Third Tuesday, a bimonthly meetup of PR people talking about social media, got a visit this month from Jean-François Codère. Codère was a journalist for the Journal de Montréal and now RueFrontenac.com, and his speech was mostly a response to one in January from blogger Michelle Blanc, who was preaching to the choir about how the traditional media don’t get the Internet. He’d written a blog post criticizing Blanc’s presentation, and was invited to take his message to the masses.
Codère’s presentation was treated with a lot of skepticism from bloggers, who accused him of using stereotypes and not knowing what he’s talking about. As Codère pointed out afterward, most of the people Tweeting about him not checking his facts misspelled his name.
Petty insults aside, Blanc and Codère are both guilty of generalizations and unsound arguments in their social media vs. traditional journalism debate, because they’re both acting under the impression that there’s a difference between a newspaper and a blog other than the fact that one is on paper and the other is on a computer screen.
Codère is mostly correct in his generalizations about blogs and user-generated news sites: they’re mostly opinion, they produce very little original journalism, they don’t verify most of what they put up, and they’re not particularly trustworthy.
But that’s most, not all.
Blanc and other new media advocates (most of whom are self-appointed “social media marketing experts” – UPDATE: Note that I don’t include Blanc among them) cherry-pick the few cases where social or new media got to a story before AP or the New York Times. The Hudson plane crash, for example (something I’ve already debunked). Even if the examples given have logical holes in them, there’s nothing inherent about the medium to show that news can’t be scooped by new media. I’ve had a couple of scoops here in my couple of years of existence.
The problem (and one of the reasons I’m not crazy about Twitter yet) is that the signal-to-noise ratio of what’s online is incredibly low. Unless the news happens to Ashton Kutcher, the vast majority of people aren’t going to hear about it directly – they’ll hear it through friends, aggregation sites or the news.
Codère’s comments prompted some knee-jerk reactions from the crowd who built up the straw-man argument that he says all journalists are perfect. He of course said nothing of the sort, because they aren’t. There are tons of lazy journalists out there, and the various cuts to news media going on as the industry explodes are just making that worse. Many journalists are going on Twitter and creating blogs and are learning the bad habits of their social media counterparts, posting information without verification being the most common one.
The big difference between professional journalists and citizen journalists is that professional journalists are paid to do what they do. That means they’ll have the time to research an issue, and their motivation is to build credibility and a career. Citizen journalists (and here I’m not talking about bloggers) are mere witnesses to events. They can tell you that a plane went down in the Hudson, or that people are running out of Dawson College. But they can’t tell you why.
Codère’s error is that he assumes the dynamics of news online won’t change, except that eventually newspapers will use the Internet and not paper as their primary method of delivery. I think we’ll see the same thing happen online that we’ve seen in television – generalists will be replaced by specialists, and people won’t be getting all their news from one place anymore. Bloggers will develop niches that drive enough traffic to create a revenue stream that allows them to do that job full-time. At that point they become professional journalists.
The debate is all a question of semantics. What’s the difference between a blogger and an online journalist? How does someone who expresses himself via blogs differ from someone who does so via Twitter or Facebook? I’d argue that the difference is as trivial as the one between a TV reporter and a newspaper reporter.
As the Internet matures, the importance of medium will diminish, and all we’ll be left with are the generalizations, which by then I think will be quite dated.