Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Blogs as journalism: what standards?

Some friends and I were having a conversation recently that seems reasonable to report on here.

A friend sent to some others of us a link to a technology column, and I, unimpressed with the column’s author, responded with some strong criticism:

Given that he’s being paid to write, it’s a pity he doesn’t write better: he misspells, he doesn’t use commas correctly, he gets subject/verb agreement and number agreement wrong, and he has awful, run-on sentences that are so convoluted even the writer can’t get the ending right. And that’s just in one article.

The sender’s response to that was that hey, it’s a blog, not the New York Times, implying that “blogs” shouldn’t be held to standards as high as those we’d hold the Times to. To which another correspondent said, “That’s one of my bigger complaints about blogs. A lot of bloggers are in dire need of an editor, not merely an author.”

The conversation finished with the sender’s noting that some blogs are “rougher hewn,” and that that’s OK, “as long as reader expectations are set and met consistently.” But there’s the thing: there are all different kinds of blogs, all different kinds of readers, and all different kinds of expectations.

There are individual blogs like this one. No pay, no pretense to journalism. Widely varying quality of writing, and the people who read them know what to expect from the ones they read. I try to maintain good writing standards, and I think I usually succeed. But it’s not something one expects when one stumbles onto a blog like this.

There are group blogs that work pretty much as individual blogs, except that there are multiple contributors. They usually vary by contributor. There are also group blogs that are more formal, and some where contributors do get paid.

And then there are “blogs” like the Huffington Post, like the “technology blogs” (one of which started this discussion), and like the blogs that are actually part of the New York Times. These are labelled as “blogs”, but they certainly aspire to “journalism”. Some are simply less-formal, less-edited columns written by actual journalists, who otherwise write formal, edited pieces for the same outlets. David Pogue, for instance, has technology columns in the Times, as well as a blog there.

Should we be applying different standards to Mr Pogue, say, depending upon whether we read his comments on www.nytimes.com or on blogs.nytimes.com ?

And back to the author in question, who is associated with a major techno-journalism outlet: is it OK for him to write badly because he has an established readership, and his readers accept it?

Ultimately, everyone’s job is to make one’s boss happy. If the people who are paying the guy are pleased, then who am I to say? And, yet, it bothers me. It bothers me that people are being paid to write, and they write badly. It bothers me to know that there are good writers out there who can’t get work, and, yet, bad writers are... making their bosses happy. It bothers me that standards of writing and of journalism are deteriorating.

It bothers me that standards seem now to be driven by what readers will tolerate, rather than by what they deserve from paid professionals.


Sue VanHattum said...

I'm with you. I don't get paid, and don't expect to, but I hold myself to high standards. And I don't generally bother with blogs that are badly written. Seems doubly insulting that someone would write sloppily and then get paid for it.

Ross Patterson said...

I always think of this blog as "Barry's diary", and my expectations are set accordingly. When and if this becomes staringatemptypages.nytimes.com, my expectations will go up dramatically. That isn't to say that Barry isn't up to meeting them, but when The Grey Lady hosts your blog, you're not just Some Random Guy On The Internet, you're a Journalist.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I agree with Ross.

missincognegro said...

Thought-provoking and insightful post, Barry.

I agree with you: the venue and motivation for writing and the degree of standards are directly correlated. I expect that blogs written and maintained by journalists are going to reflect the standards of journalistic writing.

I also have somewhat higher expectations of bloggers who are not journalists, but who get paid or who seek to get paid for their writing.

Which brings me to the topic of the blog, The Root. It is an online news magazine, and is part of WashingtonPost Newsweek Interactive. It is the brainchild of the famous, or infamous, Dr. Henry Louis Gates. I read a shabbily-written post there about a month ago. A blog which considers itself an online magazine, and does not hold itself and its writers to even a basic standard re: spelling, grammar and mechanics, is unacceptable to me. I have no personal axe to grind with The Root, but, this is something I have noted on one of the few occasions I do visit and read there.

Of course, I do, appreciate the high standards you apply to your blog and to your writing, Barry, even if you don't do it for pay. It's refreshing when regular, everyday people maintain high personal standards.

Katie said...

I agree with you all. I have stopped reading certain blogs because I don't want to waste my time re-reading and re-reading a sentence or paragraph just to understand what the writer meant.