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Summary:

The Pulitzer Prize win by the Huffington Post has been hailed by some as the first win by a “blog,” but the reality is such terms have become increasingly meaningless. All we have now is media, some of which is journalism and some of which isn’t.

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The Pulitzer Prize win by the Huffington Post for a series on injured soldiers was hailed by some as a victory for the “blogosphere,” a first-time win of the prestigious journalism award by a “blog.” But the fact is that those terms have become increasingly meaningless — especially when describing an entity like the Huffington Post, which has blog-like aspects and also newspaper-like aspects. Meanwhile, traditional media such as the New York Times have also been developing increasingly blog-like features, which is further blurring those dividing lines. What we have now are just media outlets, some large and some small, some of which are online-only and some of which also print things on paper. Can we move on now?

It’s true that the Huffington Post started life as a “blog,” or rather a loosely-connected network of bloggers, as a long profile of the website in the Columbia Journalism Review makes clear. Co-founder Ken Lerer and Jonah Peretti used Arianna Huffington’s broad connections within the entertainment and political communities to pull together an eclectic group of commenters who were willing to write for nothing — and that core group expanded dramatically as the Post continued to grow. That growth was fueled by Peretti’s understanding of online media and chief technology officer Paul Berry’s understanding of how the internet (including search-engine optimization) works.

The HuffPo hasn’t been a “blog” for a long time

But in many ways, the Huffington Post hasn’t been just a blog for some time now. Yes, there are still writers who post their content to the site and don’t get paid for it — which has been the subject of much criticism and even a lawsuit. But the reality is that newspapers also routinely run columns and opinion pieces that are written by outsiders, and in many cases they don’t pay them either. Why? Because those writers see a value in having their content seen by as many people as possible, for personal or professional reasons, just as those who write for the Huffington Post do.

On top of that foundation of bloggers (or op-ed writers, to use traditional media terminology) the HuffPo has built the rest of what would otherwise be known as a newspaper: investigative reporting, such as the series that print veteran David Wood did on injured soldiers, as well as a growing number of regular news reporters and salaried columnists across a wide range of different subjects. As my PaidContent colleague Staci Kramer has pointed out in her own post on the Huffington Post Pulitzer win, the specific medium that any of this journalistic work appears in is no longer as relevant as it used to be.

Did the Huffington Post leverage its web speed and broad reach, including traffic-driving features such as slideshows of swimsuit models and aggregated posts based on stories written by other media outlets, to build the foundation that allowed it to add those traditional journalistic elements? Of course it did, just as many newspapers have. In fact, the history of newspapering — and particularly pioneers like William Randolph Hearst — reads a lot like the rise of the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed and other entities, except with paper instead of bits.

The lines between old and new media are blurring

And while the Huffington Post has been getting more and more newspaper-like, entities such as the New York Times have been getting more blog-like: the relaunch of the medical section of the paper’s website, called Well, is just the latest in a series of similar relaunches that have turned sections of the NYT into blog-style portals. The Bits blog and DealBook are two other prominent examples — writers like Nick Bilton publish their content on a blog that just happens to be owned by the New York Times. As journalism professor Jay Rosen put it in an email to HuffPo media writer Michael Calderone:

[W]hile it’s tempting to see the Huffington Post’s Pulitzer as a ‘big win for new media,’ or something like that, the real story is that these organizations — the Huffington Post, the New York Times, the Washington Post — are becoming more like each other. Old media and new media are increasingly antiquated terms.

The debate over whether bloggers are journalists may have died down somewhat over the past few months, but it still flares up periodically, like a brush fire that just won’t go out. The question “are blogs journalism?” — or similar questions such as “Is Twitter journalism?” — make no sense any more, if they ever did. Are telephones journalism? Are pencils and pens journalism? No. They are just tools. A blog is also just a tool, one which can be used for journalism and for many other things as well. The same tools that allow the Huffington Post or Buzzfeed to post dozens of photos of cute kittens can also be used to tell heart-wrenching stories of social significance, as David Wood has.

