Blogs and Newspapers 

There is plenty to discuss in Jimmy Lai's Blogs Are Critical Pals Of Newspapers.

Here is one part that I believe is erroneous:

In advanced western countries, few people are reading newspapers over the last ten years but the total number is still high.  Even in the United States where television and computers are popular, 54% of the people still get their news from newspapers everyday; on Sundays, the number goes up to 60%.  The number of people is higher than the most highly rated television program, Super Bowl.

I don't think that this is the right comparison.  Jimmy Lai is comparing 'apples' to 'oranges.'  On one side, he uses a 'total daily readership of any newspaper' figure of 54%.  He does not source the figure, but I believe it must be an adult population survey such as MRI or Simmons.  The MARS study that I run has a figure of 47% in year 2006.  On the other side, Lai uses a single television program rating for the Super Bowl and says that it is less.  According to CBS, for the 2006 Super Bowl, the average audience was 90.7 million, while 141.4 million people saw some part of the program.  The total population of the United States is about 290 million of which about 215 million are adults.  The Super Bowl audiences include children and teenagers.  If the 141.4 million figure is used (and newspaper readership is defined as reading or looking in any part of an issue), Super Bowl is at least as big as the sum total of all newspapers. 

I can reverse the situation.  On one side, according to the MARS study, the single highest newspaper rating is 8 million adult readers (or 4%) per day for the New York Times.  On the other side, the same MARS study has a 'total daily viewership of any television' figure of 95%.  This is not much of a fight, is it?  But anyway, this bit was not crucial to the argument.

Here is something else from Lai's essay:

No matter what happens somewhere, the people who participated or were eyewitnesses present at the scene can tell in first-person form what they saw and heard to the world.  Then why would anyone need newspapers anymore?  No, people will still continue to read newspapers, because bloggers do not have the reporters' expert journalistic knowledge and skills.  They don't have the feel for news and they can't do in-depth investigation.  Therefore, most of the "news" on blogs lack the news background, information and data.  Very few bloggers can provide detailed reports.  Without the editing, evaluation and wordsmithing by  editors, most of these reports are not very readable. ... 

That is probably true by and large, but not always.  I will quote from a couple of blogs that I just read earlier today:

(Matthew Yglesias, Talking Point Memos) One of the most neglected aspects of the blogosphere, in my opinion, is that precisely because it's (mostly) composed of people who aren't professional journalists, it's composed of people who are professional doers of something else and know a great deal about what it is they "really" do. Consequently, the overall network of blogs contains a great deal of embedded knowledge. The consensus that emerges from that process can, of course, be mistaken but even though the most prominent people expressing that consensus may not be experts in the subject at hand (the most prominent bloggers tend to be generalists), the consensus will almost always be grounded in some kind of well-informed opinions. If you want to push back on that, in other words, you'd better know what you're talking about and not treat your audience like a pack of mewling children.

If the above is too abstract, here is a concrete illustration from an economics professor writing on his blog:

(Brad DeLong)

Over at CJR, Steve Lovelady mourns the departure of Donald Barlett and James Steele from Time:

CJR Daily: Once There Were Giants: In a doleful shirt-tail, or footnote, to the New York Times story this morning on the appointment of a new managing editor at Time magazine, we learn this: "Donald Barlett and James Steele, two investigative reporters who have chronicled the vicissitudes of the American economy for Time magazine since 1997, have lost their jobs in a budget squeeze. The reporting duo, who together won two Pulitzer Prizes and two national magazine awards, were on the payroll of Time Inc. Their jobs were among about 650 that the company has eliminated in the last six months."

With that, there ended a chapter in American journalism the likes of which we may not see again. First at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 26 years and then at Time for nine years, Barlett and Steele came to be regarded by many as the premier investigative team in the business, and one that consistently met benchmarks to which others could only aspire. As Jim Warren of the Chicago Tribune has admiringly noted, in an age of singles hitters, Barlett and Steele swung for the fences every time, and seldom failed.

