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  Bloggers vs. the L.A. Times: We Will Bury You*
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bear-baitingUPDATE BELOW

I dragged my jaw all the way back from an LA Press Club bloggers confab at the L.A. Athletic Club tonight for a couple of reasons:

1) Roger L. Simon and Marc "Armed Liberal" Danziger announced a stunningly audacious two-pronged plan for selling ads and building a worldwide blog-news service; and

2) The evening's speeches - largely by the likes of Simon, Hugh Hewitt, Mickey Kaus - reeked of hubris, swerving wildly from chest-thumping, Ozymandian delusions of grandeur about the invincibility and moral superiority of bloggers over journalists to the somehow simultaneous might and insignificance of the Los Angeles Times.

'Scuse me while I slap a bandage on my chin, I hardly know where to start ...
MEDIA
First the news: Simon and Danziger have formed "Pajamas Media," an effort to lay some serious pipe to help the blogging community sell ads en masse to big clients like GM and Amex and ultimately, help the partnership earn enough money to fund a global network of paid newsbloggers - a sort of new-age Associated Press.

Danziger (a new-media architect from way back) is working on step one - the development of mechanisms for distributing big-ticket ads to hundreds of participating blogs so that advertisers can reach the blogs' cumulative millions of daily unique users. Meanwhile, Simon dreams of tying together bloggers in every corner of the globe whose local savvy and grasp of the language and politics of their regions will basically beat the holy hell out of any foreign correspondents.

Both say they want to beat the Times.

Danziger's plan is a good one, provided he can get a solid sales force and reliable tech: it was only a matter of time before someone began to actually build what the blogosphere's been projecting and dreaming of for several years now - a fat pipe for ad money. The ad market is poised to tap into the smart, passionate and micro-targetable audiences of blogs. If Pajamas Media builds the engine correctly (I talked with Danziger for a bit and it certainly sounds like it will) then there's some good cash to be made.

Simon's plan is a lot more amorphous - a worldwide network of pundit/reporters whose local smarts and compelling voices beat the news organizations in the ground war and everyone in the battle for mindshare - but it needs a hell of a lot more development. There's a vast gap between responsible reporting and passionate blogging, particularly when the blogosphere, by and large, does most of its reporting by standing on the work already done by the world's, um, reporters.

And this brings me from the nuts and bolts of the evening to its smoldering core:

The L.A. Press club event was billed as an "Outside the Tent" party with Hewitt was guest of honor, ostensibly plugging his new book, "Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World." The idea was to let Hewitt expound a bit - which he did - and then have Kaus, Patterico and others, who've participated in the Times' little sorta-weekly op-ed experiment in masochism inviting criticism of itself, say a few words and to have OTT editor Bob Sipchen respond.

What unfolded instead was a series of speeches with a relentless drumbeat:

Newspapers are doomed. Blogs will rise up and replace them entirely because papers are irrelevant and increasingly unpopular and costly to run and losing ad turf to online competitors and behind the times and boring. Oh, and the Times sucks sucks sucks.

Some random data points - Hewitt outlined the growing popularity, influence and currency of blogs, and opined that newspapers could be completely failed within a few years: As an example, he said that the L.A. Times' circulation of about 900,000 is no larger than it was in 1968, when SoCal was considerably less populous.

Hewitt likened the Times to the Titanic. (OTT editor Sipchen joked that he always thought of the Times as a heavy battleship under steam, regarding its critics as no more important than swimmers in the water throwing dead fish at it).

Sipchen countered Hewitt's belief in the primacy of blogging by saying that many bloggers think using Google is reporting. (more on that in a moment).

Hewitt, Kaus and others generally slagged the Times (as they do often on their blogs), but praised "Outside the Tent" as somehow a wonderful, incomparable treat: (I tend to find it amusing, but a hell of a lot less informative, useful and worth my 50 cents or 15 minutes of clicking than, say, the paper's actual news content).

