The blogosphere’s delusions of grandeur

Remember when bloggers uncovered evidence that Reserve Bank of Australia subsidiary Securency was using money-laundering techniques to channel suspected bribe money to a company in the Seychelles? Me neither. Journalists at the Age and the ABC broke that story. Investigative journalism takes time, persistence and hard work so it’s no surprise almost all of it is done by professional journalists. Yet I’m constantly reading comments like this:

If you didn’t know already, the task of serious investigative political journalism is being undertaken by a dedicated cohort of political bloggers, such as Grogs Gamut, Larvatus Prodeo, The Political Sword, and others. They are not paid and do it for the love of it, hence they are also not subject to the whims of a proprietor. You’ll get more analysis of policies here than in a month of Sundays in the local rags or TV stations.

There’s some great stuff on Australian blogs, but it’s hardly a replacement for the work of professional journalists. Writing in your pajamas after work might keep you out of reach of the truth-throttling tentacles of teh evil Rupert Murdoch, but it doesn’t leave much time to phone your sources, search public records or crunch numbers.

Of course there’s always the ‘conceptual scoop‘ — catching readers’ attention with a sharp piece of analysis that makes sense of facts everybody already knows. But much of the blogosphere’s political analysis is conceptually derivative. For example, Hillbilly Skeleton’s insightful piece on issue framing for The Political Sword turned out to be a cut and paste from George Lakoff’s 2004 manifesto (as Alex White pointed out).

It’s true that Australian political journalism could be a lot better. Not long ago blogger Matt Cowgill used ABS statistics to show how silly some of News Limited’s budget coverage was. No doubt there’ll be more of this kind of thing. But before bloggers and their readers declare victory in their imagined war against journalists, maybe it’s time to stop and think. Why do so many people still pay to read journalism but ignore blogs even when they’re free?

Update: Alex White disagrees:

In my view, many more people are reading blogs – and many successful blogs from around the world have become “mainstream”, incorporated into a major newspaper (the Guardian, New York Times and even The Australian has done this). So, Arthur’s question is mis-concieved.

35 thoughts on “The blogosphere’s delusions of grandeur

  1. A lot of my favourite bloggers write about issues that are too specialised for a general newspaper audience.

    For example, I, fascinated by Lane Kenworthy’s data-driven posts on poverty and inequality. But I’m sure most newspaper readers would rather read a story about how tough it is for Mr and Mrs X to pay their mortgage than look at a bunch of graphs and tables.

  2. Don,

    You need to distinguish between fact-finding and policy analysis. On the latter, newspapers are generally pretty hopeless and many blogs are very good. It is about time and expertise. Bloggers have more time and more specialist expertise. Newspapers cannot hope to compete in this area.

    Fact-finding requires contacts and resources: in these areas, newspapers have a strong competitive advantage. For now.

  3. Dave – I agree that there are bloggers with expertise in particular issues. Not many journalists would be able to compete with John Quiggin on behavioural economics or Peter Whiteford on international social security policy.

    I think one of the things blogging does well is connect experts to an informed audience without generalist journalists getting in the way.

  4. Why do so many people still pay to read journalism but ignore blogs even when they’re free?

    Aggregated news. Most newspaper readers in physical form today are older readers that wouldn’t have a clue what a blog is and isn’t interested in analysis but only tabloid headlines and to steal a phrase “kitchen table economics”.

    The rest is for those with an interest in stuff beyond their nose.

  5. Delusions of Grandeur indeed.

    One of my ‘pet peeves’ is the claim that the blogosphere is ‘The Fifth Estate’ and that ‘only we in the fifth estate can keep the bar stewards honest’.

    The blogosphere is very mauch part of the fourth estate. When looked at from one angle the writers of blog posts are very much like the pamphleteers of the 1800′s. Those of us that comment on these ‘pamphlets’ are really only writing letters to the editor.

    The main difference is that it is all very instantaneous which has benefits and drawbacks.

    It is obvious when reading some comments many people ‘send and (maybe) think about what they have written afterwards’.

    Still, I enjoy getting somewhere close to having my ’15 gigabytes of fame’ stored somewhere out there in the ether.

  6. Your correct that an amateur blogger cannot necessarily compete with a good professional journalist – the problem is that good professional journalism is hard to find.

