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Aug 2
Nicholas Lemann: Bloggers Get Off Your High Horse; You Are Not Journalists
Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, published a lengthy essay in this week’s edition of the New Yorker examining the role of bloggers vs. journalists. He argues that:  

- Bloggers produce little original content.

“Is the Internet a mere safety valve, a salon des refusés, or does it actually produce original information beyond the realm of opinion and comment?. . . The best original Internet journalism happens more often by accident, when smart and curious people with access to means of communication are at the scene of a sudden disaster. Any time that big news happens unexpectedly, or in remote and dangerous places, there is more raw information available right away on the Internet than through established news organizations.”

- “New” media is not new.

“[A]lthough the medium has great capabilities, especially the way it opens out and speeds up the discourse, it is not quite as different from what has gone before as its advocates are saying.”

- There is a yawning gap between what the pundits promise about the journalistic benefits of blogging and the reality.

“As of now, though, there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing. As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.” My Take

Here’s what I think about Lemann’s major points.

- Original Content:  Estimates vary on the percentage of blogs that develop original content. However, much depends on your definition of original.  For a reporter, developing new content means writing an article that has been well-researched and breaks new ground. 

Using this definition, very little blog content is original.  Most bloggers (myself included) tend to comment on stories produced by professional journalists or other bloggers.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  The echo chamber can help amplify issues or inspire new debate.  Look at the commentary on Dr. Kevin Pho’s blog Kevin, MD on the arrest of Dr. Anna Pou, who was accused of murdering patients under her care during hurricane Katrina.  His blog provides an excellent forum for debate that might not exist if he did not write about the subject. 

- On the “newness” of new media:  As Lemann notes, bloggers’ activities can be compared to the work of pamphleteers who began to produce content after the invention of the printing press and the relaxation of government censorship. 

This is certainly a valid point.  However, as Jeff Jarvis argues, bloggers say they are “new when set against the current conceit of institutional journalism that it is objective and dispassionate and is the steward of truth and trust.”

- The promise of "citizen journalism" versus the reality:  If you are relying on bloggers to consistently break news, deliver original, well-researched content and win Pulitzer prizes, you are going to be disappointed.  As the latest survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates, most bloggers write about their personal lives.  They are hobbyists, not beat reporters. 

This Debate Sounds Familiar

The debate between Lemann, Jarvis and other blogging experts is akin to the one between medical professionals and citizen medical experts.  For example, people like Amy Tenderich are devoting significant time exploring the world of diabetes treatment.  In fact, as a journalist, Tenderich applies journalistic standards to her blog postings, researching them carefully and producing original content.

However, some medical professionals are annoyed when patients come in with information they gathered from a blog or search engine.  “I’m the expert and I know best,” they say. 

However, healthcare providers that value partnerships with their patients view blogs differently.  They help their patients evaluate the value of information gathered online and help them to take charge of their health. 

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think that that attempting to deify bloggers or demonize journalists and medical professionals is a waste of time.  There is value in the content produced by bloggers because it means more people will be well-informed and engaged.  Authority figures like journalists, physicians and others are still required because they spend time exploring the unknown and explaining new trends. 

So, in the end, it does not matter whether or not bloggers are journalists.  The real issue is whether they are having an impact on people’s perceptions and beliefs.  The answer is a resounding “yes.” 

8 Comments/Trackbacks

Thank you for this, Fard. It must have escaped this expert that many "real" journalists are simply using blogs as another publishing channel.

You're quite welcome Amy. Keep up the great work!


I echo Amy's thanks on this one, Fard. The blogging community definitely has an impact on perceptions and beliefs, without fail. We see the effects every single day.


Fard, you might find this recent article in the Toronto Star of interest:

The worldwide whatever

(Particularly the bits related to Tim Berners-Lee and his ongoing work to make the web--and world--a better place.)


(Let's try this again, and see if the entire URL will print.)


Thanks for visiting and commenting. I agree that blogs can have an impact on perceptions and beliefs no matter how small.


There is an interesting quote in the article:

"The blogosphere is not a hothouse where brilliant new ideas are generated by the self-described iconoclasts who populate it," says Rick Salutin, media critic at The Globe and Mail. "The main qualification for blogging is that you failed to get a mainstream media job. Writers on the Web tend to be in touch only with other bloggers, not people in the street. It still takes a grassroots movement to force a fundamental change in social conditions."

All I have to say to that is: Lebanon, Dell, JupiterKagan, the Conn. Senate campaign?

Blogs aren't as revolutionary as some believe, but they do have an impact. And, yes, we do interact with real people.

I agree that “very little blog content is original”. But very little journalist content is original, too. They do not create the event, they just write about it.

Yes, I did notice that paragraph in my original reading of the article. (Suspected it would PO bloggers, so didn't go out of my way to point it out in my comment.)

I believe Salutin is referring to fundamental, "big picture" changes. Quality blogging (as per any form of relevant and reliable media) can certainly aid one's appreciation and understanding of a situation. Particularly when it is a first-hand account. But has it "changed the world" the way the invention of the printing press did? Or the discovery of insulin? That type of thing.

On the other hand, who says the average blogger has a duty and responsibility to effect those kind of seismic changes? For my part, the "expectation" remains that that such action and effect is from a dedicated researcher/inventor, such as Tim Berners-Lee.

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