Blogonomics: The Gulf Between Bloggers and Professional Journalists

John Gapper says that he sees "a

sort of consensus" emerging between blogs and newspapers.

The boundary between old media and new is falling and the distinction between

blogs and print publications is eroding…

I imagine the two sides will eventually meet in the middle, even if it is

not clear where the meeting-point will be.

In the wonderful world of In Theory, I daresay this is true. In the day-to-day

world of In Practice, however, it isn’t. And with your indulgence I shall now

embark upon some epic financial-media navel-gazing. I won’t be offended if you

stop reading here, I promise.

First, it’s worth emphasizing that finance, as a subject, is not easy to write

about for a general audience. In fact, I can’t think of a single news organization

which has consistently managed to write about finance in a manner which is neither

incomprehensible to the layman nor condescending to financial professionals.

It’s a rare and precious skill, and interestingly one person who I think does

it better than almost anybody else is a blogger: Tanta, at Calculated


Now I’ve written

glowingly about Tanta in the past, and she definitely has her enemies. Some

think she’s biased when it comes to the mortgage industry; I don’t agree. The

NYT’s Gretchen Morgenson (a frequent target of Tanta) is more biased than Tanta

is, more prone to thinking the worst of mortgage bankers. Others complain that

Tanta is intemperate, and in that they are correct. Read one of Tanta’s blog

entries on Morgenson, and you almost want to go dashing over to 43rd

Street 8th Avenue with some bandages and a nice cup of tea. When she

gets her teeth into a newspaper article she thinks very little of, Tanta pulls

no punches – and, I assure you, those punches land square, and hard.

Now Tanta’s actually been blogging at CR for less than a year, and her first

media post – which was about Morgenson, natch – came on March

5. What’s interesting about it, aside from its content, is that fact that

although she drips a bit of sarcasm here and there, she doesn’t have the take-no-prisoners

approach she later


Meanwhile, she was and is happy to heap

glowing praise on other reporters when it’s deserved.

Tanta has written about many different journalists, by name, over the months.

Some she’s been ruder about than others. But I have a feeling that not one of

those journalists has actually engaged her, thanked her for her insights, defended

their reporting, or in any way tried to collaborate with a woman who clearly

knows an enormous amount about the industry and who is equally clearly dedicated

to really uncovering the truth of what is going on out there.

I use the word "collaborate" deliberately, because it’s the word

that New York Times executive editor uses in an

email to Jeff Jarvis:

My respect for blogs as a tool of journalism is not the least bit grudging,

and my conviction that professional journalists should collaborate with their

audience is heartfelt. That’s especially true when you have an audience

as educated and engaged as ours.

You just can’t get more educated and engaged than Tanta. So why isn’t

the NYT collaborating with her? (I must admit that I don’t know that the NYT

hasn’t reached out at all. I don’t read all Tanta’s comments, and I certainly

don’t read her private email. But I doubt that there’s very much in there from

Keller also says, in the speech

which prompted the email to Jarvis, this:

We get things wrong. The history of our craft is tarnished down the centuries

by episodes of partisanship, gullibility, and blind ignorance on the part

of major news organisations. (My own paper pretty much decided to overlook

the Holocaust as it was happening.) And so there is a corollary to this first

principle: when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly

as possible.

I can hear Tanta’s hollow laugh from here. No impartial observer, looking over

Tanta’s history with Morgenson columns, would say that Morgenson never "got

it wrong" – but as far as I know, no corrections have been forthcoming.

The NYT is great at correcting small things like misspelled names, and every

so often Keller himself will write what he calls "mea culpas for my paper

after we let down our readers in more important ways". In between those

two poles, however, if there isn’t an aggrieved subject agitating for a correction,

nothing tends to appear.

Interestingly, Keller actually diagnoses one of the problems with Morgenson:

I think you are more likely to present a full and fair-minded story if your

objective is not to bolster an argument, but to search out the evidence without

a predisposition – including evidence that might contradict your own beliefs.

Once you have proclaimed an opinion, you feel compelled to defend it, and

that creates a natural human temptation to overlook inconvenient facts or,

if I may borrow a phrase from the famous Downing Street memo, fix the facts

to the policy.

Tanta probably couldn’t have put it better herself.

But the thing which really bothers me is that while Gapper sees professional

journalists and bloggers converging, I look at the short history of Tanta’s

blogging and see them moving further apart. She’s become increasingly shrill:

when she finds a piece of journalism she thinks very little of, even when it’s

by a respected journalist such as Peter

Eavis, she tends to shout, and should loudly.

The shrillness of Tanta’s tone then gives her victims every reason not to respond.

Everybody knows there’s no reasoning with readers as rude and truculent as Tanta.

