Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Big bad blogs v poor old newspapers (again)

How's this for an opening gambit in a newspaper oped:

"DO BLOGS spell the end of moderated opinion? As expected, internet enthusiasts say "yes"."

Moderated opinion? Interesting concept. I've been trying to figure out exactly what that means. Is it an opinion held by one person but moderated by someone else? What would that make it? Whose opinion would it be, and how valuable?

It doesn't sound like an opinion modified by debate.

But it does sound like one of those slips that unintentionally blows the smoke away from the mysteries of the oped page - or rather, one writer's relationship with it.

Leslie Cannold's piece in yesterday's The Age was a wobbly swipe at the straw man that is unfettered blog opinions. It was a little like Monty Panesar prodding outside offstump at Glenn McGrath - he knows there's something there but he just can't make contact.

And to extend the analogy a bit further, Monty wasn't selected for his skill at playing Glenn McGrath ... neither was Leslie Cannold.

Cannold is a feminist academic and an ethicist. Which qualifies her nicely to write on, well, feminism and ethics. But yesterday she overreached in attempting to take a stand on the horrors of blogs running wild and the last stand defences of traditional editing skills against a world of chaos.

I'm the first to admit that blog is a horrible word. It sounds like something you might wipe off the sole of your shoe. It's been over-hyped and misunderstood all over the place - particularly in the MSM.

But one thing is absolutely clear. The phenomenon of blogging has become a proxy for describing a massive shift towards user generated content on the internet: opinion, news and analysis, and creative works in a range of formats. No matter what newspaper oped writers might want to believe.

Any way you look at it this shift is a threat to old media. And that is in spite of the print and broadcast giants maintaining (for now) large audiences and dominant businesses.

In arguing for the primacy of traditional publishing, Cannold manages to completely miss the point of distinction between old fashioned "gatekeeper" editing of newspapers and magazines and the new fangled user-filtering mechanisms and community editing processes on blogs, wikis and social bookmarking sites.

This is the central challenge to old media publishers such as Fairfax. It's not good enough to assume, as Cannold does, that "traditional editing practices are one of the only ways we've got to achieve reasonable levels of accuracy, veracity and good clean copy".

And it's laughable to suggest, as Cannold does, that the gateless internet allows "semi-literate rants by myopic, racist, sexist, and/or homophobic cretins with tickets on themselves and barrows to push" as if there are no well paid newspaper columnists who perfectly fit this description. Suggestions?

The issue is not really about gatekeeping and the elitism it implies, especially in the context of opinion and analysis. The bigger issue is about trusted sources of information. Who, or what are the trusted sources of information for audiences on the web?

The power of web technologies allows the enormous volume of information on the web to be searched, filtered, ranked, recommended, referred, and commented on. This means that readers are easily able to bypass traditional publishing packages - even the online versions of big newspapers or magazines. And they are doing so in their millions every day.

There are millions of blogs on the web. It proves nothing to say that a large percentage is rubbish. The best of them are compelling reading within their individual sphere: informative, educative and entertaining in the same way that the best newspapers and magazines aspire to be.

The question really comes down to this – how do you find them and how do you access them? And that's where web sites and tools such as Technorati, del.icio.us, RSS, and Netvibes or Webjam come in. Free and easy to use, they allow readers to search and select "feeds" from recommended or popular sites and blogs and then display them in their own, personalized web page.

The very real problem for the old gatekeepers who don't learn to become facilitators of information exchange and active users of web filtering tools such as RSS readers, is that they will be rapidly left behind.

News of the death of print may be premature, but online culture is thriving and regular internet users buy fewer newspapers than non-internet users. The end may be a while away yet, but the conclusion is inevitable.

In the meantime we need to find a better term than that awful word, blog.

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