16 December 2005

COMMENT: Who Cares About Journalism?

If I wasn't such a cynical bastard, and better at taking compliments, this post might've been something more self-congratulatory, talking about how well-received yesterday's Speakeasy article has been, with the word "journalism" being thrown around by many.

But I am a cynical bastard, and I'd much rather poke than preen, so man the battle stations, because I'm about to bitch a little bit here in an attempt to flush some ideas out of my head and, hopefully, generate a little discussion with some of you reading along.

The Comics Journal recently conducted something of an unscientific survey, to put it kindly, of several comics-related web sites, judging them on their journalistic merits, or lack thereof. It was somewhat self-prophetically titled "Online Comics journalism: Does It Exist?", perhaps tipping their hand on the expected answer which, of course, was more or less no, it doesn't. (Not sure if the lower case "j"ournalism was a typo or subtle snark, but considering the source, I'd lean towards the latter.)

The survey itself is incredibly flawed, examining the content of seven different comics-oriented web sites - Comicon.com's Rick Veitch, The Pulse's Jen Contino, Lying in the Gutters' Rich Johnston, The Comics Reporter (and The Pulse)'s Tom Spurgeon, The Beat's Heidi MacDonald, ICv2's Milton Griepp, Newsarama's Matt Brady and The Comic Wire's Jonah Weiland - over the course of a mere two-month period (2 Aug - 2 Oct 2005), and concluding that, out of 2,233 total articles, only THREE qualified as journalism.

Here's what we asked of a story in order to be considered journalism on our chart: 1) It should be about a newsworthy topic or issue -- not just selling a product or promoting a company. 2) The reporter should have asked questions of people, getting multiple perspectives on the story. 3) The sources of the story's perspectives and information should be identified. 4) The story should consider the context and implications of the information being reported and reflect the reporter's research into the story's background. Minimum standards, one would think, but after two months of scouring the Web for instances that qualified, the sad results are before us.
Despite the obvious bias going into the survey, and ignoring the fact that none of those surveyed personally lay claim to the role of "journalist", the summary makes some excellent, if occasionally, "no, duh!", points. It doesn't take long for anyone who's ever read a newspaper, or Time magazine, or watched 60 Minutes, to realize that most (all?) comics sites fall into two categories, promotional and fanzine, with the former dominated by breathless press releases and PR-style interviews with creators, the latter by reviews and commentary by wannabe-creators with below-average non-fiction writing skills.

And yes, before you ask, I do consider Buzzscope to have one foot in each of those categories, for the most part, along with most of the usual suspects TCJ surveyed. The lone exception, IMO, is Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter, the closest thing to comics journalism that I'm aware of on the internet. If he had the advertising support NEWSarama has, and another equally talented contributor or two, TCR could easily be comics' NY Times.

The response to yesterday's article reminds me a bit of how minorities often tend to be more accepting of a lesser quality product made by one of their own, simply happy to have something they can relate to. (ie: UPN comedies, Wayans brothers' movies, Hudlin's Black Panther, etc.) Because there's such a lack of real journalism in the comics industry, anything resembling it becomes worthy of praise. Not to diminish the effort I put into the article, nor the contributions of those who spoke with me for it, but if there was more of that type of reporting on NEWSarama, CBR and The Pulse, it would have been one of several posted, definitely not the first, and likely nowhere near the best one.

Thing is, no one really wants comics journalism. (Same way no one really wants comics kids can read.) Sure, there's a passionate minority that calls for these things on a pretty regular basis, but most of those people have their own blogs where they write the very things they're looking to read, and, most importantly, they do it on their own schedule, for their own pleasure and they're doing it for free.

That Speakeasy article took me, roughly, 4 hours to write, plus another 30 minutes or so to draft the questions I emailed each of the people who contributed to it. Add another 2-3 hours of research, and you've got a full workday. An unpaid workday at that. All for one 4,200-word article!

And therein lies the problem.

Journalism - real, legitimate journalism - takes work. Hard work. And I already have a full-time job, plus a wife and two kids. I'm guessing the majority of the people writing about comics online these days are in similar circumstances, and few of them are getting paid for their extracurricular writing. In my case, the few paying outlets for comics writing (print or online, if there are, in fact, any such places) don't interest me in the least, so I do what I do purely out of passion. (Hear that, Lar?)

To be honest, the Speakeasy thing struck a nerve because I'm a huge fan of Elk's Run, and had thought Speakeasy was the most likely new indie to succeed, so when I saw the Bendis Board thread I referred to in the article, I knew I had to write something about it because I suspected no one else would. None of the major sites, at least. And even then, not until after Adam Fortier sent out a press release, and whatever additional coverage it received, if any, would have likely been only from his perspective.

Interestingly, I didn't feel the same passion when Alias was imploding, content to post a few snarky comments on various message boards and blogs, and be glad that my two favorite series of theirs had found new homes. Even when one of our contributors at Buzzscope hinted she might have a story on them, and someone to speak on the record, I pooh-poohed the story as not being newsworthy.

