Sunday, March 15, 2009


I had a call the other day from a local government PR guy. He had decided to add local bloggers to his news release e-mail list and wanted my e-mail address and my thoughts (I used to be in that business, many years back).

I had the sense that he made the change only grudgingly. Local bloggers, here as elsewhere, enjoy criticizing government and have become something of a source for the public. Rather than ignore them, or fight them, he had decided to offer his employer's point of view directly to them. I think that's a good idea.

But this new relationship won't be the same as that between PR folk and the traditional media. The difference is the activity of reporters. Reporters are trained in researching and questioning what they get from the PR folks. And they bring a cultural proclivity towards balance and objectivity to their work. At least, we hope all these things are true of reporters. Most bloggers tend to come from other traditions and start with a clearly subjective point of view, one that is not usually threatened by much research or questioning. (Yes, I know, there are expectations)

I was reminded of this as I read a fascinating piece by writer and internet-thinker Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, which examines the issue of "The Death of Newspapers" that is so much discussed these days (and seems to cry out for capitalization). In it, Shirky explores the idea that we are now (and will be for a while) between the end of one era (ad-supported paper publication of news) and the maturity of another (we have no idea what it will be, but it is starting now).

And he makes this statement, which I think is true:

Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

There's nothing wrong with bloggers, or the roles that we play. We should criticise and cajole government, industry, and the public, from our own subjective standpoints. We should explore and discuss the world around us. But we cannot, and should not, replace reporters and the work that they do.

In fact, for blogging to work well, we depend on reporters to do what Shirky calls "society’s heavy journalistic lifting."
...from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case.
When we bloggers attempt to comment on what we call "the news" through our own direct experience, we run a large risk of getting things wrong -- missing minor details that bring the big picture into focus -- or missing things altogether. But when we have the work of journalists to build on and react to, we can fill a valuable roles as commentators.

So my friend in government PR should send his news out to the bloggers. It can't hurt and may help spread word on stories deemed too small by the newspapers or TV stations. But he shouldn't -- and won't -- expect bloggers to take-over the role now filled by reporters working for shaky "old media" institutions. We still need them, even if we're not as willing to subsidize their work.

This will make for an interesting period of time as we transition from the old model to a new model that we may not yet be able to imagine.
...there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
Should be fun.

1 comment:

Magpie said...

Hear Hear. I hope we don't go through an awkward period without journalists, but I don't honestly think we will.

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