Dem Thievin’ Blogs

Monday, November 30th, 2009

The dreadful, ever-earnest Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson is the latest pundit to lament the death of the newspaper.

I’ve written in the past that I think newspapers do serve a useful purpose, and I do think we’ll genuinely be worse off when the last newspaperman takes his last ink-lunged breath of life.

But Gerson makes a number of the same mistakes these broadly written old media vs. new media missives always seem to make. Most notably, he lumps all new media into one category and all old media into another. There are great newspapers. And there are really awful newspapers. There are great web-only, hard news publications, and there are terrible, gossipy poorly-sourced ones. Some, like Huffington Post, manage to be both. There are blogs that do actual reporting and break stories (ahem), and blogs that reiterate talking points from the RNC and DNC.

But I can’t let this passage go without comment:

And the whole system is based on a kind of intellectual theft. Internet aggregators (who link to news they don’t produce) and bloggers would have little to collect or comment upon without the costly enterprise of newsgathering and investigative reporting. The old-media dinosaurs remain the basis for the entire media food chain. But newspapers are expected to provide their content free on the Internet. A recent poll found that 80 percent of Americans refuse to pay for Internet content. There is no economic model that will allow newspapers to keep producing content they don’t charge for, while Internet sites repackage and sell content they don’t pay to produce.

I dislike media bias as much as the next conservative. But I don’t believe that journalistic objectivity is a fraud. I was a journalist for a time, at a once-great, now-diminished newsmagazine. I’ve seen good men and women work according to a set of professional standards I respect — standards that serve the public. Professional journalism is not like the buggy-whip industry, outdated by economic progress, to be mourned but not missed. This profession has a social value that is currently not reflected in its market value.


In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.

Take note, Gerson: That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.

I believe I’ve told this story before, but the New York Times indirectly reported on the Cory Maye case a few years before I did. Longtime crime reporter Fox Butterfield was in Prentiss, Mississippi to write about how the drug trade was devastating the rural South. He referenced Maye’s case on the front page, but because he’d already committed to the conceptual outline of his story (drugs are bad, and the government isn’t doing enough to fight them), it didn’t occur him to wonder why a man with no criminal record and no significant amount of drugs in his home would intentionally kill a police officer. Butterfield admitted as much to me when I spoke to him over the phone. The same can be said of the initial coverage of Maye’s case by Mississippi media. No one dug a little. No one went beyond interviewing the police and Maye’s attorney. It took a libertarian policy analyst in Washington looking at the case from a different perspective–one much more skeptical of law enforcement–to see the story, here.

You don’t need a ton of money to do investigative journalism. Nor is journalism necessarily tainted when its done with an agenda. In fact, some of the best investigative reporting has historically and still comes from the likes of Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s. More recently, on the web at places like Talking Points Memo or the Center for Independent media sites. Tim Carney has done great work exposing corporate rent seeking and corruption in Washington over at the Examiner. These are all publications that most certainly have a perspective. Accuracy and fairness are what’s important. The idea that anyone can approach a beat or a story with a detached, sterile objectivity is a farce.

Newspapers are still important. But it’s ridiculous to suggest that only newspapers and their pretense of objectivity can do effective or important investigative journalism. Frankly, what investigative journalism needs is more people who haven’t spent 10 years in a newsroom getting too familiar with government sources, growing too wedded to the idea of pure objectivity, and too hamstrung by the way things have always been done.

Oh, and once the traditional media stops running stories broken by bloggers and web publications without giving them proper credit, we can entertain Gerson’s complaint that blogs are stealing content from newspapers and “repackaging” it for profit.

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34 Responses to “Dem Thievin’ Blogs”

  1. #1 |  dave smith | 

    No model for free content?

    Uh….I don’t pay a freakin’ dime for cbs news, and they seem to make it.

  2. #2 |  Nando | 

    As far as I’m concerned, most traditional newspapers made their money by selling advertising space. The $.35 you spend on a newspaper barely covers the costs of delivering it (you know, the delivery guys, the truck, the gas, etc.).

