Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Weighing In On This Comics Journalism Hoohah... Again

So, Brian Bendis caused a bit of stir a couple weeks back with his incendiary comments about the state of comics journalism. Which (intentionally, I'm sure) raised the ire of a number of folks who consider themselves comics journalists. And it led to CBR's Chris Arrant holding some enlightening interviews with Tom Spurgeon, Vaneta Rogers and Heidi MacDonald.

I should think we can all agree Bendis was acting like a prick, most likely just to gain some short-term attention. But what I think is interesting in this discussion is that about everyone else involved is using an exceptionally narrow and, to my mind, outdated definition of journalism. I think MacDonald unintentionally hits on a telling point...
So in a way every little jot and tittle is being covered, which is something I foresaw from the git-go. What I didn’t really foresee is how this would create such a dearth of authority. And the ubiquity of information makes real information even harder to find.

That notion of having authority is based on a 20th century approach to journalism. That is, that the reporters who work at newspapers and TV are authoritative because the people who produce newspapers and TV say so. It took a lot of time and energy to make a newspaper or TV show, so it was easy for producers to claim that they were authoritative sources because, well, why would you spend so much time and energy on the things if you weren't?

But that was the 20th century. Here in the 21st century, almost anyone can put out really high-quality media using commercially available products. The mere fact that you have a newspaper or a website or even a TV show grants you absolutely zero authority over anyone else. Which means that A) almost anyone can jump in to (in this case) comics reporter game and B) there is no central figure(s) to tell the reading audience who has authority. I've been trying to make this point for at least two years now...
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.
(Newly added emphasis.)

The whole point of having a global communications network is to democratize information. Everyone can have their say and, as a reader, you're NOT limited by what a handful of people think you want to hear about. Literacy in the 21st century is not limited to being able to read and write, but to read, write and determine the legitimacy of other authors/works. Wikipedia isn't inherently wrong or a bad source of information but, like any other encyclopedia ever made, it inevitably has errors. But now, with so many other sources available to us, we have the ability to cross-check and validate in a way that was almost impossible even a couple decades ago.

Don't get me wrong. I very much like what Spurgeon, Rogers, MacDonald, and a host of other comics journalists are doing. I don't always read each and every thing they write, and I don't always agree with their opinions, but I have judged them to be good at reporting on comics news and providing well-reasoned analyses. They're good journalists. But, as I said here last year...
Comics journalism does NOT rely on the narrowly-defined model of journalism that's been taught in schools for generations; it's every discussion you have and every post you make. Every time you log in and say, "Here I am," you have joined the ranks of comics journalists whether you know it or not, whether you intend to or not. Just because you don't have a business card that says you work for Wizard doesn't mean you're not as much of a news/information/gossip source as they are. You are seeing comics journalism here, on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, on every other social media outlet available. Comics journalism isn't just a handful of websites; it's everywhere.

Welcome to the 21st century.

2 comments:

Hervé St-Louis said...

Hi Sean. Came back to see what you were up to after months in the desert. Amazing. We're still having the same discussions. Gotta stop making apps I guess!

The topic of what a journalist is and what authority means is debated in every college every day in communications classes. That's not to say it's the only place to debate the issue, but what I mean is that it's a very deep question that goes to the crux of what information is and where it comes from and for what.

Not sure what Bendis or the others said, I'm completely out of that loop these days, but standards are relevant and useful. You mention that anyone and any type of format can self style oneself as a reporter. I agree. However, the other half is what the reader gets out of it and what information is reliable and what is not.

Ideas of democratization of whom can report the news do not really influence on the actual quality of the news. Twitter is an excellent source of news, but what journalists do - and god knows I'm not a fan of the "established comics news" out there, is break down that news and sensitize the reader to certain aspects that are worth a second look - ideally.

In other words, there is an element of spin and subjectivity to a function that we think is supposed to be objective.

Standards offer a way for readers and others parties to evaluate the credibility of the news source in a world that's invaded by too much news.

You use standards too, even if you don't ascribe the 20th Century definition of the news reporter. Every blogger has their own standards, it's part of of the way we do things.

I'll say, there's nothing wrong with the top down approach to news. We need some of that too as much as we need Parris Hiltons. I want to know that I can rely on The Economist for well-thought out news about important matters as much as I want to know that one can rely on Hilton to dish out the latest pop gossip. Each have their standards, and ultimately, the reader as a customer has to decide what he needs in which circumstances.

Sorry for the rant. Didn't think through much. Just reacting quickly.

cheers

Sean Kleefeld said...

I totally agree about having standards. I'm just saying that the standards any given individual adopts are not necessarily dictated by an "authoritative" publisher or broadcaster. The standards are established (and implicitly conveyed) by the reporter his/herself, and it's up to the readers to determine whether or not he/she is credible given the circumstances.

The venue is unimportant. Whether you use a newspaper or magazine or TV or a blog or Twitter or YouTube or whatever, you can still function as a journalist. Even if you make the distinction between "news" and "journalism" that's still not reliant upon getting paid by a large publisher or being a full-time reporter or even having a single media outlet for your journalism.

The authority given to a journalist is whatever his/her readers grant him. Even if that reader assumes a journalist's credence (rightly or wrongly) based on a publisher's assertions.