What’s the blogging story?

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There are some questions I didn’t realise were still worth asking. Is blogging journalism? Will blogging kill journalism? Can bloggers save journalism? So I was a tiny bit surprised to find myself talking about all these at a Bristol Festival Of Ideas event last Friday. As far as I’m concerned, the definitive answers are “sometimes”, “no” and “not completely”.

Blogging is a platform, and just like print it hosts good practitioners and bad practitioners. It’s well established now as a complement to straight news – so much so that most newspapers publish their comment sections in a blog format online. Meanwhile, a Wired feature by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff argues that the rise of the app market means that the open internet in which blogs have thrived will soon be eclipsed. Media companies might just have found what they want: a way to use the astonishing distribution potential of the internet and make readers pay for it.

Which means the time when blogs were serious competion for an audience’s attention and money could be on the way out – a good thing for the financial security of the journalism industry and its employees, a bad thing if you like the way the web opens up journalism to non-pros with a story and scrutiny-minded amateurs.

The debate I took part in made me realise that not everyone is thinking that way. For some  journalists, bloggers remain an exisential threat – forgetting that there are plenty of journalists who blog professionally, or who self-publish extraordinary reporting and testimony, or who do so as an unpaid addendum to their employment. For some bloggers, blogging is the scourge that will clean up a corrupt mainstream media – forgetting, natch, that there are plenty of bloggers as billious and hateful as the worst newspaper employees, and that bloggers have seemingly worked hand in hand with traditional media outlets to get some truly grotesque non-stories going (Guido, The Mail, I am giving you a squinty look).

One of the strangest points in the discussion was when the idea of a code of conduct for bloggers came up, and Brooke Magnanti suggested that bloggers already had their own code of conduct, pointing to the fact that while her identity was known to some in the blogging community, none of those who guessed chose to sell her out. To me, this only says that bloggers are a group with shared social norms that value anonymity: that one principle means nothing in terms of accountability to or honesty about people who aren’t bloggers.

In the Saturday workshop, the delegates from the Bristol NUJ seemed to tentatively approve the idea of extending NUJ affiliation to bloggers and inviting them to adhere to its code of conduct, which is quite good. I hope they do. Bloggers – I think, anyway – are quite likely to become workers for media companies over time, and it makes sense for the union to cultivate the sympathetic ones from early on whether they ultimately turn pro or not.

There were some objections to this from NUJ members: one suggested that bloggers should be required to suspend posting in sympathy with industrial action, because they believed that blogging counted as supplying copy if a journal scraped the content to fill a page. Tagging bloggers as blacklegs for being plagiarised struck me as highly daft, and showed a real lack of understanding about how copyright applies to work published online. Which means that, if the happy anarchy of the web really is on the wane and blogs with it, some people still have a lot to learn before it’s all over.

If you’re really interested in the discussion, you can watch the video above – with contributions from Roy Greenslade, Anton Vowl, Sunny Hundal, Iqbal Tamimi, Brooke Magnanti, Elisabeth Winkler, Kevin Arscott and Donnacha DeLong (yes, there was a vast panel, and it probably didn’t help the discussion to stay focused). I can’t because it’s excrutiating to hear myself talk.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Farewell, Aarowatch

Aaronovitch Watch claims to have watched its last Aaro:

the Times is going to go paywall at the end of this month, and that seems to us like a natural point to bring “Aaronovitch Watch” to a close. Whatever the ease or otherwise of getting Aaro’s weekly column on the down-low, the fact is that with his disappearance behind the paywall he’s going to be a less influential and less important columnist – with the passing of New Labour as well, this was always going to be the case anyway.

In the wider “World of Decency”, I also feel that a historical moment has largely passed by. There are still imperial wars out there, of course, still ludicrous double standards on human rights and even the New Labour project is not 100% dead yet. And Harry’s Place and Normblog and all will presumably continue to be as ghastly as they ever were, while Nick Cohen is unlikely to shut up as he is to ever write a readable column again. And all of these baleful social phenomena will still have their crowd of cheerleaders from a soi-Decent Left perspective, with willyoucondemnathons and all. But, well, do you care as much as you did five years ago? I know I don’t. If we carry this thing on beyond its natural life, it’s almost certain to end up as another site about bloody Israel.

