My friend Benjamin and I had a very interesting talk yesterday about the subtle — and not so subtle — differences between journalism and blogging. Our conversation was born as a result of the New York Times implementing a wildly expensive paywall, but mostly from our years-old debate about English and grammar and my continuing dissatisfaction with the feeds I’ve subscribed to.
Benjamin, if I may paraphrase, claimed that the information you can get from bloggers is just as — if not more — accurate than you can get from a professional news source, and much more timely. And while this may be true (the latter almost certainly), there are a few other distinguishing points which ultimately provide my willingness to pay for professional, quality content.
Disclaimer: I obviously consider myself to be a blogger, not a journalist, and recognize that I am guilty of each of these points. I’d also like to point out that professional publications have their own problems, and are far from perfect. I am merely pointing out why I think it’s important to not limit yourself to reading blogs as your only source of information.
In my ongoing quest to find the ideal feeds to subscribe to, I’ve found that quality and timeliness are generally inversely related for individual’s blogs (and any other page-view seeking site). Because of a blogger’s freedom from journalistic responsibility, he is likely less patient to wait until all the facts are verified before posting. This is the reason I stopped reading The Unofficial Apple Weblog many years ago (yes, I absolutely consider TUAW a bunch of bloggers): rather than checking their facts, they were too eager to be the first to post “news” and relied only on subtle updates to pages once proved wrong. (Also worth noting is the sheer quantity of some bloggers’ posts is hard enough, making it hard enough to weigh which is worth reading and which isn’t.)
Publications like the Economist or the New Yorker, both behind heavy paywalls, publish on a set schedule. This, on one hand, gives writers a “hard deadline”, and on the other means there’s no benefit to rushing to print. I appreciate this also because it gives me more time to think about a given topic that’s everywhere in the news at a time, rather than being overwhelmed by it. Consider the current nuclear scare in Japan: Chinese language publication sina.com.cn published an article (Google’s English translation) listing only false rumors that had spread from bloggers within mere days of the earthquake.
Similarly, journalists tend to have a higher level of integrity than bloggers. This, of course, isn’t true across the board, with even the Times calling Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a vigilante, or by having two definitions of words like “torture” depending on whose side they’re on.
But accuracy refers not only to the content, but also the way the content is delivered. After working at a multinational corporation where the best English speakers were born in non-English speaking environments, and reading emails day after day in which people request that I do things for themselves (eg “please do this for John and myself”), I have become even more sensitive to grammatical errors than I was before. (Muphry’s law applies here, and after living in China for four years, I hardly expect this article to be free from errors.) One need only to read a few articles from TUAW or Beautiful Pixels to learn how to misuse a comma. Whether this is truly important is subjective and up to the reader, but the number of times I’ve had to reread a sentence and the time I’ve wasted trying to understand the intended meaning behind a poorly structured sentence has drawn me even farther away from bloggers.
The most common pattern now is for bloggers to link to other pieces several times per day, providing comments and opinions for each, and to write their own quality, usually longer, piece only a handful of times per week. This, in many ways, solves the issue that I have with other publications of frequency (either too much or not enough), by providing both thoughtful pieces and also short overviews of alternative perspectives. However, this creates a new problem in its range of content.
Merely because blogs are written by an individual, each post has essentially been approved by one point of view. This is generally true for any source of information, whether it be John Gruber or Fox News, but even if one attempts to read a wide range of blogs, the “blogosphere”, and its tightly knit community, tends to give one topic more emphasis at a given time, often making it appear as though it is the only thing happening. As a clear example of this, consider the New York Times paywall: if I didn’t read each of these feeds, would I really care that I’m only allowed to read thirty articles a month before I need to pay a subscription fee? Or the Twitter “dickbar” here here and here? Benjamin used the iPad as an example — would I want an iPad 2 as badly as I do if I didn’t keep reading about all of its even minor features?
Then consider professional publications such as the Times or the Economist, each which have such a large staff that they are continuously able to publish articles on a vast range of topics.
Despite my tremendous efforts in subscribing to high quality tech bloggers that represent a wide array of opinions, the surprisingly small community ends up linking to itself time and time again. Other publications, such as the New York Times or the Economist have their own problems in this regard — namely that the average reader will likely only check articles in a particular subject anyway — but from my own personal tech blog subscriptions, I tend to believe that the whole world is only focused on one topic in any given week.
Still not Perfect
There’s a balance to seek between reading only blogs or only long time publications. Both have their own problems, but I truly hope, with the rapid change of environment, bloggers do not take over the world of news. I still haven’t found that balance, but have found the feeds that I continuously go back to are the ones that consider themselves journalists rather than bloggers.
March 20, 2011