I was on a panel sponsored by Slate magazine a few weeks ago on the future of print journalism, and I found myself the lone voice defending the continuing relevance of things like newspapers. At one point I said—half in jest—that without the New York Times, there would be nothing for bloggers to blog about.
For this, I have been now been rebuked by Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired and the author of the just released “The Long Tail.” (I should say that Anderson rebuked me very graciously, and also that I think Chris is a smart guy and everyone should buy his book.) The full text of his post is here. But here's the gist. What I was saying, Anderson argues, was something like:
"Blogs, which are mostly written by amateurs, couldn't possibly do what We Do. Instead, they mostly just comment on what we do, supplying low-value-add chatter about our stories that must not be confused with Proper Journalism or other Quality Content from us Professionals."
He then goes on to produce some statistics, showing that only a small percentage of blogs actually link to major media outlets.
I think, first of all, that Chris is taking my comments a bit out of context here. I made that comment to another panel member—Ariana Huffington of Huffington Post fame—and we were explicitly talking about the kinds of political blogs that have proliferated in recent years. And when it comes to politics—and to some extent high culture and business and economics—it is quite right to argue that traditional print media like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal continue to set the conversational agenda.
I’m not sure why this statement should be controversial. Has the level of self-regard in the blogosphere really reached such dizzying heights that it can’t acknowledge the work that traditional media does on behalf of the rest of us? Yes, the newspaper business isn’t as lucrative as it once was (although it’s still pretty lucrative). And it doesn’t seem as exciting and relevant as it once was. But newspapers continue to perform an incredibly important function as informational gatekeepers—a function, as far as I can tell, that grows more important with time, not less. Between them, for instance, the Times and the Post have literally hundreds of trained professionals whose only job it is to sift through the mountains of information that come out of the various levels of government and find what is of value and of importance to the rest of us. Where would we be without them? We’d be lost.
Nor am I making any kind of controversial claim when I say that that is not a function that bloggers can or will, anytime soon, replace. Blogs—like this one, incidentally—are necessarily and properly derivative. Anderson called his post “the Derivative Myth” and uses “derivative” like it’s a dirty word. But it isn’t. Any form that consists, chiefly, of commentary and criticism is derivative. We need derivative media sources to help us make sense of what we learn from primary sources. But you can’t have one without the other, and although it maybe possible for some bloggers to think of their thoughts as rising, fully formed, from the blogosphere, it just ain’t so. Even people who do not think of themselves as being influenced by the agenda of traditional media actually are: they are simply influenced by someone who is influenced by someone who is influenced by old media—or something like that.
I actually ran into Chris Anderson at JFK Airport last week, and we chatted. The first thing he told me is that he thought that when it came to politics, I was actually right. Um. That’s a fairly big exception, isn’t it Chris?
In any case, don’t let my little tussle with Anderson dissuade you from reading “The Long Tail.” It is a wonderful work of primary scholarship which ran initially in an old-media publication, and that I’m sure will spawn a great deal of interesting (and derivative) commentary on blogs like this one.
One last point: I must say that my own experience with this blog has only hardened my belief in the intrinsically derivative nature of blogging. As those of you who read the New Yorker know, I wrote a review of the book Wages of Wins this spring, and then blogged about it. The review and my posts prompted a good deal of comments, both on this site and on other blogs. But when I did a search, I was unable to find anyone, among the many who commented on my comments on Wages of Wins, who had actually read the book itself. That’s weird, I mean, it’s a short book. And it's really not that expensive. But nobody—even those who were in highest dudgeon about the book’s conclusions—seemed to want to do more than comment on those who had already commented. Isn’t that the very definition of derivative?