Later, Hewitt portrayed the Times as an elephantine oppressor of the Los Angeles mediasphere, a monopoly that "makes the weather" in the realm of information, to which Sipchen replied something like, "Well which is it - Do we make the weather or are we the Titanic?"

At one point, several in the crowd began bleating for "more conservative columnists" in the Times, moments after they had spent a good 10 minutes doing a sack dance on the paper's dwindling circulation numbers and irrelevance against the relentlessly swelling blog-tsunami.

Look: it's late, my dander's up and my focus is waning here, but let me break down just what it was that griped me so about the tone of most of the speeches tonight:

In short, by hating, fearing, loathing and dissing the L.A. Times so actively, they give the paper even more weight than it has, or should have. (Full disclosure: I was a staff writer for the Times from '90 to 97 in Ventura County - the Willes years, mostly).

The paper's improved since then thanks to Trib's ownership, and it's struggling manfully against the blistering competition for mindshare that it's getting from TV, cable, the L.A. Weekly and other city papers, online gaming, chat rooms, message boards, porn and just about every other form of mass communication that's boomed in the past 15 years. The Times has published plenty of great stories, a handful of horrible stories and entire dead forests of just-plain-news - the idiosyncratic mix of daily journalism colored by reporters' style and editors' biases that Angelenos rely upon to make decisions about their understanding of world.

But at the end of the day, the L.A. Times is just another media outlet in town, just another news source that you can choose to use, ignore or test against other sources. If bloggers devoted half the time they spend bitching about the L.A. Times to actually reporting on news and issues that matter to Los Angeles, the blogosphere would be a helluva lot more interesting and informative.

After a while, this bear-baiting sport of Times-bashing is a fruitless wank.

As for the supposed superiority of blogging over traditional news outlets in general:

I wish I had brought more than a handful of my own business cards to take notes on - something I began doing only when it became apparent that the sword-brandishing was spiraling out of control - so that I could recall for you better who said what. But there it is, the Achilles heel of blogging that will eventually cause some people to turn away from it as a reliable source of information, particularly if traditional media outlets falter and bloggers fail to pick up the responsibility of journalism.

Without supporting facts, blogging is just opinion. And as the man once said, opinions are like assholes: everybody has one.

Sipchen's Google=reporting analysis is not far from the truth for many bloggers - particularly pundits of Simon's and Hewitt's ilk. The bulk of their work wouldn't exist were it not for reporters working on the ground, notepads and tape-recorders in hand, getting the facts and perspective directly from the sources and making sure the names and sequences of events are accurate.

Simon made much of the fact that commenters on his blog give him a far more vigorous fact-checking than he ever got as a journalist. But how many of us read down into the comments on a screamingly biased blog account to learn that what it's reporting as "fact" is merely biased opinion and in some cases misrepresentation?

How many just take a blogged item and run to report it as fact? And how many of our users are willing to accept what's blogged as something approaching the truth, to the point where opinion is valued more than fact-based analysis, and passion trumps common sense?

Blogging's great powers are its immediacy and its ability to form, foster and stimulate communities. But its great flaw as an information source is that it's only as reliable as its authors' willingness to report facts, or re-report facts that traditional news organizations have already reported.

If traditional news organizations are dying, then where does that leave us? Without the who, what, where and when, we have only a hollow why. Let's hope Simon's plan for world domination - or maybe the experiments with citizen journalism at sites like LAVoice - can do a little better than that.

UPDATE: Kevin Roderick recommends some provocative reading on the blog-driven sea change.

The pieces he cites, by Rupert Murdoch,Jay Rosen and Tim Porter bear up my concern: Everyone agrees the worthy, revered print journalism industry is an athersclerotic old man due for a radical heart transplant.

But how is the hell is it going to work?

The patient's chest cavity is open, hundreds of masked orderlies are moshing around the operating table, the floor's littered with money and no one's holding the scalpel.


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Posted by: mack_reed on Wednesday, April 27, 2005 - 01:01 AM  
 
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