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..

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Comments on “Why The Story That Bloggers Are A Few Hours Behind Mainstream Press Is Wrong”

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24 Comments
Zach Seward (user link) says:

Chicken and Egg

Thanks for writing this up, Mike. I like your point about Scott and I playing our ascribed roles as bloggers reacting to a mainstream-media piece, and I have some backstory to add there:

As it happens, I had spoken to Kleinberg more than two weeks ago but waited to publish my posts about the study as more pressing news got in the way. When the Times story popped up in my RSS reader on Sunday night, I cursed, slammed my palm against my forehead, and started rushing to get my stuff out there.

In the end, though, I think it helped that the Times went first. Their totally missing the story sharpened my focus and forced me to really highlight the study’s fascinating intricacies. Without that context, I don’t think I would have been as critical of the study, and the post would not have been as strong. It might have received more traffic, though!

(FWIW, I wrote a follow-up yesterday focusing on other parts of the study.)

DTH says:

But if we stop the press, we can't get the story out first

From the article:

“The researchers’ data points to an evolving model of news media. While most news flowed from the traditional media to the blogs, the study found that 3.5 percent of story lines originated in the blogs and later made their way to traditional media. For example, when Mr. Obama said that the question of when life begins after conception was “above my pay grade,” the remark was first reported extensively in blogs.

And though the blogosphere as a whole lags behind, a relative handful of blog sites are the quickest to pick up on things that later gain wide attention on the Web, led by Hot Air and Talking Points Memo.”

After reading the article, it seemed to me to be more level-headed about the true realities of the news cycle than your summary would claim. Perhaps you were in such a hurry to get the news out, you didn’t read the whole thing?

Anonymous Coward says:

Blogs are a great place to see small things blown out of proportion (like the Obama comments). It’s also where we get to see Perez Hilton get slapped in the head and call Michael Jackson out as he is dying (oops!).

Big breaking news? I still hit the major media, I sure don’t poke around some opinion site looking for the big news. I might go later to look for some people’s opinions about the news, but certainly not for the news itself.

Anonymous Howard, Cowering says:

@#11 - Mark Griffin

Newspapers could also be said to belong to the group of non-paper-based products that includes aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and duct tape.

Just because it CAN be said doesn’t mean that it SHOULD be, or that any question following the statement is pertinent to the discussion.

Mark Griffin (profile) says:

Re: @#11 - Mark Griffin

> Newspapers could also be said to belong to the group of non-paper-based products that includes aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and duct tape.

No, because they don’t use “similar underlying technology.”

I am agreeing with the observation that all blogs should not be lumped together. I am also saying just because it CAN be said doesn’t mean that it SHOULD be because in this case it is incorrect.

Anonymous Howard, Cowering says:

Re: Re: @#11 - Mark Griffin

Sure they do.

Newspapers (or at least, the one I used to work at) buy bulk paper as a roll. At the center of the roll is a disposable/reusable core. Foil, plastic wrap, and duct tape also come as a roll wrapped around a central disposable/reusable core. If that’s not “similar underlying technology,” then I couldn’t explain what is.

If you agree with the original observation, why misdirect the reader with a questionably applicable analogy, a rhetorical query and an emoticon that imply sarcastic intent? Why not post your agreement, then separate the “humor” from the agreement with an extra line feed? It’s free. (Also see parenthetical expressions, faux tags, etc.)

CH says:

Mike,
It’s a fascinating discussion for sure, and the debate over who are the real news-gatherers in this new digital world is far from decided. Excellent points on both sides, and I tend to think there’s ample room in the ecosystem for both — although how these roles are defined (even if they can be defined) is still an open question.

But one point you made below in questioning the validity of the study I think bears some additional scrutiny: You mention that the study doesn’t actually track the path of the news stories, but the path of specific quotes by politicians, and that such an extrapolation is problematic because it’s the “mainstream press” who are the folks that follow politicians around.

I don’t think this refutes the point of the study, but actually reinforces it. I’m guessing “mainstream media” would make precisely this point – “we’re the guys who sit through the city council meetings, we’re the guys who ‘shoe leather’ it to track down leads, we’re the folks who sit through boring trials/hearings/etc. to get that one juicy nugget, we’re the guys who follow politicians around.”

This isn’t to say that bloggers don’t do the same necessarily, but that more often perhaps, they come in afterward to provide context, analysis, perceptions, etc. to the original story.

In that context, and at the risk of pigeonholing ALL bloggers, perhaps their “role” is more akin to opinion-columnists who offer an amplified perspective on original news content. Nothing wrong with that, and obviously the analogy doesn’t hold up in all contexts — there’s lots of fantastic blogs that do news gathering and investigative reporting as well — but if I were ruler for a day, I’d caution both sides to be careful about reading to much into the study.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think this refutes the point of the study, but actually reinforces it. I’m guessing “mainstream media” would make precisely this point – “we’re the guys who sit through the city council meetings, we’re the guys who ‘shoe leather’ it to track down leads, we’re the folks who sit through boring trials/hearings/etc. to get that one juicy nugget, we’re the guys who follow politicians around.”

But the study (apparently, I haven’t read it) didn’t track city council meeetings, other leads, trials, legal proceedings…. just quotes from politicians. I think it’s quite questionable to equate “quotes by politicians” with “news”, which is Mike’s point. If they had followed all sorts of different news stories (and reasonably distinguished blogs from papers) and found blogs lagging newspapers, that would have been more interesting.

Mary says:

Wishful Thinking

Quick: how many blogs can you name that have a paid journalist, or staff, doing the legwork and phone-work, pay expenses out-of-pocket, to gather comprehensive information about breaking news, then report the story and move it? How many bloggers were ever fired when it was found out they were making up quotes and fabricating facts? (Blogs associated/affiliated with traditional media don’t count.)

TPM comes to mind. Maybe a few others.

Otherwise, if traditional news media were able to get its content off of the freely-distributed internet, the average information-oriented blog would dry up unless its owner/contributors ponied up the time and the money it takes to gather information and check its accuracy against multiple sources. Most, however would never dream of giving up their well-paying tech gigs to gamble in an area where the average person never makes more than $40k.

As it’s done now, it’s true that both feed off the other, but if blogs disappeared, traditional outlets’ profit margins would go back more towards normal. Can the average blogger say the same, if traditional news outlets disappeared?

I really, highly, doubt it.

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