Online Journalism

Why blogs can beat traditional news for quality (sometimes)

In preparation for his appearance in front of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee tomorrow, Paul Bradshaw has attempted to define how new journalism (namely blogs) and traditional media guarantee their quality in quite distinct ways. In doing so, Paul is preparing the ground for a set of questions he expects to be asked by the select committee. His evidence, along with that given by a diverse group of witnesses, will help to shape the government’s response to the worsening state of regional media in this country.
Paul has identified that, while traditional media relies on commercial pressure, codes and regulation for its assurances of quality, new journalism does so through offering a right of reply and transparency.
As he puts it, these can be characterised as pre-publication (in the case of traditional media) and post-publication (in the case of new media).
It strikes me, however, that there is one more important distinction that can be made. In assessing the quality (or reliability) of a story, it is important to consider its proximity to the original source of that story.
This could be seen as similar to the distinctions made by historians, who identify sources as primary, secondary or tertiary. The traditional role of the news journalist was (and remains) a job of narrowing the distance between a primary source (whether that be a news event, eyewitness, or a news maker – such as a politician) and their report (which, in history parlance, would usually be a secondary source). This takes time and often requires the journalist to apply training and experience as well as shared knowledge. This job can also be a fairly unpleasant business. That’s why, when a trainee local reporter returns from her first death knock (approaching directly the family of a recently bereaved person), she’s congratulated for her work.
But a significant distinction between new and old media is that new media can often come directly from the primary source, without any need for an intermediary.
In fact, it might be possible to imagine a future where the public is consistently able to seek a first-hand account of a news event without the help of traditional media. That, in other words, the primary source will be open and available to us all. Local blogs, run by local people, are evidently fantastic primary sources – and the internet has given the means to all sorts of groups (charities, residents’ associations and, notably, well-educated former call girls) to directly publish their experiences. But the existence and availability of social media do not on their own mean all stories will be told directly, or be easily told by others. Clearly, court cases are an example – where the frankly odd, arcane structure and practices of our legal system, in particular the laws governing contempt, make it necessary for a trained intermediary to operate. Furthermore, it may be that our open-source utopia, where all information is available in primary source and easily navigable, will always remain just that. It is much more likely that some primary sources will be available and others won’t. While those sources aren’t available and remain difficult to access there may still be a role for traditional journalism, because, frankly, it’ll still be a full-time job to get at them.
Of course, there are two clear caveats to this. Firstly, a lot of journalism has shied away from doing this primary source, coalface work. Instead, it has become far closer to the definition of a tertiary source, relying on press releases, wire reports and other second-hand material. Secondly, there is no reason why some of the work at getting close to the primary source can’t be shared between large numbers of people all contributing small, but significant amounts of effort – as happens in the open-source software movement.
The first point, of course, is the result of the financial problems facing traditional media, about which much has already been written. The second point, however, I think is more interesting. Is it possible for an open-source concept of news to completely replace professional journalism? I don’t think it is, because open source hasn’t stopped many people from making lots of money out of computer programming. Instead, it changes what journalists do and allows them to develop specialisms and new skills – perhaps in mining information and in manipulating and analysing that information. However, for open-source news to be really effective, it needs free access to information. Many are already familiar with the struggle to open up data sets to the public – such as postcodes, public health, crime and environmental data. But free information doesn’t end with this struggle. In many ways it is only the beginning. Court cases, council proceedings, company reports, government communication and any number of other sources of information are also difficult to access. Making them more available and more consumable is a huge challenge, but it is essential to do so because it is within these sources of information that our news and – by extension – our public interest lies.
The debate that currently exists between the political parties is preoccupied with solving the problem of the death of regional and national media. But this bloody sideshow deflects attention from the real issue, which is in serving the public interest by making available accurate, trustworthy information to all citizens.
Worse still, preservation of these media firms may do more harm to that provision than good. After all, if your commercial survival depends on providing information you may wish to protect it – and prevent others from copying and using it. Such control would not only mean that this information falls into fewer hands, but that it is not treated to as much analysis as it would otherwise do. It would also do incalculable harm to the kinds of new journalism that we are just beginning to see, where basic news is turned into all sorts of ingenious forms of media – whether that be maps, games, or other ‘mash ups’.
If open-source news provides a better model for the dissemination of information in the public interest (by making it more available, more consumable and more engaging), then it should become the goal of legislation. It may seem better in the short term to preserve jobs at existing media groups, but if doing so stifles the provision of information then it would be at far too high a price.
As a journalist myself, it is also worth pointing out that journalists and their interests should remain distinct from the interests of their employers. To confuse these two, as has sometimes been done, would be a terrible trap for legislators to fall into. After all, I don’t imagine anyone cares whether they are working for Trinity Mirror or a new-media start up. They’re much more interested in the quality of their job and how much they are paid for it. Putting a failing industry on life support – either by spending government money on it, or by allowing it to effectively block the development of new competitors – won’t do journalists or journalism any good in the fullness of time.
Sadly, the policies of both the major political parties are muddled by their own short-term interests. In particular, attempts to court favourable coverage in the run-up to the general election already appear to be threatening the prospects of a decent policy emerging. That’s an indictment of our political system. And it would be a cruel irony if it means that this important issue itself remains under-reported.

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5 thoughts on “Why blogs can beat traditional news for quality (sometimes)

  1. Great post, which I think sums up many of the issues very well. I agree that traditional media – for need of a better phrase – shouldn’t be able to prevent new sources of information from emerging, and as the growth of many hyperlocal sites is showing, I’m not sure it is at the moment. I’m not sure, however, that we can characterise the difference between the two on pre and post-publication checks and balances (apologies if I’ve misunderstood your post here). Newspapers, via codes of practice, are supposed to offer right of reply, but have been able to control that right of reply. Blogs, hyperlocal sites, etc can offer instant right of reply, as can newspapers via their websites depending on their comment moderation policy. Is it not more a case that both traditional and new media are both in the same boat online now – capable of both controlling response and allowing free and fair discussion as they wish. Hopefully, those that allow the latter will be the ones which grow and prosper.

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