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Defining the Journalism vs. Blogging Debate, with a Science Reporting angle

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I wrote and posted this originally on March 30th, 2009. It is intentionally strong and provocative. If you want to use me as a straw man (“techno-utopian”, “Web-optimist” – as if those are bad words) to destroy, go ahead, read this, skip the details and nuance, pick up your own take-home message, and go for it ;-)

You know I have been following the “death of newspapers” debate, as well as “bloggers vs. journalists” debate, and “do we need science reporters” debate for a long time now. What I have found – and it is frustrating to watch – is that different people use different definitions for the same set of words and phrases. “News”, “reporting”, “media”, “press”, “journalism”, “Web”, “Internet”, “blog”, “citizen journalist”, “newspapers”, “communication”, etc. are defined differently by different people. Usually they do not explicitly define the terms, but it is possible to grasp their definition from context. Sometimes, people use one definition in their initial article, but once the debate heats up, they switch the definitions. Some define terms too broadly, others too narrowly, depending on their own background, biases or agendas. Some make the error of using several of those terms interchangeably, where a clear distinction exists. Thus, in many of the debates, it is a conversation of the deaf – the opponents do not understand that they actually agree (or allies don’t see that they actually disagree) because they do not use the terms the same way.

This post is my attempt to clear up a lot of that mess, at least for myself, by coming up with my own definitions: the way I think of these terms. Please use the comments thread to point out where I am wrong, or offer better definitions.

This post is also a response to a whole slew of online discussions in the wake of this Clay Shirky post – Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, including some responses by Dave Winer.

And finally, this post is also a response to the big discussion we recently had in the aftermath of the Nature article about science journalism and science blogging.
What I will try to do is define some terms and try to find (and link to if possible – though checking through the links on this post, as well checking what I “Like” on FriendFeed, following Jay Rosen on Twitter, or digging through my Media category) examples of people using the term in the same way as well as in alternative ways. I will also try to explain my thinking; provide a historical context (and again, correct me when I am wrong as I am not a media historian); explain what is happening today and what a possible future may be (feel free to disagree); and finally see how science reporting is similar or different from the rest of reporting. Let’s start….

Breaking News

Something (Event A) happens at Time X. Nobody could have expected or predicted that A would happen at all, or at least that it would happen at the particular time X. It is a new data point. Not ‘information’ yet, just data. It may be interesting or important enough to notify the world that A happened.

The key to breaking news is speed. It needs to be relayed as close to Real Time as possible.

“A plane just landed on Hudson”
“A plane landed on Hudson, took pic with cellphone, see it here:”
“A plane landed on Hudson, on ferry going to save people”
“A plane landed on Hudson, I am on it, everyone alive”
“I am a pilot. I just landed a plane on Hudson. Bird strike – both engines”

What do the above statements do? They answer just one of the canonical journalistic questions: What? Inevitably, such breaking news reports will contain answers to some other questions, e.g., Where? (Hudson), When? (look at time-stamps of the reports), perhaps Who? (pilot and passengers). It is too early to add answers to the questions

How and Why. The premium is on speed, accuracy and fact-checking will have to come later.

Notice something? Each of the statements above is shorter than 140 characters. Perfectly possible to post on Twitter (or a twitter-like platform). From a mobile device. By eye-witnesses, not professional journalists (Note: some of them are paraphrases of actual twitter messages, others are hypotheticals I invented).

About 12 minutes later, the online media sources (AP, Reuters, CNN, etc.) will break the news as well. What info are they going with? What they read on Twitter, or perhaps they got some phone calls. It will take them some time to dispatch professional reporters to the scene.

Once the crews are on the scene, they will have text, audio and video done pretty quickly, so the breaking news can show up on radio and TV. Newspapers? You will read those stale news the next morning. Probably incomplete because it will miss all the new incoming information that happens between the dispatch is filed in the evening and the time you get to read your paper with your morning coffee.

How about accuracy? As the premium is on speed, accuracy check has to come later. How many times have you noticed breaking news on CNN saying there are 6 dead, then 30 minutes later changing that to 9 dead, then another hour later changing that to 15 dead, etc. The mainstream media also have to make corrections if their initial reports were inaccurate. There is nothing new about that.

Is there a potential for abuse, e.g., hoaxes? Yes. The mainstream media has been taken in by hoaxes before, and will be again, and the subsequent accuracy check reveals this and the media retracts and apologizes. Nothing new there, either.

What about the questions of How and Why? That comes later and is not a part of “Breaking News”, it is a part of “News Analysis”. Who will provide those answers? Professional journalists will interview the officials (e.g., from the airline), read the official reports, interview participants (e.g., the pilot, passengers), and the eye-witnesses and will try to put together a more-or-less complete story about the Event A. Some will do this better than others. Some events are easier to report on than others due to, for instance, political sensitivity.

Can Citizen Journalists do the same? Yes and No. The professional reporters will be able to enter a press briefing and interview the officials. This is more difficult for bloggers to do, but that is changing fast – bloggers are getting press passes more and more these days. On the other hand, an eye-witness will be more relaxed and open to a neighbor with a cell phone than with a reporter shoving his/her microphone in your face and shouting questions. When approached by the press, most people recoil, get all their red flags up, get very cautious what they are saying, and generally do not blurt out everything they really know or think. It is much harder for pros to get the information out of regular citizens, even if it is, for now, easier for them to get information out of officials.

Remember when the bridge fell down in Minnesota about a year ago? Who did the best reporting? The guy who lives in the first house next to the bridge. He was there at the moment of the event. He ran down and took pictures. He talked to the passers-by and neighbors. Many knew him and trusted him. He got involved in the rescue and interviewed the people he rescued. And he posted all of that on his blog in as close to Real Time as was humanely possible.

