Another debate on the value of blogging versus the press has broken out. Michael Skube of Elon University in the LA Times makes a fairly standard journalist’s attack on blogging called Blogs: All the Noise That Fits. NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen, on his blog Press Think, responds with examples challenging Skube’s thesis here. In an interesting twist Rosen asks his readers for further examples in preparation for writing his own response in the LA Times which appeares here. Skube’s major premise is carried by his sub heading “The hard-line opinions on weblogs are no substitute for the patient fact-finding of reporters.” Rosen’ follows up his LA Times piece on his blog here. The core of Rosen’s refutation from his LA Times response:
I asked friends in the blogosphere to help me put together a list of examples that would confound Skube if he knew of them, but possibly interest his students. Blog sites doing exactly what he says blog sites don’t do: “the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence … the depiction of real life.”
Rosen then goes on to cite examples from all over the ideological spectrum of blogs doing just the kind of high quality and socially important kind of work that Skube cites as the strength of traditional Journalism. Lets look at the interchange:
In our time, the Washington Post’s reporting, in late 2005, of the CIA’s secret overseas prisons and its painstaking reports this year on problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — both of which won Pulitzer Prizes — were not exercises in armchair commentary. The disgrace at Walter Reed, true enough, was first mentioned in a blog, but the full scope of that story could not have been undertaken by a blogger or, for that matter, an Op-Ed columnist, whose interest is in expressing an opinion quickly and pungently. Such a story demanded time, thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, perseverance. It’s not something one does as a hobby.
December 2006-April 2007. Talking Points Memo drives the U.S. Attorneys firings into the national spotlight. Mixing old-fashioned legwork with perseverance and lots of help from readers over several months, Josh Marshall and his TPM Media empire accumulate evidence “from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings.”
2003 to present. Groklaw becomes the go-to source for coverage of SCO vs. IBM. Law blog — one obsessive blogger, plus readers — takes on saturation coverage of key lawsuit involving open-source software, becomes an authoritative source of knowledge for the case’s participants, who have never seen anything like it.
In a follow up comment to his list of examples Rosen cites the informal set of categories he used to shape his list:
I wanted to vary the examples along several scales: left to right, yes, but also politics not-politics, “big” subject and small ones, digging and synthesizing and saturation reporting… a mix with projects that move in multiple directions, eluding the easy categories by which curmudgeons think they can handle all this.
One of the things that emerges from the interaction is that Rosen is blog savvy and Skube is not. But the most obvious thing I notice is that Skube really is not taking about the same kind of blogs as Rosen is. To some extent, they are talking past one another. Here is a passage that shows the core of Skube’s view of blogs:
One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background — these would not seem to be a blogger’s trademarks.
What is needed first is some recognition of different kinds of blogs – a taxonomy if you will. I’ll use this very informal Taxonomy of Blogs proposed by journalist and blogger Brad Rourke. It is a video blog entry or ‘vlog’ so I’ll just summarize the names of the seven types Rourke identifies. It is well worth watching and contains many worthwhile references and insights into the various types of blogs.
- Annotators and pointers
- Thoughtful Responders
- Secret Expertise
- Pot Stirrers
- Omnivorous Essayists
- News Room Bullpen
- Behind the Curtain
Even without listening to Rourke’s descriptions of each category it is pretty clear that Skube is talking about the opinionated pot stirrers and that Rosen is taking his examples from the thoughtful responders, the omnivorous essayists, and those with ‘secret’ expertise. So by looking at even a preliminary taxonomy of blogging we can see there is an apples and oranges argument going on. Interestingly, Rourke says of the pot stirrers that in the end he doesn’t get much out of them. That pretty well confirms Skube’s point of view that there is a lot of opinionated noise in the blogosphere. Speaking for myself, the predictable ideological head butting that characterizes Little Green Footballs on the right or Daily Kos on the left turns me off pretty quickly too. But when the blogosphere authoritatively develops a story that would otherwise go unnoticed we are all interested and well served – which is Rosen’s really telling point.
Is there any further theoretical help available to give a deeper perspective on what is going on here? I think there is. First, I would mention Riepl’s law (from 1913) which according to Wikipedia states:
that new, further developed types of media never replace the existing modes of media and their usage patterns. Instead, a convergence takes place in their field, leading to a different way and field of use for these older forms.
Mathais Dopfner, CEO of the German Axel Springer publishing group gives a contemporary summary of Riepl’s Law which I discussed in detail in this post.
Media progress is cumulative, not substitutive. New media are constantly added, but the old ones remain. This law has yet to be disproved. Books have not replaced storytelling. Newspapers have not replaced books; radio has not replaced newspapers; and television has not replaced radio. It follows that the Internet will not replace television or newspapers.
So I would say to both Skube and Rosen – relax – blogs are going to change newspapers (and TV) but they are not going to eliminate them.
The next theorist I would cite would be McLuhan who – to keep it very simple – stated that the introduction of any new media changes, among other things, the structure of the way we do things. I’ll give another of Rosen’s examples as a demonstration of how this occurs:
June, 2007. Pet-food scandal ignites blogosphere. Pet owners frustrated with the limitations of the news media self-organize into a national network of sites and share news about tainted foods that may have killed thousands of pets across the country.
Print and broadcast journalism have a hierarchical top down structure, the web has a horizontal structure so this kind of collective effort involving a public issue only becomes possible in a networked environment. Riepl’s law is also at work here – the Internet worked faster and therefore supplanted traditional journalism or other information sources like veterinary publications, pet food trade journals, or even word of mouth at getting the news out.
The third theoretical perspective I’d bring to this debate is Linus’s Law expounded by Eric S Raymond’s theory of networks from his book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar:
“Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.”
Linus is Linus Torvalds the developer of the Linux operating system which has been built entirely by volunteer programmers on the Internet using openly published source code which anyone can view and modify. Linux, relying on volunteer programmers, has improved continuously since its inception in the early nineties and now holds a strong position in some areas of computing (servers) and presents an increasing challenge to the proprietary operations systems with closed source code produced by Microsoft and Apple. Extending the principle of Linus’s law to blogging we can see it operating in the debate between Skube and Rosen in several ways. First, the Internet enlarged Skube’s audience and made it possible for anyone with a blog to respond – Jay Rosen, me, and any other interested blogger. Second, the Interenet found a particular blogger with the expertise to mount a challenging response both on the Net and in the LA Times. Finally, Rosen used the principle behind Linus’s Law to seek out additional expertise.
My goal at Newmediatheory.net, where this article is crossposted, is to develop better theoretical understandings of what is happening to all of us in an emergent media environment. (So now we have to deal with vlogs!) While I think Rosen has made a very strong case that bloggers do a lot of the same things as Skube credits traditional journalists with, my purpose here isn’t to argue with either side ot even propose any definitive theoretical framework, but simply to suggest several theoretical frameworks that may be useful in understanding the issues raised by this debate.