The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Blogger, Reporter, Author
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I want to distinguish blogging from reporting, and bloggers from reporters. But more than that, I want to distinguish the first question from the second.

Blogging is pretty easy to define as an activity. It’s writing online in a serial form, collected together in a single database. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it as an amateur or professional, as an individual or in a group, under your own byline or a pseudonym, long-form or on Twitter.

Reporting is a little trickier, but it’s not too tough. You search for information, whether from people or records or other reports, you try to figure out what’s true, and you relay it to somebody else. Anyone can report. They assign reports to elementary school students. Or you can be Woodward-and-Bernsteining it up, using every trick you can think of to track down data from as many sources as possible.

Now, both of these are different from what it means to be a blogger or a reporter. The latter are a matter of identity, not activity. I’ll offer an analogy. If someone says, “I’m a writer,” we don’t assume that they mean that they’re literate and capable of writing letters, words, or sentences. We might not assume that they’re a professional writer, but we do assume that they identify with the act of writing as either a profession, vocation, or distinguished skill. They own their action; it helps define who they are.

Likewise, if someone calls themselves (or if someone else calls them) a reporter or blogger, they might be referring to their job or career, but they’re definitely referring to at least a partial aspect of their identity. And just like we have preconceptions about what it means to be a “writer” — a kind of Romantic origin myth, of genius and personality expressed through language — we have preconceptions about what it means to be a blogger or a reporter.

They’re not just preconceptions, though, but practices codified in institutions, ranging from the law to business and labor practices to the collective assumptions and morés of a group.

There are lots of ways you could trace and track this, but let me follow one thread that I think is particularly important: the idea of the author-function.

Traditionally (by which I mean according to the vagaries of recent collective memory), reporters who are not columnists have bylines, but are not seen as authors. Their authority instead accrues to their institution.

If we read a story written by a typical reporter, we might say “did you see ____ in the New York Times?” If other newspapers or journalistic outlets pick up the story, if they attribute it at all, they’ll say, “According to a report in the New York Times…” This is similar to medical and scientific research, where journalists will usually say, “scientists at MIT have discovered…”

Some people within this field are different. If Paul Krugman writes something interesting, I probably won’t say “the New York Times”; I’ll say “Paul Krugman.”

In fact, there’s a whole apparatus newspapers use in order to distinguish writers I’m supposed to care about and writers I’m not. A columnist’s byline will be bigger. Their picture might appear next to their column.* They might write at regular intervals and appear in special sections of the paper. This is true in print or online.

(*This was actually one of the principal ways authorship was established in the early modern period: including an illustration of the author. Think about the famous portraits of Shakespeare. Sometimes to be thrifty, printers would reuse and relabel woodcuts: engravings of René Descartes were particularly popular, so a lot of 17th-century authors’ pictures are actually Descartes.)

Blogs do basically the same thing. Quick: name me three bloggers besides Josh Marshall who write for Talking Points Memo. If you could do it, 1) you’re good, and 2) you probably know these people personally, or at least through the internet.

These guys and girls are bloggers, they’re reporters, they’re opinionated, they have strong voices, and some of them are better than others. But I don’t know what they look like; if they followed me on Twitter tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t recognize their names. Josh Marshall, the impresario, is an author of the blog in a way that his charges are not. Or to take another example, Jason Kottke — whose writing is nearly as ego-less as it can probably get in terms of style, but who still is the absolute author of his blog.

The Atlantic, for better or worse (I think better), took an approach to blogging that foregrounded authorship: names, photos, and columns. There are “channels” through which lots of different people write, and sometimes you pick their names and voices out of the stream, but they’re not Andrew Sullivan, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Fallows, Megan McArdle, Jeffrey Goldberg, Alexis Madrigal, et al., or Ross Douthat, Matt Yglesias and co. before them.

Now all of these writers tackle different topics and work in different styles, but they’re all authors. Their blogs are written and held together through the force of their names and personalities. Sullivan has a team of researchers/assistants, Coates has a giant community of commenters, Alexis has a crew of rotating contributors. It doesn’t matter; it’s always their blog.

The one person who never quite fit into this scheme was Marc Ambinder. Early on, when the first group of bloggers came in, it made more sense. For one thing, almost all of them wrote about politics and culture. They each had a slightly different angle — different ages, different political positions, different training. Ambinder’s schtick was that he was a reporter. It seemed to make as much sense as anything else.

As time went on, the blogs became less and less about politics in a recognizable sense. Ta-Nehisi Coates starting writing about the NFL, Jim Fallows increasingly about China and flying planes. And then the Atlantic starting putting author pictures up, by the posts and on the front page.

I remember sometime not long ago seeing Ambinder’s most recent photo on TheAtlantic.com and saying to myself, “I know what Marc Ambinder looks like, and that’s not Marc Ambinder.” He wasn’t wearing his glasses. He’d lost a ton of weight — later I’d find out he’d had bariatric surgery. He found himself embroiled in long online arguments where he was called out by name about his politics, his sexuality, his relationships.

