Reputations, Trust, and Atomic Publishing

It seems like the question comes up at every conference, interview, or personal publishing powwow: Can you trust bloggers as much as you can trust journalists?

Mike Industries Poll

Who will be the next well-known journalist to begin blogging full-time?


I always answer the question the same way: If you look at it in terms of “averages”, then no, you cannot trust bloggers as much as you can trust journalists. Looking at the averages, however, is the wrong way to answer the question. That would be like trying to answer the question of whether Italy or France makes better wine by dumping all the wine from each country into a vat, stirring it up, and then taking a sip from each.

Who cares about averages? What I really want is a few bottles of the best from each country plus maybe a sample of what one would consider “good table wine”. Armed with the best and the “typically good”, I can make a judgement as to who makes the better wine.

The same is true in the world of blogging vs. journalism. Since no one is going to settle for reading average journalism or average blogging once aggregation gets more intelligent, the real question to answer is “are the really good bloggers as trustable as the really good journalists?”

To answer this question, I always use three examples:

Om Malik

Om is a blogger and a journalist. The journalistic standards he upholds while writing for Business 2.0 are no different than those he applies to his blog, GigaOm. The man was a journalist before WordPress was even an apple in Matt Mullenweg’s eye. Om’s style varies a bit between his online and offline writings, and it is up to you to decide which you like better, but the unit you are deciding whether or not to trust in both cases is an atomic one: Om himself.

Walt Mossberg

Walt is a longtime personal technology writer for the Wall Street Journal and his column is often a catalyst for new products entering the mainstream. He doesn’t have a blog but the opinions and research he pens for the Journal are entirely his. The question to answer with Walt is “Would you trust him any less if he were to quit the Journal and start his own blog?” I believe most people would say no.

Rafat Ali

Rafat is the founder of PaidContent.org, MocoNews, and the ContentNext network which acts as parent to these and other emerging properties. I’ve been reading PaidContent since before they had a proper RSS feed and I’ve found they break more stories than almost any traditional media outlet. Rafat is an example of someone who could quite easily have a plum job as a journalist for the New York Times but chooses not to because he prefers the rapid-fire format of blogging.

So in all of these cases, we have writers who are perfectly trained in the art and science of journalism but would (and in some cases do) succeed by being great bloggers instead. This is not to say that what Om and Rafat do is not journalism… it is. It just follows the format of blogging a lot closer. It’s much more atomic, and much more timely.

The real reason Om left Business 2.0? I snapped this on a street at night in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.Which brings us to the the big news that broke a couple of weeks ago: Om is going full-time on GigaOm. I know I’m a little late in writing about this but I’m not into the whole “writing for TechMeme” thing. Who wants to write about something that 100 people are all scrambling to write about at once? That’s what reporters do, I guess, but I’m not a reporter.

Om is in the rare and enviable position of having built a brand up for himself while working in established media which is bigger than his own presence in established media. In other words, when you think of Om, you think of GigaOm (and a sweet stainless steel Nokia phone which Om once told me “will get you laid”). After recognizing that he could essentially run his own micro media network that had as much authority as any other source out there, he jumped ship and got some funding to help develop the business.

It must have been a bitter pill for the good folks at Business 2.0 to swallow. On the one hand, Om’s blog presence brought more attention to Business 2.0, but on the other hand, it made him “need” them a lot less in the end. I experienced the same dynamic while blogging during my employment at Disney/ESPN. The blog was a great way to evangelize web standards, progressive design principles, and new directions in video streaming “on unofficial behalf” of the company, but in the end, I felt the personal brand created at Mike Industries could be used for bigger and better things… like Newsvine.

I can definitely understand why companies do not want their employees blogging, but in looking at Om’s situation — which will be shared by others to come — can publications really expect their employees not to blog at all? Or in other words, cease all personal brand building while under employment? It’s certainly a lot to ask of some people.

Now, superbrands like PaidContent and GigaOm are extremely hard to create and only a select few writers have the skill and energy to create them, but what about more casual writers who are perhaps quite adept but aren’t going to get the millions of page views required to get wealthy off of their content networks? Thankfully for the rest of the world that falls into that category, we have things like Newsvine, MovableType/WordPress, and Typepad/Blogger — places to build reputations, start conversations, and have some fun doing it. All at a relatively atomic level, without the filter of a corporation between the writer and the reader.

Which brings us back to the original question of whether you can trust bloggers. As illustrated above, you can certainly trust the best ones, but the tricky part is evaluating reputations below that. In the distributed blogosphere there is no universal “reputation meter” but every company is taking a stab at creating one. At Newsvine, we have Vineacity. At Technorati, they have “Authority”. And on and on and on.

As reputation systems mature, we will find it increasingly easier to make our credentials portable. If I’m trusted by 50,000 members in one community, that data will be available to other communities so I’m not, in effect, starting from square one.

