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?