Leaders vs bloggers and other meaningless fights

It's all meeja, innit?

Opinion A good leader writer - and I never was one of those! - has a vital function on a large newspaper or magazine. They tell the readers what the news stories are about. Well, that's all going to change, says a pundit.

You'll have noticed, perhaps, that El Reg is not a newspaper. Nonetheless, the laws of writing leading articles apply to the smallest news sources, and while it would be a long time in anybody's calendar before El Reg became a great anything, we have to abide by the rules of the game. And so we were intrigued to see a direct attack on "the leader" in Jeff Jarvis's BuzzMachine "blog" and his column in the Guardian. Blog first - talking about "Millennials":

"Most confirmed Sweeney's theories that Millennial students are not reading books for fun, watching television news or reading newspapers. Nearly all said they get their news from Yahoo!, Google, or other sites."

And then, to go with it, he launched into a vehement attack on the traditional "leader writer" in his column (leader?) in the Guardian.

The irony of leader writers is that they commit the sins usually attributed to bloggers: they rarely report and mostly just opine and pontificate - that is, they leech off the work of other journalists.

The first quote is his comment on a report from impeccably respectable academic sources (thanks to Wendy at Liberate for digging that out!) - the university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology - Richard Sweeney.

Impeccably respectable it may be, but as a source of profundity, it doesn't impress me much, with comments about "Millennials" - the baby-boomers' kids - and how they like to take advantage of the internet in their choice of music, clothes, classes and information. It's all good, honest (even useful) stuff! - and about as surprising as it would be if I offered a comment that "before the motor car, people walked to school, but these days they prefer to be driven". Well, yes...!

So, the question is whether the blogger and the leader writer are doing the same job.

Most of the criticisms of the leader writer that Jarvis offers here are what I'd regard as valid - but only when applied to bad leader writers! - "...they rarely report and mostly just opine and pontificate - that is, they leech off the work of other journalists".

Well, no, that's wrong, and I'm baffled by the comment. It's not just wrong about good leader writers; it's wrong about the great blogs too, which are put together by people on the inside, and whose opinions count a lot more than any commentator. But either American journalism is very different from great newspaper journalism, or Jarvis is missing something. Here's how I understand leader writing.

A great newspaper (and I'd include several weekly and monthly magazines in that category) has a reputation for even-handedness. Good news stories should not be slanted; they should try to present a "valid view" by balancing things.

But here's the problem: much of the "balance" material is not available. Time after time you research a story and it becomes apparent that something really bad is going down. You dig. Eventually, you find a trusted source - someone close to the action, and on the inside, but not grinding an axe - and immediately you'll find that you're talking to someone who will speak to you ONLY on condition of complete anonymity. Sometimes, because they'd lose their job if their cover blew, or sometimes because their very lives would be in danger, they simply can't be named or even vaguely identified.

This is where the leader writer comes in. It's a piece by the paper itself, which points to the news story, and makes it clear which way the paper thinks you ought to weigh the balance.

So yes: "... And they work anonymously", is not a mistake. It's deliberate, because the leader writer is, often, the same writer as the one who wrote the news piece, but can't de-cloak. "Leaders speak as the voices of institutions, issuing opinions from the mountaintop, hidden by the cloak of distance" - well, if a great paper is an "institution" then yes, OK! - it's an institutional voice. On the other hand, if you have information you can't publish, but which gives you a clear understanding of the true story, then surely, you owe it to your readers to say: "We, TheInstitution dot com, need to tell you that the situation is thus, and so!" - because your readers trust you to tell them what you think.

And of course, the other function of the leader section is to point readers at stories you think are important. "Go read more on page 94!"

Of course, the system is open to abuse. Biased papers are not great papers, and they do their best to make themselves look like great papers, and they perpetrate leader articles for which no excuse can be made. They fool a lot of readers, too. I haven't had to work on such a title, fortunately, but friends of mine have.

But by and large, if you read a Guardian leader (my own favourite daily newspaper) and you generally are in tune with its editorial policies, you should not read those leader articles as if written by some remote ignoramus, who merely has a hand-operated tree-felling device which needs a keener cutting edge, and who is searching for an abrasive spinning rock. They make mistakes, of course, and sometimes, they get caught up in the spirit of the moment, and hold opinions which, in a year's time, they'll regret.

But they are often expert reporters (or close colleagues) who have worked deeply on the story, and know a lot more of the background than they can legally print as news.

The "leader" is opinion, and covered by "fair comment" exclusions to libel. It allows a great newspaper to get information to its readers which it would not otherwise be allowed to share. When we reform UK libel laws, perhaps this won't be necessary. Perhaps, it will still allow the useful double-barrel attack of dispassionate news, and passionate comment?

A final point: the BuzzMachine is being perhaps a touch naive in saying: "Most [research] confirmed Sweeney's theories that Millennial students are not reading books for fun, watching television news or reading newspapers. Nearly all said they get their news from Yahoo!, Google, or other sites."

Yes, of course. We all do, for goodness sake. I do get a paper edition of a news journal, most days, but only because I can't get Google on the London Underground!

But when you go to Google, looking for (say) iPod virus news, what are you searching? "The internet" sure! - but not Technorati, not Digg, not the blogosphere; you're searching the Old Meeja - newspapers, mostly. Look down that list, and see whether it includes newspapers or not!

People who say "I don't read newspapers, I read Google" are deceiving themselves. It's like saying "I don't go near any cows, I get my milk from the dairy!"

As to how long the bulk of Google's news will be derived from the big news agencies and newspapers, before "great newspapers" all become online institutions, is quite another question. But whether printed on paper - like the Guardian - or published online - like the Guardian - they'll still need blogs and leaders to share important information that underlies the raw data.

If there is a "Kewney's Law of Media", then it's very simple. "A new medium may displace old media from top rank - but the old media will always live on."

We have blogs, and we have leaders, and they aren't the same thing. They overlap. The arrival of the blog, however, does not signal the end of the leading article or anonymous comment any more than the arrival of television marked the end of radio, or YouTube marks the end of TV.

This is a comment piece. I could, of course, run it on my blog. I could, of course, run it as an anonymous leader. Take out the links to other sources, and it could run in a newspaper as a leader. Take out the comment waffle, and it could run as a news piece. Read it into a microphone, and it becomes a podcast. Speak it into a camera...

What's interesting isn't the format. It's the idea. If the format manages to convey the idea, then the medium acquires some of the characteristics of the message. And of course, the message adapts itself to the medium. But it's still the idea that counts.

The blogs feed off the news media - newspapers, TV. So do the vlogs. Both enhance the great news institutions and expose the inadequacies of the dishonest and trivial. But neither affects the continued need for all media to inform and excite - to tell the audience things they didn't know, and which they will want to share with their friends.

That will never change. ®

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