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Barry Rubinstein: Journalism And Blogging

Journalism blogging is a developing discipline within the profession of journalism. I believe that journalists are at a huge advantage when it comes to blogging because of their approach to writing. However blogging does require some new skills that today's journalist's need to acquire to get up to speed in the world of social media. Journalism was one of the professions I carefully considered in my book, how journalism can help a company blogger become more effective at blogging. For this reason I was delighted when I had the chance recently to chat with Barry Rubinstein at the Boston Social Media Club about blogging and journalism. I enjoyed the discussion so much that we decided to conduct an interview on the subject. Here's an introduction to Barry and what he is planning to do next.

Barry Rubinstein has decided to trade in long nights on the sports copy desk and in the press box for a position in the similarly frenetic world of public relations, and has relocated from New Jersey to Massachusetts in hopes of achieving that goal. He has covered every pro sport at the Newark Star-Ledger, spent most of his four years in media relations at the NBA craning his neck at the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, and contributed to the legend of wacky headlines at the New York Post.

John: In thinking about journalism and blogging, I see some parallels and differences between the profession and the medium. While journalism aims to be objective in many circumstances, and its techniques systematic, bloggers do not always follow the same path in producing posts. Yet some bloggers can be even more disciplined than some journalists. What do you think that bloggers can learn from journalism and what can journalists learn from bloggers?

Barry: I think in some cases, journalists get a bad rap for several reasons (so-called tabloid journalism, accusations of complicity with the government regarding the Iraq war and incidents of fabricating stories -- which made Jayson Blair rather infamous as a result of the NY Times scandal -- being three examples). But one of the factors going against bloggers is they don't have to substantiate their sources and material. I've worked for newspapers that insisted on verification from at least two sources before publishing a story. Ostensibly, bloggers don't have to answer to an editor (or three), so they can, in essence, publish whatever they want -- a point "old-school" journalists are quick to make. Perhaps the biggest advantage bloggers have going for them is speed; They can write and publish a story almost instantaneously; a newspaper article -- even those that appear on-line -- are subject to be read by at least three editors, sometimes more, and even on-line content is rarely "raw copy." Perhaps the new wave of social media can inspire journalists and their editors to conceive newer, quicker ways to get the news out there ... just so long as it's done so accurately.

John: There certainly is a school in blogging of asking for forgiveness when it comes to accuracy. Though I have also seen greater care taken by bloggers than journalists in fact checking their stories. As you point out with the Blair story, even the strongest editorial review process can fall down. How do you think the instant nature of the web and the collective nature of social media affects the approach that most bloggers use in making sure their facts are correct the first time?

Barry: One of the great things about the internet is the amount of research tools available. Given the assumption that most bloggers are likely to be more tech- and net-savvy than the general public (including, perhaps, journalists), it would seem to follow that bloggers may know quicker and better ways to fact-check. Trust me, I've worked with some damn lazy reporters. I can't tell you how many times I've had to look up basic information on deadline (statistics, spelling of peoples' names, etc.) that could have been done in less than a minute by the reporter before the story was filed. And as you mention, the turnaround on feedback time is much faster in the blogosphere than it is in journalism -- in most cases, almost instantaneous, given the nature of social media being much more participatory than conventional journalism. Bottom line, whether a blogger or an old-school journalist, it's paramount to get your facts right. And in this age of instant information, I don't think there's any excuse for getting things wrong -- no matter who you are.

John: Linking, putting comments on other websites, these are all elements of how blogger relations works. Newspapers have always communicated with readers, but the new world of the web means that you can communicate with readers instantly and even on other websites. Do you think journalists should communicate with readers on their own website or on other websites where readers make comments about posts?

Barry: There are a couple of different schools of thought on this; while more and more newspapers furnish readers with reporters' e-mail addresses in print and on the Web, the concept of linking readers and reporters is in many cases flawed. I know of reporters who rarely if ever respond to readers' questions or comments, many times because they don't want to subject themselves to or put up with with negativity or hate mail, thinking it counterproductive and a waste of time. I think some newspaper editors would agree that they'd rather see their reporters concentrating on interviewing sources and "working their stories" instead of engaging dialogue on their blogs. But the times are changing; more and more, newspaper reporters are being featured on television where they can wax poetic and expose themselves to a different audience. Several shows on ESPN and NESN -- where the Boston Globe writers can be seen regularly -- are two examples.

