severe-contest-more-severe.html) that touches on the philosophical origin of the magazine via founder James Wilson.

    In Wilson's introductory article in The Economist's debut issue in 1843, he remarks that despite growing prosperity and the extension of "morality, intelligence and civilisation" that the class divide was worsening in Britain due to “commercial restrictions�, declaring that "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy timid ignorance obstructing our progress."

    Long story short, the blog post goes on to challenge the notion of what The Economist should be today by engaging its users in this discussion. Starting at the philosophical undertones and moving forward with its valuable readers is important towards crafting a long-term global information dissemination strategy. As Ben Edwards says: "If our problems are global, the ideas we find to solve them need to be global too – and they have to influence and shape the behaviour of a global audience."

    If local and/or countrywide newspapers can't compete with the new media world--as described above or as seen in countless digital media circles--then we will see their relevance dip further.

    Reply
  • Posted by Mario Parise
    Mitch Joel

    There is one point that Blatchford got right, which we're largely ignoring. Editors are amazing. I've seen it myself where on the rare occasion that I've worked with an editor, the quality of my writing is dramatically improved. It's very rare, though, that we find a blog that goes through a good editorial process.

    So here's a practical idea on how to address that without losing any of the great qualities we love about blogging. Let's start partnering with other bloggers. Before hitting publish, run that post by a colleague. The worst person to judge your work, in my humble opinion, is yourself. If bloggers started working together like this, I think we might see a real spike in the quality of our writings as well as our effectiveness in retaining readers.

    (By the way, I myself have not started doing this yet, but I wish I did. I can see LOTS of room for improvement in my writing, but it's always well after the fact.)

    Reply
  • Posted by Andy Strote
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch,

    Good one. I'd read Blatchford's article and knew this would get blogged about. Maybe that was her idea?

    Reply
  • Posted by hugh
    hugh

    cf. blatchford's article about comments in newspapers.

    today there was a really interesting article about Aeroplan in Globe and
    Mail. I still can't get my head around that business, but seems innovative
    and "exciting". a powerful article, doing great service to brand aeroplan in
    the minds of investors etc.

    now. check the comments.

    whoa. different story.

    so, because of comments, my info on aeroplan (as a potential
    investment/partner/customer/client etc) is *totally* different than w/ o the
    comments. i have a whole other range of information to process. i don't know what to think, exactly, but i have a new found skepticism about
    the company:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080822.r-cover23/Commen
    tStory/Business/home

    point is: comments can widen the discussion significantly. for *business* writing, and perhaps all jounalism, that should be essential.

    Reply
  • Posted by Brandon Carlos
    Mitch Joel

    "journalism wasn't meant to be a conversation, anyway"

    This reminds me of that Bob Mccown commercial where he's talking about how he doesn't care whether his audience likes him or not. Sometimes, public figures in positions of power grow too big for their britches, but remember this: the only reason you are where you are is because of us, the audience.
    A conversation does not have to be reciprocal to be had. Bottom line, every piece that a journalist writes is satisfying an outside demand, and that demand is created by the audience, the listeners.

    Reply
  • Posted by Mark Silver
    Mitch Joel

    I think there are two valid points in what she was writing about, although I don't see how they apply against blogs- only blogging badly or mindlessly.

    One point does have to do with scarcity.

    Now, I've been writing content since the 1990's (earlier, actually, if you count high school and college newspapers), and I've never run into any overall scarcity- I always have more to say. :)

    However, I do run out of creative juice in any particular day. If I'm working on a book, and needing to write for my blog, and write my weekly article all in the same day, my creative juice runs out at some point, and I need to recharge. I'll have plenty to say, but not until the next day.

    I can't sit and write creatively, thoughtfully, and have real fun at it for eight hours straight. It just doesn't work like that. So, I do find myself being careful about how I plan my "creative" time- not in scheduling it out too much, but just in not piling too many creative deadlines on top of each other.

    The other point that Mario mentioned is about editors. Fortunately for me, my wife is a fantastic editor, and our employee is a professional editor, and so I've benefited HUGELY from being edited, and edited regularly, sometimes the red ink rises like a deadly high tide... my editors would've cut that last simile.

    Anyhoo-- I disagree with her take on blogging, but I think these are valid points that anyone who hopes to use their writing to make a living would do well to take in.

    Thanks for linking the article and commenting on it- very interesting read.

    Reply
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