Saturday, March 01, 2008

Blogs meet Old Media

At the heart of Web 2.0 is the idea of user-generated content. While the vast majority of blogs probably are crap, some of the more popular ones play an important role in the dissemination of news. As a result of this, their relationship with the older media sources has been a rocky one. But as blogs have become more popular, "old media" has tried to bring new media into the fold. The result has been a clash of cultures.

In her article about blogs which I keep referring to, Sarah Boxer criticised the paid bloggers attached to newspapers and magazines. Part of the problem with these ventures into blogging lies in a cultural divide - asking reporters to blog tends not to work, while "organic" bloggers are unlikely to be a good fit in the newsroom.

Hank at Scientific Blogging commented on an article published by Neil Thurman1 in the journal New Media & Society in which Thurman looked at the adoption of web 2.0 concepts by the British news media. Thurman found that, as of 2005, only the Guardian had really done much to incorporate user-generated content. While they all saw users as a source of information, they preferred to incorporate it into older paradigms - bulletin boards, polls and restricted areas for feedback. Hank wrote

I read things like this and I shake my head in wonder. Web 2.0 today is like the WWW of 1999 in many ways. People thought if they threw up a website to sell dog food, it would somehow be better than buying dog food down the street. In the past 8 months I have had phone calls from various journalists or media reps who have wondered why our brand of Science 2.0 has worked well and others have stagnated.

The answer is simple; let people write.
Some of the areas of conflict that Thurman writes about are cultural: a reporter works to deadlines, with editors, and is taught to fact check. Bloggers are more like columnists, writing when they feels like it, about whatever catches their fancy. To make matters worse, they are constrained by stereotypes.

There is a stereotype of blogs as being misspelt, semi-literate rants. Like any good stereotype, it has an element of truth. But it isn't necessarily true. Wikinews, which is classic user-generated content, is a decent news source and is generally well written. Like any wiki, it's possible for better writers to correct and polish content added by others.

Other stereotypes are that blogs don't contribute anything new, they simply work of the reporting of established news media and, as mentioned in the Thurman article, the fact that a blog tends to be more about the blogger than about the story - the personality gets in the way. Again, there is some truth to these assertions, but they aren't necessarily the case. Most notably different is Talking Points Memo (and its associated projects). While TPM is the creation of Josh Marshall, his personality never overshadows the news (except for the occasional pictures of his son). TPM has done original investigative reporting and recently won a Polk Award for their coverage of the US Attorneys firing scandal.

Bloggings (as both a medium and a style of writing) has most to offer to traditional media when it is incorporated into the system. TPM has done it very successfully.

When is comes to science writing, science blogging can be superior to conventional ways of reporting on science. While there are excellent science journalists, there are also many who lack the necessary understanding of the material they are covering. Science bloggers, because they have a depth of knowledge of the field about which they write, are excellent sources for the communication and dissemination of science. And very often, they can be incorporated into traditional media.

  1. Thurman, Neil. 2008. Forums for citizen journalists? Adoption of user generated content initiatives by online news media. New Media Society 10(1): 139-157 doi:10.1177/1461444807085325

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