    So, if the money comes from selling advertising space, why can’t they do the same online? How can they not make money using the same model (i.e. a space on the side of the story advertising, say, a sale at Macy’s this weekend)? They can target it even more towards audiences if they used IP information to gather the general location from where the reader is viewing the page and send “local” advertisements to that page view.

    BTW, the death of newspapers will put a crimp on how I like my fish and chips!

  3. #3 |  Akusu | 

    x_x close your italics tag, it’s affecting the whole page.

    Most people will not pay for internet content because they pay for internet connectivity. I personally am not impressed by models that expect me to pay every time I want to do something, after I’ve already paid an exorbitant fee to begin with.

  4. #4 |  Danny | 

    Radley broke the internets! We’re all doomed!


  5. #5 |  David | 

    What I usually do when I see the words Michal & Gerson in succession is to assume that whatever follows will be idiotic.

  6. #6 |  John A | 

    About paying for news content. If asked by, say The New York Times, if I would pay said organization [at least as much] for Internet access [as the hard-copy edition] I would say NO.

    But I would (indeed, as noted by an earlier commentor, indirectly do in buying access to the Web) pay the equivalent of a Times subscription price to access all news output. What I object to is paying for the NYT, then the LATimes, then the Post-Dispatch, the Times of London, the Sydney Morning Herald – on and on, for all the places I go.

  7. #7 |  anonanerd | 

    Traditional newspapers are going to die out, the government will come in to bail them out, then we will have newspapers directly controlled by the government.

    and all of us who point this out will be laughed at.

  8. #8 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I think there is a market for good journalism and I think it will survive and prosper in some form in the future. What I see is a lot of whining from outfits that don’t do good journalism that are finding themselves suddenly faced with a range of competition they’ve never had to worry about before.

    Yessiree, yet another industry dies at the hands of evil capitalism. Not to be alarmist, but freedom depends on the free press, so its demise spells doom for western democracies. The only conceivable solution is some kind of protectionism. Indeed, print journalism’s only chance for a future depends on the government taking it under its wing, and guarantying its future stability. In other words, newspapers are are too important to let them fail.

  9. #9 |  Nando | 


    If Democracy depends on free press, and the press is then controlled by the government (after the bailouts, of course), won’t that just be state-run media and thus not be “free press” as we know it? So, in trying to “save” the free press, the government will actually be killing Democracy?

    My head hurts!

  10. #10 |  Dave Krueger | 

    There will always be print newspapers just like there will always be people who insist on doing real darkroom photography. Muahahahahahaah!

    It’s only a matter of time before your kindle will emit the scent of newsprint upon downloading the appropriate content.

  11. #11 |  z | 

    Where did you (Radley) first learn of Cory Maye? My guess: google searches which turned up links to stories done by……a newspaper. Like this Clarion-Ledger article maybe? Just saying, without the Clarion-Ledger it’s likely you would never have found your Cory Maye story. In fact, isn’t that how you found all 500+ drug raid gone bad stories for your Overkill report?

  12. #12 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Nando #9,

    You hit the nail on the head. Sort of like the government taking over industry to save capitalism. haha!

    Long live irony. And 2+2=5.

  13. #13 |  Radley Balko | 

    z —

    That’s true of Cory’s case. It isn’t true of Hayne. Nor is it true of other cases I’ve reported here, many of which have never been covered by a newspaper.

    Yes most (thought not all) of the raid cases were first reported in papers. Not sure what your point is. That isn’t investigative journalism, it’s news gathering, beat reporting. I’ve stated that newspapers are great at that, and if they do go under, we’ll be worse off for it. My quarrel with Gerson is his assertion that only newspapers can do investigative reporting well, and that blogs and web publications just steal their content and comment on it.

  14. #14 |  Nick T | 

    Radley, I really agree with your comments about the overblown farce that is “unbiased” reporting. I actually think it’s one of the biggest problems with current media: no one takes hard lines or asks hard questions because they will be seen as biased. The torture debacle is probably the clearest example of this: jounralist will report anything one “side” says no matter how factually inaccurate, and won’t even hint at a clear stance like “slicing testicles is wrong” because then they will be taking sides in a “debate.”

