The tail that wags the blog
July 14, 2006
It seems as though the recent onslaught of reports by news bloggers on the imminent death of newspapers may be greatly exaggerated. At least news bloggers should certainly hope so.Second quarter figures released this week aren’t overly encouraging for traditional rags, the majority of which have posted continued declines. It was reported Thursday that while McClatchy produced promising results as it prepares to purchase Knight Ridder Inc. for $6.1 billion, earnings by Tribune Co. fell, due in part to circulation numbers.With the exception of the Drudge Report (which broke the story that eventually led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton), Forbes.com (whose investigative work helped along the finding that New Republic writer Stephen Glass fabricated dozens of stories) and The Smoking Gun (the first organization to report numerous lies by James Frey in both of his best-selling non-fiction books), major scoops rarely break from any organization with only a .com to its credit.Most Internet blog sites that purport to originate news do so by merely linking to the sites of traditional print organizations and adding to the stories by spouting their unmonitored opinions on that which has already been reported.Speaking about the future of investigative journalism at The Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival earlier this month, Atlantic Monthly national correspondent James Fallows remarked that it was no accident that Internet-only news groups were not represented on the event’s panel. Fallows likened Web journalists to parasites, saying that although a lot of them do “interesting stuff,” what they mainly do is nothing that “remotely approximates investigative journalism … they require the newspapers and the magazines to do the real reporting, which they then can riff off of.”And despite the profit loss suffered by traditional newspapers in part due to Internet advertising competition, the new money generated online doesn’t seem to be directed at beefing up the checks-and-balances systems in the growing world of web information, which appears to remain largely unimpeded. Just ask retired journalist John Seigenthaler Sr.Wikipedia, the web site that proudly calls itself “the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” was embroiled in controversy last fall after an operations manager from a Nashville, Tenn.-based delivery service company changed Seigenthaler’s Wikipedia biography as a hoax. He erroneously wrote that the man who once worked as an administrative assistant to Robert F. Kennedy was at one time suspected in both Kennedy assassinations. The revised entry spread to credible news outlets, forcing Seigenthaler to spend months tracking down the malicious source and clamoring to clear his name. As a result, Wikipedia, which reportedly employs only one person full time (but boasts thousands of “volunteer editors”), has since changed its policy to require all helpers to register using a real name before modifying entries.A recent article in The London Times questioned whether web-based writers (who, thanks to guidebooks and virtual classrooms are self-publishing online as easy as 1-2-3) “dig less deep than those who struggle with paper and ink.”News bloggers frequently dish it out with ease, but more often than not have little substance to back up the statements they assert as fact. Few sites have experienced news editors or publishers capable of holding writers accountable for their work.While many news bloggers entertain – Huffington Post, Wonkette, Gawker and the like – the sites frequently bear a striking resemblance to USA Today: long on color and splash but often short on weighty content, with serious news junkies taking little stock in their offerings.Until which time news blog sites have the budget and resources to compete with the structure of traditional media outlets, the job of weeding out the professionals from the amateurs is child’s play. Writers and readers alike will undoubtedly benefit from increased competition when the Internet-only news organizations can invest in reporters capable of and willing to rake some muck. For now, for the sake of their own survival, news bloggers better start hoping to see a reverse in the newspaper industry’s declining numbers. What else will they use to fill their sites?Those who got up this morning to get the newspaper should be sure to wipe the ink off their fingers with care. They just might miss it if the only thing of note on their hands in the future is a cramp received from clicking a mouse all day long.E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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