Friday, March 13, 2009

Bloggers: Bottom Feeders or Top Skimmers?

Two weeks ago, an L.A. Times journalist sneered at me, indirectly. We bloggers often simply lifted material out of his paper, rather than producing our own. I agreed, directly. I added that journalists were needed to cover complex issues and pursue intricate stories, professionally and diligently, if need be over months or years. (I obviously have no experience with a real-world Fifth Estate run savagely into the ground by, say his bottom-line boorish boss Sam Zell. The same one that wants to sell naming rights to Wrigley Stadium. Even to the Wrigleys themselves.)

However, as a teacher with nearly a quarter-century experience, and an amateur(ish?) scholar as long at least, I also expand into this medium where you find me as a tour guide and chatty interpreter. Google's E-Blogger enables me to thunder with the same distribution, if not the circulation, publicity, mansions, ladies, or lucre of Hearst or Pulitzer. Few read me, fewer follow me or comment. Nobody's paying my bills here. What kind of competition am I for trained journalists?

Am I contributing to the demise of the Times? Is my wife, reading it on the web rather than in print (where we subscribe to it fewer days), putting our friend at the potluck we hosted out of a job? Or, berated by that paper four times straight over our paid bill, do we make a Sam Zell slash of our budget ourselves? After all, opening a thinning set of sheets that two days after the journalist came to our kitchen axed its local news section-- leaving Sports, front page, Business for daily perusal-- are we making a sensible choice environmentally and financially? I used to sit down to enjoy the Times over breakfast. Now I stand with it as I skim it over the counter.

Still, I need to be fed by such reports, from somewhere. We all find nourishment and stimulation by exposure beyond our frail bodies and weak minds. By nature or avocation or desperation, my inclination's to discuss ideas. I like to tell others about what I've heard, read, seen, or mused. It's a venerable, if wayward, tradition of passing along information, wisdom, rants, opinions, trivia, finds, and detritus to you, my audience. How's blogging different than what Aristotle or Abelard did?

Minus the "in vino veritas" symposia or the cock-up with Heloise, you tell me. The wisdom's diminished as the vanity's increased, certainly. Blame lack of editorial oversight, although the sages of old managed to survive without any bottom-line save a copyist's patience, a patron's demands, or the chance of a manuscript escaping fanatics, fires, or rodents. Exponentially so we expound today, but then, so's grown the literate public, dire its market share may be, same as it ever was. We babble by Twitters and Facebook and Google and Amazon and RSS feeds, but it's still word of mouth even if tapped with thumbs.

Narrowcasting, peercasting, podcasting, call it what you or pop cult pundit may. I'd like to think somebody kind's rating my reviews on Amazon, snipping at me here on E-Blogger, or wandering here from Facebook or a search engine. I may never learn about you who read this, but you find out about me. It's me speaking to you a classroom whose roster I'll never recite aloud; I'll never forget your unknown name.

Like my students, I also think that I've made here a few friends. I may not have met you in person, and I may not know your true names either in some cases. This intimacy, all the more, cheers me. It's not based on flattery, grades, or favor. It's establishing a mutual admiration society, but one based on common passions. And, isn't that part of some proto-communal ideal, some utopian template we seek?

We scourers of ideas, scroungers of facts, scrabblers of lore still search for what intrigues us. Often, we pass the best of it along. Sure, we must rely on our judgment. Perhaps an editor or author's already shown us what we then transmit. Or, we may regale you with eyewitness accounts. Most likely for me, it's a combination of the two. Journalists may be schooled in objectivity, but blogs pull ourselves into the mix that we push towards you. I may add that a few of us do carry a track record, if off the beaten tenure path, of scholarly preparation and print parallels.

Electronically rather than personally, and as one who must now navigate a hybrid delivery of half-onsite, half-online, I wish I had a New York or London publisher chasing me down after stumbling upon my marvelous prose here. But, I'm one of millions. At least I have the chance to broadcast my ideas, rather than lock them in a diary or limit them to a few letters to a few of you, or languish in a provincial paper or, yes, an obscure journal (where I do languish). Given the reality of declining publishing endeavors, the difficulties of competing with the theoried tenurati, and the economic downturn, I choose this method over ranting to myself.

One requirement for my teaching: using technology in my own preparation and in my own delivery. I do miss much of the energy of face-to-face engagement. Yet, I'm powerless to change the demands of my educational employer. They tell me we must adopt to what the digital natives demand. I'm an immigrant in their world, without memory of typewriter, card catalog, index card notes, or shelves of books rather than rows of videos and screened carrels. Volumes once comprised a library. Now, I move between my own stacks and this monitor, my fingers jotting and my hands pecking away as I squirrel away a doubly hoarded knowledge.

