Friday, February 6, 2009

Bloggers: The Sesame Street Generation Grows Up?

I spoke last night at a small gathering hosted in the Paley Center by the Financial Times. The topic was the current economic crisis, and the audience, and two of the three panelists, were what I guess is considered ‘of the journalistic persuasion’. Most all were in one form or other bloggers; whether they become viewed as journalists, time will tell.

We all know that the world of journalism has been turned on its head. All you have to do is hold up a copy of Time Magazine and watch it wave in the wind to tell there is a problem with the weeklies. And when there are murmurings of the New York Times shutting, you know we are in a changing world. Replacing traditional print journalism is the blogging community. Will the world be any different? And if different, worse off?

Here is my stream of consciousness view of blogs. I am employing a stream of consciousness approach in this post out of respect for my topic, because I want to write about blogs in the same way most blogs are produced and read.

When we were young, we – and I mean anyone in the baby boom generation onwards – were fed TV fare that included Sesame Street. Childhood education specialists discovered what would have been self-evident if they had any kids of their own, that kids have short attention spans and are attracted to movement and activity. So they helped design shows that fit what these unformed brains craved. A string of little spots lasting a few minutes each with frenetic activity, the cognitive equivalent of a string of Star Burst candies. Our brains liked it, but being fed it incessantly, didn’t see much need to develop out of that mode. So as we got older, we gravitated toward the adolescent equivalent, MTV. The average scene in an MTV clip was under half a second, the average clip under five minutes; it was Sesame Street on hormones – and we were now Sesame Streeters on hormones.

So what happens when the Sesame Streeters grow up and are looking for news – or, more precisely, are looking for entertainment in the ‘feel good’ form of news? It was a long time coming, but now we have it: blogs. When I jump from one blog to the next, the same neurons seem to be firing that did back in my Sesame Street days. Both in timing and content. Blogs are all bite sized – probably because of how we spent our formative years, our stream of consciousness episodes last about as long as the Sesame Street spots. And the content is mostly retread, so we get to read the same thing over and over again. Thus it is both easy on our eyes and our brains. And filled with attention-grabbing activity; since you can take leave of journalistic standards that constrain the traditional print journalist, you can be edgy, even insulting. How am I doing so far?

My book, A Demon of Our Own Design, was a finalist in the Business Books category for the Loeb Awards, so I got to attend the awards dinner. The place was packed with traditional journalists. I didn’t win; the person who did wrote about Tom Perkins building a really big sail boat – I still haven’t figured that out. But, anyway, continuing on with my stream of consciousness…. Many of the winners expressed their appreciation to their employers for allowing them the freedom and funding to work on the difficult and time consuming topic that led to their prize. Topics that uncovered business abuses through months of dogged investigative work. At that dinner I felt proud for the journalistic profession, because I was seeing the fruits of the labor of some of those who had signed up during the Woodward and Bernstein era, when many were driven toward journalism to improve the world, to speak for those who had no voice.

Will this role continue in the world of bloggers? If we are talking about factoids being thrown out into the light of day, the answer will be ‘yes’. A blogger can grab something that is predigested and put it into a post. So there is no reason Harry Markopolis’s whistle blowing analysis of Madoff couldn’t have found its way into the blogosphere, rattling around until it caught the attention of the mainstream media. But would a blogger have spent the time to develop such an analysis. Mainstream journalists missed on this one, but I could well imagine an alternative universe where the Madoff Ponzi scheme emerged through the efforts of an investigative journalist. Plenty of other things have.

What will the landscape of journalism look like in five or ten years, as the dinosaurs of print journalism breathe their last. Well, when the dinosaurs disappeared from the earth, the earth became overrun with rodents.

13 comments:

  1. Rick writes: "So there is no reason Harry Markopolis’s whistle blowing analysis of Madoff couldn’t have found its way into the blogosphere, rattling around until it caught the attention of the mainstream media. But would a blogger have spent the time to develop such an analysis."

