Bloggers and journalists

There’s been a great debate over on Jeremy Head’s Travelblather blog, which started off as a proposal for a new way to fund travel writing, but which – in the comments – has shifted over, at least partly, into the old familiar barney about the differences (if any) between bloggers and journalists.

One comment on Travelblather is particular telling: Pam, who blogs at Nerd’s Eye View, says she’s tired of travel journalists calling themselves professional. “What does that mean, anyway?” she asks. I agree it’s a tough term to define; after all, unlike the ‘professions’ of law, medicine and so on, you don’t have to pass an exam to be a travel journalist. Anyone can try their hand at it – like photography.

I’m a photographer, but I consider myself an amateur: I carry a fairly decent camera with me when I’m working, and have had dozens of photos published – from low-res national newspapers to full-page bleeds in high-quality glossy magazines – but a real photographer would instantly be able to tell that I’m actually not much good. I can do composition, and the very best of my pics are worth a look, but technically they’re all pretty much a dog’s dinner.

For me, that’s the main point about professionalism. It might be hard to define – but you sure as heck notice when it’s not there.

That hooks into what I see is the big, big difference between bloggers (even full-time bloggers) and journalists. (I can already tell that this isn’t going to make me very popular in some quarters.)

Editing crucial

I blog, I write for newspapers and magazines and I author books. I’ve also been an editor on books and magazines, a sub-editor, a proofreader – I work with words: that’s how I make a living to support my family. I’m a writer.

And I’m a better writer when I’m edited.

I love blogging: it’s a uniquely diverse medium. Being solely responsible for the stuff you publish is a real challenge. There are some great bloggers – and some rubbish journalists.

But still, only the latter are professionals. Why? Because they are being edited – that is, their creativity is reviewed before publication by people who work with words for a living. Editing has become unfashionable, and badly edited books and texts are everywhere – lots of people don’t even know what editing is – but it is absolutely crucial to the process of writing. Journalists are edited, bloggers are not. Bloggers (and readers of blogs) might see that as an advantage – and, in some cases, it is – but on the whole, in most instances, as a broad generalisation, editing makes journalists better writers than bloggers.

By ‘better’ I mean they use language in a more proficient way, say things more clearly, complete the job in a more pleasing way. It’s a quality issue. Most carpenters handle wood better than most plasterers. Most journalists handle words better than most bloggers (the ones I read, anyway).

Skills and motivation

There’s also a skill-set involved in journalism which bloggers don’t need. Researching, interviewing, extracting key details from a mass of information, developing sources, cross-checking. Knowing how to use these techniques (and why they are important) makes you a professional. Journalists are accountable for what they write in a way that bloggers simply aren’t. That doesn’t mean bloggers are ‘worse’ – indeed, they have a whole skill-set of their own that many journalists only vaguely understand – but it does mean that bloggers must gain new skills if they want to become journalists, and vice versa.

There’s another, linked point. Journalists make a living from what they write. Bloggers make a living because of what they write. There’s a big difference. If bloggers write stuff that is engaging, insightful, well conceived, well structured and intelligent, but that doesn’t bring traffic (and clicks), they make no money. By necessity, because of our desperately restrictive ad-centred online culture, bloggers must write stuff that is – in the broadest sense – popular. It can be crud in terms of content, style and/or purpose, but it must attract wide interest. (If it doesn’t, those bloggers make less money – or simply don’t attract followers.)

The only criterion for journalists, by contrast, is that their stuff must be well written. It doesn’t matter about the perception of popularity – because, in virtually all cases, the subject that the journalist is writing about has already been vetted and approved by experienced and (sorry) professional editors. And the beauty of a free press is that journalists can write stuff which might be unpopular, but which might still be important, and can have their material taken seriously by a diverse readership. They fail only if what they produce is badly written. Like I said before, professional quality is really difficult to define – but you know when it’s not there.

World of difference

There’s a world of difference between me making a soufflé, and a professional chef doing it. I can research the causes of the First World War and give a lecture to a hall full of students – but a professional academic would do it better. Leave me alone for long enough with your car and a Haynes manual, and I could probably fix that knocking noise in the back – but a professional mechanic would do it better (and more quickly).

It’s the same with writing. There’s plenty of room for blogging and journalism – but let’s not get the two mixed up.

16 Comments

  1. Abi

    I enjoy posts like this, although they don’t do that much for my productivity.

    “The only criterion for journalists, by contrast, is that their stuff must be well written.”

    Like this headline from a leading UK newspaper: Incredibulb! New lightbulb could save planet.

    Writing for print and blogging online require different (if overlapping) sets of skills, I agree with you there. Is the writing better from journalists or bloggers? It depends. I’ve read some great and awful examples from both.

    I’m not that sure the division even exists that clearly any more. Several blogs ARE edited – and the BBC now employs “professional journalists” as full-time bloggers.

    Incidentally, there are also some frighteningly bad doctors and lawyers out there…a subject for perhaps another post.

  2. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, Abi. Quite agree with you.

    Headlines are a real problem for newspapers – and getting worse, I think. FYI they are not written by journalists, but by in-house sub-editors: they are written at the last minute to fit the space available and styled to suit the publication. I think people are fed up with crap, punning headlines, and I’d like to see them banned!

