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Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins


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It seems we like dichotomies when discussing changes in the media. We pick two words, and then fight over them.

I have no intention to revisit the stale old debate about journalists vs. bloggers, as it was silly to begin with, and was resolved back in 2005, oh wait, in 2008, or was it in 2009, or, oh, OK, in 2010…ah, well.

That old debate was just un-serious. People who used to write anti-blog screeds did a dereliction of journalistic duty, writing pieces about phenomena they knew nothing about, and did not bother to get informed and educated about. All the scorn that was heaped upon them at the time was fully deserved.

I am more interested in some more recent discussions, where two words are compared by people who put some thought into it and wrote interesting pieces about it, not just knee-jerk emotional reactions. Perhaps there is nothing to it, in the end, but I’d like to know at least WHY is it so important to so many people in the media to have these discussions in the first place.

Beats vs obsessions

Recent launch of Quartz, an innovative online magazine, incited a round of articles and blog posts discussing the distinction between traditional media ‘beats’ and the new concept, inaugurated by Quartz, of ‘obsessions’.

The distinction is fuzzy, to say the least, and not everyone can figure out the difference yet. The ‘obsessions’ are just another effort at replacing ‘beats’, now seen as an archaic concept originating in the necessities of internal organization of media outlets printing on paper.

I guess the main difference people are noting is that obsessions are narrower – in scope of the topic, or (geographic) space, or in time. A crime beat is a broad category. Obsessively following every detail of a particular crime for a while until it’s solved (or there is nothing more to say), is an obsession. Once the story is over, obsession is closed, and the reporter moves to a new topic.

But another way the difference is explained is that an obsession is actually broader, not narrower, by being multidisciplinary. Instead of looking at many stories from one angle, it focuses on a single story from many angles. This may be a way to solve some Wicked Problems. So, looking at the Big Picture of crime, e.g., causes of crime and what measures potentially reduce crime in various parts of the globe, cultures, past eras, etc, from every angle possible, is also an obsession.

Finally, the third difference I saw in these articles, is the question of institutional organization. A beat is organized to cover a particular institution. Crime beat is coverage of cops and courts and prisons, not sociological causes of crime, or lives of criminals. You don’t cover war, you cover the military. You don’t cover policy, you cover Congress. You don’t cover education, you cover schools and school boards. You don’t cover health and medicine, you cover hospitals.

You learn the jargon, you learn their rules and laws, you learn who’s'who in that institution, and you make nice with your sources in institutions you cover. An obsession breaks out of those boundaries and covers a phenomenon or topic or theme from a perspective of people interested in that topic, different angles your audience brings to it. You need to be much more responsive, do more listening and less preaching. Notice how SciAm categories are not disciplinary (e.g., Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology…), but broader themes as people are interested in them (Evolution, Space, Energy & Environment, Mind & Brain, Technology…).

Columnists vs. bloggers

At about the same time, another distinction arose, that between columnists and bloggers (see the Storify of tweets of this discussion as well).

Here, the distinction IS essentially zero.

But let’s not confuse IS with OUGHT.

Obviously some people see a difference and are trying to put their finger on where exactly it is. Is column edited, blog not? Mostly yes, but there are edited blogs and un-edited columns.

Are blogs online, columns on paper? Everything is online these days (and everything can and sometimes is re-purposed for the print edition as well, or vice versa in old-skool organizations that are not digital-first yet but are still somehow surviving).

Columns have word-limits, blogs don’t (thus blog posts tend to be longer than columns)? Online, there is no need for word-limits no matter what the format.

Columns are paid, blogs are not? Ask all the professional bloggers about it, heh, though this may still somewhat persist quantitatively rather than qualitatively, with columnists being paid at a higher rate than bloggers for purely historically contingent reasons, not tied to quantity or quality of writing. There is also a balance of control in play, i.e., more you pay someone, more editorial control you can exert over that person’s work, but can reciprocate by giving the dignified title of “columnist”.

This blog network has three bloggers who consider themselves to be columnists. They started out as columnists in traditional media, and feel insecure without the safety net of copy-editors. Those three bloggers’ posts do get copy-edited (and if necessary edited, though not by me – I only edit Guest Blog and Expeditions with its outside authors). Other bloggers know they can use our copy-editing services, but it never occurs to them to ask – they are used to doing everything themselves without a safety net. I did the kindest, gentlest arm-twisting to persuade the three columnists to use the word “blogger” when they refer to themselves, for a number of reasons. First, everyone is equal, and I do not want to have perceptions that some people are more equal than others. If you use blogging software, you are a blogger. But more importantly, the word “blogger” gives you more freedom. Let me explain…

Column is an old term, and we all have a pretty good idea what it is, what to expect when we read one. There are traditions in length, form, format, language, tone, style, etc. Those traditions are now overly restrictive. On the other hand, word ‘blog’ is new and still being defined. It is about regular posting online, with experimentation being an important aspect of it – all kinds of lengths, forms, voices, styles etc can be used and nobody will find it unusual if the site is called a “blog”. Photoblogs, podcasts, videoblogs, are just as unsurprising as purely textual ones. Humor, funny photoshops, or profanity are just as “normal” on blogs as are long treatises, deep expertise and long lists of references. Heck, just look around our network: huge diversity of styles and forms, even though you can argue that the range of “acceptable” is narrower here than in the blogosphere as a whole.

