Bloggers and, not vs., the traditional media

Posted on August 26, 2008

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Today’s discussion on the alleged conflicts between the mainstream media and the blogosphere (Who’s Driving Whom: the Blogosphere vs. the Mainstream Media) ranged widely across a variety of topics that could have used several hours of discussion each. By its very nature, it was topical at best, distracting in an interesting way at worst. But by the choice of moderator and panelists, it was clear that the point of this panel was not to address how bloggers and the MSM are at each other’s throats, but rather how they could, and should, work together in a symbiotic fashion.

Arianna Huffington moderated a panel composed of one blogger, one media executive, and two reporters who also run blogs in tandem with their traditionally journalistic pursuits. And one of the first points that moderator Arianna Huffington made was that she didn’t view the supposed conflict between the MSM and the blogosphere as an actual tooth-and-claw battlefield like many members of both groups seem to. The only panelist who seemed to disagree, and I’m not entirely sure that she actually did disagree entirely, was Digby, founder of the Hullabaloo blog. And her issue seemed to be largely based on the fact that, in her view, the MSM has lost most if not all of its credibility.

Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei pointed out something that my fellow scrogues and I have debated among ourselves repeatedly since the founding of the site – the revenue model, or rather the lack thereof, for the blogosphere. Newsweek politics commentator Jonathan Alter said that it takes $1.5 million per year to put a reporter into Baghdad, and as yet there’s no blogging-based revenue model that’s sufficient to pay for embedding a reporter with the military in Iraq or for months of research required for an in-depth investigative report.

Jonathan Alter also suggested that maybe large companies like Google or Yahoo! might find it in their interest to start funding long-term reporting. I had the opportunity to ask Maffei about that idea after the end of the panel, and he found the likelihood of such an arrangement to be effectively zero. I expected this reaction from an MSM executive, but based on my limited knowledge of business, Maffei is probably correct. He suggested that a company with a business plan similar to that of the Associated Press, Bloomberg, or Reuters would be the only way to go and be able to afford the kind of reporting that the AP can do these days. Of course, that results in the hypothetical blogging company becoming the MSM themselves.

In the course of the panel’s discussions, other topics of interest to both the MSM and the blogosphere were also raised. The first was how anonymity on the Internet was a major factor in the coarsening of public debate. When individuals can use the Internet to produce slander and about political candidates without fear of reprisal, accusations that the MSM picks up and runs with, that’s at least as large a problem as the existence of trolls who are paid to agitate on blogs belonging to their ideological opponents.

The second issue was how too many people confuse analysis with partisanship. The problem is how to present information with a possible partisan advantage to one candidate or another without seeming to be partisan yourself. The example used during the panel was that FactCheck had found a few of Obama’s campaign ads stretched the truth into a pretzel – but also found that far more of McCain’s campaign ads had also stretched the truth so far as to make it unrecognizable. Some people would say that this makes FactCheck.org a partisan organization on behalf of Obama while others would say that this information qualifies as analysis, not partisanship. So which is it? It depends on whether you believe the European model of party newspapers brimming with partisanship is a better format than the recent American model of news, where “balance” is important for its own sake.

Finally, the panel wrapped up with a brief discussion on credibility, and how the far too few blog readers know which of the far too many blogs to read. Ultimately, how does a blog build the kind of credibility that the MSM papers-of-record used to? The same way that the MSM built their credibility 20, 30, or 40 years ago – by producing excellent, original content every day. And according to Maffei, news and social networking sites like Digg are part of the problem, not part of the solution. When you only read what your friends and trusted site “friends’ do, that leads to groupthink. Groupthink is not what the country needs, nor does it grant credibility in any way. Instead, groupthink gives you Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the torture memos, et al.

What I took away from this panel was the following:

  1. Credibility must be earned.
  2. Groupthink must be avoided
  3. Online anonymity is bad, but there’s nothing we can really do about it right now.
  4. No-one has figured out the revenue model yet.
  5. “Balance” in journalism is a tricky proposition.

Ultimately, the debate between the MSM and blogosphere seems to be artificial on some level, because until the blogosphere does the amount of original reporting that the MSM does, bloggers need a strong MSM to do that work for them. It’s only after the blogs become the next MSM, complete with a successful revenue model, that the blogosphere will be in a position to do large amounts of truly original reporting, not just commentary. But until them, the blogs will continue to do what they do best – watch the watchers, and each other, and call foul at the top of their lungs when something doesn’t add up.

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