Web culture “degrades valuable things”? A rant at David Leigh

Today’s rant is addressed to investigative reporter David Leigh, a person I respect enormously but who makes the typical mistake in the latest Press Gazette. of mistaking new media for old media:

He said that web culture “degrades valuable things” such as “the idea of discrimination, that some voices are more credible than others, that a named source is better than an anonymous pamphleteer (that’s what they used to call bloggers in the 18th century, when they published, for example, the politically dangerous Letters of Junius.) The notion of authoritativeness is derided as a sort of ‘top-down’ fascism. I fear that these developments will endanger the role of the reporter.”

Now, while history is always a useful way of looking at new developments, it should always be treated with a pinch of salt. Here beginneth the lesson:

  • Web culture “degrades valuable things”? Such as “the idea of discrimination? That some voices are more credible than others? One word: Google. Google’s success is built on the need to find the valuable in a sea of crap. Google’s success is built on discrimination. Now, its version of credibility is not the same as newspapers’: it is built on a number of things, including relevance of content and who links to it (including their credibility, so a link from the BBC is worth more than a link from your mum), but that doesn’t mean that the valuable is degraded, or credibility. It just means the decision is more delegated and aggregated.
  • Pamphleteers were 18th century bloggers? No. Pamphleteers were publishers in the traditional sense. They published, you read. There was no commenting facility on pamphlets. You could not link to a pamphlet and say what was factually incorrect. Pamphlets didn’t have linkback.

It’s a typical mistake to confuse publishing online with publishing in print. People have always gossiped and exchanged misinformation; and reporters have always sought to be authoritative and credible. Now both are taking place in the same sphere, and you could argue both are learning from each other. Bloggers are having their facts checked, doing more original reporting – and becoming commercialised. Journalists are becoming more conversational, more iterative – and losing their jobs. It’s not all good for journalism, and neither is it all bad. But let’s not talk about ‘web culture’ as if the technology is driving us.

2 thoughts on “Web culture “degrades valuable things”? A rant at David Leigh

  1. Aron Pilhofer

    Hey Paul,

    I think you’re right — but wrong. I can’t argue with your specific quibbles, but, boy, you’re really missing his point: lamenting the apparent end of “slow journalism,” as he puts it. Bloggers have their place, but even you have to concede that there’s not a lot of great investigative blogging going on out there, nor is there likely to be. If our future looks anything like the present, Leigh is pretty much spot on when he says “I don’t want to see a journalistic future made up of hyper-active News Bunnies and narcissistic bloggers.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t great journalism of some stripe online, it’s just not the kind of agenda-setting, perception-changing journalism that has defined David Leigh’s career. That’s a serious deficiency online media advocates to confront, not brush aside.

  2. paulbradshaw Post author

    Yes, I am missing his point, which is a fair one, if ill-founded. It would just benefit from being better informed. The web is not a place where “other people” live. ‘Slow journalism’ has been under attack since well before the web – and actually the web’s permanence provides one way to revitalise it.
    But yes, you’re right: we do need to address the how and why rather than make the opposing error and assume technology will do this for us.


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