Journalism needs pollinators

Beepollinating

 

What is that bee doing with his nose buried in that flower? If you remember your elementary school science class, you’ll know the bee is either pollinating this flower or gathering pollen from it to take to another flower. Though there are other ways for flowers to get pollinated (such as wind), bees and other insect or bird pollinators are crucial to the process.

Now, the bees, they don’t make the pollen. Everyone knows that. The flowers make it. But the bees, they take it and carry it around to all the areas it needs to go in order to keep the flowers blooming and thriving.

Do the flowers ever get upset with the bees for doing this? Do they ever get annoyed that the next flower the bee stops at to deposit the pollen won’t know where that pollen originated? Not to my knowledge. I believe even if flowers could talk and if they had feelings, they still wouldn’t be irritated with the bees. No, I think they would be somewhat grateful actually. The bees are helping their pollen spread further. They can still be secure in the knowledge that they make the pollen, to say nothing of the fact that they’re the pretty and colorful ones and get all the attention from passer-bys while the bees get swatted away. 

Simon Dumenco doesn’t go in for any of this type of thinking though. He seems to think that the bees are doing more harm than good:

But we’re all so busy playing a game of bloggy, social-media-enabled telephone that we’re forgetting the primary sources — the dwindling number of journalistic organizations left on the world stage that do actual, honest-to-God reporting — of “news.”

You’ve probably guessed by now that the bees are bloggers and the flowers are journalists, specifically those who produce original news content.

There was of course a time when bloggers didn’t exist and journalists got on just fine without them. But, and this should be obvious to everyone, times have changed. There are so many more places for news consumers to get their information. There are so many more platforms. There are so many more voices. In order to be heard above the din, one needs to have authority, reader loyalty, reach and much more. How does one acquire these things in an environment where it is increasingly difficult to do so?

Some of the methods are simple. If you are lucky enough to work for the New York Times, CNN or another major new outlet, you automatically have a larger microphone than, say, someone at a small, regional newspaper in Kentucky. Also, if you work for the New York Times, your newsroom is likely equipped with greater resources and better technology to make sure your work spreads as widely as possible. If you’ve held a prominent position in politics, business or another field, your words are more likely to be listened to closely, whether you write them online or say them on cable TV. There are other methods. But just like the flowers whose pollen will still spread without the help of bees, none of them are quite enough.

The final and vital piece in the current news ecosystem is precisely that social-media-enabled telephone that Dumenco derides. Producing powerful, original content is well and good, but is it capturing the attention of a wide audience? After all, if an act of journalism is committed and no one is around to read it, did it really happen? Bloggers and other who are heavily engaged in social media act as a crucial link to the wider public, just like the bees are a crucial link for the flowers’ pollen. 

Bloggers, through the act of linking to the content they choose, are shining a spotlight on that content and saying HEY, this is good stuff. Read it. Pay attention to it. The same happens when someone posts a story on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else. Incidentally, this is the evolution of a behavior that has always existed, even pre-Internet. Surely even before the founders of Twitter were a glimmer in their parents’ eyes, people told a friend or neighbor about something they read in the paper or saw on a TV news report. Surely someone cut out a magazine article and sent it to their sister or niece or friend in another state. Blogging, tweeting and all the rest of it is simply the modern version of a perfectly natural desire to share with and inform those around us. You would think journalists of all people would be sensitive to this instinct since they’ve made it into their life’s work. 

Further, I can’t imagine someone at the New York Times chiding a reader who e-mails an article to her friend for not putting it in context, for being reactionary or anything else of the sort. But Dumenco throws these barbs at bloggers with impunity: 

Dependable, in-depth, big-picture journalism — as opposed to the reactionary, piecemeal, out-of-context “aggregation” practiced by way too many bloggers — is an increasingly rare and precious commodity.

If the difference between that lone woman and a blogger is that the latter is attempting to gain notoriety or an income through their reactionary, context-free ramblings, they are also more worthy of both because they expend a great deal of effort on what they do whilst the sending of a few e-mails isn’t exactly a major committment.

All that said, remember how I said that journalists must have authority, audience loyalty and reach to be relevant? Guess what, bloggers need to do the same! Only it’s considerably more difficult, because they are often starting from less than zero while even a journalist at a small community newspaper starts the race with more in the authority bank. Despite whatever wild scenarios Mr. Dumenco or others may imagine, people still trust traditional media sources more than most bloggers. 

