One of the most important functions of newspapers, we are told, is that they produce professional content that no one else can. Investigating and breaking news stories is the most commonly referenced example. “If newspapers didn’t exist,” the argument goes, “bloggers wouldn’t have anything to write about.”
There is some truth to that statement: the vast majority of chatter in the blogosphere is reaction and commentary rather than original reporting. Even opinions and analysis are usually rehashed from professionals. Last month at the 2009 Interactive Exchange (IN09) Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President of English Services for CBC, repeatedly insisted that blogs and web 2.0 websites do not create content, they only distribute content. “If old media dies,” Stursberg told conference attendees, weeks before announcing massive layoffs at his corporation, “I don’t know who’s going to make content.” (Paraphrased from memory.)
On the one hand, I agree that a professional news media is and has been a critical component of democracy. The fact that this model is breaking, and will probably break completely before a replacement is found, is of concern. But what also concerns me is the fact that old media appears to be going out of its way to hide and deny the positive contribution that new media is making. One specific event this past week helped to convince me of that. (More on that below.)
Listening to newspaper veterans speak you’d believe they have a monopoly on overturning rocks and introducing new information. That’s nothing more than a wishful delusion. The fact is that by its own criteria, the news media has been doing a bad job, and others have started to pick up the slack. One Canadian political example that comes to mind is the blog Buckets of Grewal, which played an important role in uncovering some key facts regarding the Grewal tapes scandal. (I’ve had a few much more humble achievements myself. For example, I’ve not seen anyone else report on the connections between a supposedly independent study about the Hummer and the Hummer’s manufacturer, nor do I know of any columnist who noticed some disturbing parallels in two news events separated by a few years.)
Instead of being honest about examples of bloggers contributing to the news industry, old media, and newspapers in particular, would rather bury those examples in favour of promoting the popular image of bloggers as parasites to media companies.
When I was on staff at Torontoist, a popular Toronto news, events, and culture blog, we accepted with a sense of inevitability that whenever we were lucky enough (or, dare I say, good enough) to get an exclusive story of any significance it would usually appear in Toronto’s newspapers the next day without credit. Proving that we were the source of many of these stories was almost impossible of course, but there was a definite pattern, and I’m told journalists at the Toronto Star sometimes confided privately that we were indeed being cribbed. And then there were some situations, including this January 2008 incident involving the Toronto Sun, where full sections of our writing happened to appear word-for-word in print without attribution. (In that case, the Sun ended up apologizing, kinda.)
This past week, my old Torontoist colleague Jonathan Goldsbie authored an excellent example of the kind light that bloggers can shine through the cracks that news stories pass through as they fall. Responding to a reader letter, Goldsbie decided to get to the bottom of a Virgin Radio bus ad that some found offensive. (And by “some,” I mean anyone who thinks it’s not particularly funny for advertisements shown in the transit system to make jokes about subway suicide.) Goldsbie did a lot of original research, connected dots that others had missed, and ultimately was the catalyst for having the ads pulled.
It’s a big story, and it was covered prominently in Toronto’s newspapers the next day. But while the Globe and Mail at least gave some small credit to Torontoist for bringing the ad to the TTC’s attention, the Toronto Star’s article was aloof and vague on the question of who actually broke and developed this story. And neither paper, in my opinion, gave Goldsbie and Torontoist the credit they deserved.
There’s a reason newspapers are behaving this way. Their industry is in free fall and they don’t know what to do about it or where the bottom is. No one does. So they’re afraid, and fear triggers “behaviors of escape and avoidance.” (Wikipedia)
That’s a reason, but not an excuse. The smart thing to do would be to embrace what may be early glimmers of the future of journalism. Unfortunately, there are indications that at least some papers are more comfortable clinging to the declining models of the past.
ps. Right before I hit publish on this post, John Dickerson of Slate magazine tweeted about another great example.