Monday, May 15, 2006

Blog-Humbug

I hereby proclaim myself the Scrooge of the Kool-Aid Krew. I'm not yet ready to roll over concede that blogs are the best thing since sliced bread and I've got a few semi-recent articles to blather about.

All the hoopla about blogs has always reminded me of a scene from the 1967 classic "The Graduate," when a businessman sidles up to a young Dustin Hoffman at his welcome home party with some sage advice.
Businessman: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word."
Hoffman: "Yes, sir."
Businessman: "Are you listening?"
Hoffman: "Yes, I am."
Businessman: "Plastics."
I'm not saying blogs are a fad, they're not. Neither were plastics, which of course are so ubiquitous these days that to hype them now is just silly. Maybe in a few years when we look back on all this trumpeting about the revolutionary power of blogs it will all sound a little like the "plastics" proclomation.

I've talked with Kool-Aid Krew Chief Jackson about this before—early on in this blog's history the ratio of actual posts to posts about posts about the site was pretty uneven. Kudos overdose, the echo chamber effect, navel gazing or even "masturbatory,"—call it what you like, all the back patting leaves little energy for wading through the blogosphere. (People want content, damn it.)

Now that this blog is getting on its feet a little more it's nice to see fewer self-congratulatory posts and more meat-and-potatoes marketing discussion (which I know little about other than dealing with the constant barrage of press releases/marketing spiels/story pitches that came across my desk when I was working full time for BR&IN).

All that said I've come across a few articles I've been meaning to post something about, RE: "Power of blogging... again," and again, and again...

The first is from The New York Times: Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in P.R. Campaign. It starts:
"Brian Pickrell, a blogger, recently posted a note on his Web site attacking state legislation that would force Wal-Mart Stores to spend more on employee health insurance. "All across the country, newspaper editorial boards — no great friends of business — are ripping the bills," he wrote.

It was the kind of pro-Wal-Mart comment the giant retailer might write itself. And, in fact, it did.

Several sentences in Mr. Pickrell's Jan. 20 posting — and others from different days — are identical to those written by an employee at one of Wal-Mart's public relations firms and distributed by e-mail to bloggers..."
The article goes on to paint a pretty ugly picture of blogging gone bad.

Of course, the bike industry is small potatoes in comparison—far less insidious potatoes at that. Indeed, on this site the posting of others' press releases whole-hog, is overt and deliberate, not surreptitiously.

But, the Wal-Mart example shows how PR people have gotten their collective hand in the blogosphere. No, it's not the kumbaiya, lets-all-get-along, bikes-are-great warm and fuzzy feeling you get from what little of the bike industry has entered blogosphere, but it's all the same end game: spinning in favor of your company.

The Wal-Mart example is an extreme one, a bookend to the trend of the PR industry using blogs to communicate (read: advertize) a message. On the other end of that PR/blogger spectrum you have the honest, open types like Tim Jackson and Donna Tocci who really just want to engage their customers and put a face to a (brand) name, as it were.

But all the while the blog tidal wave this very blog is purporting to be riding might not be as big or as real as we all thought it was, after all.

At least, William Powers, a media writer for the National Journal, thinks so. In a recent article he compares blogs to Bode Miller, says blogs are "flat lining" and points to the fact that "[t]he suits—corporate and PR types—are muscling into the blogosphere."

Now I know of no one in the industry outside probably some honchos in Taiwan who actually wear a "suit" to work, but bear with me for comparison's sake.

Love them or hate them, blogs are still the "next big thing" in communication—if sometimes nauseatingly so. Indeed, the National Journal's Powers notes that "the end of the hype-fueled blog mania might be the best thing that could happen to blogs, because it had created such absurd expectations."

Power's also weighs in on the Old Media v. New Media debate:
Media serve three major functions: 1) convenience (organization of news and information in user-friendly formats); 2) truth-telling (digging up important stories and holding powerful people accountable); and 3) pleasure (the sheer fun of reading, listening, or watching). Newspapers thrived for as long as they did because they were good at all three. And they've declined as they've lost their competitive edge in these same areas, especially convenience and pleasure.