The atomic unit of publishing is the individual — it always has been — and the single greatest thing personal publishing has done is to transfer reputation from the publisher to the individual. Something tells me that with Om being one of the first renown journalists to turn his attention to this full-time, we’re still just getting started.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that mainstream media is going away, nor should it. It just means that big media might turn into more of a midpoint for many journalists instead of a final destination. And then again, a really smart publisher will probably figure out a way to give writers their own franchise within the organization.

So who will be the next well-known journalist to pursue a personal franchise full-time? Answer the poll at the beginning of this article to view the results.

18 comments on “Reputations, Trust, and Atomic Publishing”. Leave your own?
  1. Jessica says:

    I think you can trust journalists a bit more when there is a rep on the line, but even major news people can get a story wrong, or run with bad infiormation.. I always remeber that even journalists (and bloggers) who intend to report the truth do have thier own personal feelings about wether something is good or bad, and therefore it affects what is / how it is written; read on the air, printed in paper or online.

  2. Bradley says:

    In a sense, just like there are the elite names in journalism, so there will be in blogging/citizen journalism.

    But there are differences. For instance, most traditional journalism is regional, and many of the best names and faces in a region may not be known outside of. Insert the Web, and that has the potential to evaporate. Traditional journalism will likely always have much more structure. The beauty (and sometimes downfall) of the web is the lack of such structure. Nevertheless, trends will form, and one of them will be journalists-gone-pro-blogger.

    It seems to me that one of the reasons people/the media tend to raise the distrust question about bloggers is because so many exist. The majority of bloggers as a whole are like middle-class society: lots of people, everyone talking, nobody making extreme waves but without them, the country (or social web) dies.

    There certainly are a lot of journalists in the world also, but their regional disconnects, combined with their differing areas of interest all wrapped up in the cloak of traditional research/news/media keeps them rather separated in the minds of most Americans. It’s too easy to just say, “bloggers” and think of this huge number of potentially unqualified people. When people use the word, “journalists” we think of Dan Rather, Walt Mossberg… not some huge (and real) cloud of anonymous people. Big difference.

    Perhaps with the emergence of pro-bloggers like Om Malik and others, in time when people say, “blogger” we will think of these people and not this huge unknown cloud. At which point the lines begin to blur even further, yet things seem so much clearer.

    I still associate the word “blogger” with personal mediums, but that’s just me. I would venture to say that others do too, hence the phrase, “pro-blogger”.

    (I voted no opinion)

  3. robK says:

    Whoa whoa whoa, Ann Coulter is not a journalist. She is a fiction author.

  4. Blogger v journalist is comparing apples and oranges. Blogs are the medium, like a newspaper or magazine or news broadcast. Journalism is a type of writing, which can be done in any of those media. So a blogger can be a journalist – as in Mike’s three examples. They can also be entirely amateur; just someone writing about their personal life and posting pictures of their cat.

    At most ‘blogger’ is like ‘newspaper journalist’ or ‘TV reporter’ – combining both what that person does with the medium in which they do it. It’s best comparison is ‘broadcaster’, which can mean anything from an experienced anchor-person on TV news, to a vapid C-list celebrity hosting some vacuous teen reality show, to the DJ on an amateur radio station. So who would you trust more: journalists or broadcasters? It’s just not a valid question.

    What most people asking the blogger v journalist question are really asking is: “professional journalist” v “citizen journalist”? And of course the people who are most worried about the answer to that question are the professional journalists and old media publishers who are worried about all those amateur citizens stealing their jobs and livelihoods.

  5. Jehiah says:

    The question wasn’t who will be the next journalist to blog, but to blog *full-time*.

    Gladwell blogs… but only as a response or follow up to things he’s written elsewhere. I for one would love it if Malcom would take up blogging full time.

  6. Greg says:

    It can’t be Ann Coulter, she’s going to burn in hell-fulltime and I don’t think blogs will be involved.

  7. Jeff Croft says:

    I’m still struggling with the idea of a journalist who blogs. Why do newspapers do this (we do it at the newspapers I work at, too — I’m just not sure I understand why)?

    It seems to me that if you’re a professional journalist, you’re going to write in a journalistic way. You’re going to do the things a journalist does. It doesn’t matter if the header at the top of the page you’re writing on says “Blog” or “Editorial”. You’re a journalist, so you’re going to output journalism.

    I mean, really — what’s the difference between a “blog” and a “column?” If I write a column every week for my local paper — and especially if my local paper allows for comments on their stories online — how is that not a blog? It’s a regularly published, chronologically-based stream of my thoughts and opinions. Isn’t that a blog?

    To me, the only difference between a “blog” and a “column” is a perception that a blog is a non-professional thing. If a blog is non-professional, the only good reason I can think of for newspaper to have their reporters “blogging” is so that they can lower the journalistic expectations of those pieces. I.e. “if we call it a blog, we don’t have to fact-check as meticulously and no one will care if we make a few typos — it’s just a blog, after all.”

    Am I way off base here? If, as you say, “The journalistic standards he upholds while writing for Business 2.0 are no different than those he applies to his blog, GigaOm,” then what exactly makes GigaOm a blog instead of an editorial?