    As an avid follower of the grand climate change saga I find that most journalists nowadays are simply copy and pasting from blogs. It is rare to see the big newspapers come out with information or analysis blog-readers didn’t already read two months ago. Whether it be RealClimate, Deep Climate, Climate Audit or Deltoid, blogs are where the action is at.

  7. Notably, that self-congratulatory comment comes from a rather left-wing source, see further the brilliant update to the DailyKos take on pundit accuracy linked to on Nick’s last post.

    But US blogs seem to have a better track record, for example they detected the fake Dan Rather memos rather quicker than any newspaper (that being the example that most sticks in my mind). Blogs also seem to have found out rather more about Obama than any newspapers (but less about Palin – newspapers seem to have found out nearly everything there could be to know about her!).

    Maybe those examples just reflect my reading tendencies, I’m sure that leftwing blogs have had similar successes which have simply failed to pierce my epistemic cloture (although, again, the conclusion to the linked DailyKos piece may suggest otherwise).

  8. The investigative journalism you write about is almost non existent and geting rarer. Most journos, overwhelmingly most journos are competing with bloggers in their territory – and losing.

    Yes generally journos are the only ones who can do investigative stuff. It’s just that they’re not doing very much of it.

  9. Interesting sequel to all this broadsheet/tabloid stuff, freedom of the press and censorship. A report offered me from a FB friend, Selim Gool of South Africa, provides a link from “Znet” describing the banning of John Pilgers film and visit to the US for the film’s premiere, yesterday.
    Will check to see if our intrepid “without fear of favour “types oat mam are runninganything on it yet, but in themean time, how far have we slipped when we are lucky to find out this sort of thing from a source outside country.

  10. Glen Milne and Nikki Savva, or LP, WD, Troppo, Quiggin etc? Puhlease!!

    George Megalogenis, Laura Tingle and Ross Gittins or … ?

  11. Paul – I found about Pilger’s misfortunes from you!

    Just so everyone knows what we’re talking about …

    Pilger is an investigative journalist. His latest film, The War You Don’t See has been screened in Australia on SBS TV.

    A private non-profit, the Lannan Foundation, invited Pilger to speak at an event in Santa Fe New Mexico and supported the local launch of his film. But with just days to go, the Lannan Foundation cancelled Pilger’s events.

    The open letter on Znet that Paul refers to is: Pilger Film and US Visit Banned.

    The incident was covered by a local newspaper in Santa Fe: Lannan Foundation cancels on controversial speaker.

  12. Yes- I enjoyed reading about it in the local press, rather than finding out about it from a FB South African friend.
    Did You?

  13. Paul – Pilger doesn’t seem to get much attention in the Australian media.

    The last time I read something he’d written it was in the Guardian.

  14. Thanks Don. I needed to know that responsible Australian journals (tele, hun) weren’t deteriorating the comic book level of the Grauniad.

  15. I’m not sure anyone – other than defensive MSM commentators – are claiming that amateur bloggers can rival the work of professional investigative journalists.

    They are different things. The best blogs offer analysis and perspective from experts whose commentary might formerly have been filtered through a general journo as intermediary.

    So the comparison is not between patient and expensive investigative journalism (which is rare these days anyway) and the apocraphyl “blogger in pyjamas” but between half-arsed, written on deadline, cut-and-paste “analysis” in the MSM and informed, insightful blogging, of which Club Troppo is a prime example.

    Incidentally, I was a professional journalist for 26 years. I’m now an amateur blogger. They’re different things. Both good when done well!

  16. I’m certainly glad that the ‘hun’ and ‘tele’ don’t stoop to the grauniad’s comic book anti-semitism!

  17. Don @11,

    “George Megalogenis, Laura Tingle and Ross Gittins or … ?”

    Gittins et al stand out in relation to their peers, I agree. Which just confirms how poor newspapers are generally in this area. If they wrote in the blogosphere, I think they would be regarded as good but not exceptional.

  18. So you reckon the Lobby got him, do Patrick?
    Another idiot who cant tell the difference between anti zionism (virulent jingoism ) and the anti semitism of a bygone era..

  19. While journalism is still a profession, the commentary and opinion that has started to bulk out the majority of newspapers (especially The Age and Australian) is not of any higher quality than the average tertiary educated blogger.

    (Very few investigative journalists are left in Australia today.)

    In fact, as Liam Hogan tweeted today (http://twitter.com/#!/liamvhogan/status/79725941055700992) most journalists reporting and commenting on politics (especially the Canberra Press Gallery) have only ever been journalists. They have no life experience – in fact, most have even less than the average political apparatchik.

