Is Blogging Killing Newspapers, or are Newspapers Helping Blogs?

Blogging isn’t hurting newspapers. Newspapers are helping blogs grow.

Many months ago, someone named Stephen* presented me with an interest question to my statement about whether blogging was killing newspapers. He said that maybe it wasn’t that blogging was killing newspapers, but rather it was the decline of the quality of newspapers that have lead to an increase in blogging.

The front page of the Indianapolis Star announcing Barack Obama's election

The Indianapolis Star from November 5, 2008

Over the past several years, I’ve seen how Gannett (owners of USA Today) have decimated the local reporting staff at the Indianapolis Star. They get rid of people who know how to report and write (and yes, there’s a difference). They get rid of well-known writers that bring regular readers to the paper in favor of a couple of recent college grads who — together — make up 75% of the salary of the original writer. They have bombed out the newsroom, eliminated business writers, booted popular columnists, and slashed the different culture and dining critics. To add insult to injury, the design work for the Indianapolis Star will soon be moved to Louisville. All we’re left with is a sterilized husk of what was once an awesome newspaper.

The Indianapolis Star, when it was run by the Pulliam family, actually won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, for its outstanding reporting in exposing police corruption in 1974. (The Indianapolis Star, when it has been run by Gannett has, well, not.) I’ve been reading the book by Dick Cady, one of the reporters who helped break the police corruption story wide open, and I sometimes wonder if I’m reading about the same newspaper.

I’m reading a newspaper that wasn’t afraid to go up against local law enforcement for the sake of truth, justice, and the American way. Meanwhile, I’m left with a newspaper whose median years of newsroom experience is slowly drifting toward the single digits.

And yet Gannett can’t figure out why newspaper ad revenue is dropping like a rock. I’ll tell you why: no one wants to read the Indianapolis edition of USA Today. But that’s what we’ll be left with in less than five years (some former Indy Star readers and employees think five years is overly optimistic).

Blogging is not to blame for this. Blogging has not harmed the Indianapolis Star. Blogging did not make Gannett fire people like columnists Ruth Holladay or Lori Borgman, or business writers like John Ketzenberger. Blogging did not kill what was actually a profit-making online venture by replacing the editor with someone much younger.

Instead, blogging is picking up the pieces that Gannett and other big-city newspapers are dropping whenever they gut their newsrooms yet again.

There’s a great blog on the southeast side of Indianapolis called (what else?) Southeast Indianapolis Communities. It’s a simple little blog that has nothing but news for the southeast side of town. They’re covering the news and events that the Indy Star won’t and can’t cover. They’re doing the kind of reporting that the Star doesn’t have the staff, time, or even city knowledge to adequately write about.

Basically, Southeast Indianapolis Communities is filling the gap left by Gannett’s mishandling of the Indianapolis Star, and they’re doing a great job. In this case, SIC hasn’t hurt the Star. Rather, the growing crappiness of the Star is helping the SIC.

What about your newspaper in your city? Is your newspaper holding on, or are you seeing the same decimation and ruin that we’re seeing in Indianapolis? Tell us about your city’s newspaper and if you’re seeing any local blogs picking up the slack. (And tell us about those too.)

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy, who I also helped write Twitter Marketing For Dummies (another affiliate link).

Stephen, I can’t find the post where you commented with this great insight. If you’re out there, let me know who you are, so I can at least link to a Twitter page or your blog, or something.

Photo credit: afagen (Flickr)

Did Merle Haggard Marry Two Men? Another Reason to Use the Oxford Comma

Did Merle Haggard marry Kris Kristoferson and Robert Duvall?

Of course not! Don’t be stupid!

But you might not know it if you look at a newspaper clipping from an unnamed newspaper (which was originally posted on James Joyner’s Outside the Beltway blog, “Merle Haggard and the Gay Serial Comma“). The clipping features a photo of the country music star with the caption, “The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

Photo from newspaper about Merle Haggard

Look very carefully at the last 9 words — “his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.” The sentence, as it’s written, looks like Rural Merle was married to Kristofferson and Duvall.

That’s because the newspaper forgot to put the Oxford comma after “Kristofferson.” If they had, it would look like the documentary interviewed four people: two ex-wives, Kristofferson, and Duvall.

But the Associated Press typically does not use this device, and as a result, most newspaper writers and editors have taken it to mean “There will be NO Oxford Commas EVER!” What they forget is that the Oxford comma may be used if it will clarify a confusing sentence. And the sentence about Merle Haggard’s marriage partners is about as confusing as it can get.