Though blogs are young, they've already proven adept at all three functions. Many are convenient harvesters and organizers. Some are fearless truth-tellers. And the best are a total pleasure to follow. If they're doing all this now, imagine what they'll be like in 10 years.
So he's not all gloom and doom. Despite his harangues, Powers has positive and refreshingly realistic expectations about the future of blogs. Meanwhile The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Last concedes some of blogs' virtues, but also points out what he calls their "pernicious effects."
"[Blogs] elevate analysis over news-gathering; they value speed over judiciousness; and they encourage the practice of journalism to turn in on itself, to tend ever more toward navel-gazing."
New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, in a in a speech in March at Marquette University, also touched on the blogger/journalist dichotomy (a speech that sparked a torrent of discussion in—what else—the blogosphere). He said, in part:
"When I'm talking about the difference between facts and truth, facts and knowledge, it's the difference between a journalist and a blogger. A journalist is dealing in facts. Bloggers deal in their own truths, which may or may not be based on facts."
Not that journalism and blogging are mutually exclusive. Certainly there are armies of journalists that blog. I concede that companies that blog, and blog well, are creating some of the more exciting marketing opportunities out there, as long as they stay transparent. And whether you're blogging as a journalist, as a marketing person or blurring the line between both, the pitfalls can be the same—blurred "truths" and on overvaluing of speed and opinion over research and objectivity. But if you can meet Powers' three criteria for succesful media: convenience, truth telling and pleasure—and of course if you can meet all three while maintaining credibility, then the upside can be phenomenal.

All apologies for the long, wandering (and navel-gazing) post, if you've gotten this far.

*"Blog-Humbug" borrowed from Jonathan Last, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Posted by Chris Lesser at 8:01 AM

12 Comments

  1. Anonymous Jeff Lockwood posted at 9:50 AM  
    Lesser. Great piece, man.
  2. Blogger Tim Jackson- Masi Guy posted at 10:01 AM  
    Lesser rocks mightily! The boy goes into hiding in St. Kitts and then pops one off that just scorches... man I love that guy.

    Chris is absolutely right about the observations as well. PR/ Marketing types are gobbling up blogs and turning them into marketing tools (it's what I'm doing after all) and some are doing it with less than scrupulous methods. The Wal-Mart example is only one of many. However, they are here to stay and are helping to restructure the dialogs that are happening.

    As big of a proponent of blogging as I am personally (I won't rehash the debate here), I do feel that the old methods of a handshake and face-to-face conversation are still preferred for me- as well as the old print ads in magazines, etc. It's a brave new world, full of plastics, but the old way of doing business ain't dead yet.

    Great piece Chris.
  3. Anonymous Toby posted at 1:29 PM  
    Hi Chris -

    As someone who tries to walk the fine line, or blog the good post, I enjoyed reading your piece. It is a balancing act when it comes to biz blogging.

    Are you a journalist or a marketer? How much of "you" do you give away .. and do your readers really want to know what you ate for breakfast? How do you combine authenticity with promotion? How do you give value without giving away the store? If comments are turned off does it still a blog make?

    As a marketing or biz tactic, the genre is still in bebe status; which I think is why there is so much "naval gazing." People are trying to figure it out. There are no real experts - no matter what the A*listers may believe ;-) Only people who have been at it a little longer than others who may have a few Kool-Aid stains on their t-shirts or silk blouses.

    And yes, those PR people frequently don't just have their fingers in the pie but their hold hands .. which does not make for the best etiquette at the table.

    Bottom-line as my pal Tim says old fashioned handshakes are still the best way to build relationships. However, new social media technologies give us an opportunity to develop those "corner grocery store" relationships with people who are don't live in our corner of the world.
  4. Blogger Chris Lesser posted at 8:52 AM  
    Hi Toby,

    I’m a journalist, not a marketer. But moreover I’m a jaded consumer who can’t stand an unwelcome or underhanded sales shtick.

