Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Case Study in Blogging vs. Traditional Journalism

One reason I haven’t posted anything here in a while is because I’ve been working on a series of three long articles for Weber County Forum, about Ogden’s Junction development. This personal blog was never intended as a substitute for WCF, and most of my writing on local politics will continue to go over there.

But I’d like to comment here on how this episode illustrates the tense-yet-fruitful relationship between blogs and the traditional media. In Ogden the situation is extra simple, because the town has only one daily newspaper (the Standard-Examiner) and only one active political blog (Weber County Forum).

This particular story started as a rumor that I heard about a Taxing Entity Committee meeting that was held on June 25. I could have simply passed this rumor on to a reporter at the S-E, but I’ve learned through experience that they follow up on such things less than half the time. So I got a copy of the meeting minutes from the city recorder and forwarded them to blogmeister RudiZink, who broke the story on WCF on July 14.

During the ensuing discussion in the comment thread under that story, I got curious enough to look up some tax information on the county’s web site. That information made me even more curious.

The S-E finally printed its own story on July 19, and by then I was hooked. So I contacted several city and county officials over the next two weeks, asking question after question until I was satisfied with the answers. My three long-winded articles describe what I learned.

Meanwhile, the S-E has chimed in with three articles of its own that complement mine nicely, taking a closer look at the progress toward finally opening the Earnshaw building, the status of the Junction apartment leases, and the city’s continuing hopes to lure a hotel developer.

So how do the roles of the traditional news source (S-E) and the blog (WCF) differ? In this case, the S-E did a much better job of finding and quoting multiple authorities with different perspectives on the issue. On the other hand, WCF focused on hard evidence (meeting minutes and tax records), in-depth analysis (with tables and graphs), and connecting the dots together. The S-E articles were mostly up-beat, with hopeful promises for the future. WCF documented the broken promises of the past.

In many respects these roles were typical. The S-E hardly ever looks at actual documents or does any arithmetic or produces an original graph or even reminds readers of what was said in its own articles a year or two ago. And WCF hardly ever seeks out a diversity of viewpoints.

In one respect, though, this episode wasn’t typical. Usually the S-E will break a news story, and WCF will follow-up with detailed analysis and commentary. In this case WCF is way out ahead, and the S-E is playing catch-up.

No matter what your opinion of the newspaper and the blog, it’s clear that this city needs both.

Update, 20 August 2009:  The Standard-Examiner has continued its coverage of the Junction financial situation with an especially sloppy article that is misleading in several ways and omits some key information. My comment under the article points out several of its shortcomings.


  1. No argument about the differening roles played by and the need for both. What I find sad, though, is that the kind of digging, fact checking, comparing and contrasting present statments with past ones, and numbers crunching you [rightly] say is in Ogden the province of WCF used to be found in good muck-raking urban dailies. They used to consider it a key part of their business, every damn day, to question officeholders and to try to either corroborate or debunk what appeared in their press releases and public statements. It's what newspapers, the good ones anyway, did, day in and day out. It's not anymore.

  2. Curm: I wonder if the newspapers don't sometimes figure the bloggers will pick up the slack in that department, so it's something they can cut without doing much harm.

    I'll have more to say later on the lack of competent quantitative analysis in (most) newspapers.

  3. If we graduate journalism students who don't understand math and its uses and who also aren't critical thinkers it is hardly likely that they will spontaneously develop those skills in the workplace.
    cj (anonymous was my only useable choice)

  4. cj--And the problem, obviously, is that journalism students rarely take courses in physics!

    Seriously, as a professional educator I'm constantly asking myself what I can do to improve the numeracy and critical thinking skills of all my students. This is also something I hope to write about in future posts on this blog.

  5. Dan:

    You wonder whether the dailies figure this sort of thing is something the blogs will pick up so the papers can give it a pass "without doing much harm." Without doing much harm to who? The general public? I don't think so, since the papers generally have wider readerships than the blogs, and reach more people day in and day out [certain mega blogs excepted]. And that attitude --- "let the blogs do it" --- if it exists, certainly harms the papers themselves. If I were publishing a paper, or editing one, I wouldn't be happy that readers --- my readers --- were getting into the habit of going to a blog to read about Sen. Blusterbottom being caught in a bald-faced lie, or about a gaping hole in the city's revenues. I'd damn well want readers --- my readers --- to expect my paper to bring that sort of news to them, and to do it first.

  6. Curm: Good point, but couldn't a newspaper publisher reason as follows: Let the bloggers do the research and analysis, and publish it to their niche audiences. Then if we think it's sufficiently newsworthy and of interest to the general public, we can always follow-up with our own story.