(Although this line of argument would be more convincing if journalists at places

like the NYT and Fortune ever responded to blog entries about them:

in fact, however, they tend to ignore even the very polite ones.) In turn, Tanta

feels increasingly like a voice in the wilderness: shouting is what people

do when they think they’re not being heard.

This gulf is not easily bridged. I don’t expect for a minute that Ben Stein

will stop by here and respond to my posts about him: he probably lumps me in,

if he thinks about me at all, with the green-ink

brigade. Hell, I don’t even expect my colleagues at Portfolio magazine to

respond when I write about their articles, with the noble exception of Jesse

Eisinger. And I’m a professional journalist, blogging under my own name, for

the website of a mainstream publication. Imagine how much harder it is to get

a response if you’re a media outsider, blogging under a pseudonym, at a


Meanwhile, although I am quite sure that I’m taken much more seriously by financial

professionals than Ben Stein is, it’s Stein, with his pulpit at the NYT, who

seems to be able to have the

chairman of the Senate Banking Committee at his beck and call. That’s nothing

to do with Stein, and everything to do with the power of the New York Times:

it’s unthinkable that Dodd would have done what he did had Stein been writing

for any other publication. (And indeed Stein did precious little reporting for

his column: he relied mostly on an

Allan Sloan piece from mid-October, which got no traction at all on the

Senate floor.)

If you have that sort of influence with the truly powerful, your incentive

to slum it in the blogosphere is much reduced – unless that’s something

you actively enjoy. And some big-name journalists love it here: Paul Krugman,

for one, loves mixing it up with econobloggers and is generous too about linking

to them.

(It’s worth noting that Krugman writes for the NYT editorial page, which means

that he is not part of Keller’s domain; he can criticize

Stein with impunity. The business section’s DealBook blog, on the other

hand, excused

Stein’s column on the grounds that he was "half joking" –

try telling that to Chris Dodd. It also said that Stein had "attracted

much criticism" while somehow managing to link to none of it. While Keller

is proud of his website’s blogs, most of them are still far from being really

bloggy – they’re edited, for one, and they almost never allow themselves

to get involved in debates or conversations with other blogs.)

It’s true that blogs are capable of bringing down politicians, just like newspapers.

But financial blogs don’t have anything like the same kind of influence that

the big political blogs have, and as a result newspapers find it easy to ignore

them – that’s going to change very slowly indeed. But it will happen,

as increasing numbers of financially-literate professionals realize that there’s

a whole world of information and analysis out there on the web, and that much

of it is of objectively higher quality than the stuff they read in their daily


As I say, writing about finance is hard – and bloggers have a huge home-team

advantage over most mainstream media in that they don’t feel the need to spell

everything out for the sake of readers who might have no idea what a bond is.

What’s more, many of them are financial professionals themselves, and know exactly

what they’re talking about. Journalists, by contrast, tend to be arts graduates;

many of them are positively petrified every time they see a number. As a result,

as any financial news outlet will tell you, it’s really hard to find good financial


But the biggest gap between professional journalists and bloggers hasn’t even

begun to start narrowing. It’s this: professional journalists tend to

think of their article as the end of a process of reporting, while

bloggers tend to think of their entries as the beginning of a process

of commenting.

Once a journalist’s story has been edited and published, he or she is on to

the next thing. By the end of the day, the story is lining a cat’s litter-box

somewhere. It’s over, and the journalist is hitting the phones, getting the

next scoop. There’s no equity in revisiting old pieces, especially given the

"no sooner does the ink dry than it revolts me" syndrome – something

coined by Jesse Eisinger, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett.

A blog, by contrast, is nothing without reactions – from commenters,

from other blogs, even, occasionally, from the mainstream media. Professional

journalists simply don’t view their own work in the light of how it’s received

by others in the way that bloggers do. They therefore have little interest in

using web technology to artificially extend the natural life of any given story.

I am not a columnist. A columnist’s entries must be self-contained, while blog

entries can be much more open-ended. Yesterday, I wrote something about marking

subprime bonds to market; most of my best points ended up getting made in

conversation, in the comments, rather than in the blog entry itself, which made

a silly mistake in its opening two paragraphs. The idea that you can go back

and refine and improve what you’ve already written – that is still nowhere

to be found in most professional journalism. The idea that a blogger can just

write a blank entry and say "open thread", and get hundreds or even

thousands of comments, is equally alien to anything in the mainstream media

– as is the idea that doing so is genuinely valuable and even counts as


Yes, bloggers – including Tanta – are doing more reporting these

days. And of course it’s hard to find a newspaper or magazine which doesn’t

have blogs these days. But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re anywhere near

meeting each other in the middle.

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