How did the local media do in comparison? Quite poorly. It took them time to get there, it took them time to gather the facts, they could not get honest, personal accounts from eye-witnesses and victims who viewed them with suspicion. It took them even more time to find more information and put together their stories. And then they abandoned the story, while the rescue was still going on.

So, is that blogger a journalist? Yes and No. He was, for a time, an Accidental Journalist. He just happened to be there at the right time and right place and he did his civic duty to find information and report it. He never asked for money for doing it (although, if I remember correctly, readers asked him to put up a PayPal button so they could financially reward him for his service) – he felt it was his obligation as he could do a more thorough job than the pros at this particular story. Did it make him want to become a journalist? I don’t know, but I guess not [oops - I guess he does!]. I think he went back afterwards to his own life, blogging whatever he wanted to blog about, probably satisfied that he did his citizen’s job well and was widely recognized for doing so.

The same goes for many other news events. For instance, a guy tweeted from the Boulder airplane accident (12 minutes before any other news source had anything out) a couple of months ago.

How about news in other countries? How about, for instance, the Mumbai terrorist attack? Lots of eye-witnesses posted on Twitter frantically for a couple of weeks. They were all Accidental Journalists. Do you “trust” each and every individual and each and every tweet? No, but when you look at the entire collection, yes, a pattern emerges, and you can trust them as a group, quite obviously. So, why many journos and readers did not trust them? And waited patiently for US/UK media to send their pros to the scene?

It is a mix of ethnocentrism, racism and anti-democratic sentiments that many still, unfortunately, harbor. There is no reason to trust NYT and WaPo reporters better than the Indian twitterers. But, hey, they are not trained in the NYT newsroom, and they are Indian – ergo, not to be trusted. Excuse: they are biased.

Bias? What bias – all they did was input the data: what, where, when. They did not write 1000-word essays, just information. Also, unlike the Western journalists that later arrived on the scene, the locals were much more familiar with the context: the map of the city, the history, the players, the politics of it all, which made them much more efficient news gatherers as they knew where to go, who to talk to, what to ask and what to do. They were far better informed than the foreign reporters, and thus I trusted them much more than the foreign reporters. In subsequent News Analysis, both the locals and foreign experts could write longer pieces and that is where, perhaps, bias of both sources could show up. But not at the Breaking News stage yet.

So, my definition of Breaking News:

Informing the world about novel, unpredicted data about the world in as close to Real Time as possible.

Professional journalists are almost never going to personally witness the events as they happen (they can’t be everywhere at all times – not enough of them for this to be so). Eye-witnesses are those who will break the news (and pros can work with those data later, for more in-depth coverage). Are we there yet? No, but getting close.

Imagine the Hudson airplane event again, but let’s say it happens five or ten years from now in the future. Let’s say there are 100 people on board. All 100, in that future, will have cell-phones with online access and will be familiar, comfortable and fluent in the use of microblogging services, just like most people today are fluent with using a phone. The plane crashes. 10 are too hurt to do anything. 20 are too scared to think straight. 55 pull out their cellphones and tweet “holy cow – I was just in a plane accident”. Not too informative, but the sheer numbers help spread the news virally faster. The remaining 15 have enough presence of mind and enough understanding of what they are supposed to do, they will tweet much more information. “Crashed on Hudson, nobody dead, 10 hurt”, “Heard explosion, both engines on fire before the crash”, “Saw flock of ducks around the wings just before the accident”, etc. When you take the total output of all of them – that is Breaking News. Sufficient information to put pieces together in real time. Accidental Journalists, who will afterwards go back to their normal lives. Unpaid.

How about science? What would be the equivalent for science journalism?

A famous scientist dies (that is kind-a meta-science, not science itself). An ‘Eureka’ moment from someone’s lab or from the field. Creationists just introduced another stealth legislation to wedge religion into science classes. The last individual of a species dies in a zoo. An observatory detects an asteroid hurling towards Earth. Mars Rover detects water. A revolutionary discovery announced at a hastily-arranged press conference. That’s about it. Again, it is just a data-point, in Real Time, something that every citizen involved or eye-witnessing can competently report: What, Where, When.

Reporting News

What is the difference between Breaking News and Reporting News? I think an important difference is in predictability. If we know that something newsworthy will happen at a particular time and place, we can have whatever infrastructure and equipment is needed in place to capture and broadcast that information in real time. We can send camera crews and reporters to a football game or horse races, or to a meeting of the City Council, or to Congress when it is in session, or to New Orleans as Katrina is approaching, or to an event which started as ‘breaking news’ but is now ‘ongoing news’ (think of the Tsunami in Indonesia a couple of years ago). We can even automate some of that stuff, e.g,. weather, stock market ticker-tape, Racing Form, just off the top of my head. Do we need the Turing test? Who cares, as long as the data are made readily available.

What we’ll get from there is a video or audio of the event. And a quick summary report. Traditional media of all kinds: newspapers, radio, TV have an advantage here, at this point in history, over any kind of non-traditional journalists due to infrastructure – they have the equipment, they have the channels, they have enormous audiences.
Where Internet kills the traditional media is in the lack of limits. Radio or TV will have a 2-minute summary, a newspaper will have a predetermined amount of space for it.

This will tell you briefly What, Who, Where, When, How and perhaps even a little bit of Why, but cannot, by definition tell the whole story. If you are not interested, this is enough for you. If you are interested, or if you are suspicious of the source, you are left hanging and unsatisfied. But online, that short summary will provide a link to something that no other medium can afford to have: the entire transcript of the session, the entire video of the whole football game, full uncut interviews instead of brief quotes, further links to additional relevant information.

