Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Landmark For Bloggers

George Polk was a 34-year-old American journalist working for CBS and covering the civil war in Greece when he disappeared in the spring of 1948. A few days later his dead body was found. His hands and feet had been tied and he'd been shot in the head.

Shortly after Polk's death, a group of journalists developed the George Polk Awards for outstanding American journalism. The awards have been presented annually by Long Island University for nearly sixty years.

On Tuesday, the 2007 Awards were announced. The press release said the Awards "recogniz(e) journalists in 14 categories for media coverage that exposed corporate and government misfeasance, revealed the industrial roots of environmental catastrophe and uncovered the abuse of vulnerable populations including children, the elderly and veterans."

While I admire and celebrate all the Award recipients, I was particularly interested on one award. Here is the relevant portion of the press release:

The Polk Award for Legal Reporting will go to Joshua Micah Marshall, editor and publisher of the widely read political blog, Talking Points Memo. His sites, and, led the news media in coverage of the politically motivated dismissals of United States attorneys across the country. Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall and his staff (with his staff reporter-bloggers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood) connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush Administration's bidding. Marshall’s tenacious investigative reporting sparked interest by the traditional news media and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The Internet recently marked the ten-year anniversary of the term "blog." According to Wikipedia, "The term 'weblog' was coined by Jorn Barger on December 17, 1997. The short form, 'blog,' was coined by Peter Merholz . . . in April or May of 1999."

Although blogs had been around before the term was coined, for much of the last ten years there has been a lively debate over whether bloggers should be called journalists. The announcement that a prestigious journalism award has been given to a blogger is not only a first, but a significant landmark in that debate.

Will Bunch, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the blog, had a thoughtful and thought-provoking post yesterday. Will's bio includes the following: "Before coming to Philadelphia, Will was a key member of the New York Newsday team that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting."

Bunch says:

It would have seemed incredible a couple of years ago, but a George Polk Award was given this morning to a blogger . . . Hopefully, this acknowledgment of what one savvy blogger and his team have accomplished is a milestone that will speed the day when mainstream journalists realize that the best kind of blogger like Marshall is truly one of our own kind, using new tools and a new way of thinking to break a news story that otherwise might have not been discovered.

Bunch offers the following key points about Marshall's model for blogging that can inform journalists of the future:
  • No pride of ownership in a story. Newspapers are often so competitive that they refuse to report on a story broken by a rival paper. Not so bloggers to whom everything is fair game.
  • 220 heads are better than one. Blog readers are "not just passive readers--they react, they mobilize . . . they make their voices heard." When Marshall and his team were trying to work their way through 3,000 pages of material sent by the Justice Department to Congress, they asked their "audience" to help them read the material. In three and a half hours, 220 people had answered that call.
  • Passion and drive. Bunch speaks eloquently of the passion of both journalists and bloggers "who want to work harder and faster because there are readers gobbling up their reporting as fast as they can dish it out."

I strongly urge you to go here to read Bunch's blog. I applaud both his openness and his willingness to look beyond the current model for his own industry. Whether his peers are able to overcome their prejudice long enough to listen to what he is saying may determine the future of that industry.

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