    How much of “me” do I give away? I don’t quite know what you mean but I guess as much as I need to. As a journalist I’m not necessarily, or at any rate don't need to be, part of the story. If I do my homework those that make up the story do all the talking and the story tells itself. Although I guess blogs almost demand use of the "I" personal pronoun.

    What someone ate for breakfast is the kind of open-ended rumination usually lands a blog in the “blogs no one reads” category. Unless cheap voyeurism is your thing, and then all bets are off.

    A blog sans comments does still a blog make. It’s the immediacy and freedom and sheer range that make blogs what they are, though no doubt comments can be vital to shaping a particular blog’s personality, and indeed, if you’re trying to engage customers in a dialogue then comments can be crucial.

    But comments can always be fielded by e-mail. Case in point: Josh Marshall’s TalkingPointsMemo.com. Marshall has been blogging since 2000 and is of the most successful journalist-bloggers I know of. His online efforts have complemented his print work and have spawned two more sites that employ a slew of reporters, researchers and editors.

    And you’re absolutely right, Toby, the whole concept of blogging is still very much undefined. But maybe the difference between the policy wonks and bona fide reporters blogging at sites like Marshall's and marketers and PR people who blog about their products represents just how wide the schism has grown between journo-blogs and biz-blogs.

    And great point regarding “table etiquette.” It can tie right into Tim's point about the good ol' handshake: whether you’re shaking hands with your customer or responding to his or her blog post from a world away, transparency is still key to credibility, or, as it were, to good table manners. Which ties directly to your riddle of how to combine authenticity with promotion: believe in your product. If you don’t then promoting it is inherently disingenuous, is it not?
  5. Blogger Guitar Ted posted at 5:05 PM  
    A couple of observations.

    I don't buy into the "journalists deal in facts" camp. Since when do "facts" and "journalism" have any necessary relationship? A rather idealistic sentiment, I think in these times.

    I agree with the importance of transparency in blogs, marketing, or journalism.

    It takes a thinking mind to discern for itself whether or not a blog- by any author- is pulling the wool over your eyes, or being honest. You either buy it, or you don't. It's not necessarily all the authors responsibility to be credible. The audience has an important part to play in that, as well. Authors must be held accountable. This is why a "no comments" blog is not really a blog, in my opinion. Where is the two way communication, the interaction with that?

    This was a good, thought provoking piece. Thanks for this opportunity for a shop mechanic / blogger to respond!
  6. Blogger Chris Lesser posted at 6:54 AM  
    Hey GT,

    You’re absolutely right to second guess the whole journalist = facts postulation.

    But to answer your question (“when do ‘facts’ and ‘journalism’ have any necessary relationship?”) I’ve gotta say, um, since forever.

    It is an idealistic sentiment, you’re right, but one that has a couple hundred years’ history. Without getting too sanctimonious about it, journalism, the practice of reporting facts, at its best serves a very important function in a democracy. It’s been called the fourth estate of government behind the president, legislature and judiciary, and in times like these it’s an ideal we should all cling to. Witness USA Today recently breaking the story (chock full of facts) about Dubya’s data mining of citizen’s phone records. (Also witness the warrantless wiretapping story by the NYT; the Abramoff lobbying scandal story by the Washington Post; the Abu Ghraib story by Seymour Hersh; etc., etc. all the way back to Watergate.)

    But we should all be skeptical, witness the press’s lapdog routine in the run-up to the war in Iraq, for example, accepting the administration’s WMD justifications when we know now there were no WMDs, and in fact that the gubment knew there were no WMDs at the time of the invasion.

    (I don’t mean to get all political here but inherent in the definition of journalism is to scrutinize the government in power, which the press has done a weak but improving job of.)

    But it’s not all national headlines. It goes all the way down to the obituary writer in your local newspaper. And you better bet the obit writer is sweating the facts—their readers aren’t just the general public but also the bereaved family and friends of the subject of their story who are hanging on to every word.