And so we no longer have blogs vs. newspapers — we simply have media, and content, and publishing. As Clay Shirky said recently, publishing is no longer an industry or even a job, it is a button. Anyone can do it, for better or worse (and I would argue it is for the better when it comes to journalism). And yes, there is an argument to be made that digital-native media will win more often than print-native, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Does all this make the media landscape more complicated, more noisy, less easy to categorize? Yes. But it also makes it infinitely richer.

Note: We’ll be talking with leaders in tech, media and investing about how to make the most of today’s opportunities at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads, May 23, at The TimesCenter in New York.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Wesley Fryer and World Economics Forum

  1. Thanks for saying this. We’re basically all media, always have been. The difference isn’t what kinds of tools we use, the difference is what roles we play. If I am primarily something other than a news reporter, that’s blogging. When I write publicly on my website, I am playing the role I used to play when I was a source. I used to be a source for a lot of reporters. Over time I did less and less of that, until a couple of years ago I decided to stop altogether. If reporters want to quote me, they can get it from my blog. I sometimes will take questions from reporters and write them up on my blog. I don’t understand these days why any reporter should get the words exclusively. Also a huge amount was lost in translation.

    These are the changes that have taken place, the real ones. You’re absolutely right that there’s no meaningful distinction between the huffpo and other winners of the pulitzer this year.

    However, it will be a milestone when we have a Pulitzer-level award for sources. When we recognize the contribution they make to the news. That will be a hard idea to penetrate, but it will, eventually.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Dave — you are totally right that the “sources going direct” is another huge step in the evolution of media, one that I think we are only just starting to come to grips with.

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  2. It is indeed about the message, regardless of medium. Let’s not get wrapped up anymore in the technology, but rather focus on how these tools can enhance reporting and lead to better stories.

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  3. Mark A. Evertz Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    Great job Matthew. The “they’re just tools” line particularly resonated. Let’s all get off the “I’m better than you” soapbox on this topic and just co-exist. You and Jay are right, the differences between new and old media are negligible now. I just look for who writes well and the topics they cover. I don’t care where the information lives. Thanks for doing what you do. Mark

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    1. Thanks, Mark — much appreciated.

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  4. Thanks for linking to my essay! Good piece here.

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    1. Thanks, Andy — my pleasure. That was a good post, and echoed many of my own thoughts from my newspaper days.

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  5. John Koetsier Tuesday, April 17, 2012
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  6. Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

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  7. I think this issue is going to keep flaring up as long as we don’t have a harmonious media ecosystem. What I mean is, once there is no acrimony between “bloggers” and “journalists,” then this war will be over. Of course we have never had a harmonious media ecosystem, even before there were blogs. Different outlets and mediums competed against one another, as did individual reporters. I think this bloggers vs. journalists thing is somewhat an extension of that. So as long as media continues to be competitive, this conflict will occasionally flare up.

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    1. That’s a fair point, Anna — I agree there have always been divisions between different types of media, even within the traditional sphere. So I guess I don’t really think this will end the debate, although I guess we can always hope :-)

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  8. Journalism is as journalism does. It can be great or it can be horrible, and it matters not whether it is a blog or a broadsheet or a podcast.

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  9. I don’t think it has ever been blogs vs newspapers.

    It has always been about news reporting.

    No surprise that once a “blog” did some real news reporting that they won an award for it.

    It does remain a fact though that most “blogs” have little oversight. And are mostly editorials from the “blogger.”

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  10. A blog is just a blank page to start. There are no rules. Where could you place the EJC’s latest initiative the multimedia reporting platform ThinkBrigade? http://thinkbrigade.com/

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  11. As a former newspaper reporter and someone who now works “from the other side” with both traditional media and bloggers, my challenge comes not from the medium, but from the people themselves. Some bloggers represent themselves as professional journalists: they respect fairness and accuracy in their reporting, they check facts, they take care in quoting sources – all things I learned back in J-101. The bloggers who continue to give bloggers a bad name, however, seem content to deal in half-truths, rumor reported as fact and – my favorite – “give me more free stuff or I’m going to write negative things about your company.”

    My opinion: whether or not you’re a journalist has a lot less to with where your words are published and a lot more to do with how you conduct yourself in writing them.

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    1. Totally agree, Jill — thanks for the comment.

