i-72eebff1c3030133d3a7ca1bd7d13b7f-Clyde Bentley.jpg
Clyde Bentley

Mark Glaser is away on vacation this week, but we’re happy to have Clyde Bentley filling in as a special guest blogger. Bentley is an associate professor for convergence journalism at the University of Missouri. Bentley helped start the MyMissourian grassroots journalism hub, and teaches students how to incorporate interactivity into their journalism. His research team hosts its own blog, The Cyberbrains. Glaser will return to the blog next Monday.

Here’s the quiz of the day for 21st Century Journalism 101: What makes news critics howl, able reporters swoon and strong editors weep? (Hint: The great unwashed and untutored of the blogosphere consider them pure manna.)

If I could squeeze another cliche into that first paragraph, I would. As long as it helped generate the answer to the quiz:

“Comments.”

I spent a good part of this now-fading year talking with bloggers, commiserating with news folk, goading students into establishing blogs while dipping my own cyber pen into the blog pot frequently. Back in January I believed that the difference between blogging and journalism was primarily content and style. But as December nears, I have come to realize the chief factor may be self-confidence.

Explained in academic jargon, journalists buffer their social insecurity with a pantheon of self-fulfilling ideals and professional standards that exclude regulation and intervention by exterior influences.

Or as the “real” bloggers repeatedly tell me, journalists are a bunch of gutless wimps.

When we first introduced staff blogs to the traditional journalism world, it seemed a refreshing opportunity to give more of us a try at column writing. But when the IT people toggled the “allow comments” option, all hell broke loose.

Many of us grew up in a business where the end of the story was the end of the story. Period. The inarticulate sniping of a few know-it-alls adds nothing to the day’s report. Besides, they were embarrassing. So if we couldn’t block comments altogether, we put up walls of rules to diminish them.

Meanwhile the battle cry from rank-and-file bloggers is “bring ‘em on.” Comments have become the measure of success in many blogging systems. The editors for the big MyFOX system I use in St. Louis, for instance, pick the featured blogs for the home page largely on how many comments they have generated.

I experimented with the impact of comments this fall by having two sets of Mizzou journalism students post to the Fox system. The first set came from an editorial-writing class. They were only marginally intimidated by the prospect of comments — they were, after all, subjective opinion writers. It was the immediacy, personal tone and volume of comments that took them aback.

After a rough couple of weeks, my Op-Ed crew learned what hot buttons worked and how to keep the conversation boiling. The students soon reveled in getting 30 or 40 comments per post.

The other students were more traditional journalists. Although they had studied citizen journalism, they were shocked at the lack of interest from the blog world when they wrote informative, well-crafted and traditional essays. They argued that no journalists need cater to the commenting public — good journalism is good journalism. As one said, “I don’t mind comments as long as they are valuable comments.” Going by her definition of “valuable,” of course.

That’s pretty close to where I started this year. It doesn’t take much number crunching, however, to demonstrate that we have already lost that battle. Technorati reported that there are 175,000 new blogs launched each day — two per second. If just 1% of those carry credible journalistic information we have more new sources of “journalism” each day than we have daily newspapers in the United States. One could also argue that the remaining 99% have voted with their keyboards on whether the traditional media system has everything they need.

When I moved from the newsroom to the university, I was rather shaken to find how uninformed I had been about the influences on my own profession. The key benefit of professorship for me is having the time to research and think about problems rather than to just react to them. The more I look, the less evidence I find to support my assumptions about what information interests people, how they value it and what they believe.

Sometimes now I don’t even need the research databases for pointed guidance. A host of critics with names like Mr. Wildflower, LadyFireman, Weird and AMom offer in-course corrections every time I blog.

In the long, round-about way we love in academia, I return to my original point. Bloggers feel no obligation to be 100% correct. But they have supreme confidence in the validity of their posts. If they are wrong, no big deal! There will be a dozen comments to either set the record straight or at least keep the pot boiling.

But journalists are steeped in a culture of insecurity. We send our stories through a gauntlet of copy editors. We fact-check the quotes. And we buffer every statement we can with “allegedly” and “according to…”

Is it any wonder that we fear comments? Errors are sins. Comments point out errors and therefore damn us to media hell.

In theory, we journalists thrive in the public sphere. In reality, we find it a very scary place.

But I’m working on it. A professional site like this is a safe-haven — at best I’ll get two or three comments from my peers. But after I work up my nerve, I’ll post this URL to one of the common-folk sites and let the avatars have at me. LOL! If we want to survive in their world, we have to believe in NGNG.

No guts, no glory.