Everything Is Cut and Pasted (I Think That's From the Book of Ecclesiastes) | Bleader

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Everything Is Cut and Pasted (I Think That's From the Book of Ecclesiastes)

Posted By on 10.20.10 at 02:26 PM

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John Kass:

Chicago Tribune reporters work in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. They do not blog from mommy's basement, cutting and pasting what others have reported, while putting it under a cute pen name on the Internet.

I'm still not really sure what the purpose of this sort of whinging is. Yes, there are a lot of shitty bloggers, some of whom use pen names, and some of whom presumably blog from basements. Before shitty blogs there were shitty usenet groups and listservs, and before that there were shitty zines, forever and ever amen. The vast majority of every form of communication isn't very good, be it writing or music or movies or etc., and the wider you expand your scope the higher the crap piles up. So as far as that goes, whatever.

But this part seems profoundly silly:

cutting and pasting what others have reported

No one ever goes after journalists or historians or economists or other professional writers for doing this, which is weird. If you read virtually any nonfiction book about any period that featured a popular press, it will almost certainly feature press accounts. Even elaborately reported books, like The Power Broker or Common Ground, just to name a couple masterpieces, are heavily reliant on the work of other journalists, and I don't think anyone whose work eventually fed into either book resents Robert Caro or J. Anthony Lukas for learning from and/or using their work.

Just for instance, Matt Taibbi cut and pasted reporting from the Reader on Chicago parking meters in his new book, Griftopia (with credit). My reaction wasn't "hey, fuck that guy," it was "that's neat, I wonder point he's going to use it to make." Taibbi is great at synthesizing other people's reporting—not that he doesn't do his own—and repurposing it to make an argument that the original reporters didn't make.

And this is a fairly common division of labor within journalism. Reporters at mainstream outlets often aren't allowed to use their reporting to express a personal or political opinion, so that job often falls to columnists and editorial boards. There's a lot of disagreement as to whether this is a good system or not, but the disagreement's never about whether it's permissible for columnists and editorial writers to rely on other people's reporting, because they just have to. Nor is it necessarily a matter of directly and consciously using other people's work. Everyone in the business has read some reporting or research that sticks with them whether they realize it or not—maybe it's Milt Rakove, or Gary Rivlin, or Mike Royko, or J. Bradford Hunt. No one's coming to this with a blank slate, nor should they.

Sure, there's no direct quality control system for blogging, insofar as bloggers don't have bosses who can take away their Wordpress passwords. But there is QC in the way that virtually all media work—writers who are good and smart and reliable gain audiences, while those who are bad and dumb and wrong lose them. As a result, a lot of good, nonprofessional writers have come to the attention of good professional writers, enriching the knowledge of general readers.

Here's one instance. Mike Konczal runs a blog called Rortybomb; he's a Roosevelt Institute fellow and former financial engineer who's shown up in a lot of places, but he's not a reporter. Konczal put together a five-part series on the foreclosure mess called Foreclosure Fraud for Dummies. In the first post, he borrows from two bloggers at Naked Capitalism, one at Credit Slips, two HuffPo reporters, one Mother Jones reporter, and two Washington Post reporters. That's three straight-up bloggers, two new-media reporters, one activist-magazine reporter, and two honest-to-goodness MSM reporters, if you're keeping score. It was making the rounds of the financial blogs, and then Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (who regularly gives attention to his peers' blogs) picked it up.

[Update: Dean Starkman has a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on journalists vs. bloggers in the specific realm of the growing mortgage/foreclosure crisis. You'll have to click through to see who he thinks is winning (via @jayrosen_nyu). There's more from Starkman here, though it's behind a paywall.]

I grew up in the pre-Internet, Balkanized age of the press, when ideas and interpretations moved by slow boat from daily to weekly and monthly and back or in reverse, and I find this process miraculous: knowledgeable amateurs (or, perhaps more accurately, "professionals in something else") can immediately have the ear of of writers at the world's biggest outlets based on their expertise and the quality of their work. And Rortybomb is just one example; this happens every day now.

If anything, I'm for more cutting and pasting. Done ethically, generously, and well, it throws deserved attention on writers and reporters (particularly on beat reporters whose raw reporting becomes the basis for broader, sexier debates). And perhaps more importantly, it exposes the mechanics of communication to readers, in the way that open-source code exposes programmers and would-be programmers to the inner workings of the system: Here are the parts. Here's where to find them. Here's how to put them together.

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