Blogs & Mainstream Media: We Can & Do Get Along

There’s been noise this week about the rivalry between competing blogs as well as the rivalry between blogs and the mainstream media. I found myself reflecting on all of this from the perspective of someone who has worked in both places, who has a great love of online reporting but also deeply appreciates the in-depth work that can be the hallmark of some mainstream publications. Personally, I don’t see rivalry. I see complementary efforts that help each other and readers. But I do worry that some of the classic journalism that I learned, that I love to read, might get lost as the mediaspace continues to change.

To get into my thoughts, I have to share some of my background and personal interests. I hope readers will keep with me as I make these detours along the way.

I’m a voracious reader, and newspapers were one of my first great reading loves. I think it started when I had to do current event reports way back in fifth grade, and I’ve been reading them ever since. When deciding about college, I also had to decide on a career — and I settled on newspaper reporting. Suddenly reading the paper wasn’t just entertainment. It was required homework to land one of those all-important internships.

I chose the wrong college to become a journalist. UC Irvine has no journalism department. Of course while I say it was the wrong choice, that’s not correct. It just put me down a non-traditional path. Had I made the “right” choice, I might not be doing the online reporting about search that I love today.

Without a journalism department, those of us at the campus newspaper, The New University, taught ourselves. We read everything we could find about journalism. We went to journalism conferences. And the really serious ones among us took the two (count ‘em two) non-fiction writing classes that the college offered. These were taught by Joseph N. Bell — Joe Bell, as we called him.

I’d describe Joe as a grizzled old magazine writing veteran, and that description is meant with a great deal of respect and affection. Joe had been around. He’d written all types of non-fiction and often joked about having written in the last edition of several great magazines. I learned from him how to better interview plus the great art of crafting a feature story.

Well, feature stories can be a great art when done right. I can’t say I personally was a great artist with them. It’s been years since I’ve done a feature story in the way that I was taught, working with multiple sources, taking great care with quotes, really crafting a tale that sings out. That was more back in my print journalism days, and I never really got as far along that track as I thought I would or expected to.

Instead, the internet came along. I found myself as a newspaper reporter at the end of 1994 looking at the internet and not wanting to miss out on the publishing revolution that I and others could so clearly see coming. I couldn’t wait until the newspapers decided if it was going to be AOL or Prodigy or CompuServe or something they created that was going to be their future. The web was the future, and I jumped ship in early 1995.

My time as a web developer was brief. I’d joined a friend’s company, and neither of us really knew how to price web sites that were a hard sell (at least for us) back then. By mid-1996, he focused on software development. I went on my own as a consultant as well as maintaining some pages I’d started that covered the search engine industry. I also started picking up freelance magazine writing assignments.

Those assignments were a lot of work for not really that much money. Lots of interviews to dig into a subject, lots of long-distance calling and lots of effort to start building up relationships with a variety of magazines if I wanted to continue on that path. Instead, I decided in early 1997 to focus on my web site, those pages about search engines, the ones that later became Search Engine Watch.

If we’d had blogs back then, that’s what those pages would have been — a blog about search engines. But we didn’t have blogs. We didn’t have the attention that gets focused today on blog publishing giants like TechCrunch, Read/Write Web, paidContent.org, VentureBeat or GigaOM. We just called them web sites. There were relatively few of us doing online journalism through them, but we were out there.

For this reason, I have a little chuckle sometimes when I read about the “new wave” that’s happening now. I’m sure someone like Andy Bourland must have a similar chuckle. He started ClickZ back in 1998 or 1999 and later sold it to Jupitermedia for about $16 million. ClickZ wasn’t a blog, but it was an online publication charting new waters and finding its own audience just as much as some of the current blogs I’ve named.

The revolution to me, I guess, is that it seems easier than ever for people — individuals even — to self-publish. Certainly online publications seem to be getting more attention and recognition than ever. By and large, I think that’s a great thing. As a writer, I’ve never looked back and wished I was back with a mainstream publication. I’ve felt in control of my own destiny and have been happy to chart my own waters, to be building something new and valuable.

But make no mistake. I know I’m not doing the classic journalism that I thought I would be doing. I’ll personally go into depth to help explain a particular story, and I’ll bring my experience to provide an analysis that I hope is helpful to others. But I’m not doing deep, multi-person interviews. I’m not spending days or weeks on a story. And neither are most of the online publications that I read.

This really has been on my mind since yesterday, because I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta for a book he’s working on. It will be his 11th. I was fascinated about the process. Bookstores and libraries are like hallowed places to me, such is the respect I have for books and the authors who’ve invested so much time and talent to create them. I hope someday to find the time, energy and skill to do my own book on something. But the process especially for a non-fiction book seems so daunting. Ken indulged me to talk a bit about it, and I hope he won’t mind me sharing a bit here. How many interviews will he do? Hundreds. How long will he take? Maybe years.

