Why The Story That Bloggers Are A Few Hours Behind Mainstream Press Is Wrong
from the oh-so-very-wrong dept
I have to admit that the most amusing part about this following story is how the players all act out their exact roles in proving the point. It starts with a NY Times article over the weekend, which opens with the provocative claim that “the traditional news outlets lead and the blogs follow, typically by 2.5 hours.” That certainly plays right into the claims of some old school news journalists who want to insist that “bloggers are parasites” on the news. The only problem? It’s not true. First of all, the whole idea that there’s a real distinction between “blogs” and “mainstream media” is a bit misleading. Most mainstream publications have their own blogs, and certainly some “blogs” have built up followings bigger than some major newspapers. Blogs are just a platform. What people do with that platform is a totally separate question. It can be journalism. It might be commentary. It might be conversation. It could be something else altogether. To lump them all in as one homogeneous group because they all use a similar underlying technology doesn’t really make much sense.
But the problems with the NY Times description of the report goes much deeper than that. First, Zachary Seward, at the Nieman Journalism Lab, digs into the actual report rather than the summary of it at the NY Times, and finds that the conclusions put forth by the Times leave out a few of the important details, which suggest not so much that the mainstream media beats less mainstream media, but that the two have created a neat symbiotic relationship, where they often feed off of each other — and it’s not so much that a mainstream publication “leads” with the story, but that a story bounces back and forth between sources before rising to a peak.
Even more important to understand is Scott Rosenberg’s deconstruction of the methodology of the study. Jon Kleinberg, the professor who led the study, is one of the sharpest folks out there, so I tend to trust his work more whenever I come across it, but this particular effort seems to have some gaps in methodology. For example, the method for choosing what is a “blog” and what is a “mainstream” publication is whether or not the publication is included in Google News. Except that plenty of blogs are included in Google News, so it’s not quite a fair breakdown, and basically hands over many of the true journalists who use blogs as their platform to the “mainstream press” side of things.
More importantly, it doesn’t actually track the path of news stories, but the path of specific quotes by politicians during an election season. Can you spot the problem with extrapolating from that? The “mainstream press” are the folks following these politicians around, scribbling down their every word — so it’s no surprise that they would get those quotes out first. They’re also given more access to those politicians, allowing them to get quotes first. But, the real issue is that the “quote” often isn’t the real story. And, as Rosenberg notes, tracking just the quote doesn’t follow the real story or see who’s provided more analysis, originality and value — things that the non-mainstream publications often value over immediacy.
In fact, the trajectory of this particular story does a beautiful job highlighting the point. Kleinberg and some grad students publish the report — and the NY Times reports on it, summarizing it (incorrectly) as saying that newspapers “beat” bloggers by 2.5 hours on stories, lending credence to the idea that bloggers are somehow “parasites.” But then folks like Seward and Rosenberg actually dig into the details of the study to point out why it’s flawed and why the NY Times’ summary is incorrect. Who actually added more value? Did Seward and Rosenberg parasite the story? Or were they any worse off for having it “later” than the NY Times? I’d argue not at all, and they actually provided a lot more value than the original news piece. Yet, as Rosenberg worries: “I fully expect to see it taken as conventional wisdom from this point forward that ‘news starts with the traditional media and then moves into the blogosphere.'” Hopefully not..