While traditional media are good and fast at quickly relaying the summaries of the news, the Web can provide a full record of the event far beyond the summary and keep it there, as a record, forever, when all the tapes and paper are already rotten and gone. Smart traditional media are already starting to do exactly that – the radio or TV program or the newspaper are just the vehicles that deliver the audience to the website where the full information can be found.

A good example of this is the Election here in the USA. On November 4th, you can watch the pundits blabber on CNN, but what CNN provided that was really useful was their website where every result of every race in every state, county and precinct was reported as soon as the data became available. There were several such websites on that day, and they were much more useful than any broadcast. Newspapers? Well, a lot of people bought the papers next morning because they wanted to have a cover with a big Obama picture on it as a souvenir. Nobody actually learned the result from the papers.

Again, as bloggers (those who are interested and ambitious about it) are more and more treated as journalists, given press passes and given journalistic privileges, some of them will be able to report news just as well as the traditional media, and since they do not have the space and time limits of radio, TV and papers, they can make both their summaries and their complete reports as short or as long as they want, with as much supporting documentation as they can find, and the audience will pick and choose what to read according to their own levels of interest.

Finally, as many newspapers go belly up, there will be a vaccuum on local reporting. How will that vaccuum get filled, who will report from the City Council meetings? Well, every community will solve that problem differently: some will find a way to pay a blogger or two to do it. Others will require all sessions to be taped and full videos, full transcripts and full texts of documents be placed online immediately after the session is over.

So, my definition of Reporting News:

Informing the world about novel, yet predictable data about the world in as close to Real Time as possible, using either personal or automated reporting systems.

How about science?

These days a predictable event is a publication of a paper. It may come with a press release. It can be covered as news. Science reporters know exactly which journal publishes on which day of the week, subscribe to e-mail announcements, get PDFs in advance, and write short reports that are released at the time embargo is lifted. Fine. Very traditional. It is similar with conferences, where talks can be reported on. Announcing the Nobel Prize winners is another example.

But the new trends in science, as well as new online technologies, allow for something different: data become available for broadcast as soon as they are produced. Folks in the Open Notebook Science movement are posting all of their data online as soon as the data are generated. The information is not just What, but also How (materials and methods), the time-stamps tells us When, the owner of the site is the Who, and the lab where the data originated is the Where. No need to do any Why yet (apart from the initial motivation to do the experiment to begin with – the stated hypothesis).

Moreover, those same folks are now working on ways to automate the process. Instead of typing the new data into the wiki in the evening, they are coaxing their laboratory equipment to automatically post the data on the Web. Likewise, the Mars Rover was tweeting from Mars. That is scientists broadcasting data to the world.

But “citizen scientists” do the same. Christmas bird watch? Species location and identification? Plant phenology data? The Galaxy Zoo project? Live-blogging data from the field research? All the data go online in real time. The NC fishermen will tweet their catch in real time. Just ‘data’. Not ‘information’ yet. Certainly not analysis yet. That’s News Reporting. Straight from the horse’s mouth.

News Analysis

Now we are getting to a place where being in the right place at the right time is not enough. Knowledge, expertise, and ability to find and parse through sources, becomes important. News are data. News analysis is information – ‘data made meaningful’. Breaking News and Reporting News just provide the raw data – News Analysis connects the dots, places the new data-set into the context of other related data-sets, and provides historical, philosophical, theoretical, methodological, economic, political, sociological, etc, contexts. It also tries to answer the hardest of the canonical questions of journalism: Why?

This is also a place where access to additional sources of information is important. The sources of information are: a) documents, and b) people.

Documents, which formerly had to be dug up in libraries or various repositories, necessitating travel (which costs) or permission (which journalists could get using their employers’ brand names), are now for the most part freely available online. Full transcripts of interviews, full videos of events, full texts of pieces of legislation – all of this is now easily found on the Web and will be even more so in the near future. Thus, anyone who has the time and passion and expertise to dig out all the information and put it all together, can do so. Who do you trust on economics more: an economist or a journalist? Who has the proper training, knowledge, experience and expertise and is less likely to fall for the sweet-talking, nonsense-speaking PR shills for the special interests?

People are tougher. Pro journalists nurture special relationships with the people in power. They have access to them that you and I don’t (yet). Thus, people in power are more likely to give interviews to pros than to amateurs. There are pros and cons to this, of course. The intimate relationship biases the reporter – just look at The Village in D.C., totally corrupted by the PR that politicos push on them at all those cocktail parties, and thus oblivious to any other views, including the views of most regular people.

And as the transparency is the new motto in D.C. and more and more people in power are themselves present online, it is gradually becoming easier for all of us to gain access even to the most reclusive and the most powerful people. Just give it a few more years – the non-responsive will not get re-elected so easily any more (it’s already happening at the local level – if you want to get elected here in Orange County, you better show up at Orange Politics blog, answer questions, and moreover answer the question in a satisfactory way).

On the other hand, as I noted above, an amateur journalist will get a much more honest response from a regular person who is suspicious of the corporate media.

But the greatest advantage of the Web, no matter if the article is written by a professional journalist or an amateur with expertise in the topic as opposed as in journalism, is space. Radio will give you at most an hour for such a big story, if you are very lucky to be picked by editors to say it. Television is even more competitive and hour-long stories are very rare. If you look at New York Times (or any other big daily paper), such an in-depth story of the requiered length happens mainly once a week in the Sunday Magazine – rarely outside of it.

So, the News Analysis stories get cut in length and parade as news reporting. Instead of complete interviews, you get brief quotes. Now, think about it for a minute. You talk to a reporter for an hour. It is because what you have to say requires an hour to explain. You see yourself quoted the next day in the newspapers. Even if the quote is verbatim, it is nonetheless a misquote, or a ‘quote out of context’ because it lacks all of the other stuff you said before and after that sentence – all the context and background and caveats and examples are gone. Even if your quote is verbatim, it may lead the reader to assume that you meant opposite of what you really meant. Or at least, something tangential and certainly not the main point you really wanted to hammer home (for instance, even if those quotes are verbatim and I really said that, this was not what my Main Take Home Message for this article was, not even close).

