Blogging compared with early journalism

January 8th, 2007

Those journalists who disparage bloggers as amateurs should look again at how journalism was when it began, argues Milverton Wallace in this guest blog.

James Cameron (1911-1985), arguably the greatest British journalist of the last 100 years, always insisted that journalism is a craft. Now “craft” implies pride in work, integrity in dealing with customers, rites of passage, and long years of training to acquire the requisite skills/knowledge.

But that was then. Today, journalism is a “profession”. Many aspiring hacks now need a university or other accredited “qualification”, and, except in the Anglo-American world, a government issued licence to “qualify” as a journalist. The march towards professionalism began with the rise of the mass media in the latter part of the 19th century, a development made possible by the invention of the rotary printing press, cheap papermaking from wood pulp, and mass literacy.

Journalists have developed rigorous techniques for gathering, distilling and presenting information; and, to standardise these procedures and wrap them in an ethical framework, a normative model for reporting, carved in stone, was crafted: impartiality, objectivity, accuracy, transparency.

Today, this carefully constructed edifice is crumbling as the read/write web blows away the need to be a member of any such club to be able to practise journalism. A significant number of “unqualified” people are “doing journalism” without permission from anyone.

Nowadays, the word “amateur” is being deployed by media professionals to belittle the media-making efforts of bloggers and others who create media productions outside the journalism guilds. Such reporting is deemed “unreliable”, “biased”, “subjective”; they are
“unaccountable”, the facts and the sources “unverifiable”.

All of this must be puzzling to historians of the modern mass media. Consider the first newspaper in English, a translation of a Dutch coranto, printed in Amsterdam in December 1620 and exported to England. It began with an apology, a typographical error, a number of lies and disinformation. The apology appeared in the first line of
the publication: “The new tydings out of Italie are not yet com”. The error (in spelling) was in the date: “The 2. of Decemember”. The lies? The dates of many events were brought forward to make the news appear fresher than they were. The disinformation? Many news items in the Dutch edition which might have displeased the English government were not translated for the English edition out of fear that the
authorities would seize or ban the publication. Verily, a very unprofessional beginning!

And who were the “reporters” for the early periodical press? Postmasters, clergymen, sheriffs, burghers, shipping clerks, court officials, merchants, travellers. In a word, “amateurs”!

Here I use “amateur” in the noble, Corinthian sense—someone or an activity motivated by love.

The differences between 17th century amateur reporters and
21st century citizen journalists go beyond stark polarities. The
former were contributors to the new media of their age but over whose
operation, growth and development they had no influence or control;
their 21st century counterparts, on the other hand, are contributors
to a new media which they themselves are creating.

This new media is not about the production of news, it is about self-expression. It is
about participating in defining and shaping the information/communication environments in which we live. An entire generation—call them the digital natives or the new Corinthians—is creating an open, collaborative, networked communications infrastructure in opposition to the closed, top down, hierarchical traditional media organisations which have dominated the media universe since the 19t century.

Demanding that these digital natives adhere to old methods of discovering and learning about the world won’t do. They’re crafting their own methods, thank you very much. Ten years ago Slashdot, Kuro5hin and others pioneered peer-to-peer coverage of technology. Stories gained credibility through the trust and reputation of peers.
Digg has added collaborative filtering via powerful algorithms; lets you organise the world via shared social taxonomies. Even some of the backend functions of the news business have been socialised: Wikipedia for reference, for expert sources, Flickr for pictures.

It is hard for a mature, long-dominant culture to make radical changes to its ideology and practice. And that’s why many newspaper groups still cling to the command and control model even as their businesses head for the butchers and their customers “head into the cemetery”. Bold and adventurous though he is, Rupert Murdoch has only chosen co-optation (buying the number one social networking service MySpace); however, full embrace of the new world is a revolutionary step, a rupture in the old order. Anyone doubting the difficulty of such a move need only look at the upheavals and dislocations being experienced by the UK’s Telegraph group as it
re-engineers it news gathering/reporting processes towards a networked
journalism model.

The momentum of change is with the new Corinthians. The open source ethos and method of work/production, which began in the periphery with collaborative software development, is moving to centre stage by way of the blogging revolution and open standards in web services. In tagging, syndication, ranking and bookmarking we have the rudiments of a peer-to-peer trust, reputation and recommendation system well suited to self-regulating collaborative networks. These could be takenas analogous, but not identical to, the “checks and balances” of traditional journalism, but we shouldn’t belabour the points ofdifference too much.

In mainstream media “editorial authority” is concentrated in the hands of a single, all-powerful person whereas in social media it is distributed among many voices. This could be seen as a weakness and critics point to it as the Achilles heel of Web journalism. Yet in many instances, the networked world, e.g. the blogosphere, has proven to be much better (and quicker) at correcting errors, falsity, lies
and distortions than the mainstream media.

As the number of people who participate in open, collaborative, networked communications increases, the veracity of messages will improve and the need for corporate gatekeepers and standards-setters will decrease. Will we all become Corinthians then?

Copyright 2006 Milverton Wallace

Milverton Wallace founded and ran the annual NetMedia conference and the European Online Journalism Awards when he was a journalism lecturer at City University London, 1995/2003.

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