Again with the underwear jokes? Why print should drop the blogger-hate

Joe Scarborough warrants, in the words of Jay-Z, only half a bar. He sits at a desk and does interview with flacks and people he works with. An unremarkable former Congressman trumped up into a professional babbler, Scarborough may not be a joke, but as the saying goes, he most definitely plays one on TV. I do find it interesting that fellow MSNBCer Jonathan Alter can speak on blogs as he does, while sharing the studio with people who basically embody the worst aspects of blogging. Alter offers us an unnaunced and warmed-over view of bloggers as mostly a crowd of hecklers, who sit at home popping off and feeding from the trough of presumably legitimate media:

Blogging is a good news/bad news story, too. Daily Kos held a convention last week in Texas full of self-congratulation. Like Thomas Paine and the ideological pamphleteers who provoked the American Revolution, bloggers help enliven and expand public debate. They are indispensable aggregators of political news.

But we're finding this works better for keeping on top of daily flaps than for learning genuinely new information. Bloggers rarely pick up the phone or go interview the middle-level bureaucrats who know the good stuff. It's a lot easier to chew over breaking stories and bash old media. Where do they get the information with which to bash? Often from, ahem, newspapers.

Which are shriveling this year. Talk is cheap and reporting is expensive. Anyone can sit at home pontificating in PJs (I've done it myself), but it costs nearly $1.5 million a year for a bureau in Baghdad. As newspapers lay off hundreds of reporters in the face of assaults on their classified advertising by the likes of Craigslist, who will actually dig for the news?

I find it fascinating that this view is coming from a guy who makes his living giving opinions in print, on TV and online. But let's allow that dog its nap--for today. There are many things wrong with Alter's analysis, but let's begin with the fact that Alter is basically taking the top 5 percent of print journalism--a mature form that's had a chance to iron out its wrinkles--and comparing it to the worst of a very new form. It's true that "anyone can sit at home pontificating in their PJs," but not everyone does it well, which is why some bloggers attract an audience, and some don't. Moreover, the idea that blogging consists of simply spouting off is moronic and reductionist. The first thing I discovered--and this has been repeatedly rammed home to me--is just how much reading I have to do in order to be credible. Frankly, I still don't do enough. But the sheer amount of info you have to absorb, in order to be good, is pretty incredible. The best bloggers may not pick up the phone much--but they do research. It's just not clear to me that talking to some bureacrat is anymore revelatory than reading a ton. It's probably best to do both.

But there is a more problematic notion in Alter's take. As I said it's true that anyone can sit at home in their underwear pontificating, but it's equally true that anyone can pick up the phone and call a mid-level bureaucrat. Folks, the word of the day is credentialism. I'm always amazed that people think it takes years of study at an Ivy, and then more years at a J-school, to learn how to use a phone and structure a story. I learned the basics of journalism during a three month internship, at an alt-weekly in Washington, D.C. when I was 19.  That was almost 13 years ago, and the rudiments of the craft--the tenacity and courage to hunt for facts, and an eye for the counterintuitive--have not changed. Journalism isn't like, say, medicine. You can teach kids the basics of journalism--that's why they have high school newspapers, but not high-school brain-surgeons.

I say this as a man with an overwhelming love for journalism. Subtract family, friends and here is the math of me: I am the son of a book publisher. I subscribe to The New Republic--the print version. When I see bloggers linking the latest New Yorker opus on late Sunday or early Monday, I wait until mine comes in the mail. Cut me and, in addition to the Garvey green and red, kid, you'll see black ink spilling everywhere. This is the only thing in my life--besides drumming, and hopefully fathering and supporting my partner--that I have ever been any good at. Print is how I make my admittedly paltry income, and there have been years when I didn't make more then, say, $5000. I'm not complaining--I'm trying to show how much I sympathize with Alter's concerns about the business. Moreover, his point about how much it cost to report is dead-on. The biggest barrier to putting more people of color into the magazine business is the sheer expense of either breaking through as an editor, or having the cash reserves to go out and report as a freelancer. It's a constant, constant (like I'm literally going through it as you read this) struggle.

That said bashing bloggers helps nothing, and is regressive. As a black person, the absolute last thing in the world I want is to go back to an era in which five plutocrats controlled what could be said. Writing--like carpentry or cooking--is a trade that can be done by damn near anyone. But it can't be done well by anyone. We should be humbled by both those realities whenever we--I'm talking about those of us making a living in print--start comparing ourselves to those working on the net. Let's make those comparisons while understanding that the lion-share of our profession consists not of brave, rumpled reporters burning through shoe-leather but utter hacks, and fools who think that journalism is "glamorous." What's true of the world is true of us--most of everything is bad. That goes for carpentry, cooking, blogging--and Newsweek.

UPDATE: Commenter Greed really makes an excellent point:

This also goes to a larger failing of "conventional" media which is that it fetishizes new information above all else. In reality, new information is not necessarily better or more important that what is already known to the world, though it is often treated that way (see Drudge).

A valuable service that blogs provide is spending more time sorting through and analyzing known information. This function allows a more full processing of information that is already out there, and provides perspective on what information and stories are really important (rather than just what is most recent).