"The first draft of journalism"

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One of the first research projects I did when I started grad school was a study of how sports journalists use blogs. This was back in 2010, and I later presented the paper at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium in 2011 and later had a version of it published in the Convergence Newsletter, published by the University of South Carolina. I say this not to brag, but to point out that the confluence of blogging and journalism - particularly from a sports perspective - is one I’ve given a great deal of thought about and work into. And I thought of my research and that paper - titled “The first draft of journalism” - in the past few weeks as the New York Times announced that it was starting to phase out a number of its blogs, including a number of its sports blogs. It made me think about how blogs fit into journalism.

It’s important to note that I’m taking about journalism blogs here - blogs that appear as a part of a traditional, mainstream news site. It’s not a blog like this one, but rather a blog on, say, The New York Times.

It’s interesting to think of blogs as new media, but in many ways, they were the first new, social media format to permeate what we now call traditional media. In media sociology, we call this “normalizing” - a concept first identified by Jane Singer. She found, in studying how journalists used blogs in covering politics in and around the 2004 presidential election, that journalists were “normalizing” blogs. In other words, they were taking this new media format and shaping it to fit the pre-existing norms, values and practices of journalism. This is also happening with Twitter.

In doing my research, I found that the reporters I talked to used their blogs for six different types of posts: Breaking news items; pre-game posts (starting lineups, key injuries, etc.); post-game posts (the final score; stats leaders, etc.); opinion or analysis about events on the beat; in-game observations; and a category that can be termed fun stuff (either off-beat aspects of sports, or the melding of sports and pop culture).

When I did my study on blogs, Twitter was just starting to become popular among journalists. It was at the time where Twitter was making the leap into ubiquity among media. One of the reporters I interviewed said that what he typically put into a blog post would now become a series of Tweets (practice observations, the lineups, etc.). One of the conclusions I came to (one I hope to continue studying soon) is that for these reporters, the blog was becoming sort of a journalistic middle-man - a place to put something that maybe needs a little more depth than a Tweet but that doesn’t fit into the daily news cycle or the daily story.

Looking at it through 2013 eyes, it’s interesting to see how reporters viewed their own blogs. There’s this interesting separation between blog and journalism, even as they use a blog as a part of their journalism career. I know I felt this way - there’s stuff for the blog, and then there’s stuff for the paper, and they’re different. The paper is the place for real, serious journalism. The blog can be a place for serious journalism. But it can also be a place for fun. It can be a place for news and notes - especially news and notes that aren’t considered “worthy” of the real story.

It’s telling how separate we kept our blogging and journalism worlds. Remember the title of my paper: The first draft of journalism. That’s how one of my subjects said he thought of his blog. It’s a great description, and it’s also incredibly telling. The blog is not journalism. It’s the first draft, it’s the start. The real stuff comes later, and that’s in the paper.

It’s a distinction that I wonder is still valid or important, especially now that more of us are reading news digitally. Should reporters be concerned about that line between blogging and stories anymore? Those lines are incredibly blurred. The biggest story of the year was broken by a “blogger.” ESPN has a series of NFL “bloggers” who are really just beat writers for each division. Just this past week, my hometown Buffalo News had a series of posts on its Bills blog from the NFL rookie information camp. They were written like stories, felt like stories.

Where does blogging end and journalism begin?

It’s harder and harder to tell.

And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe instead of focusing so much on the self-imposed differences between the forms, we should do more to mix the two, blending the fun and format-freedom of blogs with traditional journalistic rigor. Maybe instead of thinking of blogging (and even Twitter) as The First Draft of Journalism, we should be looking at them as just … journalism.