John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


Old school, new school

Last Friday hockey fans saw another example of how the world of journalism can be a divided place.

Matthew Barnaby, currently of ESPN and formerly of the Buffalo Sabres, tweeted that Tim Connolly might have been punched in the eye by his teammate Derek Roy. He then retracted the statement saying that his sources were wrong.

This opened the door for John Vogl of the Buffalo News to say in a blog post that:

“The Roy-Connolly story began Monday night with 'rumors all over Twitter.' After putting on hip waders, rubber gloves, a gas mask and taking an anti-vomit pill, I ventured to the God-forsaken site and discovered what I expected to discover: One person posted the rumor, and a lot of other people copied and/or linked to the one comment, making it look like more than one person actually had an original thought.”

Seems like Vogl’s editorializing about Twitter is a little bitter, a little personal, doesn’t it? That’s because it’s only the latest example of an ongoing feud in reporting circles.

This is because journalism, like any industry, has cliques, rivalries and feuds.

There’s the obvious disagreements along political fault lines, rivalries both corporate and individual as well as the usual disagreements that plague all places of business.

Of course, there are also clashes of style and personal bias. It should be expected. Journalism demands long hours, often late into the night with tight deadlines. Tensions will always run high in that kind of stressful environment.

But in the past couple of years a new, more philosophical, divide has appeared amongst journalists: traditional (or mainstream) outlets versus the New Media.

Boundaries and alliances have been drawn with print, radio and some television journalists lining up against web-based news outlets, particularly bloggers.

The knock on new media is that it’s not true journalism. Bloggers haven’t been to J-School and therefore aren’t bound by the ethics of journalism. They might even be anonymous, able to wantonly libel and slander anyone they want without any threat of legal repercussions.

Similarly, a tweet doesn’t go through the checks and balances of the editorial system employed by traditional outlets. The immediacy of the Internet opens it up to quick-triggered reports that could be false.

Ask popular singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot about that speed – this time last year he was widely reported to be dead. He definitely was not, and many whip-fast online editors were red-faced.

Champions of the new media point out that blogs and Twitter can be just as accurate and perceptive as any traditional news source. Also, the speed of the Internet is as much an asset as it is a liability.

Also, online journalism sometimes benefits from its editorial freedom.

Take for example the media-criticism website Deadspin. In early October it reported that famed National Football League quarterback Brett Favre made a Hail Mary pass to Jenn Sterger, a sideline reporter with the New York Jets, by sending a text message containing a photo of his penis.

Even though it spread like wildfire across the Internet, it took weeks for mainstream media to pick up the story, likely because conservative editors were reluctant to take a run at a sacred cow like Favre.

Flexibility is also a major strength of e-journalism. Where else can a consumer watch a video of the G20 riots, read a commentary on the ensuing arrests, then listen to an interview of a protestor and get regular updates on the ongoing violence in downtown Toronto?

The Internet also allows users to participate, a double-edged sword to be sure, but nonetheless, interactivity is a valuable tool.

This debate rages in all journalistic circles, but has become especially contentious in sports journalism. It’s the corner of the reporting world that probably has the most amateur online journalists and it also has athletes, reporters and fans can interact via email and Twitter.

Sports are also the fastest paced arena for journalists, with multiple stories being generated for every game played worldwide on a daily basis. The output of any sports department is massive, earning the nickname “the Meatgrinder” in many newsrooms.

When there’s a full slate of games in several leagues, North America’s sports media complex churns out thousands of stories.

That’s why sports journalism is prone to incidents like the erroneous report that long-time National Hockey League coach Pat Burns had died on Sept. 16. The media machinery was locked, loaded and ready to go, and the speed of the Internet made it impossible to stuff the genie back in to the bottle.

In the aftermath of the premature report of Burns’ demise, journalists pointed fingers at each other. Traditional media outlets blamed the blogosphere and Twitter for the rapid spread of the story, but new media was able to trace the rumour back to several print and radio outlets.

Unfortunately, the false alarm made Burns’ actual passing last week even more uncomfortable as many readers were once bitten, twice shy about the news.

Similarly, ESPN’s Bill Simmons had to write a lengthy apology and explanation on Oct. 13 after he accidently broke the news that Randy Moss was being traded to the Minnesota Vikings on his Twitter account. There was much less controversy surrounding that flub though, because it turned out that Simmons was right. Still, it was a startling demonstration of the power and speed of online journalism.

The pervasive lack of respect for new media amongst print journalists ignited a small storm of controversy right here in Toronto when the local Sun newspaper printed a story about an interview with Tomas Kaberle’s father – without citing the translation provided by the Pension Plan Puppet’s blog that it was apparently based on.

Things got ugly on Twitter when Yahoo! Sports hockey blogger Greg Wyshnicki and the Suns’ Steve Simmons debated the journalistic ethics of the newspaper’s behaviour. It’s hard to breakdown the entire debate, but if you’re interested go to either feed and scroll all the way back to August 20.

At the heart of this dispute seems to be a basic misunderstanding of what makes a blog or a Twitter feed.

Simply put: they are media, not genres.

Saying “bloggers aren’t journalists” is like saying that “television isn’t funny”. No, television isn’t necessarily funny, but it can be. Books aren’t all fiction, but they often are.

A blog can be photos, it can be recipes, it can be fiction or it can even be journalism. Not to get all McLuhan up in this, but the medium does not define the genre or subject matter.

There might be a blogger who is irresponsible and posts inaccurate information online, but the same could happen to a print or television journalist. Poor reporting isn’t any more or less intrinsic to New Media than it is to traditional outlets.

When traditional journalists rail against Twitter or blogs I imagine they sound a lot like radio producers did when television first became popular – a little scared, a little ignorant and very short-sighted.

New media is here to stay, there’s no disputing that. But it’s a new, open frontier that experienced reporters and writers should be embracing, not just because it’s the future of the industry but because they’ve been presented with a rare opportunity to set the new rules and paradigms and maybe, just maybe, improve the quality and quantity of content.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Some of the old guard have done a fantastic job of adopting (or adapting to) the new technology. TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and ESPN’s Bill Simmons are all examples of veteran reporters who are using and experimenting with New Media.

This is to their infinite credit.

They see the potential of Twitter, blogs and the Internet in general and are embracing it, to the benefit of their fans around the globe. They understand that handled correctly, an energetic and ambitious reporter or editor can help set the tone for journalists for decades to come in New Media.

Journalists and consumers alike will be better off when everyone learns this lesson and embraces online media instead of dismissing it.