Technology Thoughts

Another Observer article on blogs

Only a couple of months after dismissing “movie bloggers” as “daft” and possessing short attention spans Rachel Cooke is at it again in The Observer. Only this time the subject of her ire is people who blog about books. Although I’m tired of the tedious level of debate that pits mainstream media against new media it is worth repeating that good writing exists in newspapers and on websites.

To merely dismiss an article because of where you happen to find it is just stupid. Plus, the article again highlights the alarming ignorance (or is it paranoia?) amongst some journalists who work for newspapers that have (ironically) responded well to the rapid changes in media production and distribution.

Part of the problem is the way the word “blog” has become a byword for “anonymous and ill informed opinion found on the Internet”, or “hip opinion that tells us something the mainstream doesn’t” depending on your perspective. Whenever individuals who happen to write things online are lumped all into one group (e.g “the bloggers”) part of me sighs.

They are not really one group of people. We are talking about a diverse group of millions of writers who all happen to use online software like WordPress, Blogger or Typepad in order to express their thoughts on something. Some are good, some are bad, some are enlightening and some are awful. But surely it is better to have a wider base of opinions to debate with?

A lot of blogs might look the same or even say similar things but even if you read thousands you would just be scratching the surface. Within this this huge group of people you are likely to find all kinds of opinions ranging from the erudite to the ridiculous. But unfortunately some people don’t see it that way.

They see something downright horrible, even sinister, about the rise of blogging. Which brings us back to Cooke’s piece. She seems to have a real aversion to the whole concept:

For the time being there is room enough for both sets of critics: the bloggers and the professionals. But what if the media one day does as Hill suggests, and gives up on serious criticism, exchanging it for the populist warblings of the blogosphere? This would be easy to do, and cheap. But my God, I hope it will not happen. This is not only because there are so many critics, past and present, that I admire. It is because so much of the stuff you read in the so-called blogosphere is so awful: untrustworthy, banal and, worst of all, badly written.

It is interesting that Rachel appears to be firmly in the “blogs are bad” camp. The basic thrust of her argument would appear to be that opinions expressed by paid journalists must be better than those found on blogs. OK, often this is this case. There are many journalists working in ‘traditional media’ whose opinion I respect, admire and do indeed pay for. In fact I paid for Rachel’s opinions (amongst many others) on Sunday when I bought the Observer.

But what about established journalists who blog? Kevin Sites provided compelling updates from the siege of Fallujah in 2004, Christopher Hitchens regularly writes for Slate in a style that is blogging in all but name and Jeff Jarvis writes intelligently about the impact of new media (amongst other things) on his blog. All three were established journalists whose work I have come to have a deeper appreciation of precisely because they publish online and link to other sites. They are far from the faceless geeks Rachel is so upset about.

I don’t have a problem with part of her argument. There are times when the word “blogosphere” is used to hint that all the cool and clever writing is on the internet. That is clearly not always the case. I’m also sure some of the comments and postings on blogs about her articles on movie and book bloggers were just anonymous and petty insults.

But she probably attracted such ire because her tone is so bitchy and condescending. Dismissing the bloggers she came across as “Pooters ” or “simpering acolytes” smacks of someone afraid of the masses invading the elite media club to which she is a member of.

Beneath her piece were some thoughts from different industry insiders which provided an interesting and welcome contrast. Ed Horrox, A&R manager at 4AD Records highlighted how music reviews could be moving away from print to online:

The web acts as a filter for what we read in print. It gives newspapers and magazines the upper hand by sorting out the wheat from the chaff. MySpace can tell me within seconds what a band are like and if they’re playing up the road, but I still pay attention to print-based fanzines like Sandman, and I still read the reviewers I’ve been reading in print for years because I’m keen to know what they think of a certain record. Of course, great writers will move with the medium, and in time some may move away from print, and the interested music lover will follow.

Film publicist Charles McDonald (CEO of Premier PR) emphasised the importance of newspaper reviews:

Blogs and online criticism are influential, probably more so with a younger audience, but I wonder if they don’t have greater influence on the rest of the media – the people who are covering the films – than on the end consumer. I’m not convinced that even the younger element is massively influenced by what’s said about films online. Look at Snakes on a Plane, for example. You had the huge internet campaign, huge interest, great fun, but people did not go to see the film when it finally came out. They had probably seen enough online.