  8. I do think it’s weird that maybe a title can change the credibility of ones words. But like Jeff said, it may be just that a newspaper has to fact-check what they put out, whereas a blog only has to pass through whatever filter is in the blogger’s head or their research, so that’s why they’re seen as more trustworthy. But at the same time a blog could be more trustworthy because you know that person’s not holding anything back, and is writing more direct and honest.

  9. Bradley says:

    @Jeff,

    I totally agree with you, but I definitely think that the real difference is the veil of a “trusted source” that accompanies such media as your local newspaper. The fact that you are published through the newspaper, a supposedly trusted source, gives you more credibility. It’s the idea that “the newspaper wouldn’t take just anybody”, although we know in many circles that’s just not true anymore. :)

    Perhaps the real discussion isn’t on whether to trust “bloggers” or “journalists”, but rather… do we trust the content published without a trusted intermediary? It’s about channels, not authors.

    I use the word trusted very lightly. Don’t anybody flame me thinking that I wholeheartedly “trust” the media. :)

  10. Collin says:

    I think it’s tough to expect an answer for this question for many reasons. The main thing that comes to mind is that in order to even ask you must first assume that there is some major difference in the integrity and values of a person who blogs versus a person who is paid to write a column for some offline publication.

    To me it would seem like the differences would vary as much between blogger and journalist as it would between journalist and jourlalist or blogger vs blogger. To me people are people.

    So that leaves me wondering about the outside influences. A person blogging is only censored by himself where as other media type roles would most likely be passed through several people before it gets to the target audience. While this might mean a blogger has more ability to be honest it could also mean that he has more freedom to be inaccurate. You could possibly trust that the blogger is being more honest with his/her views but that says nothing about if the information being presented is dependable.

    To me what it comes down to is that people need to make up their own mind and use their brains to determine if something sounds right or not. If you find yourself agreeing with the writers views then trust would build naturally as that writer continues to be on the same page as you. Wouldn’t this be the same for both the lowly blogger and the reputable author/journalist?

  11. Jim H. says:

    I like Collin’s phrase, “freedom to be inaccurate,” though I wonder if perhaps ‘license to be opinionated’ might be more the case. Seems to me the dichotomy we’re concerned with is less about pure journalism vs. blogging and more about the basic new-media trend toward editorializing.

    Presenting fairly both/all sides of an issue seems less the goal than getting out your rant on whatever topic gets your dander up. Aren’t most blogs concerned more with persuaion than truth-telling?

    How many bloggers out there really aspire to objectivity (much less have the tools/time/resources to achieve it)?

  12. John Dowdell says:

    I’m not sure that dividing reporters (whether professional or amateur) into “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy” is as useful as dividing *stories* into “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy”.

    I trust the New York Times and Washington Post on many stories, but not on all stories they run.

    The last few weeks on Memeorandum I’ve wished I could just not see the entries from writers who engage in namecalling — that’s one of the few situations in which I feel comfortable rejecting an entire person’s conversation in a single motion.

    The Wikipedia UI could be more helpful to me if there were an easy-to-understand visual indicator of how controversial an entry is, how much dissension a story has spawned.

    If you’re thinking of adding some evaluative functions into Newsvine, then I’d like to see some quick indicator of how many objections a particular piece of reporting has spawned. Even the best reporters have a clinker or two, so knowing how a particular story was received is more useful for me. I’m not sure how to measure this, though….

  13. bingojackson says:

    You are not a journalist Mike, and yet I check this site to catch up with things that I may not ordinarily find, stories that I may not otherwise see. Whilst here I learn things, like the article on MySpace fettling or on sIFR. This makes you look a great deal like a journalist, the writing quality is of the same standard, the content is as well researched.

    People read this site (I think) because they trust it, does this make you a blogger or a journalist? are your opinions any less trustworthy than that of a journalist? Is there realy any difference at all between a good blogger and someone who writes for a periodical with a reputation?

    I’m realy not sure there is a difference anymore. People take their information wherever they find it and believe whatever they want to.

  14. Chris G says:

    If a journalist is one who works within the confines of traditional media, then more exacting editorial standards are generally – but not always – in play than is the case with Johnny Blogger. But a journalism degree and a style guide are far from a guarantee of quality.

    Journalist? Blogger? I’m not sure I care. Write something that is credible, creative, informative, well-crafted etc. and I’ll read it, no matter what your masthead or business card says. With so many choices available on the web, I’m happy to make my own mind up as to craft, credibility, etc. and to vote with the back button if my own exacting standards are not met.

  15. Jeff L says:

    Bill Simmons already writes a few times a week, on the internet. What specifically would have to change to make him a “blogger?” The addition of comments to his articles? Doing it on his own instead of for ESPN? He’s worked hard to get to the point where he gets paid for his writing, I don’t him doing something on his own to jeapordize that.

  16. Mike D. says:

    Jeff: As the poll question explained, I am asking — “Who will be the next well-known journalist to begin blogging full-time”. Bill Simmons is a full-time employee of ESPN. He does not maintain his own blog to my knowledge, and even if he does, it’s a side project.

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