    When the better national papers use information that came from a blog, they give the blog credit. This now happens quite a bit when bloggers expose some previously hidden fact, and occasionally when bloggers do some careful analysis (e.g., Nate Silver of 538).

    Here in Ogden, the S-E has never (to my knowledge) given credit to Weber County Forum as the source of a news story. The closest they came was with the secret gondola study records that I obtained from the city two years ago, and even there they acknowledged WCF only by publishing a link to the documents (on wcfgoldmine). But it's clear that they often rely on WCF for news tips. Then they make their own story different enough to avoid plagiarism, and most of their readers never know that the news has already appeared on WCF.

  7. Dan:

    You ask: "but couldn't a newspaper publisher reason as follows: Let the bloggers do the research and analysis, and publish it to their niche audiences. Then if we think it's sufficiently newsworthy and of interest to the general public, we can always follow-up with our own story."

    Well, yes, if I as publisher was content to have Curmdgeon's Daily Post-Intelligencer And Price Current often a day late and a dollar short breaking important local news. [PS: I wouldn't be.]

    As for the giving credit matter: my experience with newspaper editors is that they hate little more than having to give a rival credit for breaking news. Just flat ruins their day. The formula that often used to be used when they absolutely had to do it [e.g. the story was about something in the paper's home city, but was broken by an out of town paper --- a really bad day --- ] was to lead with something like this: "The Alexandria Town Talk reported yesterday in a copyrighted story that...." Copyright seemed to be what forced acknowledging the paper that broke the story.

    Blog posts are not as a rule copyrighted, and since so much that's on so many blogs consists of stuff that originated elsewhere bloggers, as a rule, oppose restricting the... well, "borrowing"... in any way.

  8. Curm: Most stories, especially of the sort where investigative journalism comes into play, aren't so urgent that a delay of a day or five will make much difference. And most readers won't even be aware that the story appeared elsewhere first.

    I don't know much about journalists' rules for acknowledging articles written by other journalists, but I do know something about copyright law. Whenever an article is put into "final form" (interpreted very broadly to permit later revision), it is automatically copyrighted and its owner has a right to sue anyone who then misuses it. So legally, blog articles are just as subject to copyright as newspaper articles. In any case, merely borrowing information from someone else's article is never enough to encroach on its owner's legal rights, so there's no legal need for that practice of attributing information to "a copyright story" published elsewhere. (Copyright doesn't apply to ideas--it applies only to the specific expression of those ideas in words or some other perceptible form.)

  9. Dan:

    Not current on copyright law. Merely noting the formula usually used where I used to live when one of the two local papers had to acknowledge that a story appeared first in the other or in an out of town paper.

    Copyright may not apply to ideas [more the realm of patents I'd imagine], but I wonder if "idea" is, legally, a synonym for "information"? If for example newspaper A broke a story based on its own research [investigative reporting that turned up a crime, say], and paper B printed a re-written story based entirely upon the reporting in paper A, without attribution, was copyright violated? Seems to me a good case could be made that it had been.

    And much that appears on blogs does involve reproducing verbatim large chunks of work [I've seen whole articles reproduced, or very nearly so] that appeared elsewhere. This gets us into the "fair use" matter.

    Thought about that a lot starting about a year and a half ago. If I'm going to blog comment on a story, an editorial or a column, it's necessary [and more fair] to quote exactly what was said that I'm commenting on [often unfavorably]. But no more than absolutely necessary to make the comment intelligible.

    I try to be especially careful not to quote huge chunks of columns not available free on line, since the writers make their living selling their work [think Mr. Trentelman's "Wasatch Rambler" columns.] I'm more comfortable reproducing large segments [for comment] of editorials and straight news stories since one of the reasons we have the first amendment and press protections is to foster public discussion. But it's a continually sliding scale [how much to quote without crossing the line] I have to keep in mind, and keep adjusting. At least it is for me. Lots of gray area in there.

  10. Curm:

    Perhaps I should qualify what I say about copyright law with a disclaimer that I'm not a lawyer and there may very well be aspects of the law of which I'm ignorant.

    However, I've never heard that copyright law has anything at all to say about attribution. So in your example, as long as newspaper B truly rewrites the story without borrowing any of its wording or form of expression, there should be no basis for a claim that copyright was infringed--even if B fails to attribute the story to A.

    That said, I suppose the likelihood of A getting angry and filing a lawsuit will be larger if there is no attribution. Putting in the attribution removes the ability of A to argue that B is misrepresenting the situation, pretending it did its own research.


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