Monday, February 22, 2010

In online music reporting, is it better to be first or factual?


Scan the front pages of the tabloids on display at the store or take a quick stroll through the tangle of online celebrity gossip sites that have become popular, and it doesn't take long to realize that we're all apparently fascinated by the idea of other people's misfortune. Angie and Brad are breaking up! (For the 10th time no less.) It seems strange that this headline could still grab anyone's attention after so many false alarms, but it still works.

Compare that to how we behave in our own social lives. Let's say a couple that you are friends with breaks up after years of dating. Well, that's news. Having access to fresh news, the first thing you want to do is call your other friends and let them know. But why? Do the feelings of excitement we have about being privy to information before anyone else necessarily equate with a level of deriving pleasure from other's misfortune? Do we want the people that we care about--be they movie stars, or rock bands, or our own friends--to suffer or do we just want to make sure that if they do, we're in on the ground floor as the story develops?

When it comes to availing ourselves of the perverse pleasures of breaking the bad news, sometimes it doesn't even matter if the story turns out to be true or not. Considering a news story that we as music fans probably deem important--the rumored breakup of a favorite band--provides an example. Last week, music blog SupJustin.com posted news that Brand New are going on hiatus. It's not exactly national-security-level news, but disturbing nonetheless to thousands of their fans. AP promptly called a representative for the band to confirm the rumor. Turns out that's just what it was--a rumor.

It's a practice that's become increasingly common with the proliferation of music blogs, each one striving to make themselves noticed in a crowded marketplace; splash the page with an eyeball-grabbing headline, then report the story backward from there. In recent months, more than a few bands have found themselves in similar situations. At any given time Fall Out Boy, the Academy Is..., the Killers or Straylight Run have all been shuffled through the rumor mill in various states of dissolution, their membership status in a sort of limbo that extends from proposed hiatus to a minor break to official breakup to none of the above. It's become difficult to even tell which of the bands we follow are together even more.

So why break the "story" in the first place? Is our drive to be the bearer of news--and particularly bad news--strong enough that it compels us to disregard actual facts? The answer to that is a little complicated, and it brings into question the ever-changing face of journalistic practices and our own prurient desires as readers and music fans. Depending on where you stand on the sanctity of capital J "Journalism" (and probably what side of 30 you are on), the idea that a blog would report a rumor as fact is not exactly breaking news itself. Rather, it's become part of our expectations in the way we process online news. We log onto a site like media gossip source Gawker.com not because we want to find out about actual events that have taken place, although there is some serving of that. We want to find out about events that seem believable enough to have taken place featuring people whom we're vaguely aware of, and then read all of that filtered through an air of "gotcha"-style reporting that transfers negative news into a pleasurable personal feeling of well-being. "At least that's not me," we think. If the news in question turns out to not be true, no matter, it was only of passing concern in the first place. We're probably onto the next bit of gossip by now, anyway. The same is true when we read about bands we follow going through breakups, or slumping sales and concert attendance.

The pace of online journalism has further confounded matters, with an always-moving news cycle making the appetite for breaking news even bigger. But blogs didn't invent the idea of rushing to be first at the expense of accuracy as Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer told us in an e-mail. "Long before the internet, top-notch MSM [mainstream media] journalists hoping to be first with breaking news have frequently published or broadcast hooey," he wrote, referring me to a piece he published in The Wall Street Journal that touched on the subject:

"...readers prefer immediacy to perfection," it states. "It's an excellent bargain as long as journalists limit their goofs and correct them. Mostly, they do."


Mostly. But when the speed of releasing the information itself becomes less valued than its truthfulness, everything becomes meaningless.

"I've seen a ton of half truths about things that I've been involved with," says John Nolan of Straylight Run. For the record, he says, Straylight Run are currently on indefinite hiatus. "Somebody gets part of the story, and then fills in what they don't know, but do it as if they have some information to fill in the rest of the story. They make no distinction between what's filling in the blanks and what they actually know. That's been the biggest thing to me. I don't think that I've ever seen anything that seems completely out of left field and made up. But I also stopped looking at a lot of websites awhile back, so I'm sure they're out there. That half-truth thing is the biggest. A little bit of something real [gets] in there, but it gets kind of distorted and messed up and twisted around and becomes something different than reality." Nolan thinks the bigger problem is the internet in general, he says, it's not specific to the writers at music blogs. Message boards are even worse. "Most of the stuff I've seen is on the message boards on the music sites," he says. "I never know how seriously people are going to take those things. But it is a strange thing with the internet, that anybody can just get on a message board and really say anything and there's gonna be people [who] believe it. Nobody has to have any sources or any proof to get something started."