    Most bloggers on Larvatus Prodeo or elsewhere at least have a profession and life experience other than being a professional columnist.

    I’m no insider, but it is clear to me that most journalists have no better idea of how decisions are made in the ALP than the average blogger – except the journo gets their misconceptions and biases amplified to the extreme by Fairfax or News Ltd.

  20. Pingback: Does the blogosphere have “delusions of grandeur”? | AlexWhite.org

  21. Maybe some readers are misunderstanding what Don is saying (then again maybe I am).

    It may be useful to sketch out some rough media readership figures. Looking at Fairfax, the SMH paper version generates around 210,000 readers on weekdays and 340,000 on Saturdays. The Age is comparable. Their respective online versions have even higher readership numbers (after all they’re free).

    In aggregate, therefore, Fairfax has quite a long way over a million readers every day. Murdoch figures are no doubt even higher in aggregate because it operates in more cities.

    By comparison, Larvatus Prodeo, which I strongly suspect has the largest readership of the “private” (non MSM) political blogs, chugs along at around 10,000 per day. Now that’s quite respectable but more than two orders of magnitude lower than either major MSM player. The great majority of blogs have readerships very much smaller than that. No blog or combination of blogs comes within cooee of the clout and readership of either major private MSM group.

    Moreover, and especially given the difficulty of “monetising” online news and political media, the big MSM groups need to maintain that sort of audience reach/dominance in order to generate enough income to pay for the journalists, news feeds, distribution networks etc that allow all of us to enjoy the range of international and local news, politics, sport, business and specialist coverage that we all take for granted. No blog currently provides those services, and no blog or combination of blogs is likely to be able to do so in the foreseeable future.

    That isn’t to deny that some bloggers provide excellent specialist and general political analysis, sometimes better than MSM journalists. Don made that point in his primary post. But that in no sense denies the critical and even central role of the MSM in our democratic political culture. At its best the private blogosphere provides valuable choice, diversity and excellent specialist analysis that the MSM sometimes can’t match. But even then, at best the blogosphere has a symbiotic relationship with the MSM. It adds value but could not exist without the MSM whereas the opposite is not the case. Bloggers do not (except on very rare occasions) go out and find and report news or interview sources. The fact that the MSM has been forced to cut back its investigative journalism resources (due to difficulties in monetising their online offerings) isn’t really germane to the central point. Bloggers overwhelmingly find the news and basic reportage and analysis in the MSM and (in some cases – though rather less than some of the sillier blog boosters assert) add value by using their specialist knowledge and individual perspectives to interpret and analyse and provide insights that are sometimes unique . But if some version of the MSM did not exist, none of us would be able to find out enough coherent information about what was happening in the world to make sense of events and then add our own critical and analytical perspective to them (I fearlessly predict that some lamebrain will breathlessly cite Twitter’s supposed “newsbreaking” role in imagined rebuttal of this point).

    I repeat, bloggers simply could not exist without the MSM. We are an interesting and sometimes compelling but very small supplement (in terms of readership, visibility and influence) to the huge reach of the MSM, but that’s all we are and all we’re ever likely to be. The vast majority of citizens simply aren’t interested enough in politics, economics, legal affairs etc to be bothered searching further afield than the most basic MSM coverage and that is unlikely to change. Fortunately the niche audience of enthusiasts and well educated political observers, and the even smaller specialist audience for economics and legal blogging, are enough to generate worthwhile conversations and occasionally to have wider impacts.

  22. Ken, let’s compare apples with apples.

    The “readership” of the Herald Sun or The Age may be 1million + but most of that would be devoted to the sports pages or classified ads.

    So, let’s compare the biggest sports forums and blogs to the major papers. Let’s compare the biggest business blogs to the major papers’ business sections.

    Let’s compare the specific journalists’ stories (rather than aggregated figures for the paper as a whole – since we can do that for blogs) and compare them to LP or other major “private” blogs.

    Additionally, mainstream papers are declining in readership. The number eyeballs looking at blogs is increasing.

    Obviously blogs are reliant on the commentary and stories of professional journalists. This is like saying sports bloggers are reliant on professional sporting teams. Most blogs are commentary. The professional journalist-commentators are reliant on the work of their reporter colleagues.

    Ultimately, I’m not sure what the point of the original post (or your comment is). That MSM is still relevant? That blogs are irrelevant? That bloggers are parasites?