Adding the Oxford comma would have told us that Kristofferson and Duvall were not part of the previous group, “his two ex-wives,” but rather, were two additional people. It’s exactly like the book author who dedicated his book “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.”

I may have the occasional argument with an editor or punctuation stickler about the use of my beloved Oxford comma, but I have never seen an instance where using the Oxford comma caused confusion. On the other hand, there are occasions where blindly adhering to the “no Oxford comma” rule can cause all kinds of confusion. Or at least raise some interesting questions.

A Look at Old School Journalism

When I wrote for my college newspaper, the Ball State Daily News, one of the things I liked to do was to put some paper in the manual typewriter, hammer out a few sentences, rip it out of the typewriter, and yell “COPY!!” which would always crack my editor up.

This was back in about 1988, when we thought that kind of news writing — furiously banging out news copy on clackety old typewriters — was old-fashioned, and that nobody did it anymore. After all, we were nearly at the 21st century, using dummy terminals to put all of our news into a mainframe that would process the story into a single column, where it could be printed, cut, waxed, and pasted up on the layout page.

The fact that I just used terms that most younger readers don’t know — paste up, wax, typewriter — probably renders the whole COPY!! joke unfunny.

I recently spoke to some journalism classes at Ball State about how to blog for newspapers. I tried referencing a few of my student journalism experiences, and even told an OJ Simpson story, and was met with blank stares. I didn’t realize until later that many of these students were born the year before I got married. They were two when the OJ Simpson trial was going on.

Still, I always appreciate the history of journalism, and I like knowing things about it, like the fact that copy boys were the boys who ran around the newsroom, grabbing papers out of writers’ hands. Writers who had just ripped their story out of the typewriter and shouted “COPY!!

I was interested to find this video in a post, “How to be an Old School Journalist,” on Alltop.com. While the segment at 5:06 may be a little… upsetting, keep in mind that the video is around 70 years old.

Although I’m not sure exactly how old the movie is, you get some clues just by looking at the hats and suits, the cars, and even the phones. It’s an interesting look at what they thought of journalists — and women — back in those days.

It’s even more interesting when you realize how far we have come as a news gathering society.

  • According to Google’s Eric Schmidt, we produce as much data in 2 days as we produced from the dawn of history up to 2003.
  • More women blog than men. In fact, the Blogher Network boasts 2,500 women bloggers as part of their network alone.
  • A story written for a blog can be produced in minutes, not hours. Publication of a post is immediate. No typesetting, printing, or delivery. Hit Publish, and it’s out there. A news story can be written in minutes, but then it has to be pasted up (electronically, of course), and then printed, and delivered. The shortest amount of time it can take is 4 – 6 hours from the completion of the story.
  • To own a major newspaper takes millions of dollars and requires specialized knowledge to run specialized machines that only serve one purpose: to put ink on paper. To run a major blog takes a $1,000 laptop and a wifi connection. And when you’re done, you can watch a movie on it.

In Linchpin (affiliate link), Seth Godin talks about how the factory, the means of production, can be owned for $3,000 for a laptop (Seriously? $3,000? Seth, call me. I’ve got a deal on a few Dells for you, 2,000 bucks each.)

Bil Browning, owner of the Bilerico Project (the largest LGBT news blog on the web) runs his blog with four directors/editors, and 90 contributors (I even contributed an article last year). But he doesn’t have an office, doesn’t have printing presses, doesn’t have any overhead, other than his servers, and the salaries for him and his four directors. When I compare the low cost — $1,000 for a laptop — and ease of which he is able to reach hundreds of thousands of readers each month versus the time and effort we put into reaching people via newspaper today versus the time and effort we put into reaching people via newspaper 70 years ago, it’s a wonder we ever got it done at all. It’s also easy to see how Bil is able to reach his readership much more easily and cheaply than most big city newspapers.

Watch the video, see how our grandparents and great-grandparents got their news and information, and see if you’re not amazed.

Wither Goest the Newspaperman? Why Blogging is Killing Print Media.

Whither goest the newspaperman, that bastion of bulletins, that purveyor of print?

He is, I’m afraid, about to be swallowed up by the electronic era.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a reporter. I wanted my stories to be delivered with a thwack! on the front porch. To be folded up and carried in a suit pocket. To be clipped and stuck to the fridge. I wanted to use words like “lede” and “slug line.” I wanted to rip my story out of a typewriter, and shout “COPY!” (I used to do this when I wrote for my college newspaper, to great laughs from my editor.)