Being "first" provides a sort of ego boost to a journalist, says Gina Chen, a 20-year newspaper veteran who writes frequently about the intersection of online media and traditional media on her site SaveTheMedia.com. "It's an adrenaline rush when you break a big story. If you're a journalist that doesn't feel that, you might want to be in another field," she tells us. "It's intrinsic to the job. With that said, there's always been that tension between breaking the big story and getting it right. I think that tension has been heightened because we can break it so much more easily. The old days forced us to have a whole afternoon to think over a story and have a bunch of editors look at it. Whereas now, I can sit at my desk and blog, and boom! It's out there."

The ability to break a story today has been magnified because everyone with a computer can break a story instantly. "In some ways that's leveled the playing field for newspapers and magazines. At the beginning of my career, if I had a big story I couldn't break it until the next day's paper, and that would be frustrating. I'd know the TV station would have it, and I knew I had it first. There's something fabulous about online [journalism]. If I find out at 10 a.m. that the mayor has been indicted, I could have it on the web at 10:15 a.m. and I could beat my competition. That's the real plus side of it."

Or in the music world, if you hear Pete Wentz is leaving Fall Out Boy from the brother of the guy who did merch on one date of their last tour, you can throw that up against the internet wall and see if it sticks. It's that push to "win" the story that makes the dissemination of information online at the elevated pace of the news cycle difficult to trust at times. "People are competitive and sometimes it might cause people to release information that's not fully baked, is how I put it," Chen says. "Maybe we wouldn't have released it if we were putting it in print, but, well, what the heck, we'll put it on there. That can be a slippery slope. It doesn't mean we should stop breaking news online; it just means we should have a thoughtful conversation before we release something and say, "Hey, do we really have this story? Do we really know it from someone who is in a position to know it?" If we don't, and we release it anyway, we can still bask in some of the perceived glow of having planted our stake before anyone else, so to speak.

Justin Goldberg, the blogger behind the SupJustin.com post about Brand New, recognizes that feeling. He doesn't necessarily feel pressure to report something first, but says it's simply an expectation that comes with the territory. "The only satisfaction I get from being the first to report something is knowing I did it before the 'big dogs' did," he says. While there is certainly an element of pride to be found in that sort of David vs. Goliath mentality, it still raises issues of journalistic due process. Goldberg doesn't see a problem with the blogging style of reporting where you build the story in real time as it progresses, changing the facts as they come in. "I think the blogging style of reporting is great. Everything happens so fast these days, and it's a great way to keep people up-to-date with the most current news at any time." Whether you call that process journalism or blogging, it doesn't matter. "I refer to myself as someone who delivers news. I don't believe there's a specific name that should be given out because in the end, I'm still doing the same thing--reporting news."

As the popularity of music blogs continues to grow, it seems like it's an issue that is only going to get worse, especially, as the Chariot's Bryan Taylor points out, blogs continue to encroach on the territory of mainstream news sources. "It seems to me like a lot of traditional media is being replaced or becoming less popular because of blogs," the guitarist says. "When you go to a blog, you can skim over all the subject matter and quickly see the news that you care about. A lot of blogs cover a lot of topics, bands, etc... and give you news every day, while traditional media comes around once a month, week, year or whatever the case."

That wider umbrella of coverage on music blogs is good from a publicity stand point, says Tes Davison of management firm The Blood Company. But there's a downside as well. The internet "brings amazing and new possibilities for promoting record releases and tour dates. However, because of this, we are sadly watching music magazines and television channels go out of business. People want their music news now, and they want it for free."

That's the inherent problem in the increased appetite for news: the rapid production schedule as well as the reluctance to pay for actual reporting. Making conjecture about music--or anything else online--doesn't take much time and money. Reporting does. What happens when the site that has to put something out every day doesn't actually have anything new to write about? The beast, after all, is hungry. That's where rumor and speculation come in, and a general lowering of the quality of the information being shared. "Blogs kind of dumb down the media news and make it easier to see what you really want to see," says the Chariot's Taylor.

