Monday, May 30, 2005

Blogging the Waltz

Roger Abramson of the Nashville Scene has some good aftermath observations about the blogging of the Tennessee Waltz scandal. He notes the speed and availability of blogs versus the television news. Several bloggers, including Half-Bakered, went to live-blogging mode to cover events as they broke. He also praises the synergy of the ad hoc network that sprang up in the blogosphere to cover the story.

His criticisms are also good, but point the way to better blogging. Roger points out that reporters for Old Media often had the detail and "on the spot" news that bloggers didn't, and even began to feed from as the day progressed and reporting caught up with blogging.

There's an important point lost in this: Reporters are paid to go to the scene to interview people. It's their job. They have the ability and the resources to do that. They have the cachet of their employer's name and reputation to open doors for them. They have months and years of carefully cultivated relationships to draw from.

Most bloggers are amateurs. For example, Bill Hobbs couldn't just leave his day job to go to Legislative Plaza. I couldn't just head downtown to start tracking people down. Blogging isn't a paid gig for us, but an avocation. Most folks still don't know about blogging, so if Hobbs were to go to the Plaza, most legislators and staff wouldn't have the faintest clue who he is and would respond accordingly. We don't have relationships and reputations. Yet.

That day is slowly coming, but it's not yet here.

Roger also stresses how the MSM was able to filter the data they received to winnow the rumor from the fact, where bloggers tend to report everything they learn (as I did that day) and let their readers do the sorting. Roger sees that as a problem, but I see it as a paradigm shift, or maybe we're talking to slightly different audiences. Newspapers and television have to be accessible to anyone who might tune in; bloggers tend to assume a high level of informedness, and the ability to find another website if you don't like theirs.

Newspapers and telelvision news tend to report based on narratives. That is, to speed the process of reporting and getting on air, they tend to re-use the same story templates over and over. (Heroic person triumphs over adversity. Citizens struggle against government bureaucracy. Old codger is actually interesting and commendable.) As facts are gathered, the template is applied. Facts that don't fit the template tend to get lost. It's why so many stories have oddities from the first minutes or hours of an important event that tend to disappear as time goes on. The story's throughline gets streamlined and polished.

Take Barry Myers in the Tennessee Waltz scandal. Before Thursday, he was a long-time protege of former State Senator Roscoe Dixon. He has long been in training to follow in Dixon's wake. He was, in fact, being groomed to run for and win Dixon's old seat! He's been described as an activist in local Democratic politics and as Dixon's right hand. A promising, rising star. He was a young man with a long and lucrative future ahead of him in Democratic circles.

Until Thursday evening and then in Friday's papers. Suddenly, he was repeatedly identified as a "bagman." His whole, well known past was reduced to the FBI's description in the indictment. Bagman. And you watch, that's where he'll be from now on. There may be a profile or two to flesh him out, but in the more numerous regular news stories he's just a footnote, a bagman.

That kind of reductionism and streamlining is a hallmark of print and television news journalism. Bloggers are also prone to that, but you'll also see a lot more bloggers will to take one facet and dig deep. To notice one odd detail and follow it down. The MSM can't really do that -- deadlines, pressure, the need to catch the "juicy" news.

Most of Abramson's criticisms spring from the disparity of resources and schedule. Television and newspapers have deep resources to draw from. Bloggers don't. If sued or threatened, the MSM have lawyers on the payroll to run defense. Bloggers don't. The MSM has the communications network and resources to go places and transfer (or research) information. Bloggers don't.

As a commenter there noted, when wi-fi is common and more people have portable laptops and cam-phones with built-in wi-fi, then the landscape will flatten some more. When more bloggers develop a higher profile and develop reputations of their own, it will flatten further. Those days are coming, but aren't here yet.

But as the Tennessee Waltz demonstrated, they are coming.

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