And that is definitely not journalism. (Theoretically speaking. In the real world, stories like that are killed all the time.)

So what the hell is my point here, now that I've rambled on and forgotten where I was intending to go with this?

Someone, whom I'll let identify himself if he so wishes, suggested in response to the Speakeasy article: "This is the future of Buzzscope under your reign of terror I think, make enemies until you make friends, and be honest about it. There are plenty of review sites out there, but comic journalism is a joke, and you have the power to make it not (aside from the few who we know do a good job otherwise) so you should take the rare advantage of this that you can."

This, on the heels of Warren Ellis' comment on The Engine: "That's a strong piece. If nothing else, I'm hoping that this leads to a more muscular journalism from Buzzscope."

While I totally agree with both of them, I'm not sure that Buzzscope is the place for what they're looking for. I'm definitely making every effort to develop more varied content for the site, with columnists who are doing more than just pimping their next book, offering unique perspectives on the industry and their own experience; and features that avoid simply offering a PR platform to whomever's willing to use it. I'm trying to enlarge our tent and draw more indie fans and more discerning superhero fans into it, with the hope of, at some point, developing a critical mass where Buzzscope (PopCultureShock) becomes a respected outlet for real news and community, able to shine a spotlight on areas of the industry most of the other sites either ignore completely or throw the occasional crumb.

I don't want Buzzscope to be like NEWSarama or CBR or any of the other sites. I'm aiming higher than that.

But journalism? As much as I wish we could run at least one article a week like the Speakeasy piece, a) I don't think there's a significant audience for it, and b) I don't think the industry has the kind of depth necessary to justify such coverage on a regular basis. Of course, those are two things I would be ecstatic to be wrong about!

If I were starting a site from scratch, as opposed to revamping one while respecting its origins and existing audience, I think I could really pull off the kind of Wizard/TCJ hybrid many people have claimed they'd like to see. Hell, I believe I could pull it off in print, if Lo-Fi hasn't already killed the interest in and viability of such a thing! The writers capable of writing the types of features and reviews needed for it are out there, but to get them to do it on a regular basis requires the one thing I don't have: $$$$$

That's my two cents. What do you think?

14 comments:

Kurt said...

First of all, give yourself some credit. It was a very good piece and deserving of any accolades it receives if for no other reason than you took a story that easily could have lived and died on a few message boards and made it interesting and relevant.

Here’s the thing, journalism doesn’t just take work it takes someone with a nose, as they say, for the story and it takes a story. Now I once had a Journalism prof who’s mantra was that a good reporter could find a story anywhere in anything. Maybe, but I never bought that and it’s probably why I’m not a journalist today. Having said that, the problem with so many of the big “comic news” sites is that they don’t seem to spend any time connecting the dots beyond the text in a press release and potentially larger, more interesting story. Is the story really that Kurt Busieck is going to write a “new” Aquaman? Or is there something more going on related to the WB’s pilot and the failure of the long-standing version to maintain readership. That’s an example, and probably a bad one, but this is likely the point TCJ was attempting to make in what had to be one of the most ill-conceived examinations of news forums in the history of such things. (But they’re so good in other areas I’m willing to cut them a little slack on that. A little.) Not every industry rumor or press release deserves further questioning and in-depth analysis but knowing which do should be part of the job.

No matter what direction you tack, someone will take you to task for not doing things the way they think it should be done. (No good deed goes unpunished as it were.)But I think Buzzscope is clearly headed in the right direction. I also think you’ll find there is an audience for one article a week of this nature – or maybe every other week – but only if it’s as relevant and well-conceived as this one was.

Oh, and you owe me an email.

jdonelson.nyc said...

That's a great point about the Aquaman story. On the surface it seems to support Guy's assertion that there isn't that much actual "news" worth reporting in the world of comics. But a little bit of analysis and legwork could tease an interesting story out of it.

On the other hand, the fact that it requires analysis and legwork is exactly why it doesn't happen. Like Guy said, there isn't much if any financial incentive or popular demand for anything beyond shameless promotion (eg, Newsarama & CBR) or debates about whether Gene Ha is a better artist than Greg Land (the blogosphere).

I was mostly happy to see a comprehensive report on the story by somebody wasn't directly involved with it. Rich Johnston's "this proves why Fortier is the smartest amn in comics" pap was so self-serving that I lost whatever respect I may have once had for the guy.

Erech said...

I agree with and totally understand the validity of what you are saying ie time/pay issue. But I think Kurt hit it too, and that when I said what I did, I mean that sure, there are gonna be more fluffy stories, and there just really honestly isn't an abundance or need to create articles like this on a regular basis, totally. But I think even in the fluff and reviews, this kind of voice should be the way to go. It seems more natural to who you are, was also my point - seeing you do anything else would just not fit.

And while I understand the points about money/time, I mean, you are still going to be working for free even if you spend 20 minutes doing a bit on the latest issue of whatever, or spend a couple days during a month pulling together stuff like this. I'd just prefer to see more of the latter.

You should totally follow this up with "10 reasons Mary Jane is the hottest chick in comics" though, throw everyone off ;)

Mark Fossen said...

