Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dilettante journalism and a philosophy of blogging


On what was, coincidentally, the six-month anniversary of this blog, I had lunch last week with a professional journalist—in other words, someone who is actually paid to investigate and report. What I do as a blogger, it turns out, is not that different from what she does as a newspaper reporter, except that as an amateur journalist I do not get paid for my efforts.

Though we represent opposite sides of the old-media-versus-new-media divide, I discovered that among the things we share is a love of uncovering a story, a sense of purpose and accomplishment for doing what we do, and a common journalistic ethic. If it paid any money, I would be a newspaper reporter rather than a banker. Instead, I have found my calling as a part-time blogger—a dabbler in the business of communication.

Which isn’t to say, however, that as a blogger I don’t have standards. In adhering to a journalistic protocol, I am certainly not unique within the Seattle hyperlocal blogging community. Most of the neighborhood bloggers clearly take their jobs as journalists very seriously (even though some do cross the line into advocacy journalism from time to time). Hyperlocal blogging is really citizen journalism, after all, and the form is still evolving.

Not everyone believes that bloggers are professionals, however. In my half year “in the business” I’ve found that bloggers simply do not get the level of respect enjoyed by their broadcast and print-media counterparts. After introducing a newspaper-tax-break bill into the legislature this year, for example, House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, gave this quote to the blog TechFlash: “Anybody who’s blogging, God love ‘em, can say and do whatever they want, because they have no liability or responsibility for what they say, because they are not held to any standard, and they shouldn’t be—they’re just individuals editorializing, if you will.”

I take exception to that description. Bloggers do have a responsibility to the readers they serve and, as been pointed out by the one of the founders of the West Seattle Blog, we are no more (and certainly no less) licensed or certified to produce content than any newspaper is. Bloggers will be successful only so long as there are readers who believe we are credible.

Journalists are supposed to live up to certain standards of journalism, and I think a similar code of “professional” conduct is required of bloggers. Here are the elements of my own personal blogging code:

1. Be fair and accurate
2. Separate reporting from editorializing
3. Give attribution and provide hyperlinks to sources
4. Avoid conflicts of interest
5. Correct and note errors

Perhaps there are other necessary standards for this blog, the need for which will later become obvious; but I think this is a good start.

There’s one last point to make, and that involves philosophy. I started thinking about this during the summer after getting an email from one of my loyal readers whose story idea I had rejected. He graciously accepted my rationale for not following up on his suggested posting and ended by stating: “It is always a good idea to have an operating philosophy.” I agree, so I am going to spell mine out.

First of all, this is a blog about Madison Park, the geographic definition of which can be found in the lower portion of the right column. Stories that are about events, places, or people who live in the Park are fit subjects for this blog. Stories of broader interest that have some special impact on the Park or the people in it are also grist for this blog mill (an example of this might be the upcoming SR-520 expansion).

I make the assumption, however, that all of my readers have easy access to other media and regularly consult these sources for information on “macro issues” such as political and economic conditions in the wide world outside the Park. Thus I do not feel the need to cover the mayor’s race on this blog (unless there is some campaign issue that uniquely relates to the Park), or talk about Referendum 71.

The reason this blog exists (i.e. “why I blog”) is that there is no timely and effective alternative method for communicating information about the Park to the people who live here. And until there is, it’s my goal to keep MPB readers informed about what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and even what should be happening in Madison Park.

That’s my operating philosophy.

[I was made aware of Rep. Kessler's comments by reading the blog of MyBallard's founder, Cory Bergman, as quoted on The graphic, Blogito ergo sum (I blog, therefore I am), was created on Flickr.]

1 comment:

  1. Bryan,

    Congratulations on your six month anniversary for OUR neighborhood blog. Your soul searching in regard to the credibility of the Madison Park Blog was understandable but unnecessary. Since you introduced your blog to the neighborhood we have been informed of issues, events and funny stuff of which we never would known.

    What you are doing is filling a niche that the main stream media is ignoring. Whether it's because they have lost the resources to cover the neighborhoods or don't care what is happening to real people on real streets, in real homes is debatable. What you do along with the West Seattle blogger and other neighborhood bloggers should have already been a regular section in the Times along with their terrific coverage of tigers in the zoo and Oprah's TV doctor. The simple fact is that local media is not getting it done for the average person.

    Your comment re "advocacy journalism" was "right on" especially when we are already getting a majority of one political opinion on the Times' editorial page. Also don't worry about politician's marginalizing you with comments about your credibility especially when you look at the effectiveness of those same politicians in our local and state governments and the condition our finances are in.

    The local media would never admit it but the common sense ideas and comments are from real people in the "Letters to the Editors" section of the paper. i.e. A recent letter that chided the two mayoral candidates for not endorsing the obvious third option for the viaduct: RETROFITTING instead of the wildly expensive TUNNEL option or the totally impractical DEMOLITION option.

    The standards to which you adhere, along with your wry sense of humor give you enormous credibility in the neighborhood and give your readers information they normally would not have. You are not a dabbler but are someone who has an important hobby which you take very seriously.


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