Sassy Lawyer: Blogging is a learning experience

Lawyer Connie Veneracion is more known by her online persona – The Sassy Lawyer. She runs The Sassy Lawyer’s Journal, PinoyCook and, with Abe Olandres, Pinoyblog. Veneracion recently started writing for Manila Standard Today as a print columnist – a rare transition these days when movements are the other way around – from print to online. Below are transcripts of my e-mail interview with her for my “See it, hear it, blog it” article for Sun.Star Cebu during the Cebu Press Freedom Week.

Max: Professor Jay Rosen of the New York University said early this year that the question of bloggers vs. journalists is over. He says the “question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers “are” journalists. They apparently are, sometimes.”

Do you agree with his statement?

Connie: Yes, in essence, I agree. But the validity of his observation has to be based on a set of “givens.”

First, I have to posit that a journalist is not necessarily a reporter who goes out to experience an event first hand, record the details and write them down in the form of a cohesive report. I agree with the statement if we define a journalist as someone who documents events based on actual experience or as someone who weaves various reports together and makes an analysis based on them. That would be in consonance with the practice of calling editorial writers and op-ed columnists journalists despite the fact that they do not go out to gather and write the news the way reporters do.

Second, a journalist is not necessarily a person who is employed in the news industry. In other words, my agreement with the statement is based on a “given” that a journalist is defined by the nature of the work he does rather than his affiliation with the news industry.

Max: Do you see yourself as journalists in the mold of reporters producing original news content or more of opinion writers who comment on news items?

Connie: No, I do not see myself as journalists in the mold of reporters producing original news content. In the first place, it isn’t what I want to do nor what I was trained for.

Personally, my blog is about my opinions. Opinions not in the context of mere reactions to certain news reports but more of reading between the lines. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, really. You take, say, three different and seemingly unrelated news items and try to see whether they are not in fact related.

However, I do have blog entries that are more in the nature of research. Those I do not consider as mere opinions because writing them did involve investigative research. Still, they are not news in the same way as front page news. They would be more like feature stories.

Finally, there is this animal called real-time blogging. For instance, I watched that marathon session on Congress overnight, at least most of it, and I was blogging about the debates in real time. Was that reporting? Well, no, because my opinions were right there along with the facts. And I could write in that manner precisely because I know that I am posting an entry in my blog rather than submitting a report for publication in a newspaper.

Max: Editor Scott Rosenberg of Salon says: “journalists need to move away from the notion that journalism is a mysterious craft practiced by only a select priesthood—a black art inaccessible to the masses. We forget the derivation of the word journalist: someone who keeps an account of day-to-day events.” Do you agree with him? Do you think blogging has shattered that perception of a select priesthood that defines what is newsworthy?

Connie: I think this is a dangerous precedent. In my experience as a lawyer, whenever I interviewed witnesses to draft their sworn statements, it was quite common for them to relay facts and their opinions all in the same breath. In short, many cannot distinguish between the two. In the course of an interview, the witness has to be “steered” back to track by reminding him to stick to what he actually saw and heard, and never mind his conclusions.

I suppose that journalism necessarily became a specialized field because it takes the proper training to prepare a layman for the chore of limiting reports to what he saw and heard, when and how.

Of course, the way news reports get editorialized these days, the “specialization” angle may not mean all that much anymore.

Max: In a blogging conference early this year at Harvard University, participants agreed that “The acts of “blogging” and “journalism” are different, although they do intersect. While some blogging is
journalism, much of it isn’t and doesn’t aim to be. Both serve different and valuable functions within the new evolving media ecosystem.” Do you agree with this?

Connie: The difference or “sameness” of blogging and journalism can be viewed from many perspectives. From the writer’s intention, for instance, or from the effect on the readers or even society as a whole.

I always like to use Anne Frank as an example. Or even Salam Pax, for that matter. They were both keeping diaries—Anne Frank, by writing in her book; Salam Pax, by publishing in his blog. They were both merely recording events in their everyday lives along with their feelings and observations. They didn’t intend to report, apparently. But what is the effect of their diaries? They became a sort of documentation on what transpired during two important (infamous) periods in human history.

So, to say that “While some blogging is journalism, much of it isn’t and doesn’t aim to be” might not be as relevant as we like to think. They may serve different functions now but in fifty years, we don’t know whose words will be remembered or will be given more credence. We should also note that history books are based on official documents as well as on personal journals of people who lived during a certain a period.

Max: Do you see this happening in the Philippines or will blogging still be in the fringes of that media ecosystem because of the low Internet penetration in the country?

Connie: There is a presumption here that what are published in blogs are not discussed beyond the sector of society that has internet access. We do not know this for sure. While blog readers are limited to those with internet access, each one of these readers has family, neighbors, colleagues, friends and acquaintances, and we do not really know whether they discuss with these people what they read in blogs. Names of bloggers or the URL of blogs may not be mentioned but issues raised and discussed in blog entries and discussed extensively in comment threads may be remembered and introduced in formal and informal forums outside the internet.

Max: Tom Curley of the Associated Press says there is a huge shift of balance of power in our world, “from the content providers to the content consumers.” He says “professional journalism is no longer sovereign over territory it once easily controlled” and that its influence in the public discourse is no longer singular. He says: “When 90 percent of the op-ed style writing was done on actual op-ed pages, editorial page editors had sovereignty over that region of public dialogue. With blogging and the online space generally, that rule is gone. Opinion in reaction to the news can come from anywhere, and the bloggers are frequently better at it than the sleepy op-ed page ever was.” Do you agree with him?

