What, Like, Vanity Fair Hires Blue Collar Kids To Do Society Columns?
I should probably abstain from this week's assignment. I'm not exactly objective. In my twenties, I wanted to be a writer. I didn't care what kind. So I blogged. Then I found some people who wanted to know how to blog, so I helped them. Then I wound up doing some writing for AskMissA.com, a "lifestyle" site run by a socialite with whom I used to be friends.
But I used those clips to get my first paying gig and eventually a full-time job, all witihout taking a single journalism class. Journalism is both not that hard and a lot harder than it looks. There's no reason a citizen journalist can't or won't meet professional standards--but anybody who has turned in their first professional article and been told to go back to the drawing board can tell you: it's very easy to feel lost and like journalism standards are impossible.
Revisiting the socialite blog: it's kind of a DC trend. Bloggers who are very much a part of the socialite scene themselves launch websites to cover the parties they're invited to, and supplement their incomes and build their lives around going to fundraisers at bars.The coverage could certainly be called biased and unprofessional--but my personal experience with it was that there was a small effort made at distancing the publisher from topics with which she was too intimately associated (it got farmed out to me instead, with minor instructions as to what needed to go in the blog post).
At the same time, I'm not convinced there's really any other way to cover these parties. The society columnist who herself is a part of the "scene"was a mainstay of major publications in the past. They're kind of the most visible example of journalists whose objectivity is questionable--but the job literally couldn't be done by somebody disinterested. They wouldn't get invited to the party in the first place (maybe--in my experience, it's a lot easier to get in, and get in free, than you'd think).
Where these blogs fail, though, is when they branch out. I wrote as a TV / book / movie critic for AskMissA, and it was too uncomfortable to write a bad review--our editorial policy was to say nice things or nothing at all--and it's a practice I have continued on my own radio show. I don't like to spend my time tearing something down instead of celebrating what's great about it . . . but, I might be doing my audience a disservice by not painting a clear picture of whether it's worth it to spend your time on a given piece of entertainment.
An example from another DC blog, kstreetmagazine.com: Kerry Reichs, chick lit author, former lawyer, and daugther of Kathy Reichs (creator of the books on which the TV series Bones is based) writes theater reviews for the site (even though she was friends with Miss A first, I thought? Unless it's a different Kerry Reichs). But a quick skim of all of her reviews in the past year shows she hasn't exactly panned anything. That, in my opinion, is what makes the reviews bad. It's not the writing--she makes a living writing--but it's the point-of-view that makes the reviews less useful. Given my own experience with DC theater, I'd say it's pretty unlikely every show she's seen was good--but her reviews would lead you to believe otherwise. And I can't really blame her! For society blogs, being likable is your currency. There's no faster way to become unpopular than to tell other people how much you dislike them / their work.
These principles carry over into most other beats. Sure, your state senator could blog about her experience at the Capital that day--but despite the access she has, she still might fail to paint a full picture of what's going on; she's still gotta work with these people.
So, in all, while I hope very much citizen journalism and personal public testimonials will continue to be a part of the public conversation, I think we're better off, as a culture, if professional journalists keep their jobs. I'm not convinced most journalists wind up covering beats about which they are completely unbiased, but not giving a damn if you've pissed off your source is a lot easier when you're drawing a paycheck and your boss will be pissed way worse. It also gives you a little cover if you want to stay friendly with those people--you can hide behind, "sorry, I was just doing my job." When you're not getting paid, you don't have that defense, so you're going to pay high social costs for honesty.