What quality guarantees do blogs have? (response to government)

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?

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11 thoughts on “What quality guarantees do blogs have? (response to government)

  1. Laurent Fintoni

    For me personally the main quality of guarantee would be, as you’ve mentioned, a personal code of conduct/morals/ethics/whatever you want to call it on the part of the individual blogger, or, if we’re talking about online magazines or collective blogs, the collective/editor.

    I find it difficult to think of any solid quality guarantee, but i think a valid analogy applies to this:
    There is no guarantee that a video uploaded on Youtube will be of any ‘quality’ due to the core concept of the modern web that allows for user-generated content to be the prime source of content. So someone can upload a video of their cat eating lunch, which has little value and/or quality to most people. While at the same time someone can create a professional video montage of life in their neighbourhood say. Both videos have the same ‘footing’ and access to a worldwide audience. The difference between one video become popular or not doesn’t necessarily lie in the quality but rather in how it is filtered among all the other noise to people who may be interested by it – these filters include people forwarding the link, embedding it, blogging it, tweeting it etc…

    All of which is a long winded way of saying that one guarantee of quality for blogs as I see it is this filtering – the more people comment, the more people link it, the more people reference it, the more people put a seal of approval on it and pass it onto their own circle, the more you can be sure of the quality of the material.

    Hope that makes sense!

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      Yes, the guarantee of quality does not come from the individual blog but from the collective actions of its readers, commenters and other bloggers and their actions around it and in distributing it. Thanks – excellent point.

      Reply
      1. Matt Wardman

        I’d say: both author and the crowd.

        If a piece about Online Journalism, I am more likely to trust one from say Paul Bradshaw, than from say Baroness Buscombe or the Akond of Swat.

        On the other hand, at this point I have no reason to trust a piece from Paul Bradshaw on how to hold a catch and roast a wild boar in the German Countryside when all you have to hand are 2 matches, a packet of cornflakes, a tin opener, and a condom, than I would trust one written by Ray Mears.

        Personal brand within each content niche matters, whatever the crowd says afterwards.

  2. william perrin

    you have the basic distinction right – pre and post publication. most MPs have had great trouble getting a paper to correct something they have got blatantly wrong, so worth playing on that.

    MPs are also coloured by only reading the poisonous bile of the mainstream political blogs – it is rare to find an MP with a feel for hyperlocal publishing like http://www.kingscrossenvironment.com or http://digbeth.org

    ‘objectivity’ is a dead end I have never really understood why journalists aim for this. The Independent is a good example of where that leads you. Yet politicians like it in a public service sense because the ‘balance’ criterion gives even the weirdest opposing position a right to speak. local blogs aren’t impartial – they are pro their area usually.

    in general there is a huge deficit of understanding among national politicians about what is going on in the hyperlocal publishing scene – they are a long way behind the curve. When you show them good local sites like say lichfieldblog they love them, they just don’t know they are there yet. See the session as a way of educating them (albeit in words, perhaps with hand gestures and absolutley no internet).

    Reply
    1. Matt Wardman

      >MPs are also coloured by only reading the poisonous bile of the mainstream political blogs

      I dispute that. I think you are falling for a bit of a caricature. Most of them *don’t* read it. Hazel Blears famous ‘nihiltic bloggers’ comments were based on a couple of Westminster village blogs and an aim to deliver a political mugging. The speech transcript was not available to bloggers until the anti-blog media line had been established (eventually I had to get my transcript from a newspaper by the back door).

      Some political blogs do hostile pieces, but many are written by party members, where MPs could have influence on if they tried, and that the MSM and politicians themselves are as bad 🙂

      >in general there is a huge deficit of understanding among national politicians about what is going on in the hyperlocal publishing scene – they are a long way behind the curve. When you show them good local sites like say lichfieldblog they love them, they just don’t know they are there yet.

      Part of the answer to that is in the hands of the sites, and part of it is to have a high self-image – assuming that you are worth MPs etc talking to, then they will assume that you are too.