    As I said – the original question is mis-conceived.

  23. That MSM is still relevant? Not just relevant but centrally relevant and still the dominant news and commentary source for the overwhelming majority of Australians

    That blogs are irrelevant? Not irrelevant, but of fairly marginal relevance and certainly much less relevant than blog boosters (including you) seem to imagine

    That bloggers are parasites? Yes, in a very real sense the private blogosphere IS parasitic on the MSM. But the capacity to do so is created not by bloggers but by the open technology of the Internet whose impacts are overwhelmingly positive. Fortunately I think it’s fairly unlikely that the blogosphere will kill or even make a major dent in its MSM host. Once foldable epaper, full colour portable media readers with high speed connectivity become ubiquitous and cheap enough (iPads will soon be as old-fashioned as the Model T Ford was by the 1950s), the big MSM proprietors will be able largely to dispense with their expensive legacy print infrastructure and successfully monetise online content that is so compelling that most of us will happily pay for it on an appropriate charging model.

    The idea that the blogosphere somehow provides an even vaguely comparable or viable substitute will then be seen for the absurd conceit that it actually is. Now it may well be that people like you and Mr Denmore do not harbour this delusion, but it’s clearly implicit in a lot of the self-indulgent commentary that passes for analysis in much of the blogosphere at present as the MSM passes through a period of painful adjustment to technological change. At least on my reading that was Don’s point.

    Afterthought - My personal evaluation, from running a daily blog review service on and off for some years, is that the overwhelming majority of blog posts each day are dross and a waste of time to read. The same is true of some MSM analysis and punditry but the average standard is much higher. If you scan enough private blogs every day you can usually come up with roughly the same number of posts worth reading as there are worthwhile analysis and punditry pieces in the MSM (and the occasional one is truly outstanding and better than most of the MSM output). Quite a few of the readable blog posts and MSM articles, columns etc will be fairly predictable in their orientation if you’ve read the author for a while, but they’re worth reading just the same. The problem is that it takes a couple of hours each day to scan the blogosphere to find the gold among the dross, and very few members of the general Australian audience have the time or interest to invest in the task. The MSM’s quality control function (very imperfect though it may be) allows people to read a reasonable selection of fairly well-written and engaging opinion and analysis in (say) 20 minutes a day or thereabouts. If you imagine that any more than a tiny proportion of th total media audience accesses the pivate blogosphere more than very occasionally, you’re fooling yourself.

  24. I don’t argue that blogs are bigger or more relevant than the mainstream media.

    I certainly think (and argue) the “best” mainstream commentary is of less value overall than the “best” blog commentary.

    Most mainstream commentary about politics for example is tedious, biased echochamber nonsense from pundits with no other life experience than mooching around the Canberra Press Gallery.

    When it comes to reporting – mainstream media is no longer interested in seeking out stories. The reality is that most journalists are content (or not, but still required) to be drip fed most of their stories by PR firms, media releases and political spin doctors. Even the “good” journalists are hamstrung by the 24/7 media cycle and demands for more and more content (quantity over quality).

    If you are an arts journalist or a sports journalist, or a business journalist or a lifestyle journalist, you are competing with major (I mean major) independent websites and blogs.

    Blogs are parasitic because increasingly, PR firms are looking at blogs to give stories to. Especially non-political ones.

    Who do political journalists write for? An exceptionally small subsection of a dwindling readership. That readership is definitely not 1 million in size. Probably less than 100,000.

    So what does that mean for relevance?

    Main stream newspapers are relevant because they drive the nightly news reporting on Ch 7 and Ch 9. They are relevant because opinion leaders still rate them. As their readerships continue to dwindle, and the readerships of major blogs continue to grow, you’ll start to see a change like in the USA – where major Republican and Democratic blogs had significant readership amongst primary voters (and thus could motivate the base).

    As mainstream media readership dwindles in Australia and readership of blogs grows, the nightly news will look at other sources than just The Australian for its “political story”. We’re probably 5 years or more away from that – but as Fairfax and News Ltd start to paywall their websites, this will hasten the change.

    So, you’re right. Political blogs are largely irrelevant at the moment. That’s not saying much though – it’s a no-brainer.

  25. “As mainstream media readership dwindles in Australia and readership of blogs grows …”

    It’s certainly true that circulation figures for print versions of MSM newspapers have been falling, but not as fast in the last couple of years as some doomsayers were predicting. But conversely MSM online readership figures have been growing very strongly. The problem is that they’re finding it hard to monetise their content. To what extent some version of a “paywall” will work remains to be seen. I suspect they WILL succeed in monetisng content enough to maintain overall market dominance.