I haven’t even mentioned the ridiculous (and oft repeated mantra) that “real” journalists are those that risk their lives on a daily basis unlike the unwashed hordes of bloggers:

It’s actually the Times that deploys journalists around the world at mind-boggling expense — journalists who literally put their lives on the line every day — to report from the front lines. It’s actually the Times that had four of its journalists — Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell, Tyler Hicks and Anthony Shadid — abducted in Ajdabiya and held for six days.

Excuse me, but when was the last time any columnist risked her life in the commission of her duty? How about those folks writing personal finance or gardening columns? Even on the more contentious and high-stakes beats like environmental or political reporting, I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of risks of bodily harm. To my knowledge, no one has ever tried to abduct or shoot at a reporter attending a gas company’s press conference or one sitting in the viewing gallery at the local state capital or city hall. Please Mr. Dumenco (and everyone else belaboring this point): spare us. If your only justification for charging for content is that you’re risking your life to get it, you’ve got bigger problems than Cory Doctorow or any other blogger. By that logic, should we should only pay for or value the work that might get a journalist killed? 

Speaking of Mr. Doctorow, Mr. Dumenco seems quite put out that he was quoted so much with regard to the NYT impending paywall. Hmm, quoted a lot, read by many… does this sound familiar to anyone? Does this sound perhaps like someone who works for the New York Times? Perhaps a Maureen Dowd or a Paul Krugman or a David Brooks? Now, how did those folks all achieve such a high level of authority?

I think they did it by consistently providing content their readers liked, appreciated and shared with others. I think they did it by presenting their ideas in a compelling way. I think working at the New York Times doesn’t hurt either. Mr. Doctorow did all the same things and writing for Boing Boing doesn’t hurt in the very same way. I can assure Mr. Dumenco that when I write something, I’m not quoted all over the place; at least not so much that it would catch his attention. Cory Doctorow is. What separates us? Well, the same thing separates me from Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd. Cory Doctorow has earned his authority and as much as it may pain Mr. Dumenco to admit it, the bestowal of that authority is no more suspect or dubious than the bestowal of authority on a Ms. Dowd or a Mr. Brooks.

To bring this back to the bee analogy, most outside observers would likely look at the bee as a necessary part of the flower’s ecosystem. They can, and indeed must, coexist happily together. But Mr. Dumenco and, to be fair, quite a number of “serious journalists” are not inclined to view bees i.e. bloggers this way. They view them instead as parasites and as long as this is the prevailing mindset, we are stuck, mired and cannot move forward and create a more vibrant press for the benefit of all.

13 Comments

  1. Stephen L. Harlow March 28, 2011

    A fine analogy for the outflow of journalism thru the new media ecosystem. I’m not immediately seeing how to analogize the inflow of citizen reports, eye witness media posted online, often at great risk, to bring the source material for journalist – would this be the soil that nutures the flowers of journalism?

    It goes both ways. Dumenco is just dumb to not see the big picture.

  2. Bora Zivkovic March 28, 2011

    A few pollen grains are taken from one flower to the other – sufficient for pollinations and thus reproduction of flowers. But most of the pollen is taken by the bees back to the hive where it is exchanged between the bees, mixed up with all the pollen collected by other bees from other flowers, and used to produce honey which nourishes the next generation of bees. Just extending the metaphor… 😉

    Also, the metaphor make it difficult to point out just how much real investigative reporting bloggers do, how much new stuff they put out that MSM does not, how much more expertise they bring into it, and how much MSM steals stuff from bloggers without giving credit 😉

  3. Anonymous March 28, 2011

    I enjoyed the perspective presented here. I’m one who places a great deal of value on quality content, and tire quickly of the low quality of discourse that often occurs through blogging, comments and other social media. There’s been a leveling of the playing field, for sure, and more voices can be heard, which can just as easily lead to rhetorical inanities as to enlightening discourse.

    That said, I value your point of view but would find greater authority in it were some spellings, such as Maureen
    Dowd’s, corrected. Thanks for an enlightening piece.