Online, there are no limits to length. Your story will be as short or as long as it needs to be. When you quote someone, you, right there and then, link to the complete transcript of the interview so the people can go and find the context for themselves and check if you quoted them correctly. You link to all the relevant documents so people can check if you cited them correctly. The ethic of the hyperlink that you use in your online article will always trump the articles by the best and most ethical professional journalists just because of space limitations – their analysis has to be incomplete and they cannot know what pieces of information can be omitted.

Doing News Analysis takes time and effort. Not everyone has the time required and not everyone has the motivation to do this. But if you look around the blogosphere, it becomes obvious that many people find time and have the motivation to do this on a regular basis. If paid, even more of them would do it even more regularly (I know I would). Plus, unlike the journalists, they have the required expertise in the topic, which makes them more reliable and trustworthy than the journalists (or at least most journalists – some got good by covering the topic for decades, an unusual and unofficial way to get an informal ‘social equivalent’ of a PhD on the topic).

As traditional media goes bankrupt and journalists are laid off, some will start doing this online as freelancers. Some bloggers will continue doing this. The line between journalism and blogging will become even more fuzzy. And some traditional media will figure out how to do journalism online and allow their paid journalists to adopt the online form and use the unlimited space, time and hyperlinking that makes online journalism better than the one done on paper.

So, my definition of News Analysis:

Turning a data-set into Information by connecting it to other related data-sets and providing meaningful context and explanation.

How about science?

The ur-example of this is the scientific paper itself: Who, Where and When (authors, affiliations, publication date), Why (Introduction), How (Materials and Methods), What (title, abstract, Results, statistics, graphs, complete data-sets and supplementary data), Context and Analysis (Discussion) and relationship to related data-sets (List of References).

Of course, the data and the context and the analysis are presented by the authors of the data-set themselves, which raises concerns about objectivity. Which is why we insist on having the manuscript pass peer-review and editorial decision to publish in a reputable scientific journal. But as more people move to real-time Open Notebook Science, as talks and posters presented at (formerly assumed to be closed to a small circle) conferences become liveblogged, and as the process of publication become both more dynamic and more collaborative, the peer-review itself will have to become more dynamic and collaborative. Instead of 2-3 people doing it at one point before the publication, now many people will keep doing it throughout the process of publication and afterwards, leaving their commentary/review attached to the paper itself forever. Additional review will happen outside of the paper itself, in an outer circle of the ecosystem: in the media, almost all of it in the online media, aka blogs, and trackbacked to the paper itself for easy discovery.

At this level of communication, speaking good English is nice, but real expertise in that area of science is far more important. Thus, very rarely will this kind of analysis be done by people who are primarily journalists (unless they, over the decades of reporting on that one area of science, have become as expert as working scientists are on that topic – a very rare occasion). This will be done almost entirely by scientists (in the broader sense of the term – not just currently active researchers, but all who are trained in science irrespective of their current job description).

Science bloggers may not cover every new paper, or even every new hot paper, and may not care about timeliness of writing in time for the embargo-lift (I know how hard it is to get them to do it immediately!), but when they write about a study, they will write kick-ass stuff that almost all journalists can only dream of doing. And more importantly, they will rarely focus only on that one paper – they are much more likely to provide a deeper context for it as they already know the relevant literature: they don’t need to dig for it for the first time today. And if they get a fact wrong, the commenters, themselves mainly scientists, will be quick to point that out in the comments.

So, today we have a situation in which authors write papers which get published months or years after the data have been gathered. Their institutions write press releases. Science reporters, those who still have jobs in this economy, are so pressed for time covering so many stories simultaneously, they just regurgitate the press releases.

Then bloggers jump on them for sensationalism and for the lack of accuracy, and for missing out the context.

Tomorrow, with jobs in science being so scarce, many people with science degrees, including many with PhDs will want to change their career paths. Instead of doing research, or teaching high-school, they may want to do science journalism. But there are no jobs in traditional media for this – science journalists are getting fired left and right! Well, they can get hired by universities and write press releases, which will thus become better than what we are used to seeing now. Or they can freelance. Or start science blogs.

It’s a new world – it used to be you apply to jobs and once you are hired you start to work. Today, you start working for free and hope that it is good. You accumulate a portfolio that you can show when you apply for jobs. You develop a good reputation that brings you job offers out of the blue. It is nerve-wrecking, but if you are good, something good will happen to you as people will not allow good stuff to remain unrewarded for too long.

With Open Access (and importantly, Historical Open Access), with Open Notebook Science, with scientists writing press releases, with scientists writing blogs, and with all those getting connected by hyperlinks, the audience will get everything: science reporting from authors directly, both in formal (journal papers) and informal (blogs) settings AND via intermediaries who are also trained in science. That kind of information combo can be trusted. A quick hyping report in a newspaper, radio or TV cannot.

Investigative Reporting

This is what the curmudgeons like to say – bloggers can’t do investigative reporting. Really? But what is it? Going to a press conference and asking Obama a gotcha question is not reporting – it is manufacturing news. You are not trying to find out what Obama is planning or doing or saying, but what he says in response to your question. That’s news? No, without your question, he would not have said anything – you made the news by asking, and reporting his answer is not reporting the news, and certainly not investigative reporting. You inserted yourself into the world and caused news (“what he said”) to happen.

Investigative reporting is uncovering data and information that does not want to be uncovered. Hmm, sounds like a definition, so here it is italicized:

Investigative reporting is uncovering data and information that does not want to be uncovered.

