The question of blogger vs. journalist has been the stuff of legends now. It has been discussed from as early as 2005, as far as I remember, and many blog posts have been written on it already.

The most commonly cited reasons given to call someone a blogger (or a journalist) usually include the rigor in reporting/research (more rigor is assumed to be from a journalist), interactivity with audiences/readers (usually siding bloggers), the fact that someone has an opinion (works for both), the motivation to write about something and so on. I have briefly touched on this topic too, back in 2009 – Blogger engagement? What is a blog, but?

Other relevant resources to get a complete laundry list of criteria to tell the difference include,

1. What Separates a Blogger from a Journalist? (WebProNews)
2. Blogging vs. Journalism: The Ongoing Debate (TheNextWeb)
3. The Twisted Psychology of Bloggers vs. Journalists

While all those are valid, in some way or other, I believe we have at least gone past the print/TV vs online media reasons to call someone either a blogger or a journalist. There are many journalists who report/write online and many bloggers have started to write print columns too. So, since those lines have greyed, let me offer an updated, single-point criteria to know the difference between a blogger and a journalist, no matter where they write and if their publication (online or offline) has the word ‘blog’ in its name.

It is simply this – platform ownership.

Simple question: Who owns the platform in which that content is published?

Follow-up question: Who has the final say and the discretion to edit the content?

My premise lies in the simple fact that a blogger is one who owns the platform where his (or her) content is published for public viewing/reading. When I say ownership, I mean it beyond a mere byline – it is the power to publish whatever he/she thinks is right and the power to edit it at whatever point in time. He would also be responsible for promoting that content/platform.

So, you could be a journalist in the New York Times and have the power to directly upload content in NYT’s online website…like how bloggers do; in fact your column on NYT could also be called a ‘blog’. But do you own the platform? If not, you are a journalist. In essence, it means you are an ‘ist’ in a journal…a journal owned by someone else, to put it coarsely. You merely write for them, using their platform.

A blogger, on the other hand, owns the platform in which he/she writes.

By that logic, if you are a contributing author in TechCrunch (a blog, by most standards), you would still be a journalist, simply because you do not own the platform you are writing for. Michael Arrington, before the sale of TechCrunch to AOL, was a blogger. Now, in my opinion, he is a journalist.

I’m not simply implying that a blogger’s piece is read by only one person before it is published but a journalist’s piece gets read by more than one person (and edited, if needed). The number doesn’t matter – the finality does. A blogger could write whatever he wishes to convey and make it public. A powerful journalist could too, in a top level media portal – but would that make him a blogger? Not in my opinion – the question is, can that journalist always get away with saying whatever he wants in that portal/publication with no repercussions/feedback from the publication’s owner? If yes, he is, technically, a blogger.

Another extreme example – how would you categorize a single-member owned and run local newspaper that is published from this person’s backyard? It is still a newspaper, isn’t it? But that’s the difference – we’ve crossed the stage of vanilla categorization that looks at online vs. print alone. What perhaps matters these days is the independence since there are no barriers to entry for anyone with a voice to make his opinion public. Again, making it public is different from making it popular – what most independent voices have is the power to simply make it public; there are many sources online for that. But, to make it popular, he needs to work hard, besides having content that is genuinely interesting to one or more target segments.

On the other hand, take the example of a single-member owned and run blog. This blog owner could perhaps have another editorial support. In this case, I’d call the blog owner a blogger and the editorial support a journalist. See the difference?

How does all this matter?

When you own the platform you produce content for, your thought process and the freedom you assume in your mind to choose the kind of things you want to write about and the words you may want to choose to communicate the story…everything is significantly impacted. If you don’t own it, you are perhaps writing from the point of view of getting through or satisfying some sort of a gatekeeper who has the job of maintaining some standards of the platform where you write/report. In the former, you are the gatekeeper and you alone maintain the standards, if any.

This has powerful implications. How?

From a PR point of view, it is critical to see what kind of media you’re reaching out to, for a client. A journalist (that is, one who doesn’t own the media platform he writes for) is a step in the larger process. In case of a blogger, the buck stops there. being aware of his basic differentiation could help corporates and PR folks customize their approach to reaching out to bloggers and journalists. Some of the basics remain the same anyway – relevance, doing appropriate homework on their past stories etc. But, the fact that a blogger has the final say in publishing virtually anything he/she wants is the point to note here.

You may well ask, can’t a journalist write anything he/she wants? Well of course, he/she can. Question is – can he/she write anything always without the interference of the gatekeeper? Is there no plug that can be pulled by the gatekeeper?

So, taking the Michael Arrington example further, if he thinks he can write anything (in any words) he wants, I’d call him a blogger. But, TechCrunch is now owned by AOL and should AOL wish to have a polite chat on something Arrington wrote, he has 2 choices – listen to AOL’s logic and make appropriate changes. Else, leave the AOL fold and publish that material as-is in some platform that he actually and completely owns. In case of the former, he is a journalist. In the latter, he becomes a blogger.

The complete freedom to say your mind out regardless of