Last week, I covered the arrest of three independent journalists in Jones County, Mississippi, who appear to have been scooped up for the non-crime of photographing police during a traffic stop. The first "old media" story on the arrests appeared today, in the Laurel Leader-Call. In related news, over the weekend, the Christian Science Monitor reported that bloggers "outnumbered national reporters by a good margin" in the press box at the National Rifle Association convention in Phoenix, Arizona. Even as fans of ink-stained fingers and bloated, institutional journalism bemoan the rise of individualistic and often partisan new media journalists, the old pros they defend barely seem to be making the effort -- and when they do get off their duffs, they often do a poor job.
I was hardly the first online outlet to cover the arrest of the Motorhome Diaries trio of libertarian journalists. That honor falls to one of the arrestees -- Jason Talley -- who reported the incident via Twitter even as the handcuffs headed in his direction and just moments before he was pepper-sprayed.
Free Keene, a New Hampshire-based online publication, had the story soon thereafter, spurred on by Talley's tweets, and with more information gathered by direct contact with the Jones County authorities. Many others followed -- so many, that by the time I did a follow up story the day after the arrests, the Jones County jail was referring phone inquiries about the case to the sheriff's department, and the sheriff's department was sending them back to the jail. It was a crude circle-the-wagons strategy by overwhelmed local officials.
By this time the closest thing to old media coverage of the arrests were reports in my Examiner column, Reason's Website, and the Western Standard (an online-only Webzine descended from a Canadian conservative magazine).
The old media arrived on the case this morning, five days after the arrests, with a poorly written story in the the Laurel Leader-Call, which covers Jones County, Mississippi. That report was apparently based entirely on a brief interview with the local sheriff and a glance at the Motorhome Diaries Website. It essentially transcribed the sheriff's dubious claim that the whole unpleasantness could have been avoided if these fellows had just produced indentification. (And what about the photography dispute again?) And don't you know, the arrestees had "an agenda"?
Yet the new media, we are assured by defenders of the old guard, exists merely to suck the life's blood from the professionals who do all the hard work. "Bloggery is forming itself into big, institutionalised aggregators such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, and remains utterly parasitic on the mainstream media it affects to despise," Bryan Appleyard of the Times of London assures us.
"Parasitic?" How then to explain the thick ranks of bloggers discovered by the Christian Science Monitor at the NRA convention in Phoenix? And what about the hundreds of bloggers credentialed last summer at the Republican and Democratic conventions?
Said the Monitor, the large new media presence at the NRA gathering "presents a stunning affirmation of the rise of a mix of both partisan and fiercely independent and sometimes downright cranky 'New Media,' marking its growing power to not only cover breaking news, but set the tone for political policy — and, in the case of Second Amendment rights, even the direction of the NRA itself."
If these new-media types don't always produce prose for the ages, they are at least capable of showing up to do original reporting. And, really, it's not that hard to exceed the standard set by the Leader-Call.
If new media journalists vary as much in quality as their old-media competitors, they do have two advantages: immediacy and enthusiasm. It's virtually impossible to beat the speed with which Jason Talley's initial tweets from the scene were picked up, expanded upon and developed into stories. It's also impossible to beat the brief blog posts, some time-stamped just a minute apart, from the floor of the various national gatherings that have credentialed bloggers. Yes, that's hardly time for talking heads to analyze events and tell the public what they ought to think about what's going on, but it's raw information that seems to resonate with a wide audience.
As for enthusiasm ... The bloggers on the floor of the party gatherings and the NRA conventions, and the bloggers and independent journalists who covered the Jones County arrests, are almost all partisans. Bloggers at the NRA convention are overwhelmingly gun enthusiasts, passionate about the right to bear arms and willing to dig deep into any perceived threat to the same. Likewise for the liberal bloggers at the DNC and their conservative counterparts at the GOP convention. The bloggers and assorted journalists who built on Talley's initial tweets and overwhelmed the Jones County authorities are almost all libertarians or fellow travelers who see their news coverage as an exercise in activism meant to energize an audience and make converts.
As the Monitor reported from Phoenix, "just as lefty bloggers got the word out about the promise of Barack Obama during last year’s election, the rightosphere is pulling out its big guns, too. And in few places is the keyboard jockey scene as fast-growing or as influential as the world of firearms and Second Amendment rights."
New media isn't drawing ahead of the old form because of parasitism or favorable copyright laws (an eye-roll-inducing argument published in the Washington Post). It's succeeding because technology gives it the advantage of immediacy and because of the passion that comes with partisanship.
Yes, I know -- the media is supposed to be "objective." But that's a recent, peculiarly North American conceit that doesn't seem to satisfy anybody. How many debates have you participated in about the ideological leanings of supposedly "objective" news organizations?
It wasn't always this way. Newspapers in this country used to wear their leanings on their sleeves. The Quincy Herald-Whig, of Quincy, Illinois, is a newspaper old enough to boast its affiliation with a political party that disappeared 150 years ago.
That's still the case in most countries. When World Press-Review compiles news coverage from around the world, it usually includes the political leanings of the source. That means the Mail & Guardian of Johannesburg gets labeled "liberal," the Globe and Mail of Toronto, "centrist," and the Chosun Ilbo of Seoul, "conservative."
So it's possible for a news source to be reasonably credible without pretending to be devoid of prejudice. And those prejudices can be important, because they form a connection to an audience on a range of values and beliefs that lie at the core of many people's world view. Journalists who share their audience's values are likely to share their opinion of which stories are worth covering -- and to appeal to that audience with such coverage.
Yes, that means partisan media outlets give up the idea of appealing to everybody. But "objective" operations that lose readership with each passing year have given up that aspiration anyway.
This isn't to say that old media has nothing to offer. Editorial standards and fact-checking practices were long in the making and are worth preserving. But the once-lively newspapers that developed those professional benchmarks have devolved into bloated, slow institutions that hemorrhage audience to more-nimble, more-partisan competitors.
And they are, sometimes, just a tad parasitic themselves (just ask Maureen Dowd).
Interestingly, the old media isn't necessarily doomed -- if it adapts to the new environment. The Christian Science Monitor, which reported on the blogger presence in Phoenix, was once a daily newspaper that now publishes almost exclusively on the Web.
Labels: media circus