It is hidden, often because someone is purposefully hiding it, i.e., suppresing it and does not want the world to know. That’s tough to do. Go out and ask someone where one can buy a physical newspaper in your town. Then go and buy one. Look at every page. How many pieces of investigative reporting did you find – information that someone tried to suppress but the brave reporter uncovered? If you find one on any given day, your local newspaper is really, really good!

Yes, it happens. Pulitzers are given for a reason to worthy investigative reporters.

But how about blogs? Firedoglake crew did the investigative reporting on the entire Valerie Plame outing and Skooter Libby trial. They dug up documents. They interviewed people. They sat in court every second of the proceedings. They posted bried summaries for people who had just a passing, superficial interest in the story. They posted detailed analyses. They posted lengthy interviews. They posted entire documents. They posted legal analysis (as some of them are lawyers). The entire traditional media on the planet, when put together, did not cover the case as much and as well as that one little blog. And they would have covered even less if they were not pushed and shamed by Firedoglake to do so.

Do I need to remind you of Talking Points Memo? Mudflats digging up the backstory on Sarah Palin? The Durham bloggers and the Lacrosse case? And many, many more.

Police beat is tough to do for non-professionals, yet bloggers have been known to uncover and bring to life issues like corruption in their police departments, or cases of anwarranted use of force and abuse by officers.

How about science?

Whose investigative reporting led to resignation of Deutch, the Bush’s NASA censor? Nick Anthis, a (then) small blogger (who also later reported on the Animal Rights demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Oxford in great detail as well).

Who blew up the case of plagiarism in dinosaur palaenthology, the so-calles Aetogate? A bunch of bloggers.

Who blew up, skewered and castrated the PRISM, the astroturf organization designed to lobby the Senate against the NIH Open Access bill? A bunch of bloggers. The bill passed.

Remember the Tripoli 6?

Who pounced on George Will and WaPo when he trotted out the long-debunked lie about global warming? And forced them to squirm, and respond, and publish two counter-editorials? A bunch of bloggers.

Who dug up all the information, including the most incriminating key evidence against Creationists that was used at the Dover trial? A bunch of bloggers.

And so on, and so on, this was just scratching the surface with the most famous stories.

When a person is slighted, or detects some unfairness of foul play, that person is highly motivated to dig deeper and uncover the truth. In earlier times, this required finding and persuading a reporter to do it for you. Today, you can do it yourself and, by recruiting hundreds of other bloggers to your cause, raise enough of a stink that the corporate media cannot ignore the story any more and is forced to report it. Even if that means they have to report on something outside of their ‘sphere‘ of “what is considered normal”, and thus helping, against their best instincts, to move the Overton Window in the direction of reality.

Opinion, Entertainment, Storytelling, etc.

The four aspects of journalism above – Breaking News, Reporting News, News Analysis and Investigative Reporting – are often considered to be ‘journalism proper’. As we saw above, the Web is the best medium for all four due to speed, hyperlinks and limitless space. All four can be and have been done by non-professionals. For some, such non-professionals are already demonstrating they are better. For others, the traditional media still has the upper hand to some extent, though this is changing.

Nobody says that everybody can do it or wants to do it or will do it, but it shows that professional journalistic training is not a necessary pre-requisite for doing it right. It only says something about the medium, not the people or training. Amateurs, by and large, do not have access to the newspapers, radio and television. But both professionals and amateurs have access to the Web, and both can potentially do all four types of journalism online and do it correctly. Amateurs and professionals are on equal footing here and their work and work alone will determine who will gather a following by building trust with the audience, and who will have to find a different day job.

But the above four are not the only parts of journalism, if one thinks of it a little broader. In many minds, journalism is “everything that shows up in newspapers, on the radio, on TV, and online”. Not just news. Also ads, obituaries, sports, nice pictures, drawings and cartoons and comic strips, stories, poems, opinion-pieces, crossword puzzles, quiz shows, commercials, travelogues, diaries, funny videos and so on, and so on….

With paper, radio and TV, editors decide what goes in. With the Internet, everything gets published and the audience fliters the content, buries the bad and promotes the good, so, at least in theory, the best stuff, after a while, rises to the top and becomes very, very “famous”. The technology-based and people-based filters that do this are still imperfect but are in the process of constant tweaking and improvement. Google search is the best known of the technological filters. There are others. For people-based filters, check out Blog Carnivals. For science, there are Google Scholar, CiteULike and Mendeley. We are all Editor now.

And, as Digby and Glenn Greenwald and Amanda Marcotte and Melissa and Hilzoy write better op-eds – in every sense of the term: better use of English, better thinking, more accurate facts – than David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or George Will, soon there will be no reason to pay Brooks or Dowd or Will to produce stuff that most people don’t read and others read for laughs. It is a big cost for the NYT, with nothing to show for it but embarrassment.

The same goes for other stuff: stories, comic strips, art….

It already killed the music industry, it is now killing the newspaper as well.

Journalism is EVERYTHING that appears in the media.

And in this sense, we are all journalists. Even if we never break news or do investigative reporting, if we write poetry on our blogs, we are journalists. And the world is our editor.

How about science?

Thus, in this sense, science bloggers are all science journalists as well. We disseminate cool educational videos, announcements of interesting lectures and meetings, we write opinion pieces, we write educational pieces (e.g., the Basics), we dispel the myths of anti-social dorky stereotypes of scientists by writing personal stories, we connect science to art, literature, politics and culture, and we do something uniquely useful by discussing the trials and tribulations of career paths in science. And we are fun. So people keep coming back for more. Thank you ;-)

Newspapers

Newspaper is a bunch of loose pieces of paper with stuff printed on them. It is one of many ways to deliver various kinds of content, including news. It is not the one and only, or even the best ‘defender of Democracy.

