The journalism that bloggers actually do
A New York University professor critiques Michael Skube's recent Times Op-Ed questioning the journalistic value of blogs.
By Jay Rosen
August 22, 2007
Blowback! That's what you're in for when a great American newspaper runs a Sunday opinion piece as irretrievably lame as "Blogs: All the noise that fits" by Michael Skube (Aug. 19). Skube is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning author who teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina. (Bio.)
In 2005, he wrote a similar column for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. There he made fun of the "evangelical fervor that attends blogging," and suggested that bloggers were people who didn't have normal lives, or children. "I don't know many people who have time to read blogs," he wrote. "None of my neighbors do."
There was a darker theme. "I find myself doing something in my journalism class that gives me considerable unease." What was it? " ... discussing that often truculent tribe that calls itself bloggers." That students wanted to talk about blogs as journalism filled him with craft-dread.
Notice that not having time to read them didn't prevent Skube from writing about blogs, which could be considered odd behavior for a college professor. (We're supposed to read a lot, then write.) I can't link to his '05 piece because, according to Diane Lamb, a librarian there, "Skube does not permit his columns to be available in the online public archives of the News & Record."
Ed Cone, a local journalist who also keeps a blog, called him up back then to ask Skube where he got his understanding of blogs, because his column hadn't mentioned any. Skube said he had "scanned a bunch of blogs," but could think of only one scanee, Andrew Sullivan. "Given his statement that blogs don't do real journalism, I asked him what he thought about Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo," Cone wrote. "He remembered Marshall as a magazine writer, but was unfamiliar with his blog, or its new investigative-reporting plan."
Greensboro at the time was getting national attention for its local blogging culture. Skube knew zip.
Story jumps to last Sunday. Josh Marshall reads his name in Skube's column. Strange, because Marshall's blog isn't representative of the charges, which are depressingly familiar. "The blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more," Skube wrote. But there's a lot more than bubbling opinion at Marshall's bustling site, which includes TPM Muckraker, where two full-time investigative reporters work. Had the author ever seen it?
In an email exchange, the author tells Marshall, "I didn't put your name into the piece and haven't spent any time on your site." Huh? Turns out an editor stuck Marshall's name in there because the column didn't have enough examples in it. Skube agreed to the script change, but this meant he had no idea what his character was saying.
Dan Gillmor, a former newspaper man, calls it "journalistic malpractice." And it is that. Also pedagogical buffoonery. In Skube's columns, there's a teacher who doesn't believe in doing his homework - any homework.
So I did it for him. I asked friends in the blogosphere to help me put together a list of examples that would confound Skube if he knew of them, but possibly interest his students. Blog sites doing exactly what he says blog sites don't do: "the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence ... the depiction of real life."
To which we say:
August, 2004. Chris Allbritton goes to Najaf. Reporting for his reader-supported blog Back-to-Iraq.com during the major fighting around the Imam Ali Shrine, Allbritton manages to get inside to interview members of the Mahdi army and report what's happening. He's then arrested by the Najaf police under live fire but lives to write about it.
June, 2007. Pet-food scandal ignites blogosphere. Pet owners frustrated with the limitations of the news media self-organize into a national network of sites and share news about tainted foods that may have killed thousands of pets across the country.
March, 2007. Firedoglake at the Libby Trial. Popular lefty political blog provides the only blow-by-blow coverage of the trial by splitting the work among six contributors who bring big knowledge to bear for a committed-to-the-case readership. Reporters come to rely on the blog for its updates and its accuracy in live-blogging and analysis.
2003 to present. Groklaw becomes the go-to source for coverage of SCO vs. IBM. Law blog -- one obsessive blogger, plus readers -- takes on saturation coverage of key lawsuit involving open-source software, becomes an authoritative source of knowledge for the case's participants, who have never seen anything like it.
September 2004. Joseph Newcomer provides comprehensive examination of disputed Killian memos in CBS report. A computer typesetting expert, he uses his knowledge to cast serious doubt on the authenticity of documents "60 Minutes" relied on in its story on President Bush's Air National Guard service.
February, 2006. NASA political appointee resigns. Graduate student and science blogger Nick Anthis finds out that 24-year-old George Deutsch, a political appointee accused of trying to silence NASA climate scientists, lied on his resume about having a college degree. Deutsch resigns.
2007 to present. Blogger Michael Yon reports from Iraq. Supported primarily by donations from readers, independent journalist Michael Yon -- a former Green Beret -- is spending 2007 embedded with soldiers whose courage and sacrifice he admires, and whose stories he tells, mostly recently from Anbar province.
December 2006-April 2007. Talking Points Memo drives the U.S. Attorneys firings into the national spotlight. Mixing old-fashioned legwork with perseverance and lots of help from readers over several months, Josh Marshall and his TPM Media empire accumulate evidence "from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings."
December 2006. DallasFood.org investigates Noka Chocolate. Gourmet food blog provides the only in-depth investigation into "world's most expensive" chocolatier's deceptive marketing practices.
August, 2005. Unbossed.com does a series on toll roads as a business with a track record. Among the findings: "Local governments in Colorado have agreed to deliberately impede traffic on existing highways near a toll road in order to protect the toll roads' investors."
June, 2007. EdCone.com scoops News & Record on its own layoffs. As the paper clams up, its staffers, ex-staffers and readers use blog comments and e-mail to create the only detailed public account of layoffs at the daily newspaper in Skube's backyard.
February 2006. EPluribusMedia investigates the politics of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. In a three-part series pulling together a lot of scattered information, the citizen journalism site details the impact of politics on the funding, diagnosis and treatment of Iraq war veterans suffering from PTSD.
2005 to present. Citizens construct Katrina timeline. Members of the ePluribus Media community create a detailed timeline of key events before, during and after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane made landfall at New Orleans, with over 500 events, fact-checked and sourced. It continues to be updated as the story stretches onward.
August, 2006. Porkbusters, the Sunlight Foundation and TPM Muckraker expose congressional earmarks and the senator who placed a secret hold on a bill to put information about federal fund recipients online.
No one owns the practice of reporting or assigns the right to do it. It's a democratic thing to tell others what's going on and "show your work." Some people will not be deterred from doing that. Most of them don't care what you call them. They do care if their story stands up.
Jay Rosen is an associate professor of journalism at New York University and runs the PressThink blog.