Another aspect is that newspaper editors are reluctant to see their writers posting unedited stories on their blogs, for the same reasons they would be against the same in print; misspelled words, botched grammar and questionable content are, in theory, all corrected by editors before the paper is put to be. While blogging delivers the news much faster, it bypasses the traditional safety valves which, if instituted on blogs, would slow the process, making the whole point of blogging counterproductive. Also, some editors would be against reporters blogging information that does not appear in the paper, in essence "giving away" the news before the reader spends the money to buy the paper in the morning.

John: New Journalism is about combining the objective approach of news reporting with the subjective approach of fictional writing. Tom Wolfe and other writers pushed the envelope when it came to journalism. I was thinking that blogging in many circumstances is new journalism in action. Here's an example of a blog that I think really illustrates new journalism at work. Dr. Greiver is a doctor who writes her blog about her practice implementing an electronic medical record system.

Barry: It's an interesting concept if handled and executed correctly. While the doctor's Web site is certainly thorough and gives a blow-by-blow report of the day-to-day operation of her practice, I'm not sure visitors to the blog are going to be enlightened by ongoing discussion of the temperature of the doctor's fridge or the tribulations of the office filing system. It's kind of like the guy who posts a video on You Tube of his dog sneezing; it may interest no one except the one doing the posting and the guy's brother. With so much information available out there and peoples' senses being bombarded constantly from so many different directions, it can be questionable if blogging -- in some cases -- adds to the problem rather than streamlining it. I suppose the best way around this is for bloggers to be competent writers and story-tellers. But again, without the safety net of editors, it can sometimes be difficult for bloggers to know exactly how good -- or sometimes bad -- their writing can be. We're not talking about Tom Wolfe here; in these days anyone can put out a blog ... often with varying results.

John: Many bloggers attempt to be objective but also express their opinion, except with blogging instead of a journalist reflecting and reporting on subjects. The subject and writer are one and same. Plus instead of one article or a series, a blog is a series of new journalism articles. Do you think I am accurate in characterizing some blogs in this way?

Barry: I agree. One of the attractions of blogging is the ability to post your opinions and feelings about anything you want. The conventional journalist rarely has such an outlet; even a column under his or her own name is subject to being edited and questioned for content. Only when a journalist reaches a certain level of stature do such constraints loosen up. But for the most part, someone can decide they want to post a blog and immediately catapult their views into cyberspace without anyone else having anything to say about it. That's why some forms of blogging have to be taken with a grain of salt; because of the immediacy of the internet and the blogger's ability to be a one-man-band, it can sometimes be difficult to discern what the blogger's agenda might be. As is sometimes the case in "conventional" journalism, sometimes you have to just "consider the source."

John: What's the future for journalism in the light of blogs?

Barry: I think the "time-honored" way journalism works is under scrutiny these days -- not only because of blogs, but because of our lives in general. People in general are busier and being pulled in many different directions due to family, work, etc., and have less time to read the news or spend time trolling the internet to find, in some cases, the "real" news put out by bloggers that the "mainstream media" can shy away from. There is also the issue of the expense of advertising, and newspapers in general suffering economically these days. When I first started in the business back in the day, we were told there would always be newspapers because "the guy on the train wants something he can hold in his hands." Well, now, with internet access common on laptop computers and cell phones -- neither having existed 25 years ago -- some of the old arguments in favor of newspapers are being compromised. So there is definitely somewhat of a vacuum the bloggers can fill, unless the old-time journalism community chooses to open its mind and think of newer, better ways to compete. But the first step would be to admit there is, in fact, a competition -- something I'm not sure they're willing to do. But time will tell.

John: Thanks Barry, I really enjoyed the conversation, and wish every success in your search for a new role in the Boston area. If anyone wishes to contact Barry just let me know.