When news moves at the speed of gossip, many older media models struggle to keep pace.
One of the more annoying things over the nearly two weeks (!) of mayoral crack-smoking scandal-tracking is seeing Gawker, the New York-based website responsible for breaking the story - later labeled in the Toronto Star as an EXCLUSIVE - referred to, with implied derision, as a "gossip site."
Granted, Gawker earned its rep trading in trashy, acutely snide celebrity and political tattling: leaking Sarah Palin's e-mails, doxing archly creepy Reddit troll Violentacrez, the notorious Gawker Stalker app (since retired), etc. It's likely that stuff like this will always be Gawker's bread-and-butter. But its brazen traffic whoring has also opened the site up, offering incredibly incisive (and very often incredibly funny) commentary to readers who may have initially been baited to the site by prospect of seeing a photo of Brett Favre's dick.
Before he left, Jeb Lund (nee Mobutu Sesse Seko) brought equal measures of cunning and outrage to American foreign policy coverage. Hamilton Nolan, chronicler of joblessness, obesity, and startling 1% decadence, is one of a handful of living journalists who believably comes across as an American socialist (a compliment). Caity Weaver is one of the funniest writers working online who's not on the Onion's masthead. These are people who fearlessly, if brattily, call bullshit on things. In a world of such abundant bullshit, their candor is refreshing, even necessary.
If all of this is accommodated by Gawker meeting certain traffic (read: revenue) goals by indulging a certain TMZ-ishness, then that's OK. It's not much different from counting on a certain percentage alt-weekly readers to be coming in the door for the classifieds, or for a certain percentage of daily readers to be plopping down $1.25 just to shake out the Sudoku puzzle or Mother Goose & Grimm.
More to the point: Gawker's fast-and-loose approach to journalistic standards, its blogging of the news, reflects (or, maybe, catalyzes) a change in those standards. Take the Rob Ford thing.
Where others papers (like the Star) who had also seen the alleged video of the mayor allegedly smoking alleged crack out of an alleged crackpipe with alleged men of alleged Somali background, allegedly, would hem and haw on the value of publishing an account of a video which could not be substantiated (let alone republished) at press time, Gawker's John Cook just went ahead and did it. He saw a video of a man who looked a lot like Rob Ford smoking something that looked a lot like crack. That's news.
There may not be a quote from a chemist confirming what's in the pipe, or one from the mayor bashfully conceding, "Yep, I smoke crack, folks." But it's news nonetheless. It's a different kind of experiential reporting: more "I saw a thing" than "here is the thing." Cook's confidence at publishing his account of seeing the thing effectively opened the whole Fordgate floodgate. (Star reporter Robyn Doolittle, who shares a byline on the Star "exclusive" about the crack video, was seen darting out of a book launch on the evening of Thursday the 13, after hearing news that Gawker had broken the story.)
From there, shit didn't so much hit the fan as flow into it in a steady, diarrhetic gush. Last weekend, the Globe published their lengthy investigative expose of Doug Ford's connection to the Etobicoke drug scene in the 1980s. Because of the nature of the allegations, and the sorts of people speaking on record - drugs dealers and users, offering comment under the reasonable condition of anonymity - stories like this can prove troubling for editors and publishers, who tend to prefer cautiousness at the risk of losing credibility.
This was a story long-rumoured in certain Toronto media circles to be locked in the Globe's barrel. It's easy enough to see that Gawker's more trigger-happy approach to journalism (or reporting, or blogging, or gossip, or whatever) emboldened the paper to suck it up and publish it. Stories like this aren't only juicy - and good for web traffic and revenue and all that. They're in the public interest. And it's also arguably in the public interest to present these stories to the public with a certain expediency, regardless of whether every single t is crossed, every single lower-case j dotted. This is a responsibility that outsizes a given paper's legacy of loftiness.
The Internet means that people will hear about things before they can be properly vetted by certain old world media standards. Before the Globe's story on Doug Ford's (alleged) hash-slinging days hit, people had been talking about this aspect councilor's pre-politics career. Not only that, they'd been talking about the story about it.
Papers can't expect to make the news like they used to: slouched in well-upholstered boardrooms kicking around the ethics of releasing a story that may get them sued, comparing the relative size of each others consciences. (Did this ever happen? I don't know. My conception of what a pre-Twitter editorial meeting looks like basically amounts to a bunch of groomed mustaches in top hats taking turns chucking brandy snifters into an open fire in fits of outraged one-upmanship.)
To call Gawker a "gossip site" in an effort to undermine it reflects a certain knee-jerky, old-worldy media outlook. News no longer moves at the speed of news. It moves at the speed of gossip.
At such velocities, it's tricky to nail down the valid, paper-of-record legitimacy of what's happening. It may not be the public's right to drink in the contours of one-or-another celebrity penis, but it's certainly their right to know what people are talking about and how they're talking about it, even if such reportage is required to be quantitatively hedged with an "allegedly" every six words.
Papers may try to hastily write off the significance of what Gawker has achieved, with the Rob Ford crack scandal thing alone. But what's become totally obvious over the past two weeks is how desperate everyone else is to keep pace.