Saturday, March 29

2008: Blogs & the 'traditional' press (Part 2)

I left the first part of this article hanging with a question…
"What about the hard working print journalist, with a network of contacts, providing that essential conduit between manufacturer/organisation and getting their product/news to you the public? If the print press does fade away, surely the quality of the information provided will similarly degrade?"


This reminded me of some material hanging around in my Ideas-Box. Some of these ideas quietly slip into oblivion as their relevancy fades with the passage of time. But this one insisted on being aired. Possibly this was rattling around the emptier recesses of my mind as the first part of this piece laid itself out onto this screen.

So, if I may, a brief diversion off the main track before attempting to weave its relevancy back onto the path.

Nick Davies's Guardian piece (Feb 08) is scathing in his damnation of lazy journalism. Aiming straight between the eyes he charges "our tendency to recycle ignorance is far worse than it was…80% (of articles) …were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry"

In summarising his research based on material covering many years of UK based media he goes even further:
"Where once journalists were active gatherers of news, now they have generally become mere passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists. An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda"

Very hard words.

The source of his
material commissioned from Cardiff University provides some interesting facts:
* 2 out 3 media reports relate back to PR/Press wire sources
* 2/3rds of the typical morning newspaper used the same basic material, with many poorly researched, if at all, and probably not even re-edited or revised
* 49% of stories are straight press feed/wire copy
* 60% of stories rely wholly or mainly on pre-packaged info


In mitigation it is pointed out that a daily newspaper is now three times the size of 20 years ago. And with no corresponding increase in staff the difficulties in filling this additional space can be considerable. Tying the journalist to an office keyboard rather than out news gathering/checking as once was their role.

Damning stuff for the Grub Street of today.

Right, diversion over. Back to the main path.

Let's apply this to the Outdoor Magazine sector. Whilst undoubtedly the economics of the publishing industry cannot avoid the general industry trend (pages up; staff small), those I've encountered manage to maintain an ethical approach to their craft. News itself forms only a small part of each month's copy. The majority of main content requires old style journalism. Gear is reviewed through personal use; Issues are researched, opinions formed and then delivered with a balanced hand. Political agenda, rarely raised, is carefully handled and usually acknowledged in a relatively classless manner, although the Big Landowner v Small Man debate will be aired on occasions, with the magazine taking the Small Man's position.

So hopefully not all is as black as at first suspected.

However underlying much of the content is the reality that most magazines these days survive not through readership numbers but advertising. There's little evidence to suggest a review will be positive just because the manufacturer places Ads in the same magazine. And that's unlike rumours to the contrary made in other publishing sectors. For one, the items concerned are typically of low value when compared to such items as the price of, let's say, a new car.

But still the reality is that gear tests mostly rely on easy and early access to outdoor kit; Regular involvement with the provider's PR, Marketing & Technical teams; And a careful balancing of the feed-provider/information-distributor.

To their credit this is something that the Outdoor publications seem to pull off. Or so it fees as a reader of much of their output over the years. If there is a retail tie-in then its stated, and its rare that any favouritism appears. Impartiality is still a very Big Word amongst the Outdoor Press.

(The main exception I regularly rail against on here is the monthly Trail/British Sugar Industry article. It may be flagged with a suitable warning. But the times I've been part way through the article; Smelt a rat; And paused to check the by-line; Only to realise I'm reading an 'industry information' piece recommending Sugar. That damages the magazine's relationship with me, the reader, each time it happens)

But what of the Blog & Podcast?

Let's get this fact out straight away. We're amateurs. Most Bloggers normally start off with few outdoor 'contacts'. It’s our real day job that provides the money to live and eat, and that's not necessarily involved with any of the Outdoor Industry. Hence content is initially based on what goes on around us, that may catch our interest. What we see, do and think.

As time passes contacts and networks naturally build if so desired. Sometimes within the outdoor retail sector, but more immediately with those Outdoor Organisations we are part of, or become involved, with as our passion and interest takes us further afield.

Often such links bring an opportunity for better gear/issues reports. But here I believe the Outdoor Blogger departs from our print based counterpart.

Most gear reviews require kit bought or borrowed using our own cash. Stuff that interests, that can be put to extend periods of use (and misuse) and reflected on. Sometimes that may be with a degree of natural bias (boots v trail shoes) but mostly reported as a typical customer who's parted with hard £££s, has limited choice, and requires kit to do what it says on the tin.

And if opportunities do arise for such gear to be provided gratis by the outdoor retail industry, those same instincts remain. If something stinks, then the smell will be aired in public. Mitigated with due regard to the source, but unencumbered by too much concern over 'biting the hand that feeds'.

There is no bigger picture to consider. No organisation or income stream to safeguard. And no protection either.

Each individual's Blog is their own personal investment. It can stop, grow, or stagnate on whim. And if the content becomes rabid trash with a marked biased then readership will dwindle; And usually the Blogger's desire to continue declines. (I'll ignore the paparazzi/gossip Blogs here!)

