Journalism versus the wisdom of crowds

Yesterday, while perusing my print copy of the NUJ‘s mighty organ The Journalist, I came across an interview with BBC Newsnight‘s often acerbic economics editor Paul Mason. The piece in question focuses on how the recession is likely to affect journalists, but some of Mason’s comments may be of interest to non-hacks.

As well as job losses resulting from cutbacks in advertising, Mason discusses the nature of quality journalism, and what distinguishes this from blogging, the strength of which he describes as being due to the wisdom of crowds. I often think of it as mouse mania or restless rodent-hand.

“The Wisdom of Crowds” is the title of a book by American business journalist James Surowiecki, but this is not the place for an full discussion of New Yorker columnist’s impressive thesis. I wish to briefly highlight failures of crowd intelligence in the context of new media.

We all know that crowds can produce bad judgements, and the grumpy among us are more likely to identify cases in which crowds screw up rather than make good calls. Surowiecki argues that mass cognition or cooperation can fail when elements of the mass become overly occupied with the thoughts and opinions of others, and as a result emulate each other and conform rather than think and act originally. The psychology behind this may be complex, but it also points to systemic flaws in the debating and decision-making process. You can think of it as peer pressure with none of the positive aspects of rigourous intellectual peer review.

Professional news reporting, on the other hand, involves a peer-review mechanism that bloggers cannot hope to match. This is Mason’s argument, and while you could no doubt cite examples of failure of same, that does not negate the core truth of the statement. As Mason says, it is not the individuality of the journalist that matters, but rather the collectivity of the profession. Of course with freelance scribblers the situation is different, in that we may not have the same degree of day-to-day interaction with our peers. But still we must abide by certain rules and procedures, and our work is judged by others before it ever sees the light of day.

One downside of blogging is that the current popularity of its political form is having a negative effect on journalism, with the emphasis shifting away from news reporting and toward opinion. We are told that opinion is what people want to read, and that may indeed be so. But another reason why newspaper publishers love opinion is that it is cheaper to commission a columnist to bash out a thousand words of often ill-informed tosh than send a skilled reporter into the field and have them collate and present hard information for the edification of readers.

Blogging is the only writing activity I indulge in that does not have a peer-review filter applied, and I would say that it suffers as a result. Blogging can be a good thing for journalism; the technology is forcing some positive changes on the publishing world, and the practice of blogging allows anyone with at least basic literacy skills, a computer and Internet connection to reach a huge audience. But when it comes to news reporting and political debate, blogging is of limited value, and those who argue that it can be an agent of progressive social change are talking utter shite.

It is now expected that professional journalists blog, and publishers are increasing the workload of their staff by insisting that they blog as well as write fully researched, reviewed and edited articles. In certain cases it works well. Some of the blogs written by BBC staff journalists, for example, are of high quality. The Radio 4 PM blog is a typical specimen, as are the various Newsnight efforts. But I do wonder sometimes about quality and consistency when editors demand blog copy in the same way they do fully researched articles.

Elsewhere in the latest issue of The Journalist, diarist “Victor Noir” has an entertaining pop at the Guardian’s online content supremo Emily Bell, whom he heard speak at some or other “irritating seminar on the effects of digital convergence in the news”.

When questioned on the recent expansion in workload, Bell the online evangelist expressed the view that an increase in output does not necessarily lead to a decline in quality. We are told that Bell then cited an unnamed blogger writing for the Guardian website who can churn out seven posts a day – “as if tossing a blog item off the top of your head was the same as producing a properly researched story”.

Like Bell’s wunderkind I can knock out a blog post such as this in a quarter of an hour or thereabouts. But in the vast majority of cases it ain’t journalism. We are talking here about the scribblings of someone who makes a living from writing and editing, and fills in unremunerated moments by self-publishing idle thoughts and the occasional bit of science reporting rejected by commissioning editors. The Guardian’s über-blogger can speak for him- or herself, and to be honest I have no interest in discovering the identity of this new media phenomenon.

Right, that’s enough for today; Rab C Nesbitt is on the telly. Merry fucking christmas!