Aaronovitch Watch, 20 May 2010, “Closing down sale”

(Prescient, because a week and a half later, the flotilla happened and even the most reluctant blogs threatened to become “another site about bloody Israel”.) I can’t remember exactly how I first found Aaronovitch Watch – probably by googling some combination of the words “Nick Cohen” and “is wrong” – but it’s been one of the best things in my RSS feeds ever since I subscribed to it.

As well as rustling up well-informed analyses (not just of Aaro, but of pretty much any rhetoric from the bizarro world of liberal beligerance that huddled under the tag of Decency), Aaro Watch has always been pleasingly provisional. Loads of blogs are written on the premise that the author knows a Great Deal about something and you have come to imbibe their worldview; the writers of Aaro Watch say things like, “It’s perverse, but I like being wrong. If I’m not wrong at lot of the time, I know I’m not trying hard enough.”

And, probably because the blog has always been written in explicitly discursive style, a strong and interesting community of discussion has gathered around it. I’ve only ever been an irregular commenter on there, but the threads are always worth reading: long without turning cyclical, smart and usually funny too. I’m going to miss that part of the blog maybe even more than I’m going to miss it as a centralised location for Nick Cohen abuse.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Mr Blog

We’re a two-blog household now: Nathan has just filed his first post for Un Chien du Cinema, an effort to apply some public shame as an encouragement to his PhD writing. Visit him, support him, ask him tricky questions about Freudian thory and abuse him for excluding Robocop from his thesis.

It’s not the BBC, it’s you

Are you interested in newsprint, the survival of print journalism and the impact of online communities on news distribution? Don’t bother with Nick Cohen’s column in the Observer this weekend, then. It’s not just Nick who comes over as clueless: the same issue features Barbara Ellen sniping on Twitter as a pointless tool of “uber-narcissists”, and a full-page feature of recipe-tweets (ah, not so pointless when you’ve got some ink to spill). But if the Observer is still reeling from the shock of the tweet, surely they’ve had time to reconcile themselves to the idea of blogging?

Oh no, not Nick. Starting with a metaphor that makes no sense and skittering on to a conclusion that has no depth, Nick’s column reads like a howl from the bowels of ignorance:

Professional journalists in the age of the internet look as doomed as blacksmiths in the age the combustion engine. Local newspapers are disappearing. National newspapers and commercial TV stations are seeing the web take their advertisers.

Even the gloomiest forecasters expect there will still be a few reporters around in 2025, but as with blacksmiths, we will be curiosities.

Leaving aside Nick’s self-identification as a reporter (you’re a columnist, Nick: say it with me, own what you are), let’s sharpen our teeth on that opening analogy. Journalist = blacksmith, internet = internal combustion engine. Blacksmiths made a product that was essential for the use of horse-drawn transport but unnecessary with motorised vehicles; journalists make a product which can be transmitted through newspapers and broadcasting, and which can also be transmitted via the internet. So a more appropriate version of Nick’s figure of speech would be something like, “Professional journalists in the age of the internet look as doomed as grain merchants in the age the combustion engine.” Sure, it lacks that alarmist edge, but at least it’s tending to accuracy.

Nick’s really worried, though (this week, anyway). Here’s why:

The best reason for wanting my colleagues to survive is that serious reporters and broadcasters offer a guarantee that what they say is true. If they stray, their editors impose journalistic standards and insist on objectivity. They may not have the best or fullest story or the most vivid account, but readers should be able to assume their work is reliable, while a blogger’s commitment to objectivity can never be assumed.

I know. Here’s Nick Cohen, scribbling away for the newspaper that sold the MMR and WMD scares with the ferocity of a blind bear with a bee up its arse, telling everyone else about the very serious journalistic standards that stop him and every other hack from telling outright untruths. Astonishing. It’s possible that it’s not the internet so much as the incompetance that’s been herding consumers away from newspapers. But Nick, with another badly thought-out non-story to trample through, is too busy kicking the BBC to take a self-reflexive look at the journalistic failings of his own medium.