October 01, 2004

Like Watching a Train Wreck

WE SUPPOSE we should start the morning off with a sincere apology -- again -- for not blogging much this week. We have been busy with the business of life as of late, and it's kept us from writing in this space. And boy! have there been things we've wanted to write about.

First on that list would be Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman's essay on the blogosphere. Wow. If there was ever a work which could be summed up in the phrase "particularly unfortunate," this is it.

We can assure readers will find Mr Coleman's column akin to watching a train wreck: it is awful and appalling, yet one can't tear oneself away from the event at hand. It is an excellent primer on how professional journalists ought not respond to the bloggers in their midst. For Mr Coleman's work is not simply badly written, something that would make it merely forgettable. It is a petulant and juvenile whinge-session, a work which gives the impression that Mr Coleman, in writing it, reverted to his nine-year-old self being beaten on a playground. All in all, it's actually pretty embarrassing.

Based on such an analysis, we know our readers now expect us to engage in an old-fashioned line-by-line Kepple Special fisking, so we shall. However, we would encourage readers to read all of Mr Coleman's essay, accessible via the above link. The excerpts we publish below will be in italics, while our response will immediately follow in plain text.

Mr Coleman writes:

But here's what really makes bloggers mad: I know stuff.

I covered Minneapolis City Hall, back when Republicans controlled the City Council. I have reported from almost every county in the state, I have covered murders, floods, tornadoes, World Series and six governors.

In other words, I didn't just blog this stuff up at midnight.

We would submit Mr Coleman ought not engage in such self-flattery, as it is unseemly and gauche. While we have not seen the work in question which criticizes him, we must say we would be greatly surprised if the blogosphere was truly gnashing its teeth and rending its garments at Mr Coleman's sermons delivered from on high. But if it was -- we do not discount this possibility -- than we suggest this would not be due to Mr Coleman's store of knowledge.

Herein lies Mr Coleman's first error; he defensively sets forth his qualifications. Mr Coleman, you are a journalist working for a major metropolitan daily. You do not need to do this. If you wish to attack, attack; don't parry. And as for the blogging at midnight comment, we might remind Mr Coleman that bloggers do generally hold gainful employment, which means they may not have the luxury of pursuing their craft on someone else's dime.

And as for being a political stooge, unlike the bloggies, I don't give money to politicians, I don't put campaign signs on my lawn, I don't attend political events as anything other than a reporter, I don't drink with pols and I have an ear trained to detect baloney.

Mr Coleman, if a blogger has a motivation like you describe, a reader will probably figure it out. And if a blogger is foolish enough to cavalierly discount his opposition, said opposition will pester him in the comments, and portray his work in an unflattering light on their own blogs, and so forth. Hence the blogosphere is the ultimate bulls -- uh, baloney -- detector.

Do bloggers have the credentials of real journalists? No. Bloggers are hobby hacks, the Internet version of the sad loners who used to listen to police radios in their bachelor apartments and think they were involved in the world.

Real journalists. Heh. Sloppy! Real reporters, you mean, Mr Coleman; real newsmen, you mean. There is something to be said for precision.

After all, there is a difference between a reporter and a journalist, in that all reporters are journalists but not vice versa. After all, opinion writers and syndicated columnists and analysts are journalists, but they may often or completely rely on someone else's shoe-leather to do their jobs.

But even after clearing up that inconsistency, Mr Coleman, you're wrong. If you knew where to look in the blogosphere, you'd find real reporting -- whether on major issues of the day or on happenings around someone's neighborhood. Oh, and that reminds us: don't the folks who like listening to the scanner out in East Wherever also call your newsroom once in a while? Maybe it wasn't bright to insult these conscientious and good people.

Bloggers don't know about anything that happened before they sat down to share their every thought with the moon. Like graffiti artists, they tag the public square -- without editors, correction policies or community standards. And so their tripe is often as vicious as it is vacuous ...

We have pondered long over Mr Coleman's incomprehensible first sentence in that paragraph. We have no idea what he is talking about. But as for the rest of it, let's examine it.

Among his many duties, an editor has three key functions: first, he reads over the copy and improves it, or tells the reporter how to improve it; second, he canes his reporter across the knees for screwing up; and third, he keeps an ear to the ground and determines if his reporter ought work on something.