Emotional effect of words

A few days ago, I discussed the distinction between beats and obsessions with a veteran journalist who’s been doing this for decades. We discovered that we have very different, essentially opposite, emotional reactions to those two words.

For him, the word ‘beat’ denotes something regular, steady, reliable and predictable, like a beat of a metronome, or heartbeat. Something that is comfortable and comforting. On the other hand, ‘obsession’ seemed dangerous to him, unpredictable, almost pathological. Obsessed people are not reliable, one never knows what crazy thing they will do next.

For me, the word ‘beat’ has a negative connotation. It is something aggressive, implying violence, as in ‘beating the dead horse’, or self-satisfactory, as in ‘beating off’. On the other hand, for me ‘obsession’ is a sister-word to ‘passion’. Without obsession, work is not worth doing. Without obsession, love is not worth loving. Without obsession, or passion, nobody will do anything risky and innovative, which is what we need in times of disruption of the entire system. During ten years in research, I was obsessed with it, thinking, dreaming, doing and breathing my science 24/7. I am just as obsessed with science communication, building the new media ecosystem, and discovering/promoting new writing talent now.

I was stunned by this difference in our reactions. Perhaps this is because English is second language to me, so my impressions of the words are colored by the context in which I first encountered them years ago when I was learning English? Or is it due to our temperamental (or even age) differences, me being always anti-authoritarian and kinda revolutionary, always proselytizing the new thing, the new order? Am I the one being crazy here?

So (and thanks to K.R. for giving me this idea in the first place), I checked the original etymologies of the two words. Apparently, we are both half-right. Both words are aggressive. The etymology of ‘beat’ indeed has something to do with physical violence. But etymology of ‘obsession’ is just as bad – implying near-possession by demons! But words evolve…

As someone who entered the media horizontally (from science to blogging to newsroom) as opposed to vertically (through j-school, or starting in the mailroom and working my way up), I am not emotionally wed to terms like ‘beat’, or ‘column’. For me, they have the patina of the old days of constraining tradition, not the comfort of ‘good old days’ I don’t remember (or don’t remember as “good”).

On the other hand, whenever one encounters a new word (or a word new to the person), it always looks strange. One way to deal with strangeness is to find it funny and laugh. This was the commonly voiced reaction by curmudgeon journalists to the new words like ‘blog’ and ‘twitter’. If they find the word funny, then the phenomena those words denote are not worth studying or taking seriously, but are perfectly OK to make fun of in public. They thought they were savvy, but they quickly discovered they looked stupid, in public. They fell for their own emotional reactions.

Oh, did I mention I hate the word “verticals”? How uni-dimensional (and hierarchical) for a network that is the Web!

Other subtle effects of words

There is another subtle difference in the way I subconsciously (well, consciously as of today) respond to the words “beat” and “obsession”.

Beat is repeated action. Obsession is a continuous action.

Oh, wait! Column writing is a repeated action. Blogging is a continuous action.

Or rather, beat (and column) is a repeated action, it’s work. Obsession and blogging are constant emotions that spur one into action all the time, out of love.

This is something related to a theme I often talk about (and write about, e.g,. here and here).

Blogging, unlike writing a column (or writing news pieces, or features, etc.), rarely produces stand-alone pieces that can be read in a vacuum. Blogging at its best is a series of posts, each building on what was previously written, and each connected to what other people have written (or what one has written elsewhere).

I have a beat here at my blog. Animal physiology and behavior, especially in respect to time (daily and seasonal rhythms), and especially when studied out in the field, within ecological and evolutionary contexts. Most of my blog posts on those topics are more or less stand-alone pieces. They link to scientific papers, or media coverage, but rarely link to my older posts.

I also have an obsession – studying the way the media ecosystem is changing. My blog posts on this topic are all connected. Which is why, just like the one you are reading right now, my posts on this obsession are chock-full of links, both to my older posts (so you can see where I am coming from, how my thinking evolved, etc) and to other people’s writing (to see the context within which I am thinking, who are the other people who are influencing me, etc).

A number of our other editors also do both. They produce perfectly traditional self-contained news pieces for the Observations blog (and elsewhere on the site, or in the print magazine), and fantastically gripping, innovative and experimental blog posts on their own personal blogs here (see their blogs on the pull-down menu above: Brainwaves, Streams of Consciousness, Talking Back, Octopus Chronicles, Budding Scientist, Critical Opalescence, Degrees of Freedom).

