Russell Smith: Web-bashing 101

I don’t like to pick on a colleague from the Globe and Mail, but in Russell Smith’s case I’m willing to make an exception. I like Russell, and I know he enjoys playing the curmudgeon — in fact, I think he would make a pretty good blogger. But in his latest column I think he goes for the facile, blog-bashing argument because, well… it’s easy. In the piece, which is entitled “Way more news sites, way less news,” he looks at the recent report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism which looked at the state of the news media in the U.S. and compared the number of unique news stories both in print and online in various forms, including blogs. One of the comments from the study is:

“News consumers may have had more choices than ever for where to find news in 2007, but that does not mean they had more news to choose from. The news agenda for the year was, in fact, quite narrow, dominated by a few major general topic areas.”

Russell uses this as a stick with which to beat the Web and particularly the blogosphere, saying blogs and websites focus on only a few stories and blow them out of proportion, and also that sites such as Digg (which the report barely mentions) accelerate this process. He says the report showed that “more than a quarter of the news stories on television and online last year in the United States were about the Iraq war and the presidential campaign” and says that

“this kind of concentration of attention runs against what was expected of the kind of information universe the Web would provide. What we expected, 10 years ago, was a wild diversity, a babble of voices bringing light to the stories that the supposedly stodgy, politics-and-economics-obsessed newspaper newsrooms were not connected to.”

I’m not sure who expected that (other than maybe Russell). In any case, is he saying that TV and news websites shouldn’t have focused on the Iraq war and the presidential campaign? Surely those were a couple of pretty important topics. Russell goes on to say that instead of the wonderful diversity that we expected from the Web, “what we’ve ended up with is a million sources reporting the same story.”

Two things about that: 1) Lots of the blogs and websites writing about those topics aren’t reporting them at all, they’re analyzing and commenting on them (people might take issue with that, but it’s a separate argument from the one Russell is advancing; and 2) What do plenty of newspapers do? Run the same set of a dozen or so newswire stories or press releases to fill out their pages — and often get them wrong, as Tim Burden notes in his post. How is that any different? Most of the report’s criticisms seem to extend primarily to cable television, rather than online, but Russell has his axe and he’s apparently determined to grind it.

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