There is a wonderful essay by Michael Massing in the current edition of the New York Review of Books about the deepening relationship between print and online journalism. In form, it’s a review of Eric Boehlert Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (Free Press | Amazon), which traces the online events that affected the 2008 presidential campaign and reveals the stories of the internet activists who made them all possible, and Bill Wasik And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture (Viking | Amazon), which seeks to demonstrate that the rise of the internet means that our culture is now created from the ground up. Common to both books is the argument that a small online quiver can easily become a massive earthquake in the real world. In fact, Massing’s piece is a fascinating assessment of the state of journalism on the internet, filled with references to all sorts of blogs, but which only tangentially touches on Boehlert’s and Wasik’s book. In that, I suppose, it’s much more like a long blogpost than a traditional book review.
Indeed, Massing’s piece almost resembles a blogpost in another way: the online version has links to many of the online sources referred to in the piece, a practice other publications could adopt, to save me having to add links when I quote paragraphs from newspaper websites – it is this kind of added value that makes online reporting different from the paper kind, and the sooner newspapers realise that the online version is not simply the text of the paper version, the better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that the online version replace the paper version – indeed, I read the paper version of the article first – just that online versions should fulfill their potential. And anyway, the Review’s practice of putting a list of links at the start of the article rather than embedding them in the text only goes half way, so in the extracts below, I’ve still had to add the links.
The core of his argument is in this extract (though the whole thing is well worth reading, even on paper, over a cup of coffee):
In an online chat with readers earlier this year, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller deplored the “diminishing supply of quality journalism” at a time of “growing demand.” … Keller’s lament—one of a steady chorus rising from the industry—contains a feature common to many of them: a put-down of the Web and the bloggers who regularly comment on Web sites. …
This image of the Internet as parasite has some foundation. Without the vital news-gathering performed by established institutions, many Web sites would sputter and die. In their sweep and scorn, however, such statements seem as outdated as they are defensive. Over the past few months alone, a remarkable amount of original, exciting, and creative (if also chaotic and maddening) material has appeared on the Internet. The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.
Massing traces the history of journalistic blogging from the Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan “snip-it-and-comment approach”, via blogs that not only comment on the news but also break it, to “an emerging new breed of ‘hybrids,’ schooled in both the practices of print journalism and the uses of cyberspace” as well as to online commentators and citizen-journalists (though he uses neither of these terms); the internet offers a podium to those
… of all ages and backgrounds who are flush with ideas but lack the means to transmit them. A good example is Marcy Wheeler, … [who] first began blogging in 2004, gaining notice for her posts on the Valerie Plame leak case; in early 2007 she “liveblogged” the Lewis Libby trial. Later that year, after giving up her consulting job, she began blogging full-time for FireDogLake …
“The idea that our work is parasitical is farcical,” Wheeler told me by phone. “There’s a lot of good, original work in the blogosphere. Half of all journalists look at the blogosphere when working on a story.” At the same time, she said, “I’m happy to admit I’m still utterly reliant on journalists …” … “We ought to be talking about a symbiotic rather than a parasitical relationship,” she told me. What disturbs bloggers, she added, are those journalists who reside in “the Village”—shorthand, she said, “for the compliant, unquestioning, conventional wisdom that comes out of Washington. …”.
The blogosphere, by contrast, has proven especially attractive to those who, despite having specialized knowledge about a subject, have little access to the nation’s Op-Ed pages. … Beyond such individual sites, the Web has helped open up entire subjects that were once off-limits to the press. …
But Massing admits that it’s not all roses here in the world of electrons and computer screens; and this allows him a paragraph each on the books putatively under review. First, bloggers often reject the attempts at “balance” that are made by mainstream print publications, though of course
… it’s their willingness to dispense with such conventions that makes the blogosphere a lively and bracing place. This is nowhere more apparent than in the work of Glenn Greenwald. A lawyer and former litigator, Greenwald is a relative newcomer to blogging, having begun only in December 2005, but as Eric Boehlert notes in his well-researched but somewhat breathless Bloggers on the Bus, within six months of his debut he “had ascended to an unofficial leadership position within the blogosphere.” In contrast to the short, punchy posts favored by most bloggers, Greenwald offers a single daily essay of two thousand to three thousand words. In each, he draws on extensive research, amasses a daunting array of facts, and, as Boehlert puts it, builds his case “much like an attorney does.”
Second, Massing quite rightly acknowledges
… some of the more troubling features of the journalism taking shape on the Web. The polemical excesses for which the blogosphere is known remain real. In And Then There’s This, an impressionistic account of the viral culture on the Internet, Bill Wasik describes how “the network of political blogs, through a feedback loop among bloggers and readers,” has produced a machine that supplies the reader with “prefiltered information” supporting his or her own views. According to one study cited by Wasik, 85 percent of blog links were to other blogs of the same political inclination, “with almost no blog showing any particular respect for any blog on the other side.” …
Finally, the Internet remains a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications. … For all these problems, the Web is currently home to all kinds of intriguing experiments … [which t]aken together … suggest a fundamental change taking place in the world of news.
Massing’s piece offers insights into where this change has come from as well as tantalising glimpses of where it might be going. The key point is that, whilst the world of print journalism may not be dieing, it will need to rejuvenate if it is to thrive. How it responds to that challenge will be interesting. And remember, as it does, please embed those links!
Bonus links: the Review‘s podcast page has a conversation between Manning and Charles Petersen about the rise of blogs and the ascent of online journalism (mp3); and while you’re there, check out Fintan O’Toole‘s gripping interview by Sasha Weiss about the genius and misfortune of Flann O’Brien (mp3).