  4. Anna Tarkov March 28, 2011

    Stephen, that’s a good point. In fact I just read a story in the Atlantic about the citizen journalism going on in North Korea that’s a perfect example: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/04/north-korea-8217-s-digital-underground/8414/ Here in the U.S. we have examples like Bradley Manning and other whistle-blowers/leakers who have also put their lives on the line. One can say that this is actually a great deal more heroic, because since these people aren’t official journalists, their activities aren’t protected by special laws and they have no legal department behind them. I think Mr. Dumenco has simply fallen prey to what Jay Rosen talked about at SXSW: the “story” journalists have been telling themselves about what they do has broken down and as they are still grasping for a new one. People like me who started out online though, we never had that story so there’s no friction for us as things change.

    Bora, you’re absolutely right; the metaphor is indeed not a perfect fit. And your extension of it is great! If my knowledge of pollination was better, I would have put that part in for sure :-) As for the rest, I’ve actually been trying not to talk about bloggers’ investigative work, their scoops being “stolen” my MSM, etc. It doesn’t seem to help matters at all to constantly bring these things up. Some people will never be convinced. The ones who are capable of seeing the light don’t need us to explain it to them; they’re intellectually curious enough to find out on their own.

    Roguewarde, thanks for commenting. It’s regrettable that you find my authority (such as it is) dented by a misspelling. It’s obviously a typo as you could have been reasonably sure that I knew how to spell Maureen Dowd’s name. To refer back to a point in my post, I don’t have the NYT’s resources. No copy editor works here :-)

  5. Bora Zivkovic March 28, 2011

    As we know, 90% of everything is crap. So 90% of flowers are crap, 90% of pollen grains are crap, and 90% of honeybees are crap 😉

    Instead of dividing the ecosystem into journalists (flowers) and bloggers (bees), I’d rather divide it into producers (flowers) and spreaders (bees).

    Flowers/producers can be professional or amateur reporters, commentators, experts, politicians, celebrities, scientists, comedians, filmmakers, etc. They may of may not use blogging software for putting their news, opinion, analysis, data, images, audio, video, comedy, etc out to the world.

    Bees/spreaders, or ‘connectors’, or ‘influentials’, are those who take a piece of creative work and spread it around, often adding commentary of their own. Those spreaders, again, can be professional or amateur reporters, commentators, experts, politicians, celebrities, scientists, comedians, filmmakers, etc. Some of the traditional spreaders are media companies (they have LOTS of audience), some are bloggers, but these days the most trustworthy spreading is the one that is on the online social media – the way we evaluated who to trust for millennia.

    See: http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=the-line-between-science-and-journa-2010-12-20

  6. Jared Parmenter March 29, 2011

    Excellent post! Thought-provoking.

    I wonder, do you see what the bee does as inherently artistic (or derivative)?

    I think right now, the general public on our social platforms tend to focus on -and exaggerate- the importance of celebrity, in a way that leads to one-way relationships with mega-entities that are ultimately dissatisfying. I think as people become more familiar with technology, we’ll see the middle layer of influencers (those who engage and distribute, but don’t produce news – many Twitter and Posterous users, for example) will become more valued, and begin to organize and connect around uber-niche interests and communities, valued for an ability to quickly disseminate information they have no hand in producing.

    But people interested in this kind of tastemaking will undoubtedly push the limits of what it means to “own” words and ideas in the information age. Copyright laws weren’t written with Twitter, Tumblr, and RSS feeds in mind – and I think the extremely open way information is cited and shared today will break them. Curation is, by nature, mimetic – but is the “reblog,” for example, an artistic statement, or more like a photocopy? Is it simply an act of reproduction and distribution and re-contextualization, without value on its own, or is sharing an activity that companies should be incentivizing somehow?

    ie, is the bee an artist? I’d love to know what you think.

  7. Anonymous March 29, 2011

    Anna,

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. In effect, the NY Times is favoring clickers over linkers, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    Moreover, talking up the NY times paywall does not support good journalism, it supports an unrealistic business model. Very few print media actually make money on cover price. Print and distribution costs usually exceed revenues, so “free” is actually an improvement.

    Most of all, as I wrote in my blog this morning, there is no greater betrayal of quality journalism than running a media business poorly. http://www.digitaltonto.com/2011/mass-media-vs-blogs-what-makes-quality-content/

    Thanks again for a great piece!