Newspapers does not equal news.

Breaking news, reporting news, news analysis, investigative reporting, opinion, storytelling, entertainment, art, sports results, scientific data, advertising – none of that inherently HAS to be printed on paper. All of that can be done and is done daily on the radio, on TV and online.

Paper, ink, printing presses, trucks….all of that is extremely expensive. And that technology is far too slow for the 21st century. And the limited real-estate on the paper forces a system in which content to be printed has to be chosen in advance – by editors – and chopped down to size – by editors – before it sees the light of day, several hours after it ceased to be news.

The newspaper has a very limited scope to deliver content in comparison to technologies that arrived later. Radio and TV are likewise constrained by time. Internet has no space or time constraints, thus there is no need for any editors to make choices as to what goes and what doesn’t, and there is no need for longer pieces to get cut shorter by editors either (heck, I’d love to have an editor to fix my typos, bad grammar, wrong punctuation, and suggest improvements in style, as long as my content remains unbutchered and I have a final say what goes online in the end).

In traditional media, all the filtering is done by editors before the transmission. In online media, all the filtering is done by a collective editorial choice of the readership, after the transmission. In online media, there are no length limits, thus a journalist is at freedom to include all the relevant information. Additional information is linked to.

Feedback is instant, in the comments. The best pieces rise to the top, eventually.

Before I go on, I need to be fair. Just like there are many different kinds of blogs, so there are many different kinds of newpapers. If you are in Manhattan right now, go outside and look at the newspaper stand down the street. What do you see? Just New York Times? No, there will be that other rightwingnutospheric rag, the New York Post, there as well. There will be also many other newspapers, with narrower niches, covering art, or underground music scene, or Real Estate listings. And then there are magazines – weekly or monthly or quarterly.

Remember that NYTimes also once published their first ever copy, at the time when nobody suspected they would become the “newspaper of record”. Many New York City newspapers have come and gone over the decades, and who could have guessed that out of all of them it would be the New York Times to survive this long?! And it’s not even that good!

If you are not in Manhattan, go out and buy USA Today and your local metro. Take a good look at both. Which one do you like better? Which one of the two do you think will survive? Which one of the two you wish will survive? I bet that, almost everywhere in the USA you may be (and I guess there are equivalent examples in other countries), the answer to all those questions is: USA Today. Why?

USA Today will have LOTS of news – something for everyone every day. It has excellent reporters and journalists and op-ed writers. There is, in each day’s issue, quality content that you cannot find anywhere else. And furthermore, if the brevity of an article frustrates you, the paper tells you to go to their website. There, you will not just find the copy+paste of the printed article. You will also find more information, and often links to additional information. They are not perfect, but they are slowly getting there.

In contrast, your local metro will consist mostly of advertising, AP stories, syndicated columnists and comic strips, horoscope, a local mouthbreathing op-ed writer spouting rushlimbaughisms and, if you are lucky, a reprint of a two-days-old Krugman editorial. How many locally produced news? Very little. Reports from the meetings of the City Council or School Board? Nope. Investigative reporting? Zero. I hope you have a birdcage that needs lining or own a fish store that needs cheap wrapping paper.

But what if you live in a place like Carrboro, NC? You will go out and pick, of course, Carrboro Citizen. Two years old. Free to pick up anywhere. Increasing their print volume every week. Their problem? So many people outside Carrboro – in Chapel Hill, greater Orange County and northern Chatham County want not just to read it but also for the Citizen to cover their areas. Why are they so successful?

First: it is web-to-print. Pieces written by locals, or by UNC students, are posted online, get comments, and then are edited for printing.

Second: it is hyperlocal, containing advertising for local businesses and covering stories of local interest, including those pesky City Council and School Board meetings – stuff that cannot be found anywhere else in print or on the Web.

Third: it does not pretend to be “objective” or “fair and balanced” – it cares about truth and reality, not the he-said-she-said Broderian journalism. They write it as they see it, and they see it as they uncover the facts. So, if reality has a liberal bias, so be it. After all, Carrboro was one of the few places in which Kucinich won the primaries in 2004, so nobody here complains about liberal bias. A similar paper in a conservative town would probably have a conservative bias, and that is fine (let them live in delusions, I guess). You can disagree, but you cannot complain about dishonesty, or bias or hidden agendas, because nothing is hidden. And that is so refreshing after years of rage-inspiring so-called journalism of the other local papers, e.g., Raleigh News & Observer.

Such newspapers – hyperlocal, community (or even family, club, team, organization) newspapers – will survive. The big, international, good papers like USA Today will survive by becoming “table of contents” for what they offer on their websites. The chain-owned metros will die. And good riddance because they have quit doing quality journalism a long time ago. Not because the reporters were bad, or even because their editors were biased, but because the owners made every wrong move in the book business-wise: cutting away what was unique and locally relevant, while keeping copy+paste syndicated stuff that everyone can find online in a thousand copies. Why would anyone ever pay for that?

How about science?

Both the scientific journals and the popular science magazines are facing a business crisis. The scientific journals are saving themselves by going fully online (and will probably, more and more, completely abandon the print editions) and by going Open Access (as libraries cannot afford their subscription rates any more). Those who are digging in their heels will go extinct. Just like the most heard-headed newspapers.

Popular science magazines are in a different kind of trouble. More and more, people can go directly to the primary sources for information as they become freely available online. More and more, their audience gets captured by science blogs which are both more fun and elicit greater respect, as they are written by scientists.

