Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bloggers Vs. Reporters at The Flint Journal

The Flint Journal, like many newspapers, is demanding that its reporters also be bloggers. The problem is the management types at the paper don't seem to understand the difference between the two.

Reporters are trained to be objective and scrupulously keep their personal bias out of a story. There's an old journalism adage that if your mama tells you she loves you, back it up with another source. The best bloggers blend facts with opinion. They are passionate about a subject and that comes through in their posts. They frequently use the hard work of real reporters as fodder for their riffs and digressions on a subject. At times, they can act as unofficial ombudsmen for newspapers, calling them to task for mistakes. At other times, bloggers can come off as wacky cranks — fun to read but not exactly reliable.

As you can imagine, it's hard for a reporter to play both roles at the same time. In many ways, the role of blogger and reporter are mutually contradictory, although good bloggers do some reporting of their own. As a result, the Journal's blogs often read like hard news stories that should be in the news section of the paper, wherever the hell that is. (It's really hard to figure out what's what on the Journal's website.) And when the blogs are more blog-like, for lack of a better term, the comment sections are filled with confused readers wondering why a particularly frivolous topic is considered "news."

Please don't take this as a criticism of the hardworking reporters at the Journal. My sources tell me that they are constantly complaining to the higher ups that readers often don't even know they're reading a blog. They've requested photos to differentiate the blogs from real news, or info boxes that explain to readers what they're reading, all to no avail.

Here's a few suggestions to improve the situation:

1. Hire one or two actual bloggers to aggregate and comment on the work of the real reporters instead of asking the reporters to wear two hats. Give these bloggers the freedom to be critical, funny and opinionated.

2. Clearly delineate the blogs as separate entities from hard news. Give them better names. Let the bloggers personalize their sites. Hell, run a paragraph that explains to readers what a blog is supposed to be so they aren't confused.

3. Stop running hard news — like details of Dayne Walling's victory speech or lists of school closings — in the blogs. Use the hard news reporting to inform the blogs, but give them an opinionated edge that you don't find in the news section.

4. Let the bloggers use info from all news sources available to them — not just material from the Journal — in their posts.

Again, from the people I've talked to this is not a problem with the current reporters/bloggers. It starts much higher up at the paper. The decision makers need to fix this problem. Right now, readers are confused and reporters are disgruntled. But why listen to me? I'm just a blogger writing about Flint from San Francisco.


  1. The Journal never did a great job of covering the news in the pre-internet days, why would you expect them to master new media?

  2. Sable Pelt, I'd argue that covering the news is a lot harder than figuring out what a blog is. Regardless of their journalistic track record, this little problem ain't so hard to solve.

  3. Your aptly suggested improvements all depend on a fixed website design. As you note, the current one is confusing regarding editorial content, in addition to being dysfunctional regarding advertising. Those aren't exactly subtle problems for a newspaper.

  4. You have identified a real problem. From the jump, the suits at the Journal had this attitude "we need to be on the Internet" but they never really grasped what that meant.

    They keep throwing things up on the wall to see what sticks. The problem, frankly, is that the leadership of Booth is unable to get out of its own way and listen to the folks who might have an answer.

    I can testify that what I do now (blogging) is a far cry from what I used to do at the Journal (reporting).

    Keep up the good work. I'm going to link to this article this morning.

  5. One aspect of new-mediazation of traditional newspapers, not at all unique to the group that includes the Journal, is that they've bought into the conventional new-media-think that ads have to be in internet standard sizes, and either populating predefined holes on text pages or popping up in a separate window. This is of course a wholly different ad experience than print papers delivered for so long.

    The conventional wisdom is that online newspapers have to go to semi-automated, repetitive page composition and settle for tiny amounts of ad activity because their readers no longer want the product information flow, and their advertisers the local market sales effectiveness, that resulted from the prior ad model.

    This was the conventional wisdom during the transition to digital, when many readers had slow connections. Now, though, complex pages load quickly for most people.

    Someone must be trying the prior model, with continuing sales efforts for non-standard-format display ads, and with ads and editorial content integrated into single-JPG pages. Anyone have a link to an online newspaper that works that way?

  6. Dave from MillingtonAugust 12, 2009 at 10:07 AM

    "Reporters are trained to be objective and scrupulously keep their personal bias out of a story."

    Oh, if only this were true!

  7. Hey, I said "trained to" be objective, I didn't claim they always achieve it. And every profession has people who aren't so good at their job. But I think it's off base to assume that all reporters go out there looking for ways to work their personal agenda into a story. Not that you said that, Dave. I'm just saying.

    In many ways this is a question of degree. There's no such thing as true objectivity. But some forms of journalism are clearly more objective than others.

  8. Gordon, you are correct. You certainly said, "trained". And most small newspaper reporters are pretty good about keeping their opinions out of news articles - most of them anyway.

    With that said, the national boys & girls tend to be guilty of editorializing under the guise of reporting quite often. Hey, say what you will on the editorial page, but give me straight news. I have a sincere distrust of the media due to inaccurate and sensational reporting angles that need not occur.

    But what the heck, if you agree with the opinion then its great. Unfortunately, I seem to be in disagreement on a regular basis.

  9. Reporters? At today's Flint Journal? Haven't seen much evidence of that in recent years.

    I'm going to be a little contrary on the "objectivity" question ... journalist or not, we are human and that means, by definition, objectivity is an impossible goal.

    In my many years in the business, no one ... not a prof, not an editor, not a fellow reporter ... ever talked about striving for objectivity.

    The best you can hope for and the goal of any decent journalist is to be fair and accurate. That may fall a little short of the pure objectivity discussed by the fantasists, but it's a lot closer to the human experience.

  10. I really enjoy this website...Thanks! Now on to The Flint Journal. I'm an avid reader of news, both online and print, and TFJ is extremely lacking in both areas. Most days the stories read like high school bulletins, at best, and I often wonder who allows this to happen? Most people automatically blame the reporters lack of writing skills, or poor editing but it sounds to me like the real problem stems from the people who run the show and, unfortunately, if they keep it up, they're going to run themselves right out of business. I'm a Flintoid through and through, but most days I prefer to catch my Michigan news on Freep.com.

  11. Not bad for a blogger writing about Flint from San Francisco. You
    Really hit the nail on the head with this! It's not just the journal-it's happening all over the country-Thanks for touching on this-


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.