Sadly, it was not to be. Instead, I work as a professional blogger, and am looked down on by “real” journalists at “real” newspapers. (Full disclosure: I am also a newspaper humor columnist, appearing in 10 weekly print newspapers around the state. So there.)

Last year, 53 weeks ago in fact, I wrote a humor column about Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, who wrote his own column sneering at bloggers with:

I DON’T have a blog. If I did blog, this is what it would be like. (To make it seem like a real blog, I’ll include typos and factual errors.)

I would link to Stu’s original column, but it, like most of his fellow newspaper reporters, are no longer available. They have been cast aside, presumably to make room for newer, more up-to-date pieces.Stack of old newspapers

Bykofsky, who is perhaps best known for saying this country “need(s) another 9/11” needs to realize that blogging is not going to go away. Newspapers, on the other hand, are fast disappearing from our landscape. I think reporters would do well to rethink their attitude.

To paraphrase Chicago humorist Rex Huppke (@RexHuppke):

It’s funny when journalists mock (blogging). It’s also funny when people about to be eaten by a bear mock the bear.

Huppke’s quote was originally about Twitter, but mocking a bear is mocking a bear.

So what are the journalists’ complaints about blogging? That we didn’t go to journalism school? They’re teaching electronic media writing in J-school right now. That our pieces aren’t properly fact-checked and vetted by editors? Disgraced plagiarizer fabricator New York Times reporter Jayson Blair could tell you a thing or two about that. Or is it that our stories aren’t printed on dead trees? I found Bykofsky’s original column online.

Citizen journalists — the people who are picking up the slack that the mainstream media are missing — have taken to the web to cover the news and write about the issues that journalists have been missing. If they’re not former journalists who became bloggers, they’re learning how to do proper journalism. The really good citizen journalists are writing stories that are just as good, if not better, than a lot of the mainstream media stories.

These modern day pamphleteers share the news and their opinions via a blog instead of a printing press. And while they are still looked down on, these citizen journalists have uncovered a lot of stories that Byofsky and his ilk have ignored, overlooked, or scorned. We’re breaking the news before The News does.

Griping about bloggers is nothing but pure elitism. Snob journalism at its finest. When children start playing a game, it’s not uncommon for the child on the losing team to pout, whine, and make excuses for why he’s playing poorly. And Bykofsky’s blogging gripes make him sound like he’s taking his ball and going home.

The newspaper industry has been in decline ever since the advent of radio and TV news. It slipped further into decline when Craigslist became popular. And now, blogging is threatening to be the final stake through print journalism’s heart.

We’ve seen significant gutting at our local paper (the Indianapolis Star will now be laid out in Louisville. Sounds about right for Gannett.), and journalists are being thrown overboard left and right.

A friend of mine worked for the Associated Press in Indianapolis, and was let go right before Christmas 2009, after 17 years of service. Why? The AP was losing money because fewer newspapers were licensing their content. So rather than stick with the professional who had the most experience and best judgment, they let him go in favor of someone with a lower salary and less experience. In another state.

So we have younger, less experienced journalists — remotely — running our country’s newsrooms, and it’s bloggers who are being dismissed out of hand as Not Real Journalists?

I’m sad to be watching all of this unravel. I think the decline of the big city American print newspaper is one of the great tragedies of our time. But I also see the future of the industry, and if it’s going to survive, it’s going to be online, not on dead trees.

Journalists need to stop deriding blogging, and embrace it instead. Learn how to do it now, rather than watching it pass by. You can either mock the bear or turn and face it. Otherwise, your next byline will be from the south end of a north-bound bear.

For related reading, check out:

Photo credit:

Bloggers Are Citizen Journalists

A common complaint I hear from big-J Journalists about bloggers is that we’re not “real” journalists. That we’re somehow beneath their contempt and notice.

Bullshit. We’re citizen journalists!

I first saw this attitude when I worked at the Indiana State Department of Health, and a few of my colleagues said we would never deal with bloggers because they only wanted to put out bad information. And in dealing with other Journalists, they almost seemed to say “blogger” with a sneer. As if “blogger” was something they stepped in on their way to the office.

Bloggers are citizen journalists, like it or not.

Bloggers are citizen journalists, like it or not.

As a result, many Journalists don’t believe things like Reporter Shield Laws should apply to us citizen journalists. For example, if an environmental blog were to uncover environmental violations by a large corporation, that citizen journalist could be forced to reveal who his or her sources were. But if a newspaper wrote the same story, the reporter would not.