      There is perhaps an opportunity for e.g., interviews to be cross-posted from political sites. If I want to, I can probably get interviews with most MPs.

      It needs relationships first – appoint a local political blogger as your political correspondent, and expect them to write reports as well as opinions.

      Reply
  3. Laurent Fintoni

    That is definitely one of the key things that is different from traditional media imho. There is a great website from Information Architects based around their web trend map, which builds on this idea of filtering as a mark of quality. You can visit it here http://webtrendmap.com/ i think it adds to the whole argument.

    Reply
  4. Adrian MacLeod

    It is the wrong question (if I may be so bold).

    Old model: a small number of people (let’s call them journalists) had the complex and expensive job of keeping us informed. We cared about quality because our choice was limited.

    New model: it’s cheaper and easier to publish so many more people do it. Some stuff is rubbish, some stuff is good. The quantity means we do no have to worry so much about quality because if we don’t like one source we can find another. In fact, if we care about a subject we may actually evaluate and compare information from a number of sources (and get a better, more balanced view, often, than we might with the old model).

    In the old model, we might rely on the same source (a newspaper, say) for all sorts of different information. In the new, we find the best source for the information we want. The quality comes from the breadth of sources.

    The quality of output from an individual blogger is unimportant. What is vital is the audience has the tools it needs:

    o Some way of searching through the volumes of information to find the good stuff (I believe there is a company called Google that offers something along these lines)

    o Some sort of parallel system for discussing, criticising, debating (Twitter, Facebook, comments on the blogs themselves).

    o A way to respond if we feel strongly (Blogger, WordPress, Twitter allow us to publish to a mass audience with no expertise and for free)

    o A free and open society

    o An understanding of how to search, cross-check and discriminate. But no-one needed to teach us how to read a newspaper. My guess is no-one will need to teach our children how to read blogs.

    I come from B2B print press background, and it has been my experience that two magazines competing head to head both produce better journalism thanks to the competition. When one closes, the quality of the other generally goes down the pan.

    Blogs create the ultimate in competition and there are already signs that pro journos are doing a better job because of the competition from enthusiastic amateurs.

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      Thanks – key point for me: “The quality of output from an individual blogger is unimportant. What is vital is the audience has the tools it needs”
      Or – the “former audience”

      Reply
  5. Julia Larden

    I think local blogs vary in quality quite a lot, but that quality variation often has a lot to do with how often they get updated! However, local blogs tend to be written by people who have the advantage of being, well, local. Not only are they on the spot at the time of writing, but they live there. That means they tend to have far more in depth knowledge of the subjects they are writing about, and (certainly so in my case, for example) have a long historical perspective too. I have lived in Acocks Green since 1974. I have been campaigning for improvements in Acocks Green since 2004. Therefore I tend to have very thick and detailed files, and to know where to go, or to whom to go, to check things when I need more. Also because I am writing about things I care about, not for money, generally, yes, there is a lot of work behind what I do, even if sometimes the piece itself is dashed off, it is based on earlier work.

    That is not a promise that everything I write is 100% accurate – I would not be so stupid as to suggest that! However, because I have control over the blog, if it does come to my notice that there is an error I can also go back and correct, and re-explain, any time I like.

    Reply
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  7. Andrew Brightwell

    When assessing the quality of any news report or blog it may be worth considering whether it represents a primary, secondary or tertiary source (the terms historians apply to categorise evidence). While the job of news journalists is to seek out and present primary sources (get as close to an eyewitness, an event of another direct source as possible), many blogs, in common with other forms of new media, can come directly from primary sources. This evidently can give some of them a direct advantage – when considered for their accuracy – over a secondary or tertiary source. Since most traditional news journalism (but not all) falls into these two latter categories, it may be used as an argument to support new media over old. I’ve written an extremely long-winded blog post that grasps this and uses it to justify debunking the central aim of government media policy (rather clumsily): http://andrewbrightwell.com/blog/online-journalism/why-new-journalism-deserves-the-legislators-atttention/

    Reply

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