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Watching the Watchdog: Is Huffpost Killing Democracy?

Posted: 04/26/2012 1:15 pm

I'm eating spicy Thai fish with a former CBC colleague-turned-journalism professor, when he very politely questions the ethics of my writing this column for Huffington Post.

Surely, he suggests delicately, the internet in general -- and aggregators like HuffPost in particular -- are killing traditional mainstream, general-interest journalism.

And, in the process, seriously damaging democracy.

He reminds me that I've been known to wax lyrical over the vital contribution professional, trained journalists make to participatory democracy.

Professional journalists whose job and craft it is to report the news freely, fairly, and without fear or favour.

I've even lauded such journalism as: "A jewel in the crown of democracy".

My professorial friend has distinguished company in his ethical doubts.

New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller, likely speaks for all mainstream news media when he complains: "The wonderful florescence of communication ignited by the internet contains countless voices riffing on the journalism of others but not so many that do serious reporting of their own."
And David Simon, creator of The Wire, takes the problem to its logical end, warning that the Internet is "leeching" conventional journalism to death: "... aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin -- namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host."

So why do I write this column?

  • Certainly not for the money. HuffPost doesn't pay its bloggers. A recent court case brought by bloggers suing for some of the millions from HuffPost's sale to AOL was tossed out. In effect, we bloggers are rewarded by publication, not cash.
  • I'm a professional writer. That's what I do. For more years than I care to remember, I've made a reasonably good living writing for wire services, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. And when I wasn't writing, I was training working broadcast journalists in a dozen countries including the U.S. and Canada in writing (along with storytelling and performance). But the Great Recession has decimated the writing and training markets, making it harder and harder to find paid work.
  • How can I know what I think if I don't write it down? Churning out two or three columns a week for HuffPost keeps me reasonably sharp and up-to-date while I search the highways and byways for something that will actually pay.
  • HuffPost's huge following keeps my name front and centre at a time when some of my most talented freelance colleagues simply disappear off the map. Or, at severe risk to their immortal souls, become public relations flacks.
  • I'm in good company. Some of the other bloggers are truly giants in the writing world. Also, HuffPost has just won the highly prestigious U.S. Pulitzer Prize for national reporting -- the first-ever for any online-only news organization.
  • I've written for all possible media on all possible platforms. It makes little difference to me which medium uses my work (except that I'd really, really like to be paid). Anyway, nothing those such as I do or don't do will effect the rise of the internet and decline of traditional information outlets.
  • It's a delight to be able to write with no censorship and minimal editing (except when it comes to headlines, which is a dispute for another time).
  • I love the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Leacock. I love playing with words. In many ways, writing defines me.
  • Writing is just about all I can do.

In the end, I guess, it all comes down to this -- I'd rather write for nothing, than not write at all. And I'm certain democracy will survive.

 

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