Their body of work is a testament to an exacting, relentless, painstaking and meticulous determination that other reporters could only shake their heads at as they admired it from afar. What they practiced was the opposite of "Gotcha!" journalism, or quick hits, or cheap shots. Rather, they burrowed in for months -- sometimes years -- at a time, and then returned with an examination of entire systems gone awry, whether it be an oil crisis, the nuclear waste dilemma, corporate welfare run rampant, the nation's ramshackle tax system, or the economy itself....

Ummm... No. I have a very different view of Barlett and Steele. My view was that they didn't know enough to write the stories they wrote--and were unwilling to learn. So whatever they produced was unreliable.

Examples? Sometime last decade I wrote, on some email list or other:

Email: Barlett and Steele, Who Pays the Taxes?: Examples of unreliability? Barlett and Steele's Who Pays the Taxes? has been dug out of the basement. 

Let me start on page 20, with "[Single parent] Jacques Cotton [paid] 19.8 percent of his income [of $33,500] in taxes. George and Barbara Bush's tax rate, remember, was 18.1 percent."

As I noted before, this is the only year of the Bush presidency during which the Bushes paid such a low average tax rate. The cause is that the denominator includes royalties from Millie's Book, which the Bushes declared as income, gave away, and took a charitable deduction for. Our tax system is not as progressive as I would like. But it is progressive. And Barlett and Steele are trying to mask the fact that it is progressive.

... Page 25: "If you are a middle-income [California] family, you may pay nearly as much in real estate taxes as a wealthy family whose home has a market value ten to fifteen times what yours is worth."

No mention of the fact that this is a result of the overwhelmingly popular Proposition 13: as long as you don't sell your house, your property taxes do not rise as your house's value appreciates. Proposition 13 was not the result (as Barlett and Steele imply) of nasty politicians in smoke-filled rooms eager to give the rich a break while the rest of us aren't watching, but of a voter referendum. ...

So while I agree that professional writing and editing make for a better overall product, there are often times when the writers and editors do not know specific subjects as well as some bloggers.  In my case, I have never studied or worked in journalism.  But there are some subjects in which I know a lot more than the typical professional reporter or editor.  One such subject is media audience measurement, and that was why I opened up this blog post with the comments about the newspaper and television audience figures.  I can tell immediately that the comparison was improper and other media research professionals will agree with me.

Another more concrete example is the interview of Hong Kong Disneyland managing director Bill Ernest that appeared on Thursday in Apple Daily, Hong Kong Economic Journal, Sing Tao and The Standard.  My information was that the actual interview was much more exciting and personally revealing than any of the published reports indicate.  I believe that the reporters and their editors either did not understand the substance of the conversation (for example, Bill Ernest was being asked about his opinion of Annette Funicello, a name that was totally alien to the relatively young Chinese reporters) or else they decided that their readers could not handle it.  It is a moment such as this that I wish a domain-knowledgeable blogger were present.

Here is some more from Lai's essay:

If you want to find about what goes on in the world from the blogs, you won't be able to.  If all the newspapers go out on strike and you can only get news from blogs, I guarantee that you will find it unbearable.  Newspapers are as rarified and taken for granted as the air -- if they disappear one day, you will learn how valuable they are.

This is necessarily a hypothetical exercise.  Newspapers do not often go out on strike, much less an employer-ordered strike of all newspapers in a city in order to prove a point.  Municipal garbage removers may go out on strike, but newspapers don't.  People will still need garbage pick-up afterwards but they may find other sources of information and not read newspapers again.  A general strike would be a very risky move that could devastate the newspaper industry perpetually.

The exercise is also unfairly positioned.  I agree that if the newspapers did not appear this morning and I were to look at the blogs, I would feel deprived.  But this assumes that the blogs are static and unadaptive.  By tomorrow, many of the bloggers would become civilian journalists.  They will scour the Internet, radio and television for local news and produce their news reports, podcasts, commentaries or whatever.  Many of these bloggers will actually produce interesting work of professional quality because ... yes, they are (possibly anonymous) reporters and editors out on strike!  Anyway, as I say, this is just a hypothetical exercise.

The most crucial message in Lai's essay is:

I don't believe that blogs can replace the functions of newspapers. ...  Blogs are newspapers' critical pals but not the enemy.

I think so too.  For this stance, Chinese blogger Michael Anti called me a rightist (alongside with him).  I regard that as an honor.