Now, these things are vitally important when one is producing a publication for the purpose of making money. One needs clear copy and one needs accurate copy and one needs relevant copy. A blogger, working for free, only needs pay extra-special attention to the second item, that is, not screwing up. A blogger can self-edit and decide for himself about what he wants to write, and if the copy is sloppy or not relevant, that is his loss alone. And even with the second item, there is an Editing Function at work -- after all, if the blogger screws up, he hears about it from his fellow bloggers. And that sucks.

As for correction policies, we would submit that bloggers are pretty smart about this too. When they screw up, they say so -- and quickly. Mr Coleman has apparently forgotten that libel and slander laws do apply to bloggers, and bloggers know it.

Lastly, as for community standards -- oh boy. Mr Coleman. Dude. It's the Internet. If you don't like something, you don't have to read it. And bloggers follow the same standards as newspapers do -- they're going to say what they think, but they're not going to print something if they think their audience would find it horribly objectionable. For instance, Mr Coleman, you write for a family newspaper, which children and the elderly and the religious read. This is why you had to use the word "baloney" instead of a certain other word. Bloggers often don't have those same self-imposed constraints.

... We are not dealing with journalism, people. We are dealing with Internet chat rooms: sleazy and unreliable, with no accountability. Most bloggers are not fit to carry a reporter's notebook.

This, quite frankly, is crap. One question immediately springs to mind: how are bloggers unreliable if they rely on the media to do much of their blogging? But that aside, Mr Coleman could have done a much better job at addressing this and his many other points, such as they are, throughout his column.

For one thing, Mr Coleman could have pointed out that bloggers are free of two constraints that journalists do face: namely, space and time. After all, it is no joke to reduce, let's say, a 200-page GAO report to 500 words -- and do that within an hour or two. It is not as easy as it seems, and it takes a lot of practice to get good at it.

But that said, Mr Coleman should have recognized one simple truth about bloggers: they make reporting better. It is no longer the dressing down from a furious editor which reporters must fear; they must now expect furious and public criticism from the outside. But Mr Coleman has forgotten that these critics are reading the work, and quite frankly, what better thing could a reporter ask for? Some of that criticism may be off-base, yes. But much of it will help him improve -- and constant improvement is as vital for the reporter's trade as it is for any other.

Well, that's it. Thus endeth the lesson. For an excellent example of the style in which Mr Coleman should have written his column, we would direct readers to the blog of Mr Coleman's fellow Star-Tribune columnist, James Lileks. Mr Lileks focuses on many of the same topics we did, especially regarding editing and the space issue. And if one is looking for a gleeful romp, we would direct readers to Australian reporter-journalist Tim Blair's excellent blog.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at October 1, 2004 10:10 AM | TrackBack

Yeowtch! Ben - I didn't know you had a vicious streak that wide. I like it. Good rant. ;]

Posted by: Ironbear at October 3, 2004 06:48 AM

Hi Ironbear,

Well, the Strategic Viciousness Reserve came in handy for writing this, that's for sure :-D. But Coleman deserved it.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at October 3, 2004 10:06 AM

Nick Coleman was a bore and a boor a decade ago when I lived in St. Paul and he wrote there. I've never read anybody who tried harded to be Mike Royko, and yet never quite managed to write anything memorable.

I've never had any delusion that what I do is "journalism." I've never had any delusion that what Coleman does is journalism, either.

Posted by: Mark Hasty at October 3, 2004 09:15 PM


Very well put! BTW, I clicked on over and saw your post vis-a-vis dusty old books. I loved Queenan's Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon -- but God! Why had I never heard of de Vries before? ANYONE who writes a book entitled "Slouching Towards Kalamazoo" (ROTFL) is clearly worth reading.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at October 3, 2004 09:25 PM

Trust me, you'll not be disappointed.

Posted by: Mark Hasty at October 3, 2004 11:26 PM

Ben ... extremely well said. Competion makes everyone better. If a particular blogger's work doesn't stand up to scrutiny it will not attract continuing attention. But everyone benefits as the mononoply of the old media is diffused and more viewpoints and information becomes available. I guess its tough on some in the old media now that the "dogs have stop eating the dog food" but I believe others will seize the moment and make themselves and the old media more accurate, fair and relevant. That will be good for everyone.

Posted by: Swammi in Solon at October 4, 2004 10:15 AM