Here’s somebody who by dint of professional training and personal preference simply did not want to be on stage. He didn’t want people looking at him. He didn’t want to talk about himself. He couldn’t be a personality like Andrew Sullivan or Ta-Nehisi Coates, or even a classically-handsome TV anchor talking head WITH personality like Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper. He wanted to do his job, represent his profession and institution, and go home.

I’m sympathetic, because I find it just as hard to act the opposite way. By training and disposition, I’m a writer, not a reporter. I’ve had to learn repeatedly what it means to represent an institution rather than just my own ideas and sensibilities — that not every word that appears under my byline is going to be the word I chose. The vast majority of people I meet and interact with don’t care who I am or what I think, just the institution I write for.

That’s humbling, but it’s powerful, too. Sometimes, it’s appealing. One of the things I love about cities are the anonymity you can enjoy: I could be anybody and anybody could be me. If you identify with it and take it to its limit, adopting those values as yours, it’s almost impossible to turn around and do the other thing.

So far, we have lived in a world where most the bloggers who have been successful have done so by being authors — by being taken seriously as distinct voices and personalities with particular obsessions and expertise about the world. And that colors — I won’t say distorts, but I almost mean that — our perception of what blogging is.

There are plenty of professional bloggers who don’t have that. (I read tech blogs every day, and couldn’t name you a single person who writes for Engadget right now.) They might conform to a different stereotype about bloggers. But that’s okay. I really did write snarky things about obscure gadgets in my basement while wearing pajama pants this morning. But I don’t act, write, think, or dress like that every day.

10 comments

engravings of René Descartes were particularly popular, so a lot of 17th-century authors’ pictures are actually Descartes.

Best throw-away tangential trvia award.

And that colors — I won’t say distorts, but I almost mean that — our perception of what blogging is.

This, btw, gets at what was going to be my alternative submission to Liberal Arts 2.0. (Oh how I regret not finishing the one I did submit.) Distinguishing between the phase space you’ve seen a phenomena explore, the phase space it has explored, the phase space it could possibly ever explore, the phase space that’s currently actually accessible for it to explore, and the phase space it’s probably actually going to explore. Blogging is like a little cloud of gas that has only been released from its bottle nanoseconds ago. Who knows how it will end up filling the room?

This puts me in mind of a little argument I’m having with Dan Bloom in the comments on a post on TeleRead. I referred to a blog post by Clay Shirky as an “editorial”—and Bloom, a reporter of the old school, disagrees with that term, even though Merriam-Webster says it’s correct usage. (“a newspaper or magazine article that gives the opinions of the editors or publishers; also : an expression of opinion that resembles such an article“).

The funny thing to me is that if you just changed “newspaper or magazine” to “publication” in that first part of the definition, it would be correct in both senses.

Tim Carmody says…

That row in turn reminds me of this post I wrote the other day on Wired about how words get used in debates to cut off conversation, pull rank, mark identities, draw fighting lines.

Also: one of the other preconceptions about reporters and reporting is that it’s something that benefits from “seasoning.” Like getting shook up in a ziploc baggie with salt and vinegar and a chipotle pepper for a few hours or so.

Jay Rosen, in a different context, calls it “the church of the savvy.” Sadly, most veteran or pseudo-veteran reporters are neither seasoned nor savvy. At best, they’re pickled.

Well, hmm. To me, seasoned reporter means someone who has the experience to have built up a lot of intuition about where to look, about who’s lying, about what pieces of evidence really move the story along, about how to get those pieces. And there are some experienced, skillful reporters. I was recently amused at this pleasing phenomena: that every so often, a non-media-oriented scientist friend jumps up and down at some amazing NYT investigative piece, enthusiastically telling me about it. “Who wrote it,” I interrupt at some point, and they check, and without fail, it’s Michael Moss, who co-taught my RW1 class at Columbia. Something about his thoroughness and the telling institutional flaws that he hones in on is like intellectual catnip to certain friends of mine. They have no idea who Michael is, yet they love the cleverness of his reporting and the style of his casebuilding. (He recently published a doozy about government cheese.) When I say, “seasoned reporter,” I mean someone like that.

Tim Maly says…

I’m not sure that Alexis fits where you’ve got him on that list. I know his stuff and you do but that’s because we know him I think. He’s not foregrounded the way the others are, and I bet there’s a lot of people who know The Atlantic Tech Channel has started to rule lately without knowing why. Though Alexis does have a profile because of longshot and his speaking. Which I guess makes him more like Kottke?

Tim Carmody says…

Alexis has a very different profile from, say, Nicholas Jackson, who also blogs/works full-time for the Atlantic Tech. NJ’s got a picture on his posts, but Alexis has one in the sidebar under “Voices.” Alexis makes videos for the Atlantic Tech. NJ’s a reporter/writer/blogger/producer, but Alexis is an editor/columnist.

I’m not saying Alexis *is* a personality like Andrew Sullivan, or that he has the same name recognition, or that he does similar work. I’m saying that structurally, he is an author on that site and on the tech channel in a way that other contributors are not.

And sometimes writers can be both reporters and bloggers in the same blog. I enjoy trying both, and sometimes even mixing the two. Is my opinion more authoritative because I researched something, transcribed an interview with a source on the subject, and can back up my blathering with their expertise? I sure hope so.

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