The following is my column for the September 2010 edition of monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Last year I asked my Facebook friends on my “Wall,” where conversations are texted (Is this English?), “Why are people so upbeat on Facebook?” I’d been on Facebook a few months, having been sold on it by NSNC veteran Dave Lieber (who pushed the social networking site in last month’s edition of The Columnist newsletter), and was amazed by the civility and cheerfulness. When people reported devastating news, if they didn’t spin it up, then the Wall responses were nothing but empathy and affirmations.
My query received a wide range of answers. Two resonated. One was that people intuitively want Facebook for uplift and you have to give it to get it. The other explanation was fear — fear of being disliked or rebutted … or worst, ostracized in Facebook by being either “hidden” or “removed.”
So I was hit by a bucket of ice water when a friend of over 10 years blasted me on Facebook in mid-August, over a column I “shared” by providing its Web page address. Worse, his comments got “liked.” The piece was by Robert Niles in the Online Journalism Review, “This Year’s Advice for Journalism Students.”
In his piece Niles — who early in his career had a reporting stint at the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., site of the NSNC 2010 conference — updated the usual spiel of networking and specializing by noting that the depth of students’ online presence now will be judged by potential employers.
Of course he meant watch the silly talk and embarrassing photos, but mainly, Niles seemed to be saying that being published is being published, even if you’re doing it yourself. In other words, clips are clips. So post well. “When you read, watch or listen think always, ‘Would others find this interesting?’ That’s how you find the material you’ll need to fill your blog, Twitter feed or whatever else you publish online.”
Some professionals, perhaps the more traditional newspaper people, i.e. older, are threatened by that, in the same way authors debate that while talent can be developed, writing cannot be taught to just anyone.
Let me quote the online dialog that was posted after my link to Niles’ column.
My friend X—-: “Horse sh*t. I didn’t start by sucking a sportswriter’s golfballs as an intern and puking accolades to pay for the privilege. I got my foot in the door as a ‘copyboy’ and worked the streets. Chased cop calls, filed a few unpublished features about interesting people — got two or three pieces accepted each year — and studied ‘on the street’ with people who had spent their lives working ‘on the streets.’ Learned how to ‘get my facts on straight’ from people who had done so for 30-plus years before I ever showed up. Whatever ‘ojr.org’ is, this is the first and last time I will visit the site. Bunch of dilettantes who have no clue whatsoever, apparently. Feel-good cr*p for wannabe celebs.”
A friend of his left the comment, “You go, X—–!”
I tried to lower the heat with what I hoped was humor: “OK. Next caller! You do make strong points, X—–. Niles though is an experienced newspaperman, Midwest to Denver to, there you go, California — LA Times then USC. I think he’s about the most feet-on-the-ground of the gung-ho Internet journalism guys. He’s been solid on where we’re heading.”
Again, my friend, a longtime reporter: “Ben, I first met Geraldo Rivera when he was starting his career in ‘straight journalism.’ The idea that ‘every blog is valid reporting’ is absolute Geraldo Rivera horse sh*t.”
Two people clicked “like” on this.
I ended the thread with: “Your quote ‘every blog is valid reporting’ is nowhere in this piece. Nor does Niles mention or advise the exploitative sensationalism of Geraldo. The closest quote to this invented sentence is, ‘Everyone who posts online has the potential to create journalism.’ If he means any blogger can choose a topic, nail the facts and write clearly — wouldn’t that be an improvement over the ‘professional’ coverage of U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert? ‘What a maroon,’ as Bugs Bunny would say.”
In reading this now, maybe I didn’t handle this well — look up “Gohmert terrorist babies” online — but our new era scares folks. It should concern people who are comfortable with new media.
In a short time, 15 years perhaps, original work appears first online routinely. If a columnist doesn’t have a berth at a daily or weekly, a newspaper or magazine, or was dropped, the writer can set up a blog with a permanent web address. It can be done at no cost. It’s another option besides freelancing or moving to other formats such as books.
For we columnists, it means more places for where we can explain, report, comment and mock.
My friend isn’t the only one breathing hard.
Dan Gillmor asked in the Internet-only publication Salon (if it has new material every day, is it an online newspaper?) “Who’s a Journalist? Does That Matter?” He begins, “If you’re a creator of media, and most of us are these days in one way or another, what should I call you?”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is getting all ACLU on this, as can be seen at its page Bloggers’ Rights.
Want more confusion? Blogs are starting to be taxed.
The Philadelphia Inquirer just reported in “Is Philly Taxing Bloggers?” how city officials believe that blogs that make money are businesses so their creators must pay $50 a year or $300 for a lifetime privilege license.
Angry? Yes, I flared, then in debating myself I recalled sales tax on newspapers. Many but not all states exempt newspapers from adding sales tax to their price. Few states, on the other hand, exempt magazines. While tacking 7 cents to the price of a newspaper could cut rack sales, especially these days, I’ve never understood how we’re a necessity like groceries, also exempt from taxes in some states. I can’t see a First Amendment angle, either. As long as tax is owed across the board, those nickels help pay teachers and police officers.
But I studied further. It turns out that Philly’s Business Privilege Tax is not new. For many years, freelancers of all sorts have had to pay it, too. (How does City Hall know who to send that form to? The IRS tells it who reports such income.)
Thus, you can find lots on the Internet about the levy. After all, it’s something for writers to write about.
Government revenue is another sign that blogging is becoming mainstream. You may not make more than coffee money off it, but the puppy just heard the can opener.
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— Ben S. Pollock, NSNC president