    You obviously do your reporting with a biased against government and police and all of that, but that bias and skepticism makes you ask better questions and turn over more important rocks. More journalists should be like that. Not biased towards particular people or sides, but biased towards principles, biased in favor of skepticism for the things being said by the people they cover, biased that most things the government tries to do won’t work, will have unintended consequences and will be a waste of time and money.

    I’ve been saying this for months now, inspired in part by your reporting.

  15. #15 |  Kit Smith | 

    Good post, Radley. I hate it when people on one side of the aisle or the other in this debate (I’m not talking liberal/conservative aisle, I’m talking bloggers/MSM here) think that the solution to their problems is the eradication of the other side. Alternative media sources (see: blogs) often thrive because the mainstream media provide them with content to provide insightful commentary about. Newspapers don’t have unlimited print spaces, but blogs do. TV news has a limited amount of time (or in the case of the cable news networks, a limited number of IQ points they can assume their audience has), but blogs can keep hammering an issue. They can compliment each other very nicely if everyone isn’t talking about how the other side must surrender.

    That being said, not every blog is run by people who are doing investigative journalism. Big, established press organizations rip off the little guys because they can get away with it, and as long as everyone thinks that there are sides to being on an effective media it is the general public who looks to the investigators for information who lose. When Radley isn’t cited for work that he has done, his site doesn’t generate the revenue that supports his ability to keep reporting. Without his reporting, the news orgs that steal his stories lose a great source for solid reporting because he can’t afford to do as much of it anymore. We all suffer while the finger-pointing goes, but at least there are more sides to this debate than TV versus newspapers now.

  16. #16 |  Stephen | 

    I think the sum total of major papers and blogs is the best thing that could happen. Blogs seem to speed the flow of information.

    Why should I read all of every paper to get the stuff I want? Much better to go to an “aggregator” and quickly link to the stories I find of interest.

    I certainly feel better informed about what is happening in the world than I did 20 yrs ago. I don’t think it’s just me turning into an old fart. :)

  17. #17 |  Chuchundra | 

    I’m tired of all the MSM whining about blogs eating their lunch. It’s all bullshit.

    It’s not the blogs who are killing the dead tree news, it’s websites like Craigslist, Monster, Autotrader, etc. Newspapers’ big moneymaker has traditionally been the classified ad. Newspaper display ads had to compete with TV, radio, etc, but there was no real competition for the classified. Many metropolitan areas have only one big daily, so the newspapers could charge monopoly rents and make out like a bandits.

    Newspapers were slow to catch on to this and held off on doing their own online classifieds so as not to cannibalize their dead tree classified ad profits. Now, of course, it’s probably too late to do anything about it.

  18. #18 |  Johnny Longtorso | 

    …like when the MSN scooped all the blogs on Climategate, or Monica, or…..

  19. #19 |  Danimal | 

    Sorry, Mr. Gearson, but dead tree is just not a viable distribution method any more. I’m sure the guys who mashed together papyrus thought paper was an unfair game changer too, but eventually they got the message.

  20. #20 |  Dakota | 

    Radley hits on one key point everyone fails to mention.

    Investigating got simpler and cheaper with the advent of digital technology, then the internet connected eveyone to much of that information. Can I get an amen from anyone who remembers pouring over microfiche?

    Anyone with a little money, and some spare hours can make a competent attempt at it. Quality will very but hasn’t it always?Consumers always have to sort the wheat from the chaff.

    Gerson can whine all he wants but he can’t wish away the work that some “blog” reporters have done and reputations they’ve earned.

  21. #21 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    Fuck the whining dead tree papers that failed to evolve and now blame everybody else for their failure. And fuck the once-great but now pathetic WaPo doubly.

  22. #22 |  Jason | 

    Even if a blog gets all of their information from published sources, the blog can still add value through analysis, linking to older/related stories, and providing follow up.

    Plus the value of driving people to the original story (if linked).

  23. #23 |  MikeZ | 

    “You obviously do your reporting with a biased against government and police and all of that”

    Technically speaking I’d say the reporting is done with a bias against police tactics and a certain authoritarian government mindset. Not against Government and Police.