I cautioned this morning my writing class, preparing them for their own research papers, that much remains that'll never be on-line. Only a fifth of music recorded last century has been digitized or exists on CD today. Similarly, we lack connection unless we look within pulp and binding to much of our accumulated understanding. Nonetheless, hired by a college that advertises itself as career-oriented, I lack the support of a liberal arts enclave full of like-minded rumpled colleagues. It's a company, and it expects profit. My institution in a year's moving to a building half its current size. It's certified "green" and solar powered, but 18,000 volumes must be slashed to 3,000. Whatever's called the library in a digital century will share 1,300 square feet with a tutoring center, offices, and stacks of very few books.

A gaming professor asked me, as chair of our Library Research Committee charged with increasing faculty and student use: "Why should my students go to the library? They find everything they need online." I disagreed, as he did not know about our database that enables students to record, organize, format, and present sources they find from the Net and in print into a single document. Still, his riposte rankled me. Like the L.A. Times journalist, I too watch the decay of a treasured storehouse.

I'm not making a living at my intellectual investigations. Unlike my counterpart at the L.A. Times, I chase knowledge only for the love of it, as an amateur. With that admission comes acknowledgment of a lack of finesse, a surfeit of pretense, and a tendency to ramble. News reporters face editors; network anchors edit faces.

The rest of us, largely unpaid and unheralded, tapping away when we can, fill in much that we may be derided for, but as with Wikipedia contributing or Amazon reviewing, I counter that much altruistic effort accrues for the common good. We constitute the translators for the new literati.

Nobody's feeding ads onto this blogging site; if you find it via Facebook, that's beyond my choice! As with the rise of writers for hire two-hundred-and-fifty years ago in London, we without hire in our spare time chatter to a public eager for rumor, hungry for gossip. Do we need town criers, hawkers of headlines, purveyors of tabloids, when we come home, click open, and log on? When we tune into our own channel, surf our own webring, spray on each other's Facebook Wall?

Perhaps a few of us, in this socially networked, virally transmitted realm, try to hang on to your collar and bend your ear long enough to whisper more than sweet nothings. And, while we may annoy or seduce, we nevertheless respond to the common, or unique, touch that only another person close by can conjure up within us. Virtually, we replicate the charge of minds connecting on our Bloggers and Facebooks.

It may be a poor cousin to the "craic 90" in the pub, or the dinner party's modern symposium, but for a global diaspora filled with those of us looking for mental action, it beats Woody Allen's Whore of Mensa. Maybe. We still might catch a virus.

There: today's showing all journalists that I can prepare an entry that rests no dwarfish assertion on the shoulders of a giant predecessor. It arrives without a citation, hyperlink, or reference to another site, article, or event outside my circumscribed life, albeit inside my discombobulated house.

P.S. But, I always give credit for my images, true scholar that I am, or pedant. Here's an illustration from Hogarth's same London that graced my previous entry. William Hogarth: "The Distressed Poet." 1736. Birmingham City Museum & Art Gallery. The bill's due for our scribbler. Maybe the Tatler collections-due customer representative's calling at the door? Now we get hounded by robo-calls and minimum-wage dunners.


Ceri Shaw said...

Woodward and Bernstein did a fine job. But if Deep Throat had had a blog he could have done it all on his own. IMHO "serious journalism" is dead....long live serious journalism. Of course the print dinosaurs despise this democratisation of the means of communication. It is the job of dinosaurs to oppose change. Personally I will not lament the passing of the established press for the simple and very good reason that I have not paid much attention to them for many years. Serious investigative journalism, much like serious documentary film-making on television has been dead for a long time. I will continue to search Google Blogs for worthwhile sources of news and info and congratulate myself on my reduced woodpulp consumption.

Fionnchú said...

I agree, Ceri, with your take on the loss of cutting-edge Ed Morrow types of documentaries for TV. I wonder if the publicity attained by any blogger rivals-- in our dispersed networks-- the clout that Woodward & Bernstein enjoyed at the capital's newspaper. In time, maybe a Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Liberal Rapture, or American Pundit will?

As you argue, I predict that time will come soon. I wonder how, if millions don't tune into the nightly news (I don't), the scoops by bloggers will earn such immediate and widespread coverage if on the blogs? I remain unsure how an indie journalist can find the time and the funds to conduct prolonged, perhaps globetrotting, investigations.

Still, if younger folks gravitate towards them, if they remain committed to outside verification, and if they can remain free of corporate censorship and co-option, I look forward to the blogging power shift, as you do. Diolch...