    – Greg

  8. Anna Tarkov March 31, 2011

    Jared, that’s interesting question. I’m not sure if what people like myself do is truly artistic. Maybe “creative” is a better word. And maybe “targeted.” We tend to know pretty well who our audience is and what they like to see from us and we feed those needs. And of course it’s easy for us since we are part of that audience. I’m passionate and interested about certain topics and thus I attract other people who are interested in the same topics. So when I write something or post a link, I know that if I like it, the people who follow me will probably like it too. Easy. Large news organizations have a much harder time with this. Smaller outlets (say, a 10k circulation newspaper) seem to be looking harder at what their audience wants and needs, but a huge, legacy outlet like NYT is going to be less focused on something like that since they serve so many different audiences.

    As for the current state of things being one-sided relationships which are dissatisfying, I think this is somewhat false on both counts. One, some large orgs and celebrities DO have a high degree of engagement with their followers. And also it’s difficult to say for sure whether the average person finds a one-way relationship dissatisfying. Many people are just content to, for instance, read the tweets of their favorite actor or see what specials their favorite restaurant is running. Not everyone is seeking a deeper relationship.

    To sum up, I DO think there is value in sharing something even if I wouldn’t go so far as to call it art. And I think that companies (media and otherwise) are already doing quite a lot to incentivize it. It’s still in the early stages and they could absolutely be doing a lot more, but you have to understand that many people who are “in charge” at both news and non-news businesses are still not thinking along these lines and even if they’ve started to, they don’t understand exactly how to go about it or, also very likely, how exactly it will help their bottom line (and hey, let’s face it, the jury i out on that part in some cases). So while your thinking is at, say, level 5, some people are still at level 1. You and I can imagine all we want what we THINK will happen, but the only thing I think we can be certain of is that changes will come much slower than we hope or expect them to.

  9. Anna Tarkov March 31, 2011

    Greg: I’m not sure NYT is favoring clickers over linkers since I believe they’ve said links from blogs will also not be subject to the 20 article per month limit. That said, I absolutely agree that doing shoddy work and running a news business badly is a much greater threat to the future of journalism than free content :) I enjoyed your piece, thanks for drawing my attention to it.

  10. Anonymous March 31, 2011

    Anna,

    Thanks for the reply.

    It’s a subtle point, but implicitly they are favoring clickers over linkers. If you click it doesn’t count, but if you are searching the site looking for references and doing research, then you will use up your 20 articles pretty fast.

    So whoever clicks on links gets a free ride, but the one who did the work to create the link does not. As for me, I’m going to be looking for other sources. It’s way too much of a hassle.

    – Greg

  11. Anna Tarkov March 31, 2011

    Greg, now I see what you’re saying. However, doesn’t that still assume that a blogger is going to NYT first to do their research into whatever they’re writing about? I know no blogger who does that, including myself :-) The only exception I can think of would be someone who exclusively blogs about NYT, a certain NYT writer, or something to that effect.

  12. Anonymous March 31, 2011

    I think it would apply to anyone who spends a fair amount of time on NY Times and shares links whether that would be on a blog, social media or whatever.

    I can only speak for my self, but I’ve been using NY Times as a primary sourcefor info so I’ve linked to it a lot in the past. Now I’ve switched to WaPo, which I don’t like as much, but basically has the same information.

    btw. If you’re interested, my new post about who killed social media marketing is up: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2011/who-killed-social-media-markeing/

    – Greg

  13. Jared Parmenter April 4, 2011

    Anna, thanks for the thoughtful reply!
    I should have been more clear in by bit about “the general public” – I should have callled them “the casual users that make up a large portion of many celebrities’ million-plus follower base.” It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, it’s just the nature of not being able to repond individually to a million people – it’s just not feasible. Middle-men news aggregators (like you and me, or in this metaphor, the bees) that appeal to a niche interest are even more engaging, because the audience is smaller and even more targetted. Extending the metaphor, we know a better, faster path to the pollen – and I think that idea of rewarding people financially for spreading news is something we’ll see more of.
    Take Zite, for instance. A great app, that got shut down for reformatting and reprinting content. If the companies knew what was good for them, they’d embrace Zite and work out a deal!

    And Greg, don’t give into WaPo!

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