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How investigative research happens in the blogosphere

Sunday, January 11, 2009 by Dave Winer.

One of the common complaints from people in journalism about bloggers is that we just comment on reports in the news, we don't do original reporting. It's so often repeated it's become a cliche, but it's simply not true and I can prove it. Permalink to this paragraph

Draw a continuum of different kinds of news, at the left edge put a dot and label it "Event." At the extreme right edge put "Commentary." On the line between those two extremes, somewhere put a circle and label it "Reporting." Permalink to this paragraph

A picture named continuum.gif Permalink to this paragraph

No one questions that bloggers produce writing that belongs at the right edge of the continuum, but then so do pros. That's editorial and op-ed pages. People like Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, David Broder, Krugman -- in days gone by James Reston, Russell Baker (my childhood role model). Think of it as shared territory between pros and amateurs. Permalink to this paragraph

At the left edge, bloggers win hands-down. We have far more original sources blogging than the pros have writing in their pages. Over time, as the thirst for news goes up and the volume provided by the pros goes down, expect to see more. The thirst to be heard has always been high, and this is fueling the explosion of blogging at this edge. Permalink to this paragraph

A picture named notebook.jpgNow, if you're a regular reader of Scripting News, you see us do investigative reporting all the time. And I'm not using the plural in a regal sense, I very much do mean "us" -- as in me and you and a whole lot of other people. For example, in December, after seeing Tweetree, and having put a lot of work into systematizing thumbnail generation (with the ongoing help of a reader, who lives in Turkey), I wanted to connect the two. So I proposed a way to do that. Immediately a flood of comments probing my decision, and a number of suggestions that I look at work done by others that I hadn't found when I looked. Now this process is not trivial, it's the equivalent of a reporter making dozens of phone calls to experts. Sure, I'm not probing their ethics, looking for malfeasance, whether or not they're bugging Watergate, or stealing funds from taxpayers or widows, instead -- they're doing that to me. Which I've learned to live with, and see as a good thing. I know my heart is pure, but they don't, at least not at first. They are right to be suspicious of a fellow technologist. Many are corrupt. I've writen about that here. (Part of the reason there's so much corruption, btw, is that the professional press including some of the pubs we all revere, have been playing footsy with the industry for a long time. But that's another story, one often told here, btw, which has gotten me a rep with the press for being an "irascible gadfly.") Permalink to this paragraph

Anyway, a comment left here by a reader in December bothered me, so I looked into it and found he had something, so I revised my approach, and published the revision here, on Friday. Then another reader suggested I use a format that Digg had proposed, and I agreed, so -- another revision. Now here's a key point, in all the reporting I had done up till this point, I had never stumbled across this. It hadn't been reported on by pros as far as I could tell, and up till that point, none of my readers knew about it either. Is this an investigative process? Absolutely. Is it journalism? I don't see how it's any different from the best journalism done by the pros, except 1. it's done out in the open, that's an essential element, and 2. it's being done by people who do it for reasons other than being paid, directly, for it. To trivialize those reasons is to ignore why people want knowledge, to ignore the motivations of the sources and the readers, both of whom are essential to the news processs (though the journos are often loathe to acknowledge this), and neither of whom are paid for their efforts. Permalink to this paragraph

But even then the story is not over. Another reader says there's a mistake, the format wasn't authored by Digg, it was actually authored by Facebook! I did a bit of investigation and couldn't find a claim that they authored it, or a news report, but I did determine that they supported it, by doing a test, that worked. We saw a citation on the Digg site that said that Facebook was the source, so that was good enough for me, and I revised my piece accordingly. (I allow myself that until the day closes, then if I want to revise I have to write another piece, like the one I'm doing now, that's why serious stories on Scripting News tend to come in a series.) Permalink to this paragraph

Finally I published a "cap" to the series, and reported on the significance of all this work. A full week of work, with lots of human contact, research, sourcing, fact checking. I'm sure there will be some who say this doesn't belong in the circle in the middle of the continuum above, and I'm sure we'll get ample opportunity to discuss that, and learn from each other. ;-> Permalink to this paragraph


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A picture named dave.jpgDave Winer, 53, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.

"The protoblogger." - NY Times.

"The father of modern-day content distribution." - PC World.

One of BusinessWeek's 25 Most Influential People on the Web.

"Helped popularize blogging, podcasting and RSS." - Time.

"The father of blogging and RSS." - BBC.

"RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's 'Really Simple Syndication' technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's 'Rich Site Summary', which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows." - Tim O'Reilly.

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