When one of the top reporters at the nation's top newspapers jumped ship to The Huffington Post last week, the rumblings started. Is print dead? (Almost.) Is blogging where it's at? (Yup.)
But in all the print vs. online hoopla over Peter Goodman's defection from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, one salient point has been largely ignored. Is an online writer still a journalist? Or do they get lumped into the blogger category along with the over-sharing blogspot squatter who puts up a yawn-inducing list of what books she's read this month and calls it blogging?
In a particularly vicious attack on "blogging" this week, MomLogic "guest blogger" Kimberly Seals Allers described her NYU and Columbia degrees in journalism as basis for calling herself a journalist -- and no one else need apply.
"The lines between real journalists (who do crazy things like fact check and interview other people) and opinionated talking heads (whose real skill is driving Web traffic) got blurred."
That she assumes every journalist "fact checks" and no blogger has ever interviewed another person is insulting at best, ludicrous at worst. Perhaps she's never heard of Stephen Glass, the New Republic reporter who didn't just make up facts but fabricated entire events? Or Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter who remains one of the Grey Lady's most embarrassing points in history as he faked his way through stories on 36 of the 73 articles he wrote for the paper? Or read blogs like Bookslut, a site that features regular interviews with authors, and is run by a college dropout who worked at Planned Parenthood when she started the site?
But even in a rant that's made oxymoronic by the very title that prefaces her name, Allers finally strikes the nerve that splits the journalist from the "blogger" midway through. Says Allers:
"Seriously, there's a difference between a blog and real journalism. Please learn it. Truth is, there are a lot of people (OK, bloggers and social-media folks) who wake up one day and fancy themselves writers -- or even (double gasp!) journalists. I'm sorry, but there's a difference between writing down your personal opinions in a 400-word post and knowing how to build a compelling narrative arc or how to compile research and interviews into a solid book chapter."
Although being a journalist doesn't take Allers' list of degrees (Thomas Paine wrote what amounted to a newspaper -- was he not a journalist? Peter Jennings had no college degree), the simple fact is not everyone can write. Just as not everyone can play NBA-quality basketball or do complex equations in their head.
But blogging in general has given the world's wannabe writers a forum, and with it, the word has slowly been sapped of its meaning. It isn't journalism that is under attack. It's the art of writing.
Because the basic tenets of the American Constitution leave journalism open. It's not a career for the degree-holders, or as Michigan Senator Bruce Patterson was suggesting this spring, the licensed. Freedom of the press allows for the term to be applied loosely -- as easily as it is to the stringer who writes about the county fairs for the local rag as it is to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Woodward and Bernstein types.
Nor does the existence of a report in an online venue make it un-newsworthy. Yet most online news venues -- The Stir included -- are called "blogs," lumping them in with the likes of the book-lister and the man who chronicles his toenail clippings on Tumblr. All "blogs" are not created equal.
Simply put: journalists can be bloggers. Bloggers are not necessarily journalists (but they can be). What separates the two isn't some mythical ideal of ethics (have you watched Fox News?) but a complicated mix of content, talent, and reader interest. What constitutes "news" is subjective -- hence the thousands of newspapers, magazines, and, yes, online news sites in America.
In 12 years in journalism -- a mix of local and major newspapers, regional and national magazines, and a host of online ventures -- I still can't pitch a home run to an editor every time. What's newsworthy to one editor is bottom of the barrel scrapings to another. And time after time, I have seen drivel appear in a major respected publication because that struck a nerve with someone on one particular day.
That it was paid for doesn't make it good. Or particularly well-researched. Or well-written. In fact none of the so-called markers of a journalist exists in each piece published by a newspaper or magazine. Because journalists, as humans, can be just as biased or unethical as the rest of the lot.
What their online counterparts have done -- regardless of their writing skills -- is to make faking it harder. While opening the door to the drivel in the forms of countless toenail clipping blogs, it's also raised the stakes for pitching to major publications that can now draw on writers from across the nation rather than pay a core group to fly out to distant locales.
It's opened up access to resources for investigative reporting. And it's made a reporter's downfall that much more public -- be it a journalist or just your run-of-the-mill blogger.
The question that you should ask when you read something is not: Did a journalist -- or a blogger -- write this? It should be: Does this compel me to keep reading?
If it doesn't, there's always another option just a click away.
Image via DeclanTM/Flickr