The biggest question comes down to who is a real journalist and who is only a blogger/citizen journalists. In the Branzburg v. Hayes case, Justice Byron White said

“Freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right’ which ‘is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. … The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.’ … The informative function asserted by representatives of the organized press in the present cases is also performed by lecturers, political pollsters, novelists, academic researchers, and dramatists.”

— Quote from an article by David Hudson of FirstAmendmentCenter.org

Even back in 1973, when Justice White threw open “The Press” to anyone who produced the printed word, technology has widened the definition to anyone who writes for blogs, the 21st century’s electronic pamphlet.

In his article, Hudson also cited Kurt Opsahl, the staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who mentioned a couple examples where bloggers outperformed the big-J Journalists

“Bloggers hammered on the Trent Lott story (Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond) until mainstream media was forced to pick it up again,” he said. “Three amateur journalists at the Powerline.com blog were primarily responsible for discrediting the documents used in CBS’s rush-to-air story on President George Bush’s National Guard service. And the list goes on.”

Cox lists several other national-headline stories affected greatly by reporting from blogs, including: Dan Rather and the Texas Air National Guard memos, the White House giving press credentials to James Guckert/Jeff Gannon, the resignation of CNN news executive Eason Jordan after publicity surrounding his remarks at the World Economic Forum and the John Kerry-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth controversy.

Or to put it another way, the big political scoops in the last 5 years have not been by the media, but by bloggers. Also called little-J journalists.

So, other than an overwhelming sense of elitism by the men and women of the dead-tree media, what really separates us from being real Journalists?

Is it the medium? Many former newspaper reporters and columnists have left the printed word, and gone on to start their own blogging career:

  1. Ruth Holladay who is serving brilliantly as a cheerleader for traditional media and a thorn in the side of her former employer, Gannett
  2. Lori Borgman the former arts columnist for the Indianapolis Star
  3. Columnist Saul Friedman who retired from Newsday rather than let his column go up behind a paywall

(I’m curious what their colleagues think? Have these writers somehow fallen from grace, and are no longer “good enough” to be considered Journalists? Are they now mentioned with the same sneer I heard three years ago?)

Maybe the pay is the issue. The fact that bloggers don’t get paid as much as newspaper writers (who, frankly, are not known for their lavish pay and glamorous lifestyle) may be the deciding factor. However, there are some online writers who make a lot more money than most successful businesspeople, let alone Journalists. So that argument doesn’t seem to hold weight.

Maybe it’s the training. The aforementioned paper-turned-pixel writers notwithstanding, Journalists seem to think they have the super-secret training that makes them a font of reliability and trustworthiness. Yet I know a lot of journalists who can’t spell, don’t know grammar, and in some cases, just plain can’t write. I took several journalism classes in college, and I can tell you they don’t teach anything extra special that someone with a penchant for the written word couldn’t pick up.

Even the Washington Post isn’t immune from bad writers. Meanwhile, there are several outstanding bloggers who produce some outstanding prose that would make any big-J Journalist green with envy.

Maybe it’s because the media is trustworthy and bloggers aren’t? You know, trustworthy. People like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Ruth Shalit. Of course, Shalit is back in journalism, Blair is a life coach in Virginia, and Glass is now a multi-millionaire, thanks to the book and movie deals he has gotten.

Admittedly, these three are the exception to the rule, and not the rule themselves. But my point is there are bad apples in blogging and bad apples in Journalism. Still if you’re going to accuse bloggers of not telling the truth, you need to look at the journalists who make stuff up too.

I just don’t see what the big difference is, other than bloggers don’t kill a lot of trees to get their message out through a dying medium. Yes, there are bad bloggers, but there are bad journalists. Yes, there are bloggers who lie, but there are lying journalists as well. (Some people might say that term is redundant.) Yes, journalists are trained as writers, but there are a lot of trained writers who use the electronic medium instead of newsprint.

If the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the definition of Citizen Journalists to pamphleteers and leaflet-writers, then they can certainly open it up to bloggers. And as bloggers, we need to make sure we can meet that expectation. We need to take on the mantle of Citizen Journalist ourselves, and then make sure we live up to that standard. (I’ll discuss that more in the future.)

So what do you think? Are bloggers journalists? Or are we a bunch of cranks sitting in our parents’ basement under bare light bulbs, writing about conspiracy theories and Paris Hilton sightings?

Stacks of newspapers photo: John Thurm
Ann Arbor News photo: mfophoto