Is a Blog Just a Container?

Photo courtesy Haags Uitburo

Today I came across a comment from Adam Tinworth on the reignited debate, in certain UK circles at least, over whether bloggers can be legitimate journalists. This debate—fairly one-sided in favor of blogs—was set off by the probably unscripted speechifying of British journalisthistorian Andrew Marr.

In reflecting on this latest blogger brushoff, Adam Smith approvingly quoted Tinworth’s comment on Twitter that “you can do journalism on a blog” and that Marr is “making a massive category error.” A blog, Tinworth said, is a container, not an activity. As he put it elsewhere on Twitter, Marr’s criticism of blogs as fine things for certain purposes but inadequate to the task of journalism is like saying that “magazines are fantastic, but won’t replace journalism.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Tinworth’s position in this context—you absolutely can practice high-quality journalism in a blog. (And prior to indulging in what might appear like criticism, let me state for the record that Tinworth is one of my favorite and most respected bloggers.)

However, to dwell for a moment on the metaphor of container vs. content,  can we really say that the blog format doesn’t influence its content? Would we say that blogging and other forms of social media have not in fact altered the practice of journalism? Or that journalism as we knew it a decade ago can simply be ported into social media without undergoing some degree of transformation?

I don’t think so (and, again, I’m not saying that Tinworth thinks so either).

Now to some extent, your position on this matter will be determined by how you define a blog. If you think, as Mark Schaeffer put it in the course of  the  “great ghost-blogging debate,” that a blog is just a mechanism for publishing, you’ll argue that it can be used for any kind of content.  If, on the other hand you think, like Schaeffer’s opponent, Mitch Joel, that blogs imply a certain attitude and voice, you’ll have a more restrictive view of appropriate blog content.

Of course, no matter what you as the blogger think, your audience has the final call. A few years ago, when a magazine I worked with started its first blog, one of the first commenters called us to task for not being bloggy enough. The content we were posting, he said, was just like what we put in the magazine. That was fine, but it wasn’t, to his mind, what we should do in a blog. He wanted a little more liveliness, spontaneity, and opinion. I’d like to say that we immediately agreed and changed our ways, but, in those days at least, we thought that view of blogging was incompatible with journalism.

Look, though I won’t try to prove it here, the fact is that blogging has influenced the way we practice journalism, just as it has changed the attitudes and expectations of the consumers of journalism. Readers expect more immediacy, more transparency, more injection of the self, and more interactivity in their news content. I don’t think that means you can’t practice journalism in a blog.  But it does mean that a blog is not simply a sterile, inert container that has no effect on its content. And I, for one, think that’s a good thing.