Neuron Culture

The note below was originally a response to a comment that Bora Z left on my “More on uneasy symbiosis (mashup? smashup?) of mainstream and citizen media, but given the interest in this subject I thought I best give it its own post.

Thanks for writing, Bora. The limitations of small papers that you point out echo closely Helen Branswell’s comments in Effect Measure’s post; she defended an all-subjects-reporter colleague (whom I take it had been slighted about his flu reporting) along similar lines, noting that he had too much ground to cover to do them all in the sort of depth she was able to bring to her flu coverage.

I see your point about the potential value of replacing such uneven coverage of issues with what amounts to a new network of specialists. But that has problems too, at least as a complete replacement. First, if the scientists are no longer working as scientists, but just blogging/reporting full time, then they’re essentially specialist reporters, no? So you’ve returned to specialist beat, only without (at least so far) a way to pay them.

If, on the other hand, these blogger/specialists are still working scientists, I don’t see how we can rely on them to steadily have the time and sense of critical distance to be optimal reporters. (See Neurocritic’s posts above.) Sources, yes, commenters, yes, lenders of perspective, yes; but reporters and diggers-up of scattered important information, no. That takes time, believe me. And while these specialist-bloggers have knowledge, that knowledge can sometimes be rather siloed, and they also have obvious biases. Finally, for some stories they will lack a needed critical distance — for sometimes the most important story about a discipline is a story the discipline doesn’t see or doesn’t care to acknowledge.

Again, these aren’t problems that the MSM solves perfectly, either. But the MSM does provide some structures and support and platforms that give it strengths the blogsphere lacks, just as the blogosphere serves to counter and check some of the weaknesses of the MSM. And I’m not saying these things can’t possibly be replaced in some online form of journalism/blogging/reportage — though no model is at hand at this point, and it distresses me to see people so willing and even eager and impatient to toss out MSM good and bad. If we’re seeking to replace the MSM — or have to, because it fails economically — we best recognize its strengths and try to make sure we carry over as many as possible to whatever might replace or supplement it. And let’s hope, God o God, that this shiny new world offers some comfortable way to read long pieces — print, digital ink, something, as hardly anyone reads anything longer than 1500 words online. (Ask Slate; they’ve tried it, and readership heads off a cliff as you pass 1000 words.)

Finally, Zimmer and Judson and Mooney and I are free to write in chosen areas, and to get some depth in our reporting, only because of the MSM. (Well, I can’t speak for them with true authority; but I feel confident this is true unless they have nonwriting sources of income.) Zimmer may (or may not) make enough with his books to support him; but I feel safe in saying his books sell well partly because he publishes regularly in the Times. My own MSM income is essential, and while I enjoy writing on the web, there’s simply no way at this point I can make a living writing only for pixels instead of print — and no online-only outfits would run the longer pieces that most engage me and that I feel are my best and most socially important work.

Finally, as to blogging ethics being responsible for whatever quality people find in my work : No go, and I suspect it’s much the same for Zimmer and possibly Mooney and Judson (whose work I know less well.) My ethics and sense of relationship to audience were shaped by my work in print media (magazines and books, as I’ve only a few short pieces in daily papers) and can’t be said to be some new ethics created in or “upgraded” by my blogging or accepting the blogosphere. Blogging lets me link, and converse, and track an issue steadily, and it makes it easier to state revisions of opinion — but while those are valuable additions, but they are changes not of ethics but of practice. (Meanwhile there are important things I lose when blogging, such as the time to research in depth and to explore a story in depth at one go.) The blogosphere ethics you refer — that is, those articulated by Jay Rosen don’t conflict with or necessarily supersede those of MSM journalists. His point, it seems to me, is not that the blogosphere has better ethics, but that it has them, and they’re expressed in ways different than in the MSM (via links, e.g.), so folks, quit saying the blogosphere doesn’t have ethics.

Rosen’s much stronger and emphatic point, meanwhile, is that the blogosphere v MSM argument isn’t getting us anywhere, so, follks, quit beating this question by attacking “the other.” I could not agree more. The point is not which is better or deserves to die or has great or lousy ethics or good or awful writers. It’s that they bring different strengths and weaknesses and possibilites and constraints, we’ll make the best of both realms if we try to cross-fertilize strengths while avoiding or improving upon weaknesses.


  1. #1 Sandra Kiume
    February 9, 2009

    Excellent post, thanks for your thoughtful and balanced views.