Monday, January 31, 2005

Buying buzz in the guise of journalism

Romenesko has an amazing amount of good material today (and from Saturday).

This one is a good study for an ethics class. According to the memo Romenesko has posted, The Automotive Brand Network is soliciting j-schools for students to write "positive" reviews for a new site, carblog.com.

According to the memo from Bob Mahon, president of The Automotive Brand Network, if your journalism department can round up some students to write comments that are "positive about the cars." (No lemon-aid stands on this piece of Internet sidewalk.), in return, We are willing to make a contribution to the department for it's [sic] support, so I would rather not talk to an Internship coordinator at this stage.

It's easy to dismiss this as just another journalism pimp operation. Mahon, after all, takes pains twice to say in his memo that each review must be positive (not that reporters at newspapers and TV stations haven't been told that before, either). But consider the rest of his note about blogging:

Obligation: Each week, contribute five, quality posts and five quality comments about new cars. The models to post on will be assigned to you.
To make a post, you need to 1) read a review of a car 2) link to that article, and 3) give your feelings on the model.
Measurement: The quality and quantity of content built into Carblog.com. No post should be more than one paragraph. No comment should be more than a sentence.
...
Creating a Great Post
Integrate into every blog your point of view. How do you feel about this car? Think of yourself as a potential consumer.
Be positive about the cars.
In your Posts, provide links to where you got your information.
You are succeeding if you are engaging others to comment about your posts. Subtly draw users into contributing comments (without saying "so, what do you think").

Integrate your point of view. Don't necessarily do much original reporting, but link widely. Approach it as though you are a potential customer. The premium is not necessarily on accuracy, but on short, bright and whether you can draw people in. These are the elements of a successful blog, even more so than some of the newspapers and magazines that have tried similar things.

In his 1980 essay, "The Legend on the License" (In the Yale Review. Sadly, not online that I can find.) John Hersey cast a skeptical eye on what has become known as narrative journalism, which when done right accurately recreates scene, dialogue and detail through meticulous reporting. Readers say they love it. Hersey, stressing that the legend on the journalist's license is that "NONE of this was made up," suggests it is too easy to rewrite the legend as "THIS WAS NOT MADE UP (EXCEPT FOR THE PARTS THAT WERE MADE UP)."

Perhaps we're at that threshold again with this new form of journalism. Some will argue that Carblog and its ilk are not journalism. At least it's not journalism as we have defined it. But will our future readers define it thusly? And will the much-vaunted checks-and-balances of the Internet provide sufficient real-time counterbalance to those who would do far worse damage than a car review site paying future "journalists" to pimp?

As I said, a good ethics discussion.

Maybe while Mahon is at it, he'll hire a copy editor or two. Aside from his gaffe in the memo, this is one of the lead sentences from a post:
So your married and have two plus kids.
Or maybe that's just injecting yourself into the post.
AAArgh.

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