We have already issued grand lèse-majesté diktats concerning the overlap of Weblogs and journalism.

[Dissipated blowhard Jon] Katz goes so far as to say “anybody with a computer and a modem can be a journalist and use the open protocols of the Net.” Um, no. Anyone can publish. That doesn’t make you a journalist. A writer, yes. A publisher, sure. A contributor, a participant, a blogger, a (content) creator. But journalism requires more acumen than your typical Weblogger or contributor to a mailing list could ever put together. If that’s a value judgement, so be it. The ability to use a Font menu does not make you a designer; reading and writing do not make you a journalist.

We object to the currently-fashionable discussion of Weblogs-as-journalism (or -as-fad) because it recapitulates a talk-show annoyance: Commentators act like they know what they’re talking about. In this case, everyone takes it upon themselves to define journalism itself, usually in an effort to discredit Weblogs as unjournalistic.

And what’s wrong with that, you ask?

Truth and newness

Traditional journalism takes many forms – far more forms than commentators understand. “Journalism” is more than wire copy. Determining what is or is not journalism seems to be a task of matching against an ideal – a set of qualifying principles, as it were.

An essential component appears to be truth and newness, as distinct from news. You need to contribute something to the world, and it cannot be false. (Exception to be noted shortly.)

Your contribution need not be original, otherwise library research and the Watergate tapes could not form the basis of reportage. Combining old information, whether previously available or not, can form a gestalt of newness. Your sources may be open or closed (secret); even reportage using nothing but open sources can be valuable and new because it is so hard to dig up those sources yourself. (Need we remind you that not every datum in the world can be located by Googling?) A recent example of impressively thorough open-source journalism is the timeline of ABC and Nightline. (We’ve done it, too.)

Under the ægis of newness, however, you can find all the following:

So what about (auto)biography? It seems to qualify. Recent autobiography seems to have disppeared due to technological progress: It is no longer necessary to save up printed notes (or simply memories) from your trip to Kyrgyzstan before turning your recollections into a journalistic article or other form. You can type them up in situ. In any event, the recollections of a lifetime are certainly new and are usually true; conventional (auto)biography is journalistic.

(Perhaps that is a useful term – journalistic rather than journalism.)

How about fictionalizations? Is Swoon a truthful depiction of a 1924 murder case even though the actors leave messages on answering machines and mute TVs with remote controls? (Yes.) Is Paul’s Case a truthful depiction of the psychology of Paul Bernardo, despite its novelistic doggerel form, with ancillary illustrations? (Yes.) What about Guernica? (Yes.) Is O.J. Simpson’s darkened Time mugshot (by Matt Mahurin) true, even when it sits alongside an undarkened Newsweek variation? (Yes.) They’re all certainly new, aren’t they?

How do fictionalizations fail to be untrue? They don’t set out to deceive. They don’t pretend to truth despite being fabrications, as fraudulent “journalism” does. They use centuries-old narrative forms to express truth. The distinction between these forms and those of conventional journalism is of one of degree, not kind. (If we sound like apologists for Storytelling, trust us, we’re not.)

Practical applications

Let’s apply our new principles to Weblogs. One claim:

Well, they aren’t journalism, are they? Where are the editors? How many Webloggers go out and gather facts or interview sources? By chance, occasionally Weblog editors are in the middle of an event and serve as sort of frontline correspondents. But journalism? Linking to a series of news stories investigated by others and adding your opinion is akin to the op-ed page, to being a pundit. But calling Weblogs as they now exist "journalism" is just self-aggrandizing and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the profession.

Editors aren’t necessary. Helpful, yes. But they don’t add truth or newness. Quite obviously, being “in the middle of an event and serv[ing] as a sort of frontline correspondent” is journalistic. Op-ed pages are journalistic. And we betray no “fundamental misunderstanding of the profession”; we’ve been around.

And besides, by one reckoning, “the ability and willingness to publicly reflect on itself and be self-critical is generally seen as one of the defining characteristics of a profession” (emphasis added).

Objectivity and fairness

Let’s dispense with another shibboleth frequently quoted by talk-show guests: Objectivity. We hate to break this to you, but journalism is never objective because human beings are not. Fairness and accuracy are the goals, not objectivity. Even heavily opinionated journalism (columnists hired specifically for the outrageousness of their opinions, for example) can still be fair and accurate. (What does “fairness” mean here? Ask the source for a comment, or run your point by the source, and report it – accurately. Then say whatever else you want. It’s opinion, after all.)

Weblogs are never objective, a fact that fails to disqualify them as journalistic. Journalists aren’t objective, either.


We hope we have added to the range of ideas in the debate. (Truth and newness, remember.)

But here’s yet another way to look at it:

Instead of worrying about being journalists, Webloggers can concentrate on being sources or witnesses.

One could look at blogging as witnessing, rather along the lines of the Quaker tradition. You have a need and indeed obligation to explain what you know, saw, or experienced so that a form of edification, reassurance, reinforcement, or catharsis can take place among your readers. (We’re adapting the history here; it’s more like heartfelt self-expression than “apologetics.”)

Or think of TV news. The journalist on the scene may interview sources, particularly at scenes of tragedy, accident, or drama. Weblogging can be seen as a form of stating what you know, saw, or experienced. It may help to imagine you are creating a statement for police (indeed, you may imagine yourself talking to the police).

If you don’t want to concede that bloggers are journalists, would you finally shut up if we agreed to call them sources?

Posted on 2002-03-05