Wednesday, October 21, 2009

state of the blogosphere 2009: the kids are all right

I've been following technorati's 2009 state of the blogosphere report with the level of interest you might expect from someone who spends the vast majority of her free time blogging. Much has been and will be made of the following statistics, culled from technorati's survey:

• Two-thirds are male
• 60% are 18-44
• The majority are more affluent and educated than the general population
◦ 75% have college degrees
◦ 40% have graduate degrees
◦ One in three has an annual household income of $75K+
◦ One in four has an annual household income of $100K+
◦ Professional and self-employed bloggers are more affluent: nearly half have an annual household income of $75,000 and one third topped the $100,000 level
• More than half are married
• More than half are parents
• Half are employed full time, however ¾ of professional bloggers are employed full time.

These statistics are worth mulling, as they point to a disturbing trend toward the mainstreaming of what was previously a counterculture form of communication. Others have begun exploring this in depth.

What interests me most at the moment, however, is the statistic on journalistic credentials. According to the report, 35% of respondents have worked in traditional media formats, including newspapers and magazines, radio, and television. Compare this to the less than 1% of the entire American work force employed in traditional media fields.

And one more statistic before we dive into analysis: Of those who identified as having employment history with traditional media sources, 72% are no longer employed by a media outlet. This means that just over one-fourth of the bloggers surveyed are formerly affiliated with traditional media outlets.

Why does this matter? Because it points to two interesting and important trends among bloggers: They have had more exposure to traditional journalistic ethics than does the average American; and they are disproportionately drawn to blogging as a news circulation format. This is, in my view, a double smackdown to those who fear that the shift away from traditional news sources will lead to a decreased quality in reporting.

journalistic ethics, carried over
As I've explained before, I'm a former newspaper reporter whose paper folded after a long slide toward decreased advertising revenues. Not all of us who worked at that local paper were journalists, exactly--our crew included two sales reps, two assistants, a circulation manager, and various part-time employees--but everybody at that office embraced a deep commitment to honest, responsible information delivery. It kind of came with the territory.

Journalism is guided by an ethical framework--what we might call an appreciative system--that's undergirded by intellectual rigor, critical curiosity, and chronic curmudgeonry. Though this commitment is move visible in its breach (which is in part why Jayson Blair became a household name), it's a big piece of what drives so many people into traditional journalism even as its dying gasps turn into death rattles.

disproportional representation: paid journalists become voluntary journalists
Old journalists never die, they just get de-pressed, har har. In fact, the thriving popularity of blogs and their potential to reach a vast--indeed, potentially almost infinite--audience is by my lights part of what draws us traditional media curmudgeons to new media. Though I can't speak for all traditional media-affiliated bloggers, I can tell you that I was drawn to journalism because I believed in its power, believed in its transformative potential. I believed, even before I could articulate it, in the power of a free press in a democratic society. That's free as in speech, not as in beer.

Now, as a blogger, my understanding of "free press" has changed: When I talk about the power of a free press, I now mean free as in speech and as in beer. This does not, contrary to common belief, mean that I believe we can sustain a thriving communication system without funds; I just don't believe that the people should be required to pay for information. I have elsewhere delineated between 'news' and 'the news' and discussed various approaches to funding that may be more sustainable than the current system, so I won't go into that here; instead, I only want to submit that for many traditional-media types like me, blogs offer what a career in journalism did, only more so. More communication of ideas, more potential readership, more opportunity for direct conversation between the writer and her readers. News can be broken, immediately, to overwhelming impact, via blogs; ideas can be offered, discussed, and modified; a reading public can be mobilized to act.

There are those who will (and do!) argue that unpaid citizens will never be willing to commit to reporting on local, national, or international news without pay; or that even those who are willing to do so will offer substandard, biased, or useless content. These charges may be true, but only of a subset of the online journalistic population. For the rest of us, our commitment to delivery of high-quality, well researched and useful information has never been higher or more valuable--essential, really, to a democratic society built on a presumption of freedom of speech and of the press.


Kylie Peppler said...

These stats are really disturbing -- it makes me feel like when we prepare students to blog that we're really preparing them to participate in an elite practice. What's your take on this? I know that you have an interest in bringing blogs into schools too...

Jenna McWilliams said...

I agree that these statistics, while encouraging in some respects, are disturbing in others. I believe that the value of bringing blogs into the classroom is that it gives us space to break down the elitism in a community governed to varying extents by a deep sense of ethical commitment to journalistic values. Blogs are dominated by rich, educated (and presumably overwhelmingly white) men, but they don't HAVE to be.


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