    I haven’t see any global figures on the size and growth trends of the non-MSM political blogosphere in Australia. However casual observation over the last few years of the readership figures of the group of blogs Graham Young was co-ordinating until recently (which included LP, Troppo, Catallaxy and several other blogs generally regarded as substantial by Australian standards) suggested that growth is modest. I strongly suspect that most of the growth in online media readership is actually being captured by online MSM outlets and not by the private blogosphere. I have no idea whether the pattern is similar in the US.

  26. Sorry Ken- I offered an example last night- but where are people to go for reliable info, when the system continues to deteriorate, as it palpably has?
    And why has so much of what used to be broadsheet journalism and commentary, gravitated to the blogs. When I read a good current affairs blog, I’m reading closest to what used to be the “broadsheet” reporting and interpretation of the Age, National Times, etc.
    i i read apoular daily I’m finished so quick sex would lasted longer. Yet online, stuff leapsout you that merits further investigation.
    You speak of Gittins, Horin, Davidson and co, but these are dwindling exceptions to the rule, what’s more.
    And what are the consequences of all the dumbing down?
    People who are so ill informed that they can’t tell the difference between and anti semitic and and anti zionist objections to the long term events in the Middle East, for example?

  27. One of the consistent problems with this discussion is that political journalism and journalism in general are often treated as if they are the same thing, rather than the former being a subset of the latter. It probably happens because the people engaged in this debate tend to be interested in politics.

    However, the truth is that in the journalism trade today political journalism is regarded as something of a dead-end career choice. While it may have been true in the past that a posting to Canberra was a prize, these days the strict hierarchy of the press gallery and the relentless media management make it a distinctly unappealing prospect.

    In other words, if you want to find journalism of the sort you’re apparently seeking, political coverage is the wrong place to be looking.

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  29. Blogs offer a chance – not a strong chance taken overall, but a chance nonetheless – that you might get an angle on what is happening to your economy, your society and your country than you can expect from the MSM.

    The difference between bloggers and journalists is that bloggers have no excuse for not snapping out of groupthink, or ignoring parallels with relatively recent history. Journalists have peers and mentors who insist on groupthink and who shun research, delving back into history, or seeking input from other than a narrow range of sources. There are bloggers who do all that too, but they are subject to derision and many can and do change, while the journosphere has a culture of ignoring and deriding feedback to the point where experienced journalists take umbrage at the idea that their audience might judge and find them wanting.

    Show me a blogger that lives in high dudgeon and I’ll show you a journalist who has been forced to open their Work to blogging with all the generosity of spirit one would expect from a starchy Victorian wowser confronted with jitterbugging. Bloggers do not have that cultural insulation from their audience, an insulation as toxic as asbestos fibre to those snug within it.

  30. Don Arthur! Are you still here? After your fifteen minutes of fame (…well… being interviewed on Counterpoint…) with “Post Materialism” and “Prius Rage” and then reluctantly having to admit it was something you just made up, I would have thought you would have crawled off and died of embarrassment.

    But no. While reading an intelligent and thoughtful blog I see a disparaging reference to you. I ask myself “Don Arthur… where have I heard that name?…”. Then it all comes back to me. The dodgy assertions posing as research, the caricatures dressed up as anthropological field work… With bated breath I follow the link and what do I find? I find that these days instead of making stuff up, you recycle stuff others have made up. How very PoMa of you.

    The fallacy of comparing political commentary with criminal investigations has already been pointed out so I’ll leave it at that. But I’ll just express my complete agreement that after “PoMa” and “PriRa”, this blog is the best example of delusional grandeur I’ve seen in a long time.

  31. The dodgy assertions posing as research, the caricatures dressed up as anthropological field work.

    Heh.

    Don Arthur: the Margaret Mead of Ozblogistan.

  32. The dodgy assertions posing as research, the caricatures dressed up as anthropological field work

    Galaca – As I think you know, I wrote the PoMas post as a bit of social commentary in the vein of David Brooks book Bobos in Paradise.

    I’ve never been at all reluctant about explaining where the post came from. For example, in a follow up post I wrote: “I haven’t been jetting around the country conducting focus groups or commissioning market research surveys to test out my ideas.”

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