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Blogs and Media: It's the Reputation, Stupid!

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At a recent media event hosted for people in public relations, I listened to a small group of computer trade journalists opine about blogging. After all of the discussion, one thing is clear: they just don't get it.

As the head of a professional services company, I have acquired a rather diverse (and strange) set of duties, including spending time talking to media and thinking about public relations. A techie by nature, I do not like any kind of “media event” but I go to them because I want to understand what is going on inside of the heads of the writers whose articles talk about the trade. I need to understand what their issues are if I'm going to communicate with them effectively, and I need to know how they think if I know how well I can evaluate what they write and whether it's worthy of consideration.

Quite a few words in the media have been devoted to blogging. I suspect that all of the chatter about blogging has less to do with the interests of the Traditional Media's readership and more to do with the interests of Traditional Media. Less delicately stated, these guys are not covering a story: they're worrying about the future of their industry and their jobs. In other words, the “traditional online media” are themselves blogging and the “traditional print media” are, well, tlogging. (That's print + logging; analogous to web + logging = blogging.)

I must give credit to the media types who come right out and say that they don't get it. It cannot be easy, especially for people presumably covering the computer industry, to say that they don't understand some “tech phenomenon.” These remarks generally follow with the list of objections that generally centers around the lack of editorial control and quality assurance.

Newsflash for you guys in media: readers don't much believe your spew, even with all of your journalistic standards and editorial process. These are fine and upstanding in their own right, but let's face it: they didn't stop Jayson Blair from leaving a prolific record of deception in front of a national audience at one of the most respected papers in the country. Neither did they stop CBS News from airing a scathing report on President Bush's military service shortly before what was projected to be a very close election, that turned out to be heavily based on forged documents. Neither did they manage to filter out the more sensational version of events in connection with the rescue of a young soldier.

Concern over “traditional media” vs. “new media” is really much ado about nothing. The fact is that the delivery mechanism is just a technical issue that has very little to do with the content itself. Any newfangled thing gets lots of scrutiny and the people on top worry aloud that someone else might come along and knock them off of the top of the proverbial hill. To see how quickly it happens, one only need to look at the emergence of the Web. Presently, the concern over blogging from everyone established is about editorial process and quality control. Beware! You can't be sure that what you're reading has been vetted! Of course, in 1997, the same thing was being said about publishing on the Web. Until people started to look at how to make the two media complement one another. If we dig through old newspaper editorials, I'll bet we find the same argument about television and radio news. What's really comical is that if you go back far enough, you'll see a time when newspapers were just as wild and unfettered as today's blogs. (Can you seriously imagine a newspaper consistently referring to a sitting U.S. President as “His Rotundness”?)

As for the content of blogs being like diaries more than news reports, it might be interesting to observe that this is the characterization offered by the Traditional Media types trying to describe this crazy thing that's driving them batty. Maybe blogs wouldn't sound so scary if described in terms more familiar to people who think about media, so I shall offer my own. Blogs vary in form, but are often personal editorial pages.

That someone might be taking fiction for fact is a legitimate concern, but it has nothing to do with the delivery mechanism. Print media has more than its fair share of fiction and tripe. Why don't we have so much wringing of the hands over these specimens of print media? Because everyone who finished sixth grade understands that, “photographic evidence” on the cover notwithstanding, A PREGNANT MAN DID NOT GIVE BIRTH TO TWINS. The reputations of these publications have been fixed and discerning readers respond accordingly.

There are, of course, always people who will believe fiction in the face of contradictory fact. Some of them read mainstream media. Others work in it. Through their actions, people demonstrate themselves either rational or irrational. Rationals are not fooled by irrationals forever.

Like magazines, newspapers, and Web sites, blogs carry with them a name. Even those written anonymously are published with a consistent name: an address where readers can find the writings. Something with a name has reputation. That's why the New York Times and CBS News fired people in the cases outlined above: those organizations want their reputations to be independent of the reputations of Jayson Blair, Mary Mapes, and the others. Bloggers who care not about their reputations will not cause the universe to come to a grinding halt; they'll merely become the personal equivalents of the Weekly World News. Bloggers who care about their reputations will subject themselves to editorial process and will correct themselves when it turns out that they are mistaken, which will certainly happen, especially if they're publishing real-time as issues develop. The end result to the reader, then, is no different from what happens at the New York Times or CBS News. The influence of news, whether in print, broadcast, or online is based on the reputation of the provider. No one can cry wolf ad infinitum and still have an audience. Perhaps Traditional Media would do well to learn this lesson before it makes itself completely irrelevant.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-06-13 08:46 AM

An interesting take..

Posted by Shawn at 2005-03-10 04:08 PM
As someone involved in traditional mediait's refreshing to see I'm not the only one who feels this way. I've grown up in the print media world, neem a writer for a few years now and serve on the IT side of the business as well. Traditional media suffers from exactlly what the name implies.. it's far too Traditional in its approach.

Those journalistic standards are nice but in the edition of much of the content, especially features content, the media tends to cut out a lot of the edge andemotion of the work. That is what connects with people, not the words themselves but the emotion and thoughts evoked by those words.. and in many cases the print media at least misses this point as the writing is becoming more and more neutered and staid.

The blog is just another tool of expression and can be a valid method of information delivery if standardsof truth are applied. Audio-blogs as well.. they can expand the information service news provides by giving another aspect of a story just like video does for TV. There is a problem in that newspapers are becoming marginalized as an information source.. sure they provide in-depth news when compared to TV but by web standards they have to run light because of the realities of production and paper cost.

Let's hope that the traditional media outlets of today and tomorrow can come to recognize that the information is the product and not the method of delivery as you suggest.

Blog comments

Posted by Ratatosk at 2005-08-25 01:27 PM
I have been quite intrigued by the blog movement, particularly with the raging comments sections. Based on my personal observations, I think there, if anywhere, some danger might lurk. This seems particularly true on political blogs. First, commenter sections often range far afield of any useful editorial comment posted, and the quality of commentary drops to something akin to UUNet on Cocaine. Second, I've observed that commenters seem to glom onto a particular blog that shares their reality tunnel on a particular issue. If Joe Blogger thinks that we're doing great in Iraq, he may tend to attract readers that share his belief, there appears a strong likelyhood that his editorials will support that belief, and his comment section fills up with supporting rhetoric in support of that belief. This could easily lead one to live in a very narrow reality tunnel, where the only data that exists is data that supports their view... any data contrary to their view, must simply be more of the vast MSM conspiracy.


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