So here we go again…another argument about the relevance of new media and whether whisky bloggers are a force for good or not.
This bubbles up every few months, this time due to comments made by John Hansell at The Malt Advocate. And as an old fashioned newspaper dinosaur who has adopted tweeting and blogging, I feel moved to comment.
And to be honest, I think the central argument misses a fundamental point. The argument isn’t about new media versus old, or between on line writing and writing in print. It’s an argument about integrity. And my view’s simple – old school writers have no right whatsoever to criticize the new wave of whisky bloggers if they have ever accepted a free airplane ticket or hotel room from a whisky company. Are there online writers who are being dazzled by free whisky and amazing trips to distilleries? Of course. But there are a few print writers who are far worse. They pull their punches, excuse shortcomings and write anaemic and compliant articles while hiding behind the respectability of being a ‘recognized’ whisky writer in return for a place at the industry’s highest table. I
can list more whisky bloggers I respect than print writers. At its best on line whisky writing surpasses virtually everything that appears in print.
To explain the context here, please indulge me a minute. I am passionate about journalism. I remember Fleet Street when papers were still there, I drank in the street’s pubs and am soaked in its history. I lived through Eddie Shah, the NGA and SOGAT, was on picket lines at Wapping, and have read avidly countless books on my profession, from Daniel Defoe to Piers Morgan, and from Harold Evans to John Simpson.
I am fiercely protective of the profession and get upset when people talk about scum journalists. It’s a lazy, inaccurate and ignorant view – everything journalism shouldn’t be in fact. A very small number of journalists make their living by digging in people’ dustbins but they are Frankenstein’s monsters, created by us and criticized by the very people who devour their gossip.
But they’re not what the profession of journalism’s about. About 99.9 per cent of journalists are honorable and honest and they make an essential contribution to society. A small number are heroic, traveling to the most dangerous parts of the world, confronting evil, reporting misery and inequity, and from time to time dying in pursuit of truth and justice.
The vast majority, though, make their living in a much more mundane but equally worthy way. They record ordinary births, deaths and weddings, cover local courts and inquests, highlight regional triumphs and disasters. Most of us can’t close London when we get married, most of us won’t feature in history books. But our little insignificant lives are being recorded – thanks to thousands of local journalists.
Let’s make one thing clear. What whisky writers do is not journalism. Not even close. The best definition of journalism I’ve ever heard is ‘someone writing something that someone somewhere doesn’t want written or someone else to read’. Accepting free flights, accommodation, food and premium whisky from the people you are writing about and then printing nice stories about them isn’t journalism – it’s marketing.
But this war was fought and lost 25 years ago. Ever since PR departments were allowed to play kingmaker and select which writers were given access to their clients, ever since trade magazines linked editorial to advertising, and ever since print media became over reliant on the money from the people they were writing about, journalism has been in retreat. Whisky bloggers and tweeters are just the latest group to dilute journalism by associating what they do with that noble profession. But I don’t think many of us are really in a position to throw stones, are we?
Interestingly, John Hansell is one of the few who can. He has always stood up and been prepared to bite the hand that feeds him when required. Now, with big finance behind Malt Advocate, he’s in a stronger position than ever to publish strong and independent magazines. He’s even talked of sending his writers to cover stories on his budget and not that of a drinks company.
But there aren’t many who can claim to wave the sword of independence and truth, no matter how much we’d like to.
Print writers will point to the fact that their work is filtered through sub editors, fact checkers and editors and bloggers have no safety net. Possibly. But in many instances commercial reality and the pressures on publishing ensure compromise. And at least what bloggers do is new. Go to What Does John Know and you’ll find a soft review of a book featuring many of our best whisky writers. It has a new look and a new title but it is a rehash of an old book, which initself was partially a regurgitation of an even older book. So much of it is five years old. Whisky twitters, by contrast, are writing about whisky from last week.
My only quibble with the new media stars is over experience. I don’t think you can be as objective and impartial unless you’ve had your work thrown back at you by a news editor, or had every great story idea shot down by cynical hacks who’ve seen and heard it all before. And are all the new experts really that good? It takes years to earn credibility and respect, and you have to be thoroughly transparent about what you’re doing, where you got it from, and who’s paying you for it. I didn’t take part in any judging for three years when I became editor of Whisky Magazine and didn’t write a solo tasting note for another two. In 10 years there has been a big dumbing down in this area, much of it online.
My advice for twitters and bloggers: keep it quirky, unconventional and irreverent. Don’t get pompous and puffed up on your own importance. Your strength is your youth, your immediacy, your lack of conformity. You are the whisky world’s answer to punk. Start passing yourself off as serious musicians and you’ll become Sting.
Be honest about what you do, and who you’re working for.
And most of all, keep tweeting and blogging. I don’t care what anyone says – my whisky world is far better with you in it.