Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Let Them Blog Cake!

I read an article on Fortune today about how tablets will save the publishing industry. I disagree with a lot of what the author wrote, which I think is great. A well thought out piece taking the other side helps me organize my own thoughts on a topic. Maybe I'm just contrary, but seeing the premises and assumptions of the other side lets me better understand the basic premises I'm coming from. A couple lines in particular helped me set down some thoughts that have been bubbling around in my head for a while now.

"The competitor, in this case, is a blogger who will simply read your stuff and repost it in truncated form à la the Huffington Post and so many others. It's a persuasive argument. People definitely want to browse. And using your headline, along with a few key bits of content, is fair use and legal. But many also crave deep reading experiences. Man does not live by blog alone! It would be like surviving entirely on cupcakes."

Blogs are like cupcakes? My experience with the world is apparently a 180 degree flip from his. I view blogs as a chance to get a depth of discussion I've never seen in newspapers or (to a lesser extent) magazines. ScienceBlogs gives me the thoughts of scientists in all sorts of fields. My Heart's In Accra not only teaches me about world events I don't see covered in traditional media, but also gives me the context and history of the news in a way newspapers have consistently failed to. You must hear polling statistics 800 times during an election, but FiveThirtyEight is the only source I've ever found that explains which poll is saying what, why they're saying what they're saying, and where exactly the uncertainties in polling are coming from. Ascii Dreams discusses game design: have you ever run across a game design article anywhere but a blog?

One news source I can't imagine losing is Slashdot. The posts themselves are just pointers to fuller articles, but thousands of comments are posted every day. A community moderation system culls out the noise from the commentary so I can just read the most important messages. No matter what the topic is, somebody out there knows more about it then the author of the original article. Technical infeasibility, similar breakthroughs, all the arguments for or against an idea are brought up. When I run into a news article that doesn't allow comments I feel like I'm missing something now. So many articles are just press releases, or are missing major points, that when I don't get the full range of opinions from other readers I'm unsure of what to believe.

Much of the discussion around newspapers and magazines has been on how they can make money. It's the wrong question. Declining sales are symptomatic: they need to learn why what they were selling isn't interesting to us anymore. It's not just a question of free. If Slashdot went behind a pay wall and lost the thousands of comments, it'd be of no value to me anymore. The question is what can a journalist offer me that an expert in the field can't? Plenty of scientists are perfectly capable of explaining their field in an approachable manner. What insight into Computer Science can a professional journalist offer me that a professor can't? Or that the original scientific articles can't?

Investigative journalism is still a crucial tool in fighting corruption. We need to save that. But the idea that a journalist can best present any information in the world is outdated. The idea that journalists need to play gatekeeper to information is dangerous. More and more of my understanding about the world is coming from bloggers who work in the fields they're speaking about. The biggest threat I see to traditional media isn't copycats undercutting their margins, but millions of experts on small topics sharing what they know and love. Any solution to old media's woes that doesn't address that is a temporary solution at best.

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