This morning I received a copy of Joseph Rago's article, "The blog mob." A subscription might be required to see the article. I think probably the most interesting of Mr. Rago's comments might well be the subheading of the article on the WSJ main opinion page.
"Written by fools to be read by imbeciles."
That is a fairly generalized and inflammatory subtitle for an article written by someone who seems so concerned about the loss of the "checks and balances" of the mainstream media establishment ("MSM").
Certainly the MSM, such as it is, collapsed itself. It was once utterly
dominant yet made itself vulnerable by playing on its reputed accuracy
and disinterest to pursue adversarial agendas. Still, as far from
perfect as that system was, it was and is not wholly imperfect. The
technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries
accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for
originality, expertise and seriousness.
Perhaps my worldview here on the Southern Outer Banks might be a little different than that of Mr. Rago's view from his WSJ office. I am certainly no enemy of the printed word. As I admitted in my post, "The morning newspaper," I am a newspaper junkie so I often read the WSJ, the New York Times, and the Washington. I sometimes read a little farther down the food chain and will pick up copies of The Carteret County Times and The Tideland News. I would hate to find out what our esteemed Mr. Rago would think of them, but he does offer us some clues.
Nobody wants to be an imbecile. Part of it, I think, is that everyone
likes shows and entertainments. Mobs are exciting. People also like
validation of what they already believe; the Internet, like all free
markets, has a way of gratifying the mediocrity of the masses.
Immediately the assumption that I pick up from paragraph is that the only way we in the masses can be gratified is by subscribing and paying money to read the likes of Mr. Rago. I wonder exactly what enlightenment I might pick up from Mr. Grasso's writing. Is it that he is highly educated because he likes to use words like "vastation," "logorrheic," and "fatuities." I actually come way with the opinion that his writing reeks of elitism.
Perhaps Mr. Rago, who is so unimpressed with the world of blogs, is overly impressed with his own importance as an "assistant editorial features editor" at one of the few newspapers in American which actually brings in enough revenue from its online business to take it seriously and not have to worry very much about firing people. According to a March 14, 2005 NY Times article, "Can Papers End the Free Ride Online?," the WSJ has a total of 700,000 paying online subscribers including me. That probably makes Mr. Rago's immensely important job fairly safe.
That's actually a rarity in this day and age. However for those businesses and publications not so fortunate, the Internet and even blogs come to the rescue. The same issue of the Journal which Mr. Rago's article even has an audio post about the Internet saving my small business.
Our latest Internet revolution is all about the localization of content. Now very little of it may be relevant to Mr. Rago, who appears to be a big fish in a fairly well mapped big and prominent pond. Yet to those of us who either are no longer in that race or never chose to be there, there is a whole world out here where information is scarce and the mainstream media hasn't seen fit to grace us with their enlightenment.
I am admittedly a member of a significant minority. I use Macintosh computers. That means that while I have the choice of products from many manufacturers whose products claim compatibility, in reality the products may or may not work with my Macs. While I might not know as much as about editing articles as Mr. Rago, I can generally make technology hum. I did a fair amount of research before I went out and purchased a new HP AIO Photosmart C6180. In the end my purchase was a gamble of sorts because information much of it from the mainstream media was scarce and conflicting, and sometimes tainted by the somewhat obvious need to not offend an advertiser.
My safety net when I purchase the HP C6180 was that while I wanted the product to work on a Mac, knew that I had a Windows machine to fall back on if needed. When I actually got the product to work on my Mac, I wrote up a couple of posts, "HP AIO Photosmart C6180" and "The not so reluctant home system engineer," about my experiences. Now while these posts might not be of much value to Mr. Rago, I suspect the well over 3,000 people who have read just the first one might disagree that they were written by fool to be read by imbeciles. I apologize for taking the liberty of slightly altering the subtitle for "The Blog Mob."
Those posts about the HP AIO filled in a little but significant crack of knowledge that the mainstream media had chosen to ignore because it would not draw enough readership that anyone cared to track so that someone could be paid to write the review. Even more significantly it is likely that no one in the mainstream media cared enough to even think of writing the article.
So if we are to judge by the standard that the only things worth reading are those where people have been paid to write them, I would argue that we make our lives immensely less satisfying. If paying writers makes content better, then I wonder what happened to television and the writers whose content happens to offend my sensibilities. I am not so sure that writing for free is something we should discourage. If I am providing my best judgment on a product, service, or an issue and someone has decided that they would rather have my opinion than one from someone who is receiving money to promote something, who is Mr. Rago to declare that this is just "gratifying the mediocrity of the masses." Perhaps reading the WSJ's paid articles is just filling the pockets of wealthy publishers.
I could suggest one article for Mr. Rago, "Let the Seller Beware," which is a WSJ review of a book by that name. Just maybe it might help him understand what's happening on the Internet a little more fully before the mediocre masses completely take over the world.
While my writing expertise or that of many others on the web might not be as financially well rewarded as Mr. Rago's, that does not mean that our opinions and posts are worthless dribble as Mr. Rago seems to hint.
While Mr. Rago's opinion piece has the benefit of being supported by the likes Fidelity and Toshiba. Mine has to supported by the time and effort that I take from earning money. Generally that means I have to believe that what I write has value before I even start. Then when I start writing, I take it very seriously. My considerable good reputation is on the line.
I often write about small businesses which again is an area which the mainstream media has found unprofitable or at least hard to capture except by the likes of Google. When I find a hidden gem like Kelchner's Cocktail sauce, The Depot at Cody Creek, or Backpack, I write about it. By the traffic that I see and comments that I receive, I know these posts have some positive impact.
Do I sometimes get ideas from the mainstream media, certainly. Do I "ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps?" I don't think so. Do I exactly know what my niche is? Probably I don't even care. I have written things as diverse as "The Menhaden saga and limits to growth" and "The Dippy Egg." I even chronicled how to plant and care for tomato plants in the hope that the wisdom my mother passed down to me along with what I've learned might somehow be valuable to my kids.
I added all the links in the last two paragraphs just as a statement that I believe interactivity in media has great value. It certainly allows even us mediocre masses to do a little exploring on our own without the divine guidance of the mainstream media.
I would also take exception with the following comment by Mr. Rago.
But there is no inherent virtue to instantaneity. Traditional daily
reporting -- the news -- already rushes ahead at a pretty good clip,
breakneck even, and suffers for it. On the Internet all this is
I would argue that there is a certain rigor enforced by doing it now and trying to do it right the first time with only one set of eyes for a safety net. I try hard to check for facts and just as religiously correct for errors when I find them or they are pointed out to me. Just because you have the luxury of doing something slowly doesn't mean that it is going to turn out well. Those of us writing out without pay would love to have a second set of eyes to scan our works. Often it turns out that it is our readers who find and report errors and omissions which can easily be corrected in our instant world of blogs.
Long ago I learned that wisdom and beauty are where you find them, not exclusively in a gated community where you have to pay to enter. The idea that all blogs are "Written by fools to be read by imbeciles," makes as much sense as every article which has an editor and a dollar value attached to it is enlightening.
Finally in stating the obvious, "Journalism requires journalists," let me remind Mr. Rago of the second definition for "journalist" which is "a person who keeps a journal, diary, or other record of daily events."
That sounds remarkably like writing a blog. I wonder if that might be acceptable training for the next generation of professional journalists? It will certainly require a closer look than the one Mr. Rago gave the world of blogs.