Damn, man ... I wish I could have a reign of terror. That's an achievement.

Something to tell your grandkids about: "Back in the day, you know, I had a reign of terror. Quite a reign of terror, if I do say so myself."

Kurt said...

I had a reign of terror once. Okay, it was more like a rain of terror. Alright, alright, it rained on my terrier. Same difference really.

And I think you could do the Mary Jane thing in a really serious, journalistic way. Though you'd probably never, ever get a nod from Ellis again.

SMASHER said...

Nice work on the Speakeasy piece. I've never picked up a Speakeasy comic nor a comic from any of the creators interviewed in the article but I found the story compelling and the 'facts' eye-opening.

I then read your colleague's column from November about John Byrne's netiquette. While your article has more journalistic integrity, I found her story to be equally compelling. The Byrne piece could be the crown jewel in a future article about the rampant fanaticism & hero worship in this industry.

Point is there's a time and place for 4,200 word feasts. We don't need it every week. But I think the comic audience craves journalism. The comic book fan is a reader, a critic, a collector, an artist or an art appreciator. All of those things, to me, describe a person who has the capacity for analysis and who actively analyizes the world and his surroundings (when he's not daydreaming about how hot Mary Jane is, of course).

Keep writing articles like the Speakeasy one. Besides you liked it. If you didn't have fun writing it you wouldn't have done it. You would have reviewed X-Factor #1 (which was refreshing).

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Kurt said: ...journalism doesn’t just take work it takes someone with a nose, as they say, for the story and it takes a story.

Donelson said: ...the fact that it requires analysis and legwork is exactly why it doesn't happen.

Very true, both of you. Which is what particularly frustrates me about NEWSarama and CBR, both of whom have their noses so far up---ah, I mean, have all the connections necessary to do real news and yet choose to focus on fluff and co-operative PR for the Big Two. While I believe I have the nose for journalism, and *cue theme music* the passion to use it for good, I don't have the time do it the way I'd like to. Which frustrates me to no end, especially when something like Lo-Fi comes on the scene and makes me embarassed in ways Wizard never has.

And yes, Kurt, I DO owe you an email. I'll rectify that this weekend.

Erech said: ...or spend a couple days during a month pulling together stuff like this.

Stephen said: If you didn't have fun writing it you wouldn't have done it. You would have reviewed X-Factor #1 (which was refreshing).

Actually, that's what I'm thinking I want to do once things smooth out over at PopCultureShock after the relaunch and all of our contributors are in place and reasonably on schedule. I like doing the reviews, but it's been a bitch to keep the weekly roundups flush since I stopped writing as many as I used to. The new format, with the shorter reviews, will help once it settles in, and I'm hoping to appoint eventually appoint a Reviews Editor to get that responsibility off my plate.

Writing the Speakeasy piece was a lot osfun, particularly because the puzzle-like nature of it appealed to what Salomé, my wife, has started referring to as my autistic tendencies. Articles like that, I believe, are what will keep me from burning out too soon. They're also more likely to move me closer to my master plan... Heh heh heh!

As for X-Factor #1, I'm actually planning to review it this week since I thoroughly enjoyed it! Gonna try to work in a Madrox TPB review, too, which I highly recommend!

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

And now, the less serious replies:

Erech said: You should totally follow this up with "10 reasons Mary Jane is the hottest chick in comics" though, throw everyone off ;)

My name's not JD. :-O

Kurt said: Though you'd probably never, ever get a nod from Ellis again.

I'm thinking one nod in a lifetime is enough, lest I risk following Brady and Wieland down the road more traveled! I am aiming for one Scott Pilgrim-type plug in a [Bad Signal] in the next 12 months, though.

Kurt said: I wish I could have a reign of terror. That's an achievement.

Dude, I've reigned terribly before and it's not all it's cracked up to be! Right, Stephen? ;-)

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Actually, Mark said that last bit. Credit where due!

Erech said...

I've never heard of this Lo-fi before today, and then suddenly I see it all over. What's so bad about it?

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

lofimagazine.com

Newish comics-oriented mag, kinda wants to be Wizard for the indie/urban market, just relaunched as a "monthly" a couple of months ago. Run by some Latinos out of Miami - which is the embarassing part - and I'm pretty sure Devil's Due and/or Josh Blaylock have a hand in it.

It's got a very similar content breakdown to PopCultureShock, with comics, games, music, etc, and a lot of potential that so far has been wasted amidst a horribly dated design (ie: Wired at its excessive 90s worst), fluff interviews, reviews and PR, and an incredible amount of typos. And that's just the comics coverage. I couldn't bring myself to read the other stuff.

Greg said...

Wait - I'm not getting paid? I wondered where the checks were. I may have to rethink my commitment ...

zilla said...

"I had a reign of terror once. Okay, it was more like a rain of terror. Alright, alright, it rained on my terrier. Same difference really." i love this quote :)

ps - guy def give yourself some credit - the mindless crap i post over at zilla's is embarassing next to some (read: most) of your comic universe writings ;)

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