“Good night, and good luck.” – Edward R. Murrow
That was the catchphrase of a great broadcaster. With that, Murrow became a legend and, I suspect, inspired a generation. Generations of journalists and bloggers are converging on something entirely new. This story is about how journalism has changed, how it is today something different. This is the story about how something I have resisted has come full circle and inhabited a part of my own life in ways I never thought possible. It’s also important to say, I’m no expert in journalism – my perspective is a unique one though. I grew up in the radio newsroom and I learned of journalists from the inside. Also, I am part of that “new” technology blogger-ati that cow-tows to no editorialist, that plays fast and loose with the truth, and is shifting what we see in news for better or worse. What we’re seeing here is, I think, a seismic shift in how things work.
That generation Murrow inspired likely included none other than my own father, Gene Costain. He spent much of his work-life as a radio newscaster for radio stations such as CKO in Toronto. I wish I had been paying more attention to what was going on around me too, but I generally had a distaste for this environment of reporters. My exposure to these newsrooms was fairly extensive as I would often tag along with him while his did his broadcast. Many of my memories of his times on-air in those small padded booths with microphones involved him reading word-for-word from AP wire papers or text copy that was ever so slightly altered from what the wire said. Today, I’m able to bring my view of past journalism and look at it through the eyes of today’s bloggers.
I remember the newsrooms too. Walking into one of these large desk-filled rooms might have been mistaken for a casino, with the constant ambient pitter patter of typewriter keys being smashed on a near constant state (this was the eighties, after all). Off in the distance, one could hear the “bzzzzzit… bzzzit” sound coming from the multiple AP wire machines on tables placed along the back wall of this big space.
Today, I see that my father dabbles in new media. At 60 years old, he’s likely looking out there at this new frontier of Wikipeida, Quora, Klout, and social media as some sort of Avant-garde concept. His knowledge, likely grounded in that musty newsroom; he still knows in his heart that a big shift is inevitable. I really don’t know if my father will read this article (or if he reads anything I write). The truth is, we aren’t on the best of terms. I if I could speak to hime – I’d say that I have always admired the balls he’s had to face his own limitations. He has done things that I personally wouldn’t, and a great deal of that takes guts that most of us may never have. One of the early things I remember him saying to me is “You can do anything you want, you just have to want it bad enough”. If you have any guiding principle, there are worse ways to go. I really don’t know if he wanted me to follow in his footsteps and work as a journalist. But, somehow, he must have known I would end up something like this.
I have, however, spent much of my life in opposition to many of those old-school journalistic tenants. This was even before technology came into my life. I am part of that new cult of individuality. We don’t like to follow. We don’t like to be told what to do. In fact, because of this sort of attitude, the very idea of mainstream media almost doesn’t exist. Like may in my generation, I don’t watch TV, I don’t read many newspapers. The days of the Associated press being the de-facto standard for wire stories has now given way to social media sites that can break those same events within minutes, sometimes seconds after it happens. Because of this, the people who are writing those stories aren’t stuffy suits with an editorial line to follow, they’re you and I.
I’m an IT Administrator most of the time, the rest of the time I’m reading countless web articles, blogs, reviews and anything else I can get my hands on that relates to technology. The stories here at Blogging Calwell tend to always relate to technology in some manner, but they certainly don’t have too. I don’t have a fellow looking over my back saying “you can’t write this” either. While that kind of freedom is amazing, getting cease and desist letters for your writing is decidedly NOT amazing. And, despite what you might think, I’m not a professional writer. No really. Seriously.
You see, those pillars of old school journalism also were great writers and often great entertainers too. I remember seeing Walter Cronkite and Any Rooney on TV and these men were incredibly entertaining to watch. But, they had writers, editors and legions of people behind them. But, today’s blogger is probably more like me, just one (or a few) people. With thousands of points of reference, you’ll never know what’s right, and perhaps may even loose sight of the actual story in the drowning monotony of reading blog after blog. I also find that most people today aren’t built with the kind of filters to drill down to the most edifying details of any overloaded topic. It can even be exhausting and difficult for me sometimes, and I read allot of news from mainstream media and this new, interesting type of blog journalism.
On the next page, I make up a new word:
Today blog journalism or as you might call it, blogalism looks like this:
Bloggers today often do little or no research in an effort to get the stories out quick. The best example of this is a technology blog chasing hits with new stories (often those ending with a question mark). If a new piece of software is written today, you had better review it and get it out, and get mentioned on Techmeme before others do. This doesn’t leave allot of time to ponder the various possibilities or research details as in-depth as possible.
In this hard-driving movement to get on a story also comes with multitudes of different reports about one topic. It’s becoming a serious threat to anyone interested in getting a well-rounded idea of what’s happening. Right now in technology journalism, if a major product is released, you can be sure to see upwards of 100 or more articles written about the exact same thing. This generally does away with any sort of originality since all that can really change here is the level of depth they decide to delve into.
Often extreme narcissism can be another part of this new world. Since bloggers will tend to write alone, form the idea alone and generally proof-read the blog alone – when it comes time to promote what you’ve written, the tweets and posts are very one-sided. In recent years I’ve seen a major increase in this “me, me” attitude in the personalities of some very big bloggers. Often bragging about exclusive access to products, the “I’m better than you attitude”, and other narcissistic behaviours have increasingly becoming part of this new blogging world.
With narcissism and individuality king, then come the personal attacks. Those that are known for doing this in blog form are, I think, the kind of anti-thesis of what journalism and blogging should be about. These folks have clear conflicts of interest and are often caught up in mindless personal attacks on others instead of bringing value to others in writing. With this kind of environment, it makes sense that, we the reader don’t know who to trust.