    Markopolos's analysis would likely have been picked up, commented on, and the Madoff fraud would have not been as long.

    Most of useful blogging is going to be drawing attention to longer works, which thoughtful people will review and comment on.

    Oh, and I liked your book but I think you focussed too much on complexity and not enough on ordinary fraud.

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  2. Rick:

    Interesting post. I believe (and hope) that there will still be a place for a journalistic profession. The question remains: how we will be able to tell the professionals from the crackpots?

    Up until now, we have had the benefit of large publishing companies providing some assurance (ususally they do okay with this). The Internet, as you discuss, provides anyone with a keyboard and a connection with the ability to express their opinion and/or provide their "reports" of events.

    There are sites like Digg.com that allow readers to vote for posters, but we all know that what's popular may not be what's true.

    It will be interesting how it all falls out.

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  3. Agreed with L Loeb, an interesting post (which I reached via the Felix Salmon blog). Keeping this comment bite-sized (thus daring contempt) and steering well clear of all things stream of consciousness, I take issue on one aspect.

    Comparing good journalism to bad blogging is far too facile, I'm afraid. It's telling that you mention the cream such as Woodward and Bernstein without wading through the vast majority of works by pro journalists which are, turth be told, mediocre. Far too many pro journalists hide behiind the veneer of a qualification. This is as true in the business field as in any other.

    Not so the good blogger. Those blogs worth reading (a minority of course; choose the % figure to suit one's own taste) are run and written by people that know their field and have the knack of explanation. I will pick up on one of the examples given by Salmon in his rebuttal, that of Brad Setser. His blog is a remarkable oeuvre that manages to explain his subject in an accessible manner (for those literate in numbers, at least).

    The bottom line here is that your automatic comparison of "good journalism vs bad blogging" is weak. It would be just as easy to compare the dross produced on a day-to-day basis by the majority of pro journalists to the good bloggers.

    Enough said.

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  4. Otto Rock is of course correct. I was being polemic to make a point. Unfortunately, the exuberance of how I wrote this might have caused one of the main points of my post to have been missed by some: with the demise of print journalism we also might see the demise of investigative reporting. In fact, the latter might disappear even if the former doesn't, because it takes a lot of money to turn someone loose to do the larger investigative pieces. One point made by someone at the FT gathering that might mitigate this is that with blogs, many people can weigh in. Perhaps rather than having the print journalist hunting down obscure sources, some of them will come to the blogger.

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  5. Rick, I loved your book and arguably it tipped me into joining the finance profession, but this is an old argument long settled.

    Yes anyone can write anything on the internet, but most blogs I read are longer and more detailed than newspaper articles, and they have *gasp* references.

    As a newcomer I have to say financial print journalism in particular is a pale shade of the online version. You either get opinion stated without argument or shallow facts without analysis.

    As an example, a recent thread on the FT blog asked why fixed income markets recieve so little attention in the press, even though they dwarf equities. This was essentially resolved when the staffers admitted they at the FT only really knew about equities!

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  6. What makes you think bloggers want to be journalists? Bloggers can be whatever they choose to be, and it's not our fault that old media is going down the toilet.

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  7. "What will the landscape of journalism look like in five or ten years, as the dinosaurs of print journalism breath their last. Well, when the dinosaurs disappeared from the earth, the earth became overrun with rodents."

    Provided you're not a creationist too, then you know that those rodents grew, learned to stand upright, and in time became us, humans, the dominant form of life on Earth. The dinosaurs had to die for us to inherit.

    There are many acerbic and possibly witty things I could say about trying to stop "progress" or preserve a way of life, even one with social value. But just as looking after steam engines is now the province of old men, because so few young men are interested. So it goes with popular culture, of which journalism, in all it's forms, is but a part. It too will founder without new blood. So unless journalism adapts to the young, rather than expecting them to adapt to it. It's future, like the age of steam, may pass.