    All this is separating straight news stories from opinion columns, which are basically blogs in print.

    And you’re right that it’s ultimately up to the reader to decide what passes the bullshit test. That’s why The National Enquirer, The New York Post and The New York Times all have different levels of credibility.

    Of course, to start a whole ‘nother tangent, there is an argument against blogs, and by extension against the modern media machine in general, that inasmuch as media is a business it’s giving people what they want, which isn’t always what’s good for them. That is, a lot of people read blogs that don’t challenge but reinforce and coddle their preexisting world view. Look no further for proof than Fox news and the fact it was recently revealed that Dick Cheney always has his TV set to Faux news. So blogs and quote-unquote mainstream media both are guilty of preaching to the choir, but I digress.

    I think the bigger problem with media, both blogs and traditional outlets, is WHAT they cover, not HOW they cover it (ie: getting facts straight). For example compare all the bullshit celebrity news you can find in any newspaper/TV news program/whatever to the amount of coverage those same media outlets give, say, the genocide going on in Darfur. But the media is giving people what they want.

    To get on a blog and rant about something you know a lot about can be useful, or not. But it’s easy. To report a story takes research and time.

    My wandering point here is that journalists DO deal in facts. A side job of mine is fact checker for a magazine. I get articles and vet them line by line, double sourcing everything and re-interviewing sources as needed. A lot of magazines use fact checkers—certainly all the big ones. Same for newspapers. Journalists also have editors, and most stories you see in print have been screened through editors, copy editors and fact checkers—all that after the journalist spent his or her time researching and double checking his/her own work in the first place.

    As far as comments go, I think you can have a blog with or without them, as long as there is still a channel for feedback. Even newspapers have letters to the editor, and if they mess up they hear about it and in some cases run retractions. Whether it’s getting your dead aunt’s middle name wrong in her obituary or running a story to explain a retraction.

    “Blog” was famously Merriam Webster’s word of the year a few years back and they define a blog as: a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.

    Of course now with biz-blogs and jouro-blogs and other professional blogs the definition is changing, but I think the key part is a blog’s immediacy, first and foremost, plus its ability to be backed up with links and references.

    Thanks for responding, and for reading the longwinded blathering of this ex-shop mechanic and greenhorn/itinerantly-employed journalist.

    Cheers.
  7. Blogger Fritz posted at 12:51 PM  
    Blogs came up at about the same time that journalist credibility dropped. Locally, for example, we have the San Jose "Murky" News, apparently so-named when the paper incorrectly reported that a local town was abandoned, leading to the looting of several inhabited homes in that "ghost" town.

    More recently, we had Gary Webb's fiction about the CIA and drug trafficking.

    The Murky News' stated bias against public transit often translates into ridiculous front page stories about how "dangerous" the local trains are. The facts are certainly accurate (yes, 7 people were killed by trains in the Bay Area this year), but they absolutely fail to put it into any context (the same number of people die in car crashes every weekend in the same region; the safety engineering is a measure of how much voters are willing to invest in the system).

    I'm absolutely agreed with Lesser regarding the 4th Estate function of the media, but some of the excesses do get a little infuriating as journalism lately has been more about titillation than information. The whole "All news is local" phenomenum has detrimental effects on our society.
  8. Blogger Guitar Ted posted at 6:15 PM  
    Chris: Thanks for that reply, it wasn't so bad in length. Some things take alot of explaining, especially when they are so complex.

    Which leads me to my point here: that being that the issue of credibility is so thick and gooey, that no one can seem to separate facts from fiction, at least from the "man on the streets" perspective. Yes, there are fact checkers, but as Fritz pointed out, those "facts" can then be rendered into "lies" if painted in a certain way. The CBS scandal and the New York Times false reporter scandal only help to elevate the burgeoning mistrust of the citizenry in the mainstream media, fact checkers or no.