Connie: Yes, I agree with him although I should add that the ensuing ineffectiveness of many editorial pages also has a lot to do with stale styles of writing and the (wrong) choice of people writing opinions.

Max: While mainstream media can find good use for blogs to re-engage themselves in the community conversation, they should use it in a way to draw in more outside voices. Bob Cauthorn says mainstream media misunderstand blogs because they “simply further expose the staff members who are already well exposed to the public.” He says these efforts “scarcely register in the big picture because media company blogs adhere to the old top-down, we-talk-you-listen-punk publishing model.” Do you agree with this?

Connie: I agree in part. We are seeing it in the Philippines, aren’t we? How many media personalities started their “personal” blogs this year alone? Of course, these may not be media-sponsored but really more of their personal efforts. Yet, we do not see their employers dissuading them, do we? In my observation, that is an acceptance of the effectivity of blogging as a medium to kind of recapture the audience that media once held exclusively.

I do not agree with the observation that these efforts “scarcely register” though. Filipinos are generally a star struck people. They will pore over anything that has the name of someone they see on TV or hear over the radio.

Max: Mark Glaser, in a 2003 Article in Nieman Reports, says that “because of Weblogs, journalists are being brought down from their ivory towers.” He says that blogs provide an even bigger voice for non-journalist readers. He did say, however, that “the attention of bloggers can’t help but make journalists do a better job in their reporting.” Do you agree with him. Has this happened in the country? If not, do you see this happening soon? Did the “community conversation” in Philippine blogs on the Gloriagate scandal affect mainstream media’s coverage of the issue?

Connie: I disagree. At least, that isn’t true in the Philippines. Generally, media still does not accept blogs as an information/opinion medium. In fact, media tends to ignore bloggers as though we don’t exist. In those few instances when our existence was acknowledged… Oh, okay, some columnists (in online versions off newspapers) quote from blogs but conveniently forget to create a hyperlink to the page where the quote came from. That’s a “sin” no blogger worth his salt commits. It’s really a question of pointing to the source to give readers a chance to see the quoted portion in its original context. Even college students are required to use end notes and foot notes for sources.

With regard to Gloriagate, specifically, well, I had been reading the news all throughout and blogging and I still saw all those editorialized news reports. TV coverage was just as bad as before.

Max: In discussing the impact of blogging, Glenn Reynolds says “the realization that anyone (or lots of people, anyway) can report news or write opinion pieces just as well as famous people is likely to undercut the status of celebrity journalists and pundits.” He says that “most media celebrities became famous because other people lacked access to the tools of the trade. That’s changing now.” Do you agree with him? The Sassy Lawyer is an example of how mainstream media was able to recruit from the blog world. Do you see more of this happening in the country, that mainstream media look to bloggers to improve its current staff?

Connie: I think I should abstain from answering this question. Baka maging self-serving.

Max: Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University, sees the difference between traditional media and Weblog communities this way: “The order of things in broadcast is ‘filter, then publish.’ The order in communities is ‘publish, then filter.’ The filtering is done through a Darwinian system of good blogs flourishing because readers keep returning to it. Do you agree with this statement?

Connie: “Good” is a relative term. Again, I go back to the star struck culture. Some blogs become popular not necessarily because they have “substance” but because they have popular themes. Blogs on reality TV shows and teleseryes are widely read in the Philippines.

Max: Where do you think Philippine blogs are heading? Do you see it becoming a major part of the reading diet of Filipinos or do you think that the low Internet penetration rate will hinder it from becoming that?

Connie: Blogs are already part of the “reading diet” of many Filipinos. Perhaps, not that numerous yet considering the low density of internet access.

Max: Do you see Pinoy blogs becoming as influential to society as their counterparts in the US are?

Connie: You know, I think this is an overstatement. True that the American blogging community was responsible for the resignation of one media guy. True that they were largely responsible for the dissemination of the Iraq videos and photos. They may have influenced certain events but, see, I define “influential to society” as something with deeper and more long-term effects. Like affecting a mindset. Or affecting perceptions of traditional institutions. And I don’t think that the American blogging community has done that. Yet. As to whether Pinoy blogs can be influential to society…as a medium, I don’t know.

Max: Do you think it is now feasible for an independent Pinoy publisher to put up a blog publication and earn enough money to support the operation through ads?

Connie: It’s easy to put up a blog. But earning enough to maintain it is something else. Even Pinoyblog isn’t self-maintaining yet. Adsense is a good program for bloggers provided a blogger knows how to format and layout his blog to make the ads blend with the content. Of course, it goes without saying that adsense really works with sites that have specific topics and targetted audience.

Max: You now use a dedicated server for your sites because of the amount of traffic you have. A dedicated server is expensive – do you earn enough to cover this? Do you earn from blogging?

Connie: Pinoy Cook earns enough to pay for the server and the Internet connection. Despite the traffic, “Sassy Lawyer” does not make all that much.

Max: Tech columnist Dan Gilmor says that one of the things that attracted him to blogging was the feedback loop and how his readers improve his columns because of the insight they share. He even went as far as saying that the readers (as a collective) know more than he does. Do you have a similar experience?

Connie: Oh yes, I agree. Blogging is a learning experience. The blogger shares his views; the commenters do too. Of course, it does not follow that all comments make sense.

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