Our network bloggers are all over the spectrum here – most have some topics that are beats, some topics that are obsessions. For example, John Platt has a beat – endangered species (though he does obsess about a couple of species he writes about over and over again). Cassie Rodenberg has an obsession – addiction, from every possible angle: chemical, medical, societal, historical, ethical, legal, political, psychological, journalistic, artistic, and even personal. One can read most of Platt’s posts in isolation. One has to read many of Rodenberg’s posts before becoming acquainted with her enough to be able to, for example, post an appropriate comment.

So, most of us here on the network are sometimes columnists, sometimes bloggers, sometimes just wonderful storytellers, and sometimes something in-between. And that is probably the best. It is up to readers to recognize where they have just landed after following a link to a blog post. Is it a traditional piece that stands alone? Or is it a post that is one of many in a series, and digging through the archives and following for a few weeks or months are needed to really start understanding what is going on – at which point you will be richly rewarded because you have discovered a person with unique expertise and unique voice?

And this brings us to the next pair of words journos love to discuss: generalists vs. specialists.

Generalists vs. specialists

The Web has allowed many angles, many points of view, and yes, many truths to be available to everyone. Some of those angles and truths are more legitimate than others, but who’s the referee any more? It used to be the gatekeepers of the traditional media, but with so many voices out there now, and the trust in traditional media at a historic low, the MSM is not a referee of truth any more. It cannot do that as an institution, but it can regain some of it by hiring people who are referees of truth by virtue of having the relevant expertise.

Landing on the New York Times page after you followed a link tells you something about it, to a certain extent. You still have to figure out if you trust the article you are about to read. Your expectations are higher than if it was Daily Mail, but you are still on guard. How do you decide in advance? By the name in the byline. If it is Maureen Dowd, you expect entertainment, but not much depth. If it’s David Brooks, you expect seductively beautiful writing that is based on pseudo-sociology he picked out of thin air to conform to his ideology. But if it’s Paul Krugman, you know you will get a better understanding of some aspect of economics because the guy knows his stuff – he is an expert.

Every expert will have naysayers. There is always some fringe group that for emotional, political or financial reasons has an interest in promoting an alternative, illegitimate “truth” (see: global warming denialists, creationists, anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOs, animal rightists, etc). But for most people, expertise matters. Most people rightfully believe what Krugman says about economics. I hope people believe me when I write something about circadian rhythms. Expertise counts.

Expertise does not require a PhD in the topic. There are several bloggers on this science blogs network that came originally from English degrees, or journalism. But they developed obsessions for some areas of science, and over the years they became experts. And you know they are experts because they keep writing about it over and over again, they back up their claims with copious links to trustworthy sources, and they get general agreement from other experts in the same field in the comments or in responses on their own blogs. Over time, they earned respect and reputation for being experts on the topics they usually write about (and nothing wrong with occasionally using the blog to test new ideas in a new field, as a learning tool, perhaps as a test for moving from the old obsession to a new one).

A generalist who covers a different topic each time will never become known for expertise in any group of readers passionate about any of those topics. The articles and posts may be OK, but they will never be as inspiring or awesome as articles written by experts. A generalist may gain reputation among editors as a reliable freelancer who does good work, meets deadlines, is easy to work with and does not require too much time and effort to edit. But that reputation is inside baseball, it does not turn the writer into a personal brand, but one dependent on (usually declining, and often disappearing) institutional brands. In the world of “Friends in Low Places“, that is probably not the best strategy.

Thus, it is not surprising that j-schools are now trying to train experts, though that may be misguidedly turned into training computer programmers instead of journalists. Furthermore, some places are now taking existing experts and turning them into journalists.

When an expert keeps writing, that is more likely to be an obsession than a beat. It is more likely to look like a blog than a column. It will be continuous, rather than repeatable. It will be a constantly developing corpus of work, rather than a collection of unrelated articles. It will be an opportunity to gain regular audience and to build reputation, respect and a personal brand that is easy to move from one institution to another (or to freelancing). A person with a brand is attractive to hire by media organizations that understand that their institutional brand depends on the quality and reputation of the expert writers they hired – as bloggers, treated and paid as if they were columnists of yore.

“Bloggers vs. journalists” really makes no sense any more, does it?






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  1. 1. jplatt 9:32 am 10/26/2012

    Very thought-provoking, Bora! Labels can be extremely useful and extremely limiting. Words have power, but that power isn’t always intrinsic: it varies by perception. It’s always interesting to me to see how different people react to the same words — even if the words essentially mean the same thing! It’s also interesting to see how much value certain people place on certain words, especially when those words are attached to their perception of who they are.

    Link to this

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