Why 30,000 bloggers might not be right

In Cogosphere my ZDNet colleagueSteve Gillmor writes about the decline and fall of trade journalism, and the rise and rise of bloggers:

Over cabbage soup at Max’s Opera, we dissected the continuing slide of the trade space. Print books, notoriously slim in the summer months, are even slimmer this time around. I noted Matt McAlister’s bolt from Infoworld to Yahoo!, a 48-page issue from Information Week (typically the last to drop folio below the baseline ratio of ads to editorial), and the appalling lack of bodies in a JavaOne press conference as significant data points.

Steve is absolutely right: the trade press is having a terrible time in terms of ad revenue and circulation. The number of people who can make their living as full time journalsts in the computer press is shrinking. Freelance budgets are being generally cut – and where there IS freelance budget, it’s usually available because an enterprising publisher has worked out that it’s cheaper to lay off someone internal and replace them with a few grand’s budget instead. Trade shows – once the great gathering places of the IT tribe – are also dying, or becoming more focused on niches.

Why is this? My suspicion is simply that the trade press, by and large, have been doing a very poor job. Computer magazines have been stuck with the same format for years: News, reviews, features, help, blurgh. Features, which should be the place where a magazine finds much of its character, have become staid. They rarely stray outside the realms of yet-more-products, because seeing products on the page makes it easier to sell advertising. Text is minimal, because it’s expensive compared with PR-sourced or crappily photographed product shots. Very few of them seem to remember that they have to excite, engage and enthuse readers, rather than sell to them.

In tandem with this, “A List” bloggers have effectively taken over what PR executives call “opinion formers” – people who are widely read and whose opinions are trusted by a lot of people. That’s why, when someone like Robert Scoble talks about the importantance of publishing early, he gets a lot of attention (and a lot of flames for it). But that’s also why Max Hansen is talking about how if blogging isn’t journalism, it will be:

After a few bloggers face libel suits, many more will become properly cautious, and many others will become too shy to keep blogging. And it won’t be many more years before “properly cautious” means having one’s writing vetted by a cooler head. When that day comes, blogging will no longer be viewed as a great threat to journalism. Rather, having grown up, it will be journalism.

As Steve puts it:

I’m as guilty as anyone of blurring these lines. I recoil at the idea of being called a journalist, not because I have no respect for those who wear that badge proudly, but because I know what that committment means to them.

In news more than anywhere else, being a journalist is important, because it’s about a commitment to track down the truth. The awful shills at Fox News aren’t journalists: they’re propagandists. Too often, people working in the computer press haven’t been journalists too, because they’ve flinched away from confronting companies that were large advertisers (and that’s something that’s got worse in recent years, as the pressure has been on not to piss off the paymasters).

Scoble believes that reading a spread of blogs can give you the truth:

So, you can’t trust what I write. But, if you read Slashdot, and you read Jeremy Zawodny over at Yahoo, and you read Asa Dotzler on the Firefox team and you read a bunch of other blogs, you’ll be able to triangulate in on the truth.

Why is that? I can’t control what they all say. So, even though I might go nutso here, you’ll be able to triangulate in on the truth.

Who is the editor? You are. I am. The word-of-mouth network is so efficient that if bloggers don’t watch their brands they’ll lose readership, respect, and, worse of all, if liars try to show up at conferences they will get called out and derided. And, I like going to conferences and having people be friendly to me.

The problem with this view is that it’s just not true. Read Slashdot, Jeremy Z and Asa and – with all due respect to those fine sites and people – all you’re getting is the opinion of Slashdot readers, Jeremy, and Asa. None of them, individually, would claim to be hunting out the facts of everything they write about. None of them are doing the slow, labourious and often tedious background work that is required to do “real” journalism. None of them have to follow the same standards as a journalist: allowing someone accused of something a right of reply, confirming facts with multiple sources, and so on.

Does Scoble call up people before posting something about them? No, of course not – he doesn’t have the time. Yet, when wearing my news journalist hat, I’m expected to do exactly that.

