Looking forward to the future of journalism

Newspapers vs. bloggers: Who’s easier to intimidate?

NewspaperIf you were under investigation by both mainstream journalists and bloggers, who would be easier to intimidate: One single newspaper, or dozens of bloggers?

Pulitzer-prize winner Alex Jones says the downfall of newspapers threatens investigative reporting, because papers have the legal muscle to shrug off threats of lawsuits.

Michael Masnick at Techdirt and Tim Lee at Bottom-up say Jones has it mixed up — newspapers dependent on advertising make ripe targets for intimidation. Lee looks at Jones’ example of a newspaper covering a Boy Scout scandal in Idaho:

Jones gets the implications of this story completely backwards. It’s only because newspapers are large, profitable, commercial enterprises that the kind of intimidation techniques he talks about work at all. Imagine it’s 2020 and the Idaho newspapers have all gone out of business, and they’ve been replaced by several hundred bloggers, most of them amateurs. A whistleblower discovers some evidence of wrongdoing by a prominent Mormon official. Is it easier or harder for the whistleblower to get the word out?

Obviously, it’s easier. She can anonymously email the evidence to a dozen different bloggers. Those bloggers don’t have to all prepare long “investigative journalism” write-ups; some of them can just post the raw documents for others to look at. Once they’re widely available, other bloggers can link to those raw documents and provide commentary. The official being criticized has three big problems. First, taking legal action will be vastly more expensive because he’d have to sue dozens of bloggers rather than just one newspaper. Second, many of those bloggers won’t have any assets to speak of, so he’s unlikely to recover his legal costs even if he wins. And finally, if he foolishly presses forward, he’ll discover our friend the Streisand Effect: the fact that he files the lawsuit will cause a lot more people to cover the original allegations.

My take: Newspapers are indeed difficult to intimidate — as long as the people at the top are difficult to intimidate. So Jones’ claim really depends on the caliber of the institution. I’ve had a good experience at the Express-News, where the publishers and editors haven’t been afraid to stand behind a story.

Masnick and Lee overlook the fact there might not be a Utopian world in the future where a dozen bloggers are bird-dogging a story. Maybe it’s just you, Mr. Part-Time Blogger with a day job and a family to feed, investigating the Boy Scouts. What do you do when you get that nasty cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer?

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Even if a bunch of bloggers join the cause, following a complex story can be tricky if you have to read a bunch of posts to put all the pieces together. That’s really where newspapers shine — connecting the dots for readers with compelling writing, photos, graphics and resources on the Web.

The truth is, blogs and newspapers both have a role to play in getting information to the public. And blogs and newspapers can both be intimidated. It just depends on the people running them.

(Photo credit: Adrian van Leen for openphoto.net CC:PublicDomain)