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  12. I agree, Mathew, but unfortunately, the courts don’t necessarily take the same position. In November, an Oregon Federal court awarded a $2.5 million judgment against blogger Crystal Cox for defamation, despite her claim that she was protected by journalism shield laws. The judge clarified his verdict saying he wasn’t saying NO bloggers are journalist, just that THIS blogger wasn’t. So the distinction still exists, at least when it comes to $2.5 million judgments.

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    1. Yes, that’s true Shel — that was an interesting case, and there are undoubtedly going to be other cases where a court has to determine who is a journalist and who isn’t for reasons of defamation, etc. But I think in a practical sense there is no real distinction any more — some bloggers are journalists, some journalists are bloggers, some blogs do reporting and others do not.

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  13. This is a great piece. One question:

    You refer to bloggers as op-ed writers in the digital landscape, but are all bloggers offering opinion pieces? If a blog is truly only a medium, can’t hard news also be written on blogs? Don’t mean to get into semantics, just curious if you think hard news can be published in any medium.

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    1. Yes, I definitely think it can, Sean — as you’ve mentioned and as I pointed out, they are just tools. They can be used for all kinds of different things.

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  14. GuyClapperton Friday, April 20, 2012

    I sit on both sides of the divide – I’m a blogger on my own site at lifeover35.co.uk and for Huffington owner AOL at aolmoney UK, but I still write a load of journalism and no, it doesn’t bother me for which I write. The really interesting thing for me is the quality control. I first found out that Michael Jackson had died on Twitter. That demonstrates its news credentials – or it would if I hadn’t heard that actor Jeff Goldblum had died on the same day (happily he still hasn’t). Publishing-as-a-button is great – as long as it gets accompanied by reader-as-a-skeptic-who-understands-the-publisher-is-no-longer-trained.

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  15. The state of the news media and what it means for public affairs.

    I was listening to TWIG (This Week in Google) hosted by Leo Laporte and featuring Gina Trapani (a web designer) and Jeff Jarvis (a professor of journalism). For those of you who listen to Leo’s shows, you know he represents the best in entertaining video and audio podcasts on technology (see http://twit.tv/twig). I spend more waking hours with Leo than I do with my wife.

    The discussion turned to the role of social media and the emergencies in Japan and the Middle East. They gushed about the role of Twitter and Facebook as to providing information.

    No one can deny the role of social media in providing video, audio and tweets from the ground. It’s a game-changer; there’s no doubt about it. This is especially true when journalists are barred from the scene.

    But as someone who has 30 years of experience in talking to the media, and as someone who has lead government public affairs emergency response teams dozens of times, the explosion of social media brings me to one question; how accurate is the information we’re getting?

    Long before there was social media, we inserted rumor control teams into every emergency response. I learned that a lot of the “user-generated” reports from average citizens was not only inaccurate, but sometimes dangerously so.

    The Quality of News Reporting

    I have witnessed a decrease in the quality of news reporting. Early in my career, you had hard-bitten journalists who believed no one (including government representatives). Reports from citizens in the field were looked upon with even more skepticism. As far as veteran reporters were concerned, everyone had a motive and sometimes those motives interfered with the truth.

    The report below from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism provides the best possible overview of the state of the news media over the course of years and it isn’t pretty.

    The bottom-line? Professional journalists have greatly decreased in number. Consumers are turning away from many traditional news sources. Internet popularity as a source for news is increasing.

    How accurate is the information we’re getting?

    But my question stands; how accurate is the information we’re getting from non-traditional sources?

    If you accept the premise that a lot of content is self-serving, then who decides the truth? Do we have enough old-school journalists who doubt everything and verify endlessly?

    Don’t get me wrong, the explosion of social media and citizen generated content is wonderful. There’s no turning back. This is a great time to be alive.

    But I will gladly return to the days when there were sufficient journalists who doubted their own mothers and asked endless hard questions and made the lives of government spokespeople hell.

    That’s democracy, but today’s economic models are tearing away at the fabric of excellence in journalism.

    The Pew report below is wonderfully detailed but sad.

    So Leo, Jeff and Gina, I love the show, but I’ll trust the journalistic gate-keepers more than an anonymous tweet. We need good reporters in sufficient numbers more than ever before.

    Best, Len.

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  16. In Brazil, Judge Carla Abrantkoski-Rister extinguished the profession of journalism, years ago.

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