Friday, April 22, 2005

Blog Unease with 'Connected'

For its new show, "Connected Coast to Coast," MSNBC is having various bloggers do webcasts to report what different blogs are saying about things. I've never liked the feature because, essentially, it's not that different from reading aloud the most recent editorials from a few major newspapers.

Dave Weinberger, who had been a blogger involved in the MNSBC segments, says he feels uncomfortable doing them:
They want reports on what moderate left and right wing bloggers — "Nothing out of the mainstream," the producer told me yesterday — say about a "major" topic. What the hell does that have to do with blogging? And when two of the producers yesterday independently suggested that I report on the blogosphere's reaction to a Vietnam veteran spitting on Jane Fonda, I blurted out — because the flu had lowered my normal Walls of Timidity — that this wasn't a job I'm comfortable with.

What makes the blogosphere interesting to me is not that there are moderate left and right voices talking about mainstream topics. Mainstream major stories are about issues such as freakish celebrity pedophiles, a spit match over a fight from 30 years ago that the press is hoping to revive, and whatever unfortunate child has been reported missing and presumed (better for the story) murdered. I'm in the blogosphere to escape from this degradation of values.
Ed Cone, who has also done a few blog report segments as well, says while he is going to continue doing them, he also has some problems with the format.
The rigid format did bite me this week, when they told me I couldn't talk about blog reactions to anti-Semitism at the Air Force Academy because there weren't two sides of the story presented (in an earlier show, they went with my suggestion to cover bipartisan blasting of Senator Cornyn's threatening remarks about judges). In this case, I argued that it was one of the most interesting blog topics of the day, and that I wasn't interested in presenting a pro-anti-Semitism POV if I found one (not they suggested I do so), but to no avail. I lose fights with editors all the time; this week's example struck me as limiting the quality of our product, but not as a hill to die for.

That said, like David, I've been doing this for free (they did buy me a web cam and headset). The experience has been worth it, but I can't see continuing to do it on a frequent basis for nothing.
I've been somewhat disappointed that "Connected" seems to be turning into a regular daytime cable talk show instead of the more innovative approach it started to have. The problem seems to be that the show's producers don't realize that simply saying the word blog a lot (or even a little) and reading emails isn't going to get people to tune in. You have to do something different.

Yes, it's true that Fox News Channel has found success by reaching out to the conservative viewer (who do constitute the plurality of cable news watchers), but it's also been successful because it was willing to try new things and new people. After starting out promising on that account, "Connected" has fizzled somewhat, reverting to the old forms of "interactive" integration: reading viewer email, doing webcams, and quoting text. No one wants to see that stuff because it's both old hat (who really wants to see a webcam on TV when we can get just as good of a picture quality with a videophone from the Himalayan mountains?), and because it's not very interesting.

Blogs work because they provoke conversation in real time. Taking that conversation and freezing it for later presentation on TV loses the meaning of the medium. The only way blogging's power can be harnessed is through integrating the people who do it with the people they talk about and critique.

UPDATE: Weinberger's post I quoted above (here's the link again) provoked quite a bit of debate in the comments of the entry. Jeff Jarvis, who has decided along with Ed Cone to keep doing blog summaries, defended himself at his site, saying that "Blogs don't need mainstream media. Mainstream media needs blogs."

I posted a response over at David's site (unfortunately he has no comment permalinks so you'll have to scroll a bit) but after thinking about it a bit more, I came to the conclusion that Jeff and I disagree somewhat less than I initially stated. When he said the media needs blogs, he meant that they need to learn from them.

I sent this note to Jeff moments ago:

After rereading your media-needs-blogs response, I came to the conclusion that we disagree less than I initially assumed. I realized then (and was later confirmed by reading your email clarification) that when you said the "media needs blogs," you meant they need to copy aspects of the blogger ethos. So essentially on that point we were saying the same thing.

I'll amend my argument to say that systematically, the established media needs to learn from blogs, but they don't really need them to increase their marketshare. Blogs, meanwhile, definitely need the establishment media to provide facts, but also to help provide an ideal (which almost no big journalism outfit regularly meets) of depth and fairness.

What worries me about the "Connected" segments (and the ones on CNN's "Inside Politics" as well) is that they seem to be more about marketing than about truly integrating the principles of approachability and dialogue into their overall operations.

Instead, they seem to be more designed (at least from what I've seen from watching and from having been on them) to attract interest to shows that needs a ratings boost. If the shows don't end up making inroads against their FNC competition, I hope that won't poison the well against learning from blogs.

I think the Larry Kudlow (the CNBC host of "Kudlow and Company" who has a blog of his own and regularly invites them on his show) approach to blog integration is ultimately more interesting and true to the blogger ethos of lively debate between the big and small media than just summarizing what people are saying. As someone who reads blogs very often and integrates them into public relations strategies for a living, I don't like summary segments. Imagine what a person who isn't obsessed with blogs thinks of them.