    What we then get is a numbness. A massive flow of everything from full on fantasy to hard truth and everything inbetween causes minds to turn off. It's now a very popular thing amongst many 35 and unders that I have met to stay away from "news" of any sort altogether.

    So, now we come to blogs, which for many are a more personal and "real" way to gather news and information. People realize that for the most part, blogs are not subsidized by advertisements, steered into certain "agendas" by governing corporations, or are peoples primary source of income. The perception here is one that is based on trust that the blog author is "being real" and not BSing for "the man".

    Of course, there are blogs done by professionals and corporations, but my belief is that they are seen as being much the same as "traditional" mainstream media by most bloggers. Of course, that's just my perception, and I have no facts to back that up. At least I'm trying to be honest.

    And that's the main thing about blogs really. If they appear to be making an effort to be honest and real, then the readership is forgiving enough to let mistakes go. That is; if you are transparent enough to admit mistakes, then it almost elevates your credibility, rather than diminishes it. This is possibly the number one reason why most ordinary folks mistrust the mainstream media. No admission of fault or of pushing a certain agenda makes them secrective and untrustworthy in the readers eyes. They are too big and unweildy in scope and power to be seen as "something you could trust" in the first place.

    Facts and journalism? Looks like more mud coming at me than anything else. Who can tell? Who has the time? Where is a familiar face? These are the questions that must be answered before the mainstream media recovers it's once vaunted posistion in the society at street level.
  9. Blogger Chris Lesser posted at 7:03 AM  
    Regarding the San Jose Murky News, sounds like you need to start reading another paper. I’m sure the paper has some value, but ultimately its up to the consumer to find where their news comes from.

    And as far as the Gary Webb/CIA/Dark Alliance story goes, remember that it was reporters like Walter Pincus from the Washington Post and other reporters from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times that “caught” Webb.

    Also re: your point, Fritz, journalism has always been prone to “titillation” over cold hard (read: boring) information. All the way back to Hearst’s Yellow Press. Sensationalism in the press is far older than the blog boom, but moreover it’s human nature, for better or worse.

    As far as credibility goes, is anyone seriously trying to make the argument that blogs are more credible than newspapers, on the whole? Maybe one percent of blogs are more credible than 5 percent of newspapers, but gimme a break.

    Maybe what’s getting so “thick and gooey” (regarding GT’s point) is not the idea of credibility but rather a misguided notion most news consumers probably hold regarding how journalism is “supposed” to be done, and by that I mean the Myth of Objectivity. Now this is a huge can of worms to open but basically the traditional he says/she says, present equal sides of an argument however unequal the argument is, is an outdated notion of how news should be delivered. [That link above is the best argument I know of regarding that point.]

    And GT, good point about the “numbness.” I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s a whole lotta bullshit out there. But newsflash: bullshit sells, and I think staying away from the “news” is a copout—and a good reason less than half the population votes and of that half they’re more polarized than ever.

    Again I go back to my earlier argument that a lot of the whole blogosphere phenomenon is aligned with what is happening with the derisively termed MSM (mainstream media) in general: people want their own worldview to be reinforced and coddled, so the gravitate to media, be it blogs or cable news or whatever, that preach to their choir. (Insert anecdote here about people who have the Fox News logo burned into the corner of their television screens.)

    To blogs’ credit I think they will eventually help elevate the MSM’s standards. Dan Rather resigned in disgrace over the Air National Guard chicken-hawk story because he was brought down by bloggers fact checking his sources, revealing a forged document that although CBS had a handwriting expert check turned out to be phony. Notwithstanding that the gist of the story was/is accurate—that Dubya served out his time during Vietnam guarding the skies of Alabama when he wasn’t on furlough helping his dad’s buddies in their political campaigns—my point here is that blogs will enhance newspapers in that they hold their feet to the fire and act as outside fact checkers.

    But they’re not going to replace the essence of “news” done by journalists. If the one-in-a-hundred-facts-to-opinion-ratio blogosphere ever replaces the institution of sound journalism then we’re all in trouble.

