Thursday, September 30, 2010

Journalism? Don’t talk to me about journalism.

I decided to become a journalist on my 28th birthday. It was largely due to the fact that I was a 28-year-old loser who was working in a fat factory, and I knew I needed to do something with my life. I also wanted to be a journalist because I really wanted to meet girls, and the local journalism school’s classes were about 80% female.

Since making that decision, I’ve worked on a daily newspaper, been a full-time writer for a b2b magazine publishing company, a reporter for the country’s biggest business publication and I’m currently working as a senior news editor for New Zealand’s third biggest news website.

(I also completely succeeded in my plan to meet girls, and ended up marrying the most beautiful girl in my journalism class.)

So when the online comic culture periodically makes a big deal about the standard of comics journalism, I take a special interest. Not because I’m shocked or offended or angry at all. I take note because the discussion is usually so fucking funny.

* * *

Overseas, they have important documents like the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta. Here in New Zealand, we have the Treaty of Waitangi, a good and just document that gives indigenous Maori unbreakable rights to citizenship, along with the guardianship of their own land and several other deals.

Treaty settlements have been ongoing for several decades, and are now starting to wind down, although there will still be plenty of Treaty discussion to come, especially on the foreshore and seabed issue. It has been used as a divisive document, but it is still big and important and righteous. So it’s a shame it’s completely unsuitable as any kind of legally binding object.

The problem is that there are two versions of the Treaty – both equally valid. When it was first drafted, it was translated into Maori and taken around the country for people to sign. Unfortunately, the translation made several key errors on the exact meaning of very important words, so that the English version of the Treaty says one thing, while the Maori version says something completely different.

This doesn’t stop both sides arguing over the details, arguments that have been going on for decades. Even though both sides are right, there can be no agreement if they’re talking about different things.

This ridiculously pointless bickering is what I think of when people start arguing about the state of comics journalism. They’ve all got strong points of views and valid arguments, but they’re talking about completely different things.

* * *

What is journalism, anyway?

According to the dictionary I keep at my desk, the definition of journalism is ‘writing in or editing of newspapers and magazines’. The dictionary is quite old, and obviously missed out on this whole internet thing, but you only have to add a ‘…and websites’ and you’re set.

The most obvious issue with this definition, and one that spreads to almost all online discussion about comics journalism, is that it’s so ridiculously broad that it almost means nothing.

As far as I can figure, online comics journalism means anything written by anybody that is intended to be read by somebody else. That covers a huge landscape, from half-illiterate blog posts like this one to intensive digging around the finances of a major comics company. It’s all journalism.

(Although I certainly don’t consider this blog to be journalism, not compared to my day job. Because I’m a reporter by day, I think of the Tearoom of Despair as just a place to pleasurably vent about comics and movies and other pop culture shit, after a day spent writing about crime and politics and business. But it’s written to be read, and certainly fits the overall definition I’m shooting for.)

The current hand-wringing over the state of comics journalism was sparked by some vague comments from Brian Michael Bendis, but it’s hardly new. There is always somebody ready to stand up and decry the state of journalism.

But this is where the funny part comes in – even though everybody knows what they’re on about, there is never total agreement on the finer details. Bendis may have been talking about Comic Book Resources or Newsarama and their tendency to regurgitate press releases, but anybody with any interest in providing any kind of comic news was tarred with his same broad brush.

Bendis’ comments were greeted with some marvellously passionate rebuttal from all over the place. Many pointed out that there was plenty of in-depth analysis of damn near anything, if you cared to really look, while others were right in their extolling the virtues of Spurgeon or Deppey or Johnston.

To make any kind of proclamation of comic journalism, you have to be very specific about what you mean, because there is so much variety out there. There is even huge discrepancies between sites that rely on breaking news, the Comics Reporter is good for one kind of thing, and Newsarama has its own uses.

If critical review is to be included in the big, bad basket of journalism, then you have to be even more exact. There are sites devoted to the artiest of the artiest comics, and others that dust off something like Web of Spider-man for a bit of re-analysis, and they’re both rewarding in different ways. Does everything really need to go in a big, neat box labelled ‘journalism’?

* * *

There is one other funny thing about this argument – there is actually one clear answer to it, but few acknowledge it. The fact is, comics journalism has never been stronger or more varied, and it’s remarkable that more people can’t step back from their own singular interests and see the whole thing for themselves.

Access to information via text, video and audio has never been easier or faster, and there is so much stuff out there, so many individuals all doing their thing, more for love than money, just to spread the word. Journalism is all about this sharing of information, and now that everybody can do it, there is so much to choose from.

There is still a large amount of complete rubbish, but the sheer volume of writing on any subject, even something as insular as comics, is staggering, and by any law of averages, there has to be some good stuff.

I only need to check out half a dozen sites on a semi-daily basis and all my comic journalism needs are satisfied. Some important information is hidden, but is eventually dug out. People are crap at keeping secrets, and all the great comic industry feuds and fights revert into safe anecdote over time.

I found out Bob Harras was taking on a top job at DC within a day of it officially happening, when that information would have taken months to get through 15 years ago. Within 24 hours, there was all sorts of analysis, weird tribute and spleen-venting to satisfy every side of this story. It will be interesting to see how Harras does, but his appointment has been thoroughly covered.

And there are a dozen stories like that a week, bouncing around, gaining momentum, gaining attention. How could you ask for anything more?

* * *

So I don’t take offence at Bendis’ remarks. They’re just absurd and funny, and not just because he’s complaining about lazy generalizations by making a lazy generalization.

As a professional journalist, I was more upset by a jarring moment from a X-Men First Class comic from a couple of years ago, where Cyclops pretended to be a reporter to get some info out of the local redneck cop, but got busted by the cop because he was using a notebook and the cop hadn’t seen a reporter use a notebook instead of a recorder for 20 years. That was some bullshit, because I’ve never met a reporter, whether they were print of TV or radio or web, who didn’t carry around some kind of notepad for taking important bits of information. Any reporter who relies on recordings is a damn fool who has too much time on his hands for transcribing and that soured me on the whole damn comic.

Man, that shit has been bothering me for a while. I still get weirdly pissed off when a comics writer tries to write a Clark Kent of J Jonah Jameson article and it's something no newspaper would ever publish, but it's the little things that really irritate.

It's all in the details.


Unknown said...

Good stuff. First time I've seen someone make the argument that the journalism is better/deeper than ever, but it fits.

Bob Temuka said...

Well, my own personal experience certainly backs up that idea, although that was something of an extreme case. For many, many years, I had almost no access to any kind of comic journalism, relying on things like Stan's Soapbox or Dick Giordano's Meanwhile column or Tharg's Nerve Centre for my comic news.

I can still remember how excited I was to find my first ever issue of Wizard magazine.

So, compared to that, the quality and amount of journalism is better than ever. I just think that many people who moan about the state of journalism are just a bit annoyed that there isn't one site that caters for all things, which just isn't going to happen. There is plenty of great sources of information and analysis out there, you just have to look around a bit. There is never going to be one site that offers all things to all people.

Not that this is anything new - it's the same in print. You could just read the New York Times or The economist of the Timaru Herald, but you really only get the big pictures by looking around and getting other perspectives on various matters. Web journalism is no different.