Saturday, April 28, 2007

Objectivity and Quality

A few months ago I attended an interesting seminar sponsored by the Chicago Council for Global Affairs by reporters talking about the future of newspapers in the era of the web and bloggers. I asked the reporters how they would complete with bloggers on specific topics where the bloggers have more in depth knowledge than they do as “generalist” reporters. In the context of this blog, for example, there are many topics that we have far more insight than a “typical” reporter would have, because the three of us have decades of knowledge on the topics that we write about (a narrow set of topics).

Their answer, after a bit of fumbling, was basically that, as a reader, no one knew where we were coming from and if our opinion was “neutral” or if we represented other, non-objective interests. There is clearly some truth to this opinion across the Internet as a whole, and a reasonable level of paranoia is appropriate when surfing the web of unknown sources and blogs. This is a reason, among many others, why we don’t accept advertising on the web site, as well – we don’t want to appear to be shilling for anyone (read it on the masthead).

When I was out of town recently I read this article about the Philadelphia Enquirer where their articles were going to be sponsored by a local bank. I had a hearty laugh when I thought about how the “guardians of journalistic integrity” would weigh this type of arrangement. The paper is blatantly saying that they are being sponsored by this bank; would their opinion now be “neutral” (see above) on topics of interest to the bank?

While this is an easy punch from my perspective, on the other hand, the Philadelphia Enquirer is only making explicit what is implicit in other newsrooms. Newspapers are loathe to anger their largest advertisers and think long and hard before running articles likely to make them upset. General Motors pulled advertising from the Los Angeles Times after one of their writers called for the resignation of the CEO of GM. Given that about ½ the damn paper represents auto ads and that GM has to chronically advertise their vehicles in order to push them off the lots with various specials, this was not something to take lightly.

On another related topic, when I was staying at a smaller city in Florida they put the local paper under the door. Feeling a bit under the weather I sat down to read it and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing and articles. It turned out that there were just a couple of local writers and everything else came across the AP Wire. Due to the fact that they weren’t even trying to build their own content, I found the paper to be very interesting.

On this blog we try to only talk about topics where we can add some insight and illumination based on our experience. We don’t cover topics that are beaten to death elsewhere unless there is something new to add, and stay away from even keywords that will “summon the trolls” to this site.

Newspapers should use that same “rule of thumb” – either put out stories that are substantive or local in content, or just go with the best content available on the AP Wire. The AP Wire sets a pretty high bar, so this isn’t a level of quality you’d hit unless you were dedicated and invested substantial resources to this goal.

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