Recap: The Great Blog Debate

By Olivia Kona, VP PWAC Quebec & Chapter Ambassador

It started out as PWAC Quebec’s Great Blogging Debate, but it could just as easily have been called Surviving Purgatory or Re-imagining Journalism in 2012. As these things go, it sprouted organically into a discourse between two Montreal heavy hitters on the whys and wherefores of communicating “news and views” in the era of social media.

On the side of trust and stability, i.e., old school journalism was Brian Myles, Le Devoir journalist and President of the Fédération Professionelle des Journalistes du Québec. On the opposing side, was Mitch Joel, owner of Twist Image, social media guru and Montreal Gazette columnist, as the voice of hope in purgatory — we’re neither in heaven nor hell now, Joel stated.

Moderator Giancarlo La Giorgia, former President of PWAC Quebec and author of Canadian War Heroes: Ten Profiles in Courage, opened the floor and Myles jumped right in. Even though the Le Devoir journalist claims to be old-school, he tweets to his fellow federation members — mostly pertinent press releases and as a way to talk to reporters. He’s still trying to figure out the best way to use Facebook in his line of work and believes, as does Joel, that the new illiteracy is not being able to “speak code” (programming).

According to Myles, we’re headed back to the 19th-century news model. At that time newspapers, founded by private interests and political parties, printed opinion-based vs. fact-based stories, something more and more papers are doing now because “it’s costly to provide this kind of information and most people don’t want to pay” for investigative research.

Speaking in code: Re-imagining Journalism in 2012 (left to right) with Giancarlo La Giorgia, Mitch Joel, and Brian Myles. Photo by Ian Howarth.

He noted that young journalism graduates are having a particularly difficult time. Some companies are asking them to sign over all of their rights and won’t give them legal assistance if sued. Public TV and radio may be the answer but, he stated, philanthropy tends to works better in the US than in Quebec. It’s unlikely that the news business will shift from a for-profit model to a public-service one; the public is wary of government-subsidized news, as shown by the PQ’s spectacular failure at publishing a state-run newspaper.

Joel views the difference between old and new media from another angle: it comes from the perspective of the period at the end of the sentence. In the old media, it signified the end. In the new media, it signifies the beginning because the web is not hierarchical. The audience continues the story; it has no beginning, middle or end.

The fundamental problem with the digitalization of newspapers, he added, is that the new media lacks stability. The old media was “at the door everyday,” unlike the new media whose randomness “freaks people out.” That’s why he thinks his blog works, because it’s consistent and relevant. However, if he sold his blog, “it would be a very crappy business… The web dictates the market and forces the market to tell you what the value is… It provides a most humbling and humiliating experience.”

The public is not very media-savvy, Joel continued, and education is necessary so that people understand that every time they write a post or upload a photo they are, in fact, acting as a publisher. Today, anyone can publish their writing online. “Just because we can, doesn’t mean it’s good or will be accepted.”

We’re in a new multidisciplinary world where we should be using both our left and right brains and where new media skills should be taught to student journalists, Joel believes.

Myles disagrees. What traditional reporters need are time and space, two commodities that are shrinking along with the number of magazines and newspapers. Today most newspaper publishers are advertisers rather than editors and yet, “The big change now is that newspapers don’t have access to big advertising dollars and therefore, can’t have the same quality product. Some of those revenues won’t come back… For every dollar on the web, $7 is lost in print”.

So what should media owners do? Joel suggested that they become inventors of the next great platform like Pinterest. He believes money can be made by generating original content and that we should get away from the trend of tapping newswires to copy and paste rather than writing local news.

As for writers, Myles suggested two possible options: 1. Give your writing away for free or 2. Price it exceedingly high and find the right customers for it. Those who really want it will be willing to pay for it. Expect very modest success, though, because he doesn’t think that kind of market exists.

Joel has seen the flip side to Myles’ theory. By leveraging his blog as an online portfolio, he has found a wealth of job opportunities and feels that writers who blog for free can do the same. To be successful though, writers must embrace new technologies and should consider them “tools of freedom, not handcuffs”. If a journalist refuses to have a cellphone, for example, she’s refusing to do her job well.

Joel believes that writers should plunge into new media and give their careers a social media makeover. As an aside, so does our PWAC Regional Director, Bruce Wilson, who siad, “I’m beginning to think that PWAC’s new mantra should be ‘living at the edge of chaos.’ Time to think seriously about those new business models people keep talking about. It’s ‘all the buzz’ on other writers’ lists.”

This upheaval is “forcing the industry to figure out what its value is… It’s an amazing time to be in media… It’s an opportunity,” stated Joel.

Benjamin Franklin may have been right when he wrote, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” It’s time to get in the groove — we may all be pleasantly surprised.

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