The Blair Witch Project appeared to herald a new era where the internet would reign supreme in cinema. I don’t think this has happened yet. There’s no doubt that the web helps create an atmosphere and gets the word out about a film. But when it comes to putting review quotes on posters, we still look to the larger newspapers and magazines, outlets that have a certain resonance. I’m not saying websites will never eclipse the print media in this way, but at the moment, internet reviewers still don’t have the weight a national critic has.

I think he is right (for the time being) although whenever people talk about Snakes on a Plane, it is worth remembering that all the hype wasn’t initially generated by New Line (the studio behind the film) and if anything the fan culture that grew up around it probably saved it from being a complete flop.

Plus, what about the clever use of MySpace as a promotional tool for Borat? Because of the enormous financial success of the film people assume it was a slam dunk but I’m sure the word of mouth on that site helped to create a lot of buzz in the target demographic and persuaded viewers unfamiliar with the character to give the film a try.

Worryingly, Nicholas Hytner (a man who has done such a great job running the National Theatre) is more sceptical:

I find looking at the computer screen a depressant so I spend as little time at it as possible. So although I’ve not come across a blog that makes me want to revisit it, I’m not the best person to ask…I don’t think there is yet a London theatre chatroom that anyone bothers with. I never hear anyone talking about them. They do in New York – which bewilders me. Well, maybe in New York people want to share their opinions online and perhaps there is a shift of influence from the handful of theatre critics who wield so much power.

But the most interesting comment is from Richard Charkin – the chief executive of Macmillan no less – who is revealed to be a blogger:

If you think of the parallel of Wikipedia, user content generation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So why not reviews on blogs? Obviously some of the stuff on the internet is trustworthy and some isn’t, just as it is with newspapers. In the olden days a review in the TLS was extremely important, and even better a review in the Sunday papers. Now there’s so much media, there are so many words, the impact of any review is diluted.

Clearly reviews in major newspapers are more credible than randomly collected reviews on Amazon or on blogs, because there is an editorial process, which tries to ensure quality. But then we all know that the newspaper world is a clique, and there tends to be cross-reviewing: certainly the blogosphere doesn’t suffer from that. The fact that people want to do reviews on the web is great, it opens up people’s views – they can discuss and argue. But if I wanted to be sure I was getting thorough information about a book, I would go to the TLS.

It is heartening to see someone in such an influential position have such an enlightened view. Not only is he still realistic about the importance of a traditional outlets like newspapers and the TLS but he understands and gets the rising importance of things like blogs, Wikipedia and how debate and conversation is part of that future.

When I first wrote about Rachel Cooke’s article on movie bloggers the feedback I got was interesting. After Anne Thompson linked to it a number of people wrote reactions. Some thought I should have posted sooner, others felt Cooke’s piece was “idiocy”. But most interesting was the reaction from blogs I’d never heard of (some of whom now appear in my sidebar links).

They offered perspectives and links to other sites that I wouldn’t have known about or normally visited. And that has to be the best thing about blogging – it can open up your mind to new things. But (and Rachel please take note) the trick is that your mind has to be open to begin with.

The Observer and The Guardian have made some wonderful strides in to the world of new media with their own group blogs and podcasts (incidentally that’s another thing Rachel appears to hate), but if some of their very own writers are so dismissive of these new developments, why do they bother?

In a sense it is good that there are doubters like her around because they do remind you of what is great about reading and writing blogs but couldn’t it be a higher standard of criticism than just the usual cliches journalists use when discussing the internet?

> Observer Review Section
> The latest Cooke Article
> Observer Blog discussion on a related article
> The Literary Saloon discusses the article
> A sensible take on it all from Rob Hinchcliffe
> The Guardian recommends some literary blogs
> The Observer’s John Naughton on “The Genius of Blogging” (2003) and “Journalists must stop being in denial: Bloggers are here to stay” (2005)
> Some arts blogs that even Rachel Cooke may approve of at Arts and Letters Daily