TCS Daily

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Co-Opt 'Em

By James D. Miller - September 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Bloggers have exposed the probably forged Bush National Guard documents that CBS used in its attempt to discredit the President. Although the old media treats bloggers and Internet commentators as unworthy pajama-clad interlopers, they should instead draw on the power of the blogosphere to improve the quality and accuracy of their reports.

Professors routinely put their rough drafts on the Internet to receive comments and criticisms from colleagues. Professional journalists should do likewise and "pre-publish" some of their articles on the web in the hopes of attracting comments that they could then use to improve their final product.

The National Guard document story advanced via the process that Hugh Hewitt has aptly named "open source journalism". After the initial CBS story, bloggers quickly used their individual expertise to point out many reasons the relevant documents seemed fraudulent. Popular bloggers such as Instapundit then served as filters through which the masses and even the traditional media speedily learned of the errors and omissions in CBS's report.

As I'm certain that CBS's Dan Rather would agree, open source journalism is not the ideal method by which to edit stories. Besides creating embarrassment for traditional error-prone journalists it also can prevent non-blog readers from learning of blog-found mistakes.

Traditional journalists should move us beyond open source journalism by co-opting bloggers and inviting them to become unpaid editors. Imagine that the New York Times published a rough draft of some article on the web. Although relatively few people would ever read this draft, blogs specializing in the article's topic would undoubtedly write about the draft, allowing readers with specific interest in the article to learn about and comment on it. The article's writer would then not even have to read each of the comments on his article; rather, he could trust that filter blogs would report on the most illuminating ones.

Inviting comments on rough drafts would not only make the final published articles more accurate but also far more interesting. Many times after I had written a TCS article I received an email or read a comment about a sub-topic whose inclusion would have made my article far more enlightening and entertaining. The worst time for a writer to receive a tip on how to improve his article is right after the article has been published, but with our current system of publication this is when authors are most likely to receive these pointers.

Of course, journalists couldn't pre-publish highly time-sensitive articles, but many stories such as CBS's "scoop" on Bush's National Guard service wouldn't suffer if publication was delayed for a few days to allow for comments.

Journalists develop general skills in writing, researching, or TV presentation. They don't, and can't, acquire an expertise in every story they work on. True, they always have the option of hiring experts, but if you don't have a basic understanding of a topic you can't evaluate the quality of that topic's purported experts. In a fact-checking competition, elements of the blogosphere will always be able to defeat the traditional media because the blogosphere contains experts on everything and has the proven ability to filter these experts' opinions for the masses. Bloggers are an enemy that the traditional media can't defeat but could easily co-opt.

Many bloggers desperately desire increased influence in the marketplace of ideas and would love to work informally for the old media. So rather than thinking of bloggers as competitors out to steal market share, traditional media organizations should look on bloggers as collaborating editors willing to work for free!

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is a Republican candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate.


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