The State Of Comics Journalism

By | Tuesday, October 09, 2007 Leave a Comment
Alright, so Chris Butcher and Dick Hyacinth have started discussing the state of comics journalism and it got me thinking. (Which should be the point of any real discussion -- so kudos to both Chris and Dick for that!)

Both Chris and Dick make some excellent observations about some of the "big name" comics journalists like Rich Johnston and Matt Brady. But I think they're missing the bigger picture, and are trying to comment on contemporary journalism using outdated models.

Throughout most of the 20th century, journalism was controlled by an elite group. Essentially the handful of people/groups with money to broadcast the news they wanted to broadcast. Your average man-on-the-street could not afford to go out and buy, build or even rent the equipment to broadcast a TV or radio signal with any reasonable strength, or a printing press suitable for publishing a newspaper or magazine with a circulation outside of a few hundred. Those people/groups who could afford to do so did exactly that, and provided news coverage based on what they felt was important.

And they're hardly to blame for that, I think. There is simply too much news to report on everything so a news team has to have some filters in place, based on whatever priorities they hold. Maybe they limit themselves by geography (most local TV news coverage is of that region) or by subject (the Jewish-American paper The Forward was founded in 1897) or some other combination of factors, but the fact remains that some establishment of filters need to be in place.

That can, of course, be taken to extremes. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst was claimed to have said, "You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war" back in 1897 in relation to his focus on using sensationalism over honest reporting to sell newspapers. While the quote is likely fabricated, it points to the concerns over 100 years ago that rich/powerful men had the ability to skew the news to their whims. And, of course, news makers are just as guilty of skewing things as news reporters. We've all heard of how the White House press secretary (whoever s/he is under any administration) has to "spin" the details of an event to present the image/message they want.

Of course, we are living in the 21st century and news doesn't work like that any more. Sure, there's a handful of comparatively wealthy folks who own TV networks and/or newspapers or what-have-you. But they are largely hold-overs from that out-dated system. News today comes from a much more diverse group of people, often working independently. I tend to listen to NPR for my daily sources of news/world events, and the experts they bring in are increasingly folks that happen to run a blog or small site devoted to the subject at hand. Even though they run comparatively small operations, they've proven their expertise through their continued commenting/reporting on their subject of choice. And "legitimate" news sources now use them as their resident experts.

Which leads us back to Chris and Dick. They both claim that your Newsaramas and CBRs cow to pressures from the larger comic publishers to the loss of more honest journalism. Whether or not that's true, though, is ultimately irrelevant. In the first place, they are reporting on what their readership wants to read. We know that they want to read that because those sites have become successful -- clearly, there's an audience for what they're producing.

But, as with journalism in general, they can't report on everything. Even just within the comics market. There's just too much information. But that's where the myriad of comics blogs come in. You come here (or, just as likely, you have this delivered to you via some blog reader) and you get some information that's based on MY filters instead of Heidi MacDonald's. Or you go to Dick's blog to get information based on HIS filters. Or you go to Chris' to get information based on HIS filters.

Now, obviously, you're going to get a range in quality by doing that. Some people are better writers than others, some people have better reporting skills than others, and some people have better contacts than others. But when you're discussing the state of comics journalism, you need to include the blogosphere. I've complained before about some things that have flown under my radar despite my best attempts, but there's also any number of things that have shown up on my radar precisely because I was paying attention to various blogs. Sometimes they're from professionals shilling their own products, sometimes they're from folks who have a different outlook based simply on their geography, sometimes they're from a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who overheard something significant. The onus is on the reader to decipher what s/he feels is important/note-worthy to him/her.

Admittedly, that sounds like more work on the part of the reader. And it is, but not as much as you might think. It's because you, as a reader, are making value judgments on the source(s) as a whole, and not on individual stories. You're taking what I have to say here and now, and running it through the filters you've already set up around this blog. Just as you did when you read an article over at Newsarama. Or wherever. The additional work you have to put in is simply in having a greater variety of sources to select from. However, at the same time, those greater number of sources give you a greater chance of finding some that appeal specifically to your sensibilities, so your value judgment can be made on a larger scale. You're no longer running every individual Wizard article through your own filters, but you've run Wizard as a collective whole through your filter. You've likely already got this blog and any other that you might read categorized in your head somewhere, and your reaction to a specific blog entry is going right into that same spot.

So, what's my point? My point is that comics journalism does not start and end with the "name" players. Kudos to the guys at Newsarama for being able to make some money off their work. But they're not the only game in town. They're not even one of a dozen games. They're one of an ever-increasing mass of folks like me who sit down, from my remote personal computer in southwest Ohio, and bang out some thoughts like these. Is this blog ever going to achieve the recognition of someone like them? No. But, hopefully, it serves a niche for some of those things that don't hit the "mainstream" comics radar. Just like a hundred other blogs out there.

The players in the comics journalism arena are more diverse than ever. There's a constant turnover of folks who get in, dabble a bit with the whole blogging bit and then get out. And there are folks who have a longer constancy. It requires a little more on the reader's part to find the source(s) of comic news and information they trust. But for any complaints that the comics journalism industry caters to the publishers whims, I say that you're not really looking at the full scope of the landscape. Because for every softball that allows Joe Quesada to dismiss allegations of tentacle porn, there are a slew of fastballs and sliders that the rest of us can (and generally do) throw.
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