    If the young chose only to blog, then something of value may be lost, but as Felix points out, the "blogosphere" as it is now is a very vibrant place, full of knowledgeable people looking to share their bounty with others, and who grow as they learn and become focal points themselves.

    I learned a lot from Tanta (R.I.P) at Calculated Risk, just as I learn a lot from the journalists at the FT. We do not demand credentials or time served, only a willingness to share. Which is something you could learn from in my opinion.

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  8. "Dinosaur:rodents as investigative journalists: X.

    My analogy can be taken to mean various things. It can be taken to mean that bloggers as rodents will take over for journalists as the dinosaurs, which is how praxis22 and some others have looked at it. I think a better way to think of this -- the one that probably would be scored as "correct" if it were a test question -- is that if investigative journalists disappear, many of the injustices that they have helped uncover will be able to grow unfettered, much as rodents could multiply unfettered when one of their main predators was gone.

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  9. "with the demise of print journalism we also might see the demise of investigative reporting"

    Rick...while i can't completely agree with what they say there is a blog (Deep capture) that shares your overall concern about the dearth of investigative reporting (IR). Its funded by patrick byrne (the, shall we say, "eccentric" ceo from Overstock.com), but its the first model of blog-based IR that i've seen.

    i guess my point is, IR needs to find a way to be funneled through a new medium -- as the print-funded model has serious problems. but you make clear, and i agree, investigative reporting is definitely something to behold. as a result, i think it will evetually resurface via the blogsphere or some other non-subscription based medium.

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  10. My argument was simply a logical extension of your poorly conceived analogy, designed to make you look silly. In trying to extricate yourself you continue to look silly.

    Argument: (n) A discussion in which disagreement is expressed; a debate; a course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating a truth or falsehood; the methodical process of logical reasoning.

    "a better way to think of this -- the one that probably would be scored as "correct" if it were a test question"

    Only if you were setting the question :)

    As for affirming the consequent, (journalists investigate injustice, some injustices are uncovered, therefore journalists must have investigated it) it's a poor defence for another ill conceived analogy. There is a place devoid of natural predators, save those introduced by man, where rodents and indeed most other inhabitants are able to breathe free. You may have heard of it. They call it the Galapagos Islands.

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  11. Rick,

    It was a pleasure hearing you speak, and getting the opportunity to speak with you afterwards was insightful, to say the least!

    However, and I'm not so foolish as guess why, you seem to be of the "old school" mindset that since some journalism is very good, its still a worthy and necessary industry/profession.

    As others have pointed out, much of the crap that finds its way into MSM (TV, magazines, newspapers) is barely (if at all)-analyzed regurgitation of press releases and news wires.

    I concur, investigative journalism is something to be valued, however the % of journalism (especially business/finance) that falls under this category is but a small percentage of the whole.

    I'm not sure what "blogs" you read, but to make (understandably though given the admitted stream-of-consciousness) a blanket statement that most are nothing more than bite-sized tidbits indicates that you might want to expand your horizons in the blogosphere.

    Admittedly, yes, many blogs are short tidbits, but believe it or not, every now and then you'll encounter some (or posts on some blogs) that resemble careful analysis or even, gasp, investigative work!

    Thank you,

    JT

    aka

    "Anal_yst"
    http://1-2knockout.typepad.com

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  12. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Sara

    http://smallbusinessgrant.info

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  13. I consider blogs as a huge loudspeaker. professional loudspeaker requires some time to warm up before you can raise the level near maximum. but this warm up isn't required in case of blogs. However there is much background noise. the information overflow.

    Your fear that classic journalism is dimishing I dont agree. People gets older as always. New journalists grow up and might start their first exercises with blogging nowadays. However this is not sufficent to become a journalist who is uncovering stuff that attract the big loudspeaker to raise the level.

    At the and of the day there will be still people who buy books and want to read some essays. But future hardcopy mass media consumer will be more demanding regarding embedding, layout, design, or some other value propositions. I am still buying magazines bcoz after sitting the whole working day in front of a pc i dont want to read online or e stuff during my leisure time.

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