On Thursday I’ll be giving evidence to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport committee‘s sixth evidence session on The future for local and regional media. Based on the series of responses to their consultation earlier this year, I expect to be asked questions around particular themes. One of these revolves around the quality of blogs and how you guarantee that.
The quality issue is an interesting one that I expect to rear its head increasingly as hyperlocal startups become taken more seriously, lobby for equal treatment, and compete with established players for funding and advertising. We’ve already seen it, in fact, in some of the talk by ITN and PA around the bidding for local news consortia, and their talk of experience and reliability. The implication, of course, is that you can’t expect that from these ‘Johnny Come Latelies’.
When you look at it, the mainstream media can actually make claim to guarantees of quality (regardless of whether that quality exists) through a number of avenues: firstly, from being answerable to the market and to regulators, secondly, through professional codes of conduct, training and internal procedures, and finally through membership of professional organisations like the NUJ.
Bloggers, by contrast, can’t call on any of those same guarantees to ‘quality’. Many come from journalistic backgrounds and so have the same standards, but they don’t generally adhere to a formal code. Any time a ‘Bloggers’ Code of Conduct’ has been mooted it’s been greeted with derision because of the sheer diversity of practitioners. Still, I do think having individual codes that express your values and how people can obtain redress could count for a lot here.
What guarantees the quality of blogs?
Bloggers’ guarantees of quality, it appears to me, are enshrined in two key generic practices: the right of reply (comments) and transparency (linking). And a key overarching guarantee: accountability.
I’m not sure how to conceptualise this accountability, but it’s something of the web that needs exploration. You might call this ‘Google Juice’ or PageRank or simply reputation – what I’m trying to express is that the medium itself makes it difficult to get away with Bad Journalism as often as happened in less conversational media.
There’s also another guarantee of quality: lack of pressure from production deadlines, sales, proprietors and need to fill space. I’m not sure how long these will last, and in many cases they don’t apply (e.g. blogs who churn content for hits), but still, broadly, they deserve mention. Bloggers can pursue a story on its own merits, and indeed, when the collaboration of users is a major factor, they are reliant on serving their interests rather than those of advertisers or owners. I guess that’s another aspect of accountability.
Production versus Post-Publication
Looking at those claims you’ll notice that there’s a clear divide between Old and New Media. Almost all Old Media’s guarantees of quality relate to the production phase of journalism: once it’s published, there is very little ‘guarantee’ of quality at all. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and there’s little chance of that being changed.
New Media’s guarantees are more about post-publication – bloggers can’t guarantee that it will be balanced but they can guarantee that it will be fixed quickly if there’s something not quite correct, or missing, or that’s happened since.
Once again it’s the divide between the filter-then-publish and the publish-then-filter models.
And this brings us to the fact that the whole question rests on what you assume is ‘quality’. I can guess that MPs will assume that ‘quality’ means, for example, ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’. I’m not saying that those are not good qualities to have, but we should be careful of assuming they are the only qualities, or that they carry the same importance in a world of universal publishing as they did in a world where you could count the number of publishers on two hands.
In short, the importance of traditional values of news quality is changing and that needs to be recognised.
Equally, then, there are the qualities of being ‘accurate’, ‘up to date’, ‘comprehensive’ and ‘correctable’. The quality of being ‘up to date’, for example, had little meaning beyond the production deadline in a pre-web world. Its importance is much more important now that content is always accessible. ‘Accuracy’ was a quality subject to the limitations of time, sources and newsroom knowledge, but now it’s possible for experts and eyewitnesses to contribute. I could go on.
But for now let me hang this question out and, in the spirit of its subject, invite you to improve the quality of this blog post and answer the question: what guarantees can blogs draw on for their quality? What exactly is quality in a networked age? And how do we articulate that to those from a different era?