    Journalists do indeed blog – but they’re often cut-down versions of what they might write for publication in traditional media, the implication being that blogging is regarded (wrongly) as a subset of journalism. However I don’t know of anyone who started out blogging but is now a professional journalist…

  3. unexpectedtraveller

    As a blogger who has spent almost a year writing and “publishing” in his blog, I have a lot to say about this article. You are right in distinguishing between bloggers and journalists and the forces that drive both.

    I do feel that it is a pity that bad journalists and good bloggers exist since it means that the general public might mislead themselves into thinking that all newspaper/formal content is better than what they could find on the blogs – which is not always the case, as you point out.

    Perhaps it would be an idea to have an international standard that can tell the reader what kind of writer prepared the item in front of them. It could rate a writer based upon the following:
    – Honesty
    – Verifiability
    – Research
    – Independence

    A blogger might be proud to show that his articles are not researched as this implies an off-the-cuff, latest-news post. A journalist will want to show that his articles are well-researched on the other hand. Using such a rating, readers can then know that they’re getting what they’re expecting no matter what the medium is.

    Something of the sort, perhaps audited yearly would help a reader. Who would pay for it though? Hmm …

    The Unexpected Traveller

  4. David Whitley

    A very nicely-put point about the importance of editing. I agree.

    I think the whole journalist vs blogger argument is a new extension on the time old journalist vs writer debate. I’ve always considered myself as a bit of both (trained as journalist, but a substantial percentage of what I write requires more flair than journalistic skill). As I have a blog now, I guess I’m a bit of all three.

    Each has a slightly different skill set. There’s nothing to say that a person can’t have the skill set for all three. I would, however, say you can be a born blogger or writer but you need to learn how to be a journalist.

    What I write for Grumpytraveller.com is very different to what I would write for the outlets where I am paid and edited. It’s not necessarily better or worse – just different. Good blogging is arguably about gaining a following and becoming a distinct voice – good journalism is arguably about doing a designated task well.

  5. Susan Fogwell

    You nailed it. I’m in complete agreement.

  6. Matthew Teller

    Thank you all for comments.

    @unexpected – interesting idea, but – as I think you realise – not really workable…

    @David – great points here. “You need to learn how to be a journalist” – spot on. Your point about gaining a following with a distinct voice as a blogger is also key, but what’s interesting is that newspapers do the same thing: they try to convince you that you’re a Times reader, or a Guardian person – but, in fact, I’d say the best thing about good journalism is that you don’t have to agree with it: you can appreciate the quality even while disagreeing with the sentiments. That, for me, should be a guiding force among bloggers too…

    @Susan – nice to have you along. Thanks so much!

  7. mary

    Hi Matthew:) a very interesting point of view, when the lines are blurred.

    I started my blog without the consideration on money and following, though.
    So I suppose it’s like a hobby for me. I try my best to bring out the best
    pictures, with good writing. cheers!

  8. lara dunston

    Good post, Matthew! Missed this one when you posted it.

    You might recall I responded to Pam’s comment too, to say that for me there is one essential and very basic element that differentiates a ‘professional’ writer from a blogger and that is that for something to become a person’s ‘profession’ there’s an assumption that they’re earning most of their living from that job. The sad reality is that most bloggers still hold day jobs and blog on the side.

    I’d then add all the things you’ve cited above – all very good points – plus training in ethics, journalistic law, and participation in professional activities, which is happening with bloggers going on press trips and conferences such as TBEX etc

    Now Matthew, many journalists do go to university and sit for exams like doctors, lawyers and so on, but of course the difference is that a degree is not a necessary qualification for the profession, and some would argue doesn’t necessarily make one journalist more qualified or more ‘professional’ than another.

    I agree with Abi too, that there’s some lousily written and edited journalism out there, even by some of the most established papers, just as there’s some dreadful blogging – and bad doctors and lawyers as well!

    David, you make some great points also. Like you I see myself as a writer, author, travel journalist, and blogger at different times, when I’m working in different forms, and like you, I appreciate all those different skill sets that go with each role, though I’m not sure everyone does.

    Now, to my surprise, I guess, as I’m being contracted (along with Terry) by a company to blog on Grantourismo http://www.grantourismotravels.com/ for a year, I’m now also a professional blogger, no?

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking post!

  9. Jenny Woolf

    Hm – some stuff I’ve had printed recently hasn’t been edited at all.

    But editing does help. Anything accepted by an editor has passed one major test – someone’s thought, “Hey, this is interesting – I want it!” You don’t get that by surfing the web.

    Also, having a word length is a wonderful self-editor. I run a half baked travel blog (half baked only because I’m not travelling much, I hasten to add. ) I try to cut out 10 percent off the word length before posting each entry, & hope my writing’s better as a result.

    Will it increase my readers? No. Because the more you write, the more words there are for google to find and the more visible and popular your blog will be.

    Ah well!

  10. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, everyone! Lara – great comment, much appreciated. Looking forward to seeing how Grantourismo develops…

    And Jenny, you’ve hit upon a key element: self-editing. Cutting 10% before hitting ‘publish’ is a very healthy habit! As for increasing readers; harrumph. Seems to me SEO is the enemy of good writing…

  11. Polycarbonate :

    british airways is the best airline that i have been into, great crew and great service.-.

  12. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for chipping in there, Poly…

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