Marshall Kirkpatrick passed me in a hotel corridor in March. He was rushing into his panel at South by Southwest in Austin. I was just leaving one. He nodded and said, “Check out the site. Just broke something potentially big.” The news of Google Circles wound up being not as big a deal as, say, Watergate, but in that moment I knew we were firmly planted in a New Establishment.
Marshall and I have been friendly for several years. I even contracted him to teach me the then-mysterious ways of RSS back in my agency days. While we don’t exactly hang out, I love Marshall’s writing and insights. He really is a brilliant guy. His work has helped ReadWriteWeb become one of the top blogs in the technology world. I’ve pitched him a few stories over the years. He’s called me for a few quotes, too.
But it was that passing tidbit in the hall at a hotel in Austin, Texas, that Marshall became a media member rather than a blogger to me. Not to discredit his work to that point! He’s always been a journalist if not labeled as such — and a good one, too. But he broke a story. He scooped the competition. It wasn’t just about providing great content in a new medium and sometimes eschewing the norms of traditional communications anymore. Marshall, and ReadWriteWeb, are playing the media game.
I love the fact Marshall gets jazzed about breaking stories. It’s exciting to have information before others. And when the others include competitive websites that can beat you to the punch and benefit from it, the excitement is palpable. Mind you, it’s not that people will run and read the story on TechCrunch, never to pass RWW’s servers again. But rather that the first web source to the punch often gets the lion’s share of both credit and traffic … search engine benefits and more. When Marshall scoops ReadWriteWeb’s competition, the traditional media notice and link appropriately.
Ironic isn’t it that blogs find themselves competing for inbound links from the old gray ladies of the world, isn’t it?
And if you don’t think the big blogs worry about the competition, try pitching them on a tech story. TechCrunch, Mashable GigaOm, RWW … all believe a valid reason not to write about a start-up or news item is that one of the others, “already covered that.” These blogs, and others in various niches, are as competitive and paranoid as the New York tabloids or competing dailies in big markets.
But playing the media game makes blogs of that ilk not blogs at all. While there’s no solid, black line that a website crosses one day, winning a virtual promotion to the category of “media outlet,” the bigger the audience, the more focused the business goals and the more respected a blog’s outputs become, the less of a blog it really becomes.
Perhaps the labels are unnecessary. Any publishing platform is technically a media outlet. Credibility and consistency seem to be the biggest factors in whether or not that media outlet will have an audience. But even those are variable. Perez Hilton, for instance, doesn’t really have journalistic credibility. But for some good gossip and entertaining tidbits to nosh on, it beats many.
Do we need to distinguish between blogs and media sites? Does the tie to traditional, off-line outlets make a difference anymore? Or is the proof just in the pudding. I trust ReadWriteWeb for tech news as much as I trust Wired, Fast Company or even the Technology section of the New York Times (which, by the way, offers RWW headlines on its website). RWW is a trusted source. Marshall is a trusted journalist … whether he would call himself that or not. (He does, by the way. But many at his competitors still call themselves “bloggers.”)
In 2009, Michael Stelzner at SocialMediaExaminer tried to position his then infant website as an “online magazine.” He specifically wanted to avoid the word “blog.” My guess is because his target audience included people beyond the social media world, many of whom associated “blog” with a publishing platform that is, shall we say, unpolished. Mention the fact you author a blog to many mainstreamers today and you’ll still get an unspoken roll of the eyes. So, perhaps labels are still important.
Regardless of what we call what we do, the fact that these little online journals have evolved to produce mega-profit driven publishing platforms that garner thousands of dollars per month in advertising revenue and are authored by teams of people who have goals like scooping the competition or breaking a big story means there’s a New Establishment. Certain blogs and bloggers are now the gate keepers of information. They are the holders of the public conscious, at least in their spheres of influence. And, as a result, we the public owe it to each other and them to hold them to the same high standards we’ve tried to hold the old guard.
We must question their motives. We must insist they source, credit and fact-check. We must hold accuracy, fairness and balance precious when considering our content selections.
Because if we don’t, then we’ll never be able to distinguish truth from the noise. And when you can’t do that, in the strangest of ironies, you have what now passes for traditional news media.