    John A states: “…But I would (indeed, as noted by an earlier commentor, indirectly do in buying access to the Web)…”

    This actuallly doesn’t seem quite right to me. I don’t want to see the NYTimes starting to recieve a share of the money I spend for Internet Connectivity. Leading down this road seems like it would either raise my rates substantially or screw up net neutrality. On the other hand I wouldn’t be adverse to paying reasonable rates directly to the NYTimes for online access, but the content has to fit the media. I probably wouldn’t pay for reprints of their print stories. With the internet the possibilites are so much greater than that. Something more interactive though and ad free would be interesting. Even the simple embedded linking to sources is something that adds a lot of value for little effort. I’d be willing to pay if they uploaded thier full data/interview notes as well as the analysis they ended up writing.

  24. #24 |  michael | 

    When I was still in school about 10 years ago, I spent a week in DC at a seminar that was tied in to a school project. One of the speakers was the Washington reporter for I think the Boston paper. He was speaking about the difficulties of the newspaper business, and he made the comment “that if you get on an elevator in Boston, Washington, or New York you assume that the other people in the elevator have read at least one and probably two newspapers that morning, in College Station, Texas and Lansing, Michigan you assume that they haven’t looked at the news at all.” The room was filled mostly with Texas A&M and Michigan State students which is why I guess he decided to take a pot shot at those towns. The pure disdain in this guys voice for us poor uneducated Middle America State School students was unbelievable.

    I raised my hand and told him that I had a copy of his paper right here and the leading item was last nights lottery numbers so I thought he might be overstating his importance to society.

  25. #25 |  A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees | Think Tank West | 

    […] independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites: In 20 years, the Gannett-owned […]

  26. #26 |  A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees | Cato @ Liberty | The Red Monkey | 

    […] and independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites: In 20 years, the Gannett-owned […]

  27. #27 |  John Petersen | 

    Great article. I operate a local political blog – most out of necessity because our local news outlets are not that good when it comes to reporting on what our local governments are doing. In a strange twist, the local news site actually comes to my blog to poach material. I wrote about it here:

  28. #28 |  Haapi | 

    I about spit out my coffee reading Gerson saying, “I dislike media bias as much as the next conservative.” He must not dislike it very much, then.

    For an good example of non-traditional-media news gathering and beat reporting, we in Minnesota have The Uptake, whose comprehensive video coverage of the Franken-Coleman recount and trial was the main reason Coleman could not allege recount fraud. It was all on tape. All the rest of the media reported was sound-bites and decisions.

  29. #29 |  Anonymouse | 

    Ok, let me get this straight: They complain about bloggers re-publishing their stories, when 90%-95% of the stories in the newspaper are re-published AP stories. Hmm.

  30. #30 |  CJ | 

    Last year, Mark Glaser was compiling a list of examples of online investigative journalism that rivaled the best that print journalism could offer. The list mentioned pieces on everything from shady military contracts to chocolate scams. In most cases, the subject matter was there for the print journalists, had they taken an interest and tried to look into it. But they didn’t.

  31. #31 |  ptpoo | 

    Sometimes its the independant blogger with no important press ties that is needed to break a politically charged story…

  32. #32 |  Bellweather | 

    Muahaha, all you Internet weenies out there will rue the day you killed the dead tree pubs! You’ll eventually run out of fossil fuel and all your power-hungry data centers will go dark!!! Everyone knows that newsprint is a sustainable renewable resource that’ll outlive coal and oil…

    Seriously tho, I think everyone needs to seriously get a grip about the “demise” of newsprint as a medium and worry about more pressing issues huh?

  33. #33 |  The Noisy and Prolonged Death of Journalism | JetLib News | 

    […] journo to bemoan the death of journalism at the hands of the Internet; and investigative blogger Radley Balko quickly called B.S. on Gershon’s claim that (all?) bloggers simply steal from (all?) hard-working, honest, […]

  34. #34 |  Will Jameson | 

    I agree with your point that investigative journalism doesn’t need to be owned by the large corporate entities like the NYT or others like CNN, and also add to it this: If the news organizations aren’t willing to do real investigative journalism they should shut their yappers. I see more fluffy junk content from places like CNN than insight into things that places like Wikileaks bring to the table.