For media outlets like alt-weekly The Boston Phoenix (full disclosure: a publication this writer has contributed to), breaking national music stories all the time isn't necessarily of primary importance unless there is a Boston angle, says music editor Michael Brodeur. "In our case, I think we feel responsible for breaking things when there's some local interest. If Grizzly Bear get attacked by grizzly bears, we'd be on it, as [frontman Ed] Droste has roots in Watertown, Massachusetts. If Christie's auctions off one of Lady Gaga's farts trapped in a Fabergé egg, we'll let Gawker or The Atlantic field it, and maybe reflect on it later in the afternoon if nothing else has come up."

For Brodeur, the freedom of running stories online as they come in is liberating, he says, but contrary to conventional wisdom, he says it also brings with it an added pressure to report accurately. "When you fuck up in print, you have to run an ungainly item in an errata box. This just makes it easier to hop on mistakes, and extra incentive to get things right the first time, as your credibility can now be judged instantly against other sources. Look at papers from September 12, 2001, and nobody had a stable fact except for what happened before their eyes. Sometimes the value of any kind of journalism is just freezing a moment of something unfolding."

He's right. When it's skillfully and thoughtfully employed, reporting online can be an invaluable tool. Keep in mind, however, that the Phoenix is primarily a print publication, one with decades of top notch reporting and high standards under its belt. Blogs, on the other hand, run the gamut of credibility, says Chen. "Some of them are as responsible as what we call a traditional news organization, and some are not. I don't think there's any way to stop that train. People are going to report what they're going to report. News organizations still need to be responsible. It's not okay to say, 'Well, the bloggers aren't following the same ethical guidelines as we do so we can't compete with them.' If you're a trained journalist, you need to be ethical. I would hope bloggers would be ethical, too, and not report news that they don't know to be true. But even if that happens I think traditional media has to be ethical."

But when you combine a blogger's and a journalist's urge to report breaking news with the desire to be first and add to that the inherent tendencies toward schadenfreude that a lot of entertainment news engenders, you're left with a gnarled web of conflicting motivations, as media critic Ken Sanes posted a while back in a piece on his site TransparencyNow.com. For journalists, it reads, "The world and all its suffering becomes the raw material for their creations. Every catastrophe and every victory for someone else provides an equal opportunity for them to succeed and win acclaim. They are further estranged from the world by what they create, which is a kind of unreality. They process and filter real events, creating a distorted reflection that condenses the drama and pain of life into a form of entertainment or at least a product that is entertaining. This unreality then has a profound impact on real events. It changes reality and, in its distorted way, records the change."

Sanes probably wasn't talking about the dissolution of an emo band, but the point still remains. Journalists report the bad stuff because it brings readers to them in droves. Considering that, does it poke some pleasure center in our brain then to hear that band X, Y or Z have broken up? "Yeah, I think there is some of that," says Goldberg. "Most of the time when bands break up, most people are happy, or at least I think so." Brodeur concurs, with a caveat. "I think that appetite is becoming less fashionable as humor-wise it's being replaced by a sort of hyper-indulgent self-awareness (i.e., Chunklet is down and HipsterRunoff.com is up); but anywhere you have keyboards, an audience and the potential for anonymity, you're going to have a platform for hateration."

Nolan of Straylight Run says he's not sure where people's interest in what bands are doing in their personal lives or outside of the music comes from. "I don't know if it's the same kind of thing as tabloid journalism. I think after everything that happened and all of the hype and the rumors at the beginning of Straylight Run [upon his leaving Taking Back Sunday], I think I kind of stopped really paying a lot of attention. After awhile, you can't think about it that much. It's just kind of pointless, and it will drive you crazy. I don't know how much of it is a negative, weird, celebrity-obsessed thing and how much is people just being interested in bands that they like. I really don't know."

It's probably a little bit of both, but as long we have writers following that drive to get things out there fast and first, and as long as we still get a charge out of hearing the bad news, it's a problem that seems like it's only going to get worse before it gets better. Hopefully it will, says Chen. "I think in the end, the blogs and news organization that are ethical and found to be credible will win in the end. Eventually, people will stop going to blogs that put out a lot of hype that turns out not to be true."

Let's hope so. In the meantime, the onus has to be on the reader to decide for himself or herself what's credible or not. Like this story I just posted about on my blog: Apparently All Time Low have broken up in a fight over Sierra Kusterbeck of VersaEmerge. It's true, Jesse Lacey just told me on his way out of his audition to be My Chemical Romance's new singer. Tell all your friends.

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