On Columbia Journalism Review’s curiously ahistorical cover story about online journalism

Alexis Sobel Fitts wrote a great cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review this week, as measured by its narrative coverage of the rise of the I f*cking love science (IFLS) Facebook page or its creator, Elise Andrew. Unfortunately, the piece was hobbled by a false title and embedded premise: that this was the first time a journalist or her journalism were entirely self-made, without the help of an existing network or media company.

Journalists have been creating self-made brands for many decades, long before media went online. Even if we limited consideration to when journalism started being produced natively on the Internet, much less using social media, there are many media pioneers who were self-made online long before Andrew, with no assistance from mainstream media.

I’m a relative late-comer to in that kind of effort, but I’ll note proudly that the media brand I started last year has now been cited numerous times by NPR, Wikipedia and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

I’m not looking for credit from CJR or others: I’m simply noting that by putting up a masthead online and publishing on it, I’m following in the digital footsteps of people who started blogging and putting up websites decades ago, including original journalism and media creation. Boing Boing has been online for some 15 years old now, for instance, but is far from the only such enterprise.

What was novel to me about this story was not that aspect — the bold, unsupportable claim that IFLS was this was “journalism’s first self-made brand,” a statement that the author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” might dispute — but rather how a Facebook page enabled a twentysomething student to build a huge, engaged audience without the cost of reporters, marketing, advertising, distribution, taxes or any of the operational costs that a publisher would have had to bear in past decades.

Andrew also took some risks: if Facebook had changed how it showed her content, the page would have suffered. That’s no longer the case: As CJR reported, IFLS has now launched a website, iflscience.com.

If you read the comments on the CJR article, you’ll also see many voices calling out a genuinely problematic issue with calling IFLS;s Facebook page “journalism,” which I’d define as text, photography or video that includes:

1) context (who/what/when/where/how/why)
2) attribution and sourcing, and
3) fact-checking the veracity of 1) and 2).

Whether this Facebook account has been “a new form of journalism or even journalism at all is debatable,” Fitts acknowledged in CJR, but as she also reported, IFLS now has four writers, two of whom have journalism backgrounds. Visitors to the site find an engaging mix of colorful photography, articles, animations and videos, organized into taxonomies.

Most of the posts I browsed today featured a big photo and a few paragraphs summarizing a report or other news and link to the original source, along with a caption sourcing the media. As I explored, I stumbled upon a lovely piece of longform writing, on strange sailor jellyfish — and that it had originally been published elsewhere.

Most are 300-500 words long and link out, which is to say they look and read like many of the blogs in the networks that Gawker Media or Vox Media or that routine end up atop TechMeme. They post are also, on average, incredibly popular on Facebook.

The flaws in the CJR cover story are not just about semantics or definitions, at least with respect to an upstart media entity bootstrapping itself without tapping into an existing broadcast power by using digital tools to find new audiences.
That’s been happening for a long time, with each succession of media technology, from newspapers to radio to TV to cable news to the Internet.

I generally like reading CJR, but the way the publications covers the Internet is occasionally painful, from social media to technology the history of the Web. I’m unsure how the issues in this article got by an editor. I suspect an editor may well have written the headline, as is common at many publications.

I was also struck by two unanswered questions on revenue (how much, if any, revenue did she receive from Facebook or sponsors How much traffic does her website receive) and wondered the absence of some big news for the site’s creator: a TV show. If CJR decides to do a followup or digest of responses to reader questions, I’d be interested in reading answers.

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