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From the Writer's Desk: Blogging versus Journalism--Lone Wolves, Team Players

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In the series, "From The Writer's Desk," I'll describe what I do for a living as a writer and ideas I have for advancing my craft.

So I've discussed how bloggers often ask different questions than journalists and a bit about how they approach different audiences. Now I'll talk about one of the more obvious differences — bloggers typically write by themselves, and journalists write for organizations.

Now this isn't a mind-blowing revelation, but it has significant consequences. No matter what image one might have of a tough hard-bitten lone-wolf journalist, the truth is that most are team players. Behind every byline is a group of editors backing a journalist up.

Editors have saved my bacon countless times. Now, my writing is not so atrocious that I need constant supervision — I can readily pick out drafts of articles for places such as The New York Times or Scientific American where my copy is largely untouched by an editor's hand. Still, no matter how good you are, it always helps to have as many eyes as possible on a story to catch any embarrassing bloopers that might pop up along the way. Mistaking editors for just spellcheckers does a great disservice toward the largely unsung heroes of the trade — just as scientific peer review ideally spots errors, rejects bad ideas and improves good material before it makes it into a scientific journal, news editors bring out the best in stories for a living.

I have a hunch that the lack of oversight bloggers have when compared to journalists explains the disdain the latter often express for the former. In the eyes of such journalists, bloggers are suspected of behavior that would never pass muster with editors, such as credulousness, fabrications and plagiarism.

Of course, there are flipside arguments. Bloggers regularly indict the mainstream media of all the evils that journalists accuse them of, and with fair reason — for instance, lack of original reporting in the form of "churnalism."

Also, where journalists might see lack of oversight as a downside, bloggers see it as an upside. As Scientific American Blogs network maestro Bora Zivkovic notes, "Blogging is much faster. Things get written and immediately posted."

Although having a team of professionals to back you up often has its benefits, there is a dark side as well. I've been blessed with a bevy of good editors, but I've had my share of bad ones over the years — an editor who didn't know what silicon was; editors who sneer or scream like swaggering little Napoleons; editors that ask for a ton of work that ends up on the cutting room floor anyhow because they don't know what they want; and on and on. Just as good editing can improve writing, bad editing can make it worse — it can introduce errors, or ping-pong a story in one direction after another in cases of groupthink writing by committee until the final result is a Frankensteinian mess.

Speaking as both a journalist and blogger, I see pros and cons for each. There is good blogging such as that from Ed Yong, who conscientiously investigates his research before he posts, and there are bad examples such as the ridiculously irresponsible speculation preceding the now-criticized "arsenic life" paper that suggested alien microbes living off arsenic. As a journalist, I like the speed at which bloggers can post, since I'm the kind of reporter who likes scooping his competition, but praise from Bora for for some editing on a piece of his highlights the value of teamwork to me.

The seemingly endless squabbling over blogging versus journalism bores me to no end. What is fruitful to me is studying their differences to learn the best of both worlds.

You can email me regarding From The Writer's Desk at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

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

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