Those who turn to sensationalism, like The New Scientist, will lose their last customers quickly and will go under. Those that are trying to improve the quality of their magazine, like the American Scientist, hiring the PhDs in science who want to switch to journalism, producing fascinating, scientifically accurate stories that require much more time and effort than your average science blogger is willing to put into a post, getting top class artists to illustrate their stories, providing uniquely good book reviews or news that cannot be found elsewhere, and release all of their articles online soon after the print edition goes out, will persist for a while longer. Those who do science with a twist, like Seed Magazine connects science to culture, art and politics, will also persist.

Science reporting in newspapers? Dead. Because the newspapers are dead. The few mega-big papers that survive
will have good science coverage by a stable of excellent freelance journalists, each covering a different area of science and bringing in decades of expertise on the topic. The hyperlocals, if they have a scientific community locally (as the Triangle does), will have good locally-relevant science coverage. Otherwise, they will have none. Most science beat reporters will, like their colleagues covering other beats, have to find new jobs. It hurts, but it is a fact of life. There is no going back now.

Blogs, bloggers and blogging

As I have said many times before:

Blog is software.

Bloggers are people who use blogging software. Blogging is using the blogging software. Period.

Bloggers are not alien invaders from outer space. Bloggers are humans, citizens, silent majority that never had a voice until now. Bloggers are former and usually current consumers of the media. And re-producers of the media (yup, those guys that drive the traffic to your sites). And commenters on the media (guys who keep you honest and make you better if you are open-minded enough to listen). As well as producers of the media.

When journalistic curmudgeons want to denigrate bloggers, they point to the blogs containing LOLcats and teenage angst. They conveniently forget Talking Point Memo, Huffington Post, Firedoglake, Scienceblogs.com, or for that matter Slate, Salon and Atlantic ;-)

It is not what you use, but how you use it. 90% of everything on blogs is crap. 90% of everything in newspapers is also crap. So goes for the radio and TV. If you complain that we should not point out the worst of the newspapers and focus on the best instead, then please reciprocate: point to the best of blogs, not the worst. Then perhaps we can have a discussion.

Same goes for microblogging services like Twitter and FriendFeed, or social networking sites like Facebook. If all you see is boring stuff, you are following the wrong people. If you do not like Livecasting (“what I had for breakfast”) which is actually an important aspect of human communication, then start following people who do Mindcasting instead and you will get more than you bargained for in terms of intellectual nourishment and uncomfortable thought-provocation.

And how do you find quality blogs? Well, how did you find quality newspapers? Someone told you, perhaps your parents when you were a child (or you just saw which newspaper came to your home every morning). Then you checked it out. Then you read it for a while and made up your own mind. You can do the same with blogs. Why do you need instant gratification – do your work and you will find excellent blogs that trounce traditional media in every way. Don’t just sit around and complain how many blogs there are and how all of them must be bad, but you will not waste your time finding out if you are correct about it or not. That’s lazy and dishonest.

Some of the best blogs out there are now becoming true New Media establishments, paying their bloggers to do “real journalism”, including investigative reporting, getting their bloggers press badges for important events (e.g., party conventions in election years). TPM is hiring. Huffington Post just got a nice sum of money to do exactly that – I hope they will ditch their Chopras and Kennedys and other nutcases and do the same for the quality of their science/health reporting which is atrocious.

As newspapers are dying, they leave a vacuum. Most places either have an existing blog, or immediately start a new one, to replace the vanished newspaper. The medium is different, more conducive to quality journalism than any of the previous communication channels, but also requires much fewer people to get the job done. It will be different than the newspaper it replaces. It will try to fulfill the needs of the community that the newspaper did, but also fulfill the needs of the community that the newspaper never could do.

We’ll all be watching those valiant new efforts. Something will come out of them. A single business model? No, of course not – as many business models as there are communities. Some will work better than others, and some will work better in some places than in other places. No need to have an expectation that a single business model will win and be adopted by all. After all, the newspapers never had a single universal business model themselves, so why expect anything else from the New Media?

When a newspaper folds, many people lose their jobs. And it hurts. And in this economy, it is hard for them to find other jobs. Typesetters, printers, packers, truck drivers will have to find new lines of work. Editors, technical editors, copy editors, accountants, lawyers, artists, and yes, reporters, will have to find new jobs. What took thousands of people to produce – a newspaper – now takes a dozen people, and they can do the job better.

There is a lot of pain going around. But it is not the fault of bloggers, or of Blogspot, WordPress and MoveableType. It is these that will do the journalism in the future, and some of the former newspaper journalists will find jobs in the online media if they are open minded and willing to learn how to adopt to the new medium. Quality journalism will survive, in this medium or another, but will require fewer paid professionals to do so. A core professional stuff, plus crowdsourcing, will produce news and entertainment and everything in-between.

But the old journos will suffer in the meantime. And I feel for them. Most of them are good people, and good at what they do. They get flack from readers when some editor slaps a silly headline on top of their work, or when some editor cuts the key paragraph out of the article, or some editor rewrites the article beyond recognition. Many have learned to suffer in silence about such indignities in order to save their jobs. They have learned to play the game. Many of them will feel relieved – oh such a sense of freedom, finally! – when they move online and adapt to its practices. And they will produce great journalism, many of them for the first time in their lives. It is unfortunate that so few of them can get paid to do it. Just an economic reality.

So, the whole “bloggers will replace journalists” trope is silly and wrong. No, journalists will replace journalists. It’s just that there will be fewer of them paid, and more of us unpaid. Some will be ex-newspapermen, others ex-bloggers, but both will be journalists. Instead of on paper, journalism will happen online. Instead of massaging your article to fit into two inches of the paper column, you will make your article’s focus be on information, accuracy and truth. Instead of cringing at the readers’ comments, you will learn how to moderate them and appreciate them and learn from them.