We also talked a bit about the process of doing a magazine article. He talked of spending weeks or months on a project. I found myself getting oddly emotional. You see, it’s been so long since I’ve even thought of spending that much time on a piece — and suddenly, part of me wanted to get back to it. Moreover, I’ve read so many quality pieces of journalism that I know have taken that long to compile, appreciated having read them but found myself worried that they’ll die off. Who’s going to fund writers producing these? Did Ken, a veteran of writing such articles, worry they’d disappear?

Yes, he did. He was encouraged that some publications that produce such work are seeing circulation rises, The New Yorker, The Economist and the Atlantic Monthly being some examples I recall him giving. But he was also concerned that maybe the appetite for such work won’t be maintained, especially among younger readers.

I certainly hope it will, and this leads me back to that rivalry between the mainstream media and blogs that I mentioned earlier. In Michael Arrington’s self-described rant, he talks of taking apart CNET and the politics between bloggers and the mainstream media. Me, I didn’t realize we as bloggers/online publishers/the non-mainstream media had politics between the mainstream media or that we were at war with them.

Perhaps I’ve been in my own protective little bubble. Of course, I’ve had irritation with the mainstream media. I’ve watched the Daily Telegraph twice lift quotes or factual information from my own stories without attribution, something I stopped short of doing a rant about (I might come back to it the next time the Daily Telegraph’s editor starts yapping again about Google as a content thief. Don’t get me going about how the DT thinks it can just help itself to Facebook photographs, either). I’ve read mainstream media articles about search that I’ve found stunningly inaccurate, which in turn make me wonder why I trust anything else I read by them. I’ve seen them come late to stories, and I’ve long-since given up hope they’ll link to publications in the way that blogs commonly link to them.

Still, I’ve also commonly seen the mainstream media as the place doing that type of journalism I don’t find on blogs, those deep multi-source digs into a particular topic. For example:

These pieces are complementary to what I do. They help me do a better job with my flavor of reporting and analysis, my niche that the mainstream media doesn’t do. For me, I’m cheering these writers and often speaking with some of them on the phone for stories not in hopes of getting a quote (sure, it’s nice) but because I want to help, want to contribute and want to learn from the ultimate story that comes out.

I’m not saying that blogs can’t do this type of work. Indeed, I’m probably overlooking places like Salon and elsewhere that it’s already happening at. As a writer, I’ve been shamefully, woefully far too restricted in what I’ve been reading over the past few years. That’s starting to change as I find myself falling in love again with writing, the writing process and reading good writing of all types.

Yes, blogs can do this work, this type of heavy investigative lifting. But to date, I wouldn’t say that’s a key role they’ve fulfilled. My main point is that they do the opposite — they provide the commentary, analysis and perspective that the mainstream media often misses — not to mention they can break news faster, as well.

In Mike’s rant, he also got a lot into the idea that there’s a lot of linking politics between blogs, that the blogosphere is “a frontier town with no lawman.” Maybe in his world. In my search world, not so.

If Philipp over at Google Blogoscoped has a nice look at some topic about Google, more power to him. I’ll happily point at him and figure that’s one less topics I need to dive deep on. The same is true if John Battelle has something, Search Engine Guide does, SEOmoz does, Marketing Pilgrim does, Search Engine Journal does, Online Marketing Blog does or even the publication I compete with the most, Search Engine Watch. Naturally, I want Search Engine Land — my own publication — to have the best content, the greatest stories and the hottest scoops. But no one publication does it all, and at least within the search blogosphere, I think the various publications have all had excellent relations linking to each other and crediting each other. I think to some degree we all understand that we can complement each other even if we also compete.

I’ll end with two articles from writers I respect and who have come from the mainstream media:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Blog: Goodbye Dead Trees! is from Kara Swisher earlier this year. I loved this part:

First, after almost eight months of daily blogging for this site, I think it is safe to say that I will probably never write another thing professionally for a print publication and will spend the rest of my career-such that it will be-publishing online only.

Sing it sister, or more perhaps more appropriately, welcome to the choir. I went through this back in 1997, and it’s been nice to see more and more of the journalists from the mainstream space jump into online. Honestly, the more the merrier.

What I’ve Learned as a Blogger for The New York Times is from Saul Hansell of the New York Times, another writer I greatly respect and who I also saw yesterday after talking with Ken. We also talked a bit about how blogs and the mainstream media are intersecting and the positives that are emerging because of that. I especially liked in his piece how he’s been finding that blogs indeed can be part of a conversation or extend traditional stories in other ways.

To conclude, I don’t feel we have to have blog-on-blog violence, much less blog-on-mainstream media violence. Yes, we can all get along, and I think we make ourselves stronger in our diversity and in understanding that collectively, we make a better whole.