    But it won’t, because, as Columbia journalism professor Samuel Freedman acceded in a recent interview, certain traditions, values and ethics don’t go out of style. He agrees the delivery system will change, and indeed has already changed, but the way that people do good journalism doesn’t change.

    [It’s really a great interview, a little long and only free if you stream it, but hits a lot of these points right on the head.]

    Freedman isn’t a troglodyte, he sees the value of blogs and says that blogging or podcasting, in the right hands, can elevate the craft of journalism tremendously—but I think to argue that blogging in and of itself will replace the idea and ideal of journalism is a bit misguided.

    Freedman goes on to argue that the wave of blogs and technology like podcasts, etc., actually increase accountability of the MSM.

    For proof he points to the corrections page of the NYT, where any day there are eight or nine retractions, whereas back in the 80s there were maybe two. Are they making more mistakes? Probably not, but they’re being held to a higher degree of accountability. Hell, even the pretentious NYT now has a public editor.

    Coming full circle, re: the “Murky” news situation in San Jose, I’ll just point to JournalismJobs.com. Click on a couple of newspaper reporter want ads and see how much they make. Newspapers have tighter budgets than ever (a bad thing) at that same time their reporters are being held to higher and higher standards (a good thing). Point is it’s hard for newspapers and other journalistic ventures to lure educated people when the pay is just so damn low.

    I’ll leave it with Freedman’s point, that this is all a good thing for journalism. For the last 15 years people have bemoaned the inevitable demise of newspapers, saying with all the instantaneous media out there newspapers can’t compete. And when a bomb goes off or a levee breaks, as Freedman concedes, sure, there will be blogging and camera phones and instantaneous punditry galore. But wait a few minutes and go to NYT.com, where reporters with advanced degrees on that geopolitical area and years of experience reporting about it will already have a digital version of their story on the Web site. Why? Because the Washington Post, LA Times, umpteen other papers around the world, NPR, TV news networks and others will all have it up too, and because as public institutions it’s their job. So when the guy with the camera phone goes on about his day or the blogger goes back to whatever he does the newspaper reporter is still calling people (something most bloggers notoriously never do) and researching and reporting.

    GT, if you see "facts" and "journalism" in the same sentence and think "mud," then you've already given up. It's a million reporters' jobs to get you to come around, some do it exceedingly well, some less so. It's your job to pick your news venues and closing your eyes isn't going to help anything. I think a lot of people conflate "citizenry" with consumerism. It's consumers job, their right, in fact, to be served. With citizens it's a two-way street ie: something about a civic duty to be an informed participant, etc.
  10. Blogger Guitar Ted posted at 5:21 PM  
    (Quote)GT, if you see "facts" and "journalism" in the same sentence and think "mud," then you've already given up.(Quote)

    Fair enough, but even you state further up in your post that there is a lot of "bullshit" out there. How does one find the time to deal with all of it when he is working massive hours, raising a family, and generally just trying to enjoy life as best he can? I choose to focus on what I "can do", which doesn't include dissecting the news for what I might believe is "truth". There just isn't enough time in the day.


    (Quote)It's a million reporters' jobs to get you to come around, some do it exceedingly well, some less so. It's your job to pick your news venues and closing your eyes isn't going to help anything.(Quote)

    Exactly my point, how am I going to discern between the reports of literally a million reporters? Whoops! There goes the alarm clock! Off to work again,(a "real job" that actually pays, by the way) then it's spending time with the family, and then......you get the idea?

    (Quote)I think a lot of people conflate "citizenry" with consumerism. It's consumers job, their right, in fact, to be served. With citizens it's a two-way street ie: something about a civic duty to be an informed participant, etc. (Quote)

    Again, no argument, it's just that you have to pick your battles, and the others will have to go on without me. Alot of them I have no power over, some I do, the wise person is able to tell the difference.

    7:03 AM
  11. Blogger Conrad posted at 10:36 PM  
    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.

    Joannah

    http://keyboardpiano.net
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