Ultimately, most blogging is about what’s being said in the rest of the blogosphere. It’s an accurate representation of what people are talking about, which is not the same thing as being an accurate representation of reality. One of the best things that I learned doing seven years of philosophy was a simple one: Truth is not consensual. Simply because 30,000 say that Apple is preparing to launch a phone company doesn’t make it true. It just means that29,999 bloggers saw it on Scoble’s blog.

  • nick

    It’s the ‘argue from “ought” to “is”‘ fallacy at work.

    And you’re right about magazine journalism: it’s truly not a domain for novelty or originality, and writers who are aware of what could be done are generally left to beat their heads against the nearest hard surface…

  • http://www.larryborsato.com/blog/archives/001437.html larry borsato

    The echo chamber.

    Ian Betteridge suggests the real truth behind rumors on the net:Simply because 30,000 say that Apple is preparing to launch a phone company doesnt make it true. It just means that 29,999 bloggers saw it on Scobles blog.Tip of the…

  • http://www.25hoursaday.com/weblog Dare Obasanjo

    It seems you’ve missed the biggest change in the Tech industry with regards to blogs vs. journalism. With blogs the folks making the news can just report it themselves. What is the point of having tech journalists announce what Microsoft is planning to do when you can just read it in Scoble’s blog or watch it on Channel 9? What is the point of buying a tech mag to see an analysis of the announcement if you can read dozens of insightful and timely analysis from blogs?

    Steve Gillmor is right. Tech journalism is going to have to adapt or die. Slashdot shows the way of the future as sad as that may seem.

  • http://www.expophile.com/index.php/there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sunor-the-postor-the-times/ expophile.com

    There is Nothing New Under the Sun…or the Post…or the Times…

    Interesting post on Technovia about the failing fortunes of trade journalism, and in passing, tradeshows, in light of the blogging phenomenon:"[In addition to enterprise publishers] trade shows – once the great gathering places of the I…

  • http://dossy.org/ Dossy

    None of them are doing the slow, labourious and often tedious background work that is required to do “real” journalism.

    That’s okay, they’re in good company: the “real” journalists don’t seem to be doing the work, either, these days. (c.f. Dan Rather)

    In other words: if, by consuming MSM, you can’t measure the reliability of the “facts” being reported, as compared to citizen journalism … then is there really any real value in MSM journalists doing all that tedious background work?

  • http://www.badpress.net Andrew

    That’s a terrific diagnosis, thanks Ian. Belief in the consensus theory of truth is even more of a problem over at Wikipedia, and perhaps explains why so many of the entries appear to have been written by someone quite new to the English language.

    Dare – you’re a Microsoft employee, advising us that we need look no further than other Microsoft employees for our Microsoft news.

    Please don’t be too broken-hearted if this compelling vision of the future fails to catch on.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    Dare, the people who make the news have *always* had the ability to report it themselves – it just used to be called “advertising” or “PR”, or, as we used to call them “puff pieces”. :)

  • jdb

    Maybe I’m misremembering but didn’t you defend Think Secret et. al. as journalists?

    Yet they don’t do the journalism that you described here: “one of them have to follow the same standards as a journalist: allowing someone accused of something a right of reply, confirming facts with multiple sources, and so on.”

  • http://www.bloggersblog.com/cgi-bin/bloggersblog.pl?bblog=713052 BloggersBlog.com

    30,000 Bloggers Can Be Wrong

    If you find the same information on 30,000 different blogs does that mean the information is correct? 30,000 seems like a substantial amount of blogger support for the truth but Ian Betteridge at Technovia makes a good point that if the 30,000 bloggers…

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    jdb, actually one of the reasons that I defended TS was because I know Nick dePlume follows *exactly* those methods – including asking Apple for comment.

  • jdb

    Really? He gets second confirmed sources for his rumors? Highly unlikely.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    Yes, he does. In the past, I’ve discussed specific stories with Nick and know how he works. So you can doubt it all you like, but it’s still true.

  • http://padawan.info/weblog/technorati_continued.html padawan.info

    Technorati, continued

    Doc Searls has more on Technorati (he cites my pseudo there but without a link, hello Doc!) and an interesting…

  • jdb

    so when the rumor turns out to be false? he got two sources with the same rumor and both were wrong. this strains credulity.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    Yes, it happens – more often than you’d think.