Many sources will speak directly to the audience, instead of via middle-men. From Obama to scientists. But some sources will not speak unless forced to by a journalist. And some sources are not humans, but animals, or machines, or natural phenomena, or old documents, and cannot talk to the audience without a middle-man.

Many of us will be both consumers and producers of media in our spare time. We may become journalists if news fall into our laps – we become Accidental Journalists for a day or a week, and provide information that others cannot but we, due to circumstances, can. That will not eliminate a journalist’s job, but provide a journalist with a source and a story.

Many of us will occasionally commit acts of journalism, or provide information needed for a story, or provide opinion needed for an op-ed, but very few of us will care to do that for a living, every day. We don’t want to take the journalists’ jobs away, we want them to thrive, but it is a reality that there are too many of them, and that many of the aspects of their job descriptions are now better done by machines, or by crowds of people, than by individuals. Let the best of them remain journalists, adapted to the new, better ways of doing things. Let’s hope the others find decent jobs elsewhere so they can feed their families.

A 100 years ago, many horse trainers, saddle-makers and blacksmiths became car repairmen. A much better career decision than just sitting there and complaining how cars will never replace the horses. My father owned a printing press, and worked in the printing business his entire life. I went with him there several times as a kid. I loved the typesetting machines, and the printing presses, and the smells and sounds. I loved printing stuff at home with my letter stamps. I love the feel and smell of a fresh print.

Both my brother and I were in some way involved with school newspapers and such when we were young. But that era is now gone.

I also spent most of my life working with horses. I love the feeling of riding a horse, the smell of fresh hay, the sounds of horses munching their oats. But I do not saddle up my horse to go to the grocery store. I don’t even own a horse any more. It is just not a viable method of transportation any more.

But that does not mean that horses are extinct. There are thousands being bred every year for sport and show and leisure. They are pampered and loved much better than when they were just means of transport, when both people who loved them and who hated them had to use them. Horses (or mules or oxen or llamas or camels) are also still a key method of transportation in those places in the world where there is no infrastructure for the cars: roads, gas stations, garages.

Likewise, newspapers will become extinct as a major means of news-delivery. But they will persist in the hands of hobbyists and local communities who love them. And they will persist in places in the world where there is no infrastructure for the Internet: electricity, computers, wifi. Perhaps those who so strongly agitate for saving the newspapers should go there – their services will be useful in such places for a while longer. There, they can be analog bloggers.

Let us get on with the business of building a new journalism, fit for the new century and Millennium. The rest is nostalgia. Counterproductive.

How about science?

Oh, we had many, many discussions about science blogging, and why do we blog, and how we find time to blog, and why scientists and academics should blog, there have been articles and editorials published on this topic and even peer-reviewed articles, not to mention various conferences.

Then, an article came out in Nature a couple of weeks ago after which we all piled up. Read the article itself, the adjoining editorial and the responses by:
Jessica Palmer, Michael Tobis, PZ Myers and commenters, Larry Moran, Janet Raloff, LouScientist , John Timmer, Anthony, Francis Sedgemore, Curtis Brainard, John Wilkins, Derek Lowe, Ed Silverman, WFSJ, Sean Carroll, Kristi Vogel, Philip Davis, David Crotty, Eric Berger, John Hawks, Jennifer Gardy, Bee, Text Technologies, Chris Mooney, Carl Zimmer, Henry Gee, Mr. Gunn, Mark Liberman, Ben Goldacre, Chris Patiland Vivian Siegel, Chris Mooney again, Joseph Romm, Bex Walton, Abel Pharmboy, Mike the Mad Biologist, Phil Plait, Simon Baron-Cohen, Larry Moran again and again and Jessica Palmer again.

One of the major questions that crops up repeatedly in these discussions is the matter of reach. Science blogs, similarly to popular science magazines, are in the “pull” more – attracting readers who are a priori interested in science. But how do we do “push”, i.e., throw science at unsuspected citizens, in hope they will find it interesting or useful?

Sure, having science taught well in schools is the best ‘push’ strategy because it is mandated by the state. When I graduated from high school I had 8 years of physics, 8 years of chemistry and 8 years of biology behind me, instead of one of each as US students get.

But besides that, ‘push’ is very difficult. Back when there were only a couple of TV channels, if there is an hour-long science documentary, everyone watched it because that was on the program. And people liked it. But today, there is none on major TV channels and one has to seek science, nature or medicine on specialized channels. Likewise for radio – there is Ira Flatow every Friday on NPR and that is about it – easy to flip the station or put in a CD instead.

If at any time in the past, newspapers had a lot of (and good) science coverage, that would have been somewhat of a ‘push’ strategy. At that time, people were not inundated with information and were more likely to read the paper cover-to-cover. They could still skip the science section, but on some days a headline might have piqued their curiosity and made them read. Today, newspapers have little to no science, and there is less and less paper anyway.

But, as soon as the newspaper dies in any given market, the people are forced to go online for information. If the local newspaper is replaced by a news website or blog, this is where people will go (and sooner the papers die, sooner their monopoly on information will go away, so online upstarts can move into the void).

Once people are online, they will be there in as great numbers as newspapers ever had. Now, if that local news-site does not hide its science section a click or two away (“pull”), but showcases the science headlines right there on the front page, this will be better push than newspapers could ever do. No need to turn the leaf, or click – the headlines are staring at you.

If a site like Huffington Post, which just got funds to pay reporters, publicly eliminates their pseudoscience, HIV denialist, New Age woo-mongers and hires some real science/nature/medicine reporters instead, it is in a position to do the ‘push strategy’ on science. I bet some of the science bloggers would like to get that gig. And then link to us who are doing the ‘pull’ strategy here on Scienceblogs.com (or Nature Network or Discover).

Update: I have collected the responses to this post here and written, so far, two follow-up posts: New Journalistic Workflow and ‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing






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