It is certainly helpful to get easier access to equipment, especially if normally unobtainable due to price or availability. But few of us would ever review something because We Must. It is because the item will be of personal interest and curiosity. For we are Owner, Editor, Writer and Publisher all at the same time. We get to choose.

PR/Marketing contacts can undoubtedly ease much of the basic access & research. But for us simple folk any regurgitation of the copy-writer's snake-oil wordage is noticeable. Any product placement that may occur is down to the social and fashion drivers we, as part of the outdoor public, are all subject to. But similarly there are those amongst our number who will regularly go against the prevailing trend. Indeed on any given topic you'll usually find a whole range of opinion, or lack of, across the Outdoor Blogs leaving you as reader to make up your own mind based on a wide discussion of the issues involved.

If you like, it’s the ultimate pub conversation. But readily available on-line from your home most days. And with the option to turn away to another source if the content is uninteresting.

So turning back to the original question "If the print press does fade away, surely the quality of the information provided will similarly degrade?"

Maybe - but is the alternative before you any worse? Or is its delivery & content of more relevance for today's audience?

Time will tell. And also, I suspect, the effect of continuing to maintain a low cost alternative.

The majority of Outdoor Blogs steer clear of carrying any form of income generators (Click through Ads; Google AdSense; Retail links etc) But as the on-line format matures there is the reality for many of us to maintain and improve quality content. And for that the present self-financing will continue to be challenged if it is to develop.

How to do that without losing the hard fought integrity that is being slowly built? I wonder how you as a reader may feel about that? Will we see a ceiling on the type of content provided, limited by cash, time and hobby blog status? Or will Blogs that go beyond this risk becoming too closely compared with the print media's own dilemma? Content v Income Generation = Continued Survival.

Print or on-line its clear the content provider shares many of the same information resources, but not necessarily the same problems. Not yet at least.

The attraction of the established magazine for the Outdoor reader will remain, I'm sure. But the flexibility and variety of the Outdoor Blog scene will continue to grow and exert an influence.

And that leaves you, as the consumer, firmly in the driving seat.

From this Blogger's view that's a Good Thing as your interaction with this medium can directly and quickly influence the content you see far better than any remote Market Survey will ever manage.

Ramble over. Normal service will be resumed with immediate effect.


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Comments:
Very good and thoughtful post John, thanks.

The Trail/sugar thing has always annoyed me immensely. I've emailed the editor about it a couple of times because of the dodgy science in the pieces let alone the "is this an article of an advert" thing. (I am a fan of low carb diets, but even so, the confusion of the presentation really doesn't help).

Cheers

Chris
 
I read your part 1 without it registering particularly but it kept coming back to me during yesterday as being very relevant and topical and so I though I'd throw in my twopenny worth. Commercial publications are all very well but are, when it comes down to it, advertiser driven, although, having said that, TGO goes up in my estimation each month whereas Trail drifts down. Basically, a publication these days cannot survive on subscriber and purchaser revenue only and if these go down then advertising revenue will drop. Also, magazines appear only once a month generally.
Blogs, on the other hand, (and I'm referring here to outdoor blogs) are there all the time and are constantly increasing in number. Most are without advertising. Some are better than others insofar as quality of writing and interest are concerned and we have access, via the internet, of having access to them wherever in the world they may be. All in all, I believe that they offer a real contribution to journalism today, amateur though they generally are.
 
Chris - did you ever get a response from the editor? It just reduced my interest in the mag frankly as I then "suspected" other articles. Illogical but thats the effect such a thing has.

LH - yep totally agree on the contribution Blogs are making. Ditto the TGO/Trail mags - I know which one I get more value from and why. I suspect TGOs real problems are around its distribution mechanism. Takes me 4 or 5 attempts to buy it locally, whereas Trail/CW are backed by EMAP and have a huge disribution process in place for other mags in that organisation.
Commercial reality - not how great a read it may be, but how easy it is for the man in the street to pick up.
If TGO was in WHSmiths/Tescos sales would go up.
 
Like the BBC and other media, Trail points readers to its online site. There a reader can interact with staffers and other readers. They have multimedia content on show too. And adverts.

As sites become more 'intelligent', advertising can be directed directly to a users profile. You read an article about, say, socks, and miraculously, the adverts favour socks. if your feeling like you are being used rather than a user, then you can go elsewhere, but most will not, so long as they are getting something out of it.

Cameron mentioned the costs of putting TGO into Tescos, and they now have an online version. I don't know what their online subscriptions are like, and if this is in the figures.

Publishing online is cheaper than paper publishing, but is a different media format entirely. Would magazines keep subscribers if they moved solely to an online format?
 
John

a couple of pieces to add to the story.

Here
and the
href="http://twit.tv/138">TWiT podcast covers a piece about newspapers.

I know that both of these are US based but you know what they say "If its happening in the US it will be here in a couple of years"
 
TWiT Podcast

Ah! links
 
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