This is why, in today blogalism there is little or no gauge of integrity. In the past we may have trusted the local nightly news to tell us about an event (and genuinely trust that the reporting is correct). Today, any blog can essentially say anything. Since we’re not able to verify any of the facts, nor get a feeling for the level of trust we have for the content – every single report is now likely met with such a high level of skepticism, that perhaps the effectiveness of the writing is really lost. Imagine you watched the local news and saw a weather report that called for rain tomorrow – if you were HIGHLY skeptical of that report, would you ride your motorcycle the next day?
In news and also in blogs – the best way to get eyeballs is sensationalism. In the realm of blogalism, getting that big story (and the mild exaggeration of it) is all the more common. Even the title of the blog has to be adjusted for maximum eyeballs. More and more common headlines are those that use words like “killer” or “dead” or “10 ways to” or “You need to see this”. Often these headlines do nothing but lead you into a page that is wholly lacking in substance (and cause the dreaded “bounce” in analytics terms).
Next, What About References?
You see, I regularly read many of these articles, blogs and news stories. And, as I pour over them, it is clear that there are some blogs and websites that are known for providing a unique, informative and quality look on ideas and news, and others that are most sensationalist and vapid. They all exist out there, and we’re in a moment when the breaking down of old media is starting to give way to something that may be entirely different than even what it is now. What I think that we need in this new world are a number of serious changes to have we create this new content.
Today referencing other stuff is tricky. There are copyrights, backlinks, and others that would hide links because entire articles are copied. While the venerable link is a beautiful concept, I think we need to expand on it and create a way to reference research as easily as referencing a tweet. With a link as a basis for the idea, what if there were a standard way of just referencing back to where you got the thoughts and ideas yourself (with specific context)? What if, when mentioning Walter Cronkite, you could just hover over that name is see this pop up above it:
You see, that’s how I remember him. Perhaps the language of the web will better allow us to translate thoughts into something more useful and make them real references for the building blocks of an idea. Everything that is created is based on something that came before it, and the meagre link is in dire need of an upgrade to help us articulate that better.
With better links, we’ll get to a point where the references that we use don’t have to be stuffy lists at the bottom of pages. For us to begin to build a more legitimate reporting of information in blogs, we really need to make those references more valid. Perhaps there could be a wikipedia-esque body that would hold a common reference point for publications?
The centralization of references sure would run counter to the idea of a decentralized Internet, so this is certainly not the only way we could make this happen. There needs to be integrity and motivation built-in to the process. But, without rewards for research and referencing valid information, what makes a blogger want to do it?
This then leads to the idea of learned integrity. Companies like Klout are tackling this idea to a degree, but the Internet is nowhere near at the level of telling you whether a person or company can be trusted. Should it do that? Really, the decentralized nature of the Internet is a perfect medium for this type of scenario as long at the information is not rigged. Even a simple Metacritic score for companies or bloggers may help us better evaluate whether it’s worth patronizing them. If you’re wondering if crowdsourced reviews work, try reading every single resort review for a hotel on Debbie’s Dominican Travel and you’ll likely come away knowing exactly if that resort is right for you. The concept of learned integrity is possible I think, but may not be do-able with just algorithmic solutions.
With better references, we’d then be able to create indexes of better real, useful content. Sites like Wikipedia and Quora tell me it’s only the beginning of us indexing the cumulative knowledge of all these sites, pages and blogs. If you take any common technical problem, you’ll likely find thousands of people that have written about it, asked about it, solved it, or found a new variant of it. Today much of that is locked behind search engines that don’t index it very well and possibly forums that don’t provide very good search mechanisms. Imagine having a problem with your computer – typing in the error and getting an index of every possible way someone used to solve that problem. We need to get to a point like this, and it’s all out there.
In some of those less popular places you’ll find articles and ideas of longer form. We have to stop punishing the long-form article. Well-written in-depth pieces of journalism that might knock your socks off if you weren’t going to for the simple link wrapped in all that “click bait”. The possible death of mainstream media certainly doesn’t have to mean the death of well thought out ideas. We can still have our 140 character tweets (cake) and good, detailed articles about subjects people might want to delve into deeper (..and eat it too). You might just have a to look a little harder for them now. Some of the most amazing things you can do with web articles are the simplest. For example, in Google Chrome, you have the ability to print this page as a PDF file or on a printer. You the take that and read it on any device or paper at your leisure.
And, finally, we need to seriously reform or altogether abolish arcane copyright laws. I have long felt that the weakest link in reporting and forming ideas is the very thing that limits their expression. Take a few minutes and check out this fourth instalment of Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is A Remix for an idea of why we’re in a very difficult place with ideas and where these ideas come from.
We need to go back to a time when the exclusivity of our ideas are taken away after a short period of time so the rest of humanity can benefit from it. I’m familiar with this personally, I have made ideas real (in the form of software) and even have a registered copyright for software designed by my company. Yet, overwhelmingly, I believe the majority of works and software, ideas and writing, need to be open to the public domain.
Most importantly, we all vote with our eyeballs and clicks. Don’t give them away so easily (unless of course you’re clicking on an ad on Blogging Calwell, your support is appreciated). The time you spend clicking, opening and reading is valuable time. Reward those that spend the energy to give you real ideas, real answers and genuinely try to make the Internet a better place. I have heard the future described as the “Attention Economy”, and this certainly an appropriate description for what’s coming.
What is going to become of all this? Is journalism going to die and evolve into blogisim? Are we going to be able to look back at mainstream media reporters and say that we’ve done a service to their contributions? I do feel that the massive weight of what’s coming is going to force any mainstream media outfits to become a “new” media companies. In this new frontier, the shorter news cycle and fast, cheap and quick dissemination of events will crown the winners time and again. But, if we can get our acts together, we may be able to create a more useful kind of information, one that might not even be describable now.