News and noise mesh as media worlds collide

By Ethan Stanislawski

If you haven’t heard it from your parents (or your grandparents), you’ve probably heard it from columnists across America: Bloggers are irresponsible, unqualified “journalists” who are wasting their lives blogging. Whether it’s Michael Skube, who called blogs “all the noise that’s fit” in the L.A. Times, or Michael Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith of ESPN, both of whom recently bashed bloggers’ inexperience and unprofessionalism, mainstream journalists seem genuinely threatened—as well they should be—by the rise of a user-controlled, unregulated information medium. The feeling is mutual too: Any anti-blog rant by a journalist is usually followed by an anti-rant rant by a blogger. For his part, Stephen A. Smith was voted worst announcer on the popular sports blog “The FanHouse.”

But what neither old media nor new media address is the way in which the two media are converging. Specifically, the more readers a blog gets, the more careful it is of what it posts, out of fear of the possible repercussions. Similarly, as print media begin to feel the heat from blogs, they begin to exhibit some of the blogs’ worst traits, resulting in more and more unsubstantiated “breaking news” reports.

When I interned at AOL over the summer, the company’s chief marketing officer, John Burbank (A.B. ’86, M.B.A. ’91) noted that while old media are based on integrity, new media are based on immediacy. This past summer’s debate over Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Dow Jones was strictly an old media affair, based on the integrity of the man behind the New York Post and Fox News. Meanwhile, “TMZ” rose to prominence this year not because of the quality of their content, but because whenever Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton did something stupid, “TMZ” had the first report, no matter what hour of the day it was.

Yet, once they gained prominence, the biggest blogs have often toned down their rhetoric and become more responsible. Most prominently, when multiple editors of “Gawker,” the New York gossip blog, resigned a few months ago, Gawker Media head Nick Denton announced that the turnover provided the “opportunity to accelerate the transformation of ‘Gawker’ from cute blog to fully-fledged news site.” It may seem like Denton is going against the zeitgeist, but he’s actually demonstrating that, whether it’s a blog or a newspaper, one popular information source follows the same rules as any other popular information source, whether it’s a blog or a newspaper.

At the same time, mainstream media sources are driven by competition to play by bloggers’ rules. This can lead to disastrous results. ESPN has repeatedly reported stories that were later proven to be false in the past year, none more egregious than the report that Michael Vick was pleading not guilty to dogfighting charges. Anyone who’s watching or reading the worldwide leader in sports now has to treat any “breaking report” with an eye of skepticism. If integrity is ESPN’s goal, it has clearly failed.

Another trend to watch for is the crossover of writers between the two fields. At the extreme end we have Ana Marie Cox (A.B. ’94), the founder of the political gossip blog “Wonkette,” which has shattered our nation’s innocence toward Washington unlike anyone in the media since Woodward and Bernstein. She is now Washington editor (and blogger) for Time, the most widely read news magazine in the country. There’s also Will Leitch, editor of the sports blog “Deadspin,” and the man famous for breaking the Chris Berman “You’re with me, Leather” story. (Look it up, if you haven’t already.) Leitch now writes a weekly column for The New York Times. At the same time, mainstream journalists are increasingly turning to blogs to supplement their general reporting. As a result, some low-profile mainstream journalists are getting more attention in the blogosphere than they ever would in the print world.

While the new emphasis may be on immediacy, neither integrity nor immediacy will ever become fully extinct in journalism. What is happening is that standards are constantly changing. Imagine what “immediacy” meant before the printing press or the telegram. What the current incarnation of “new media” does entail is an unprecedented degree of user control, and as a result, the relationship between immediate and reliable journalism is becoming much more intertwined. Although print journalism is declining, the standards of old journalism will always be in demand. In fact, when you combine the standards of old journalism with the resources of new journalism, you have the potential for a perfect storm of quality journalism. When the dust settles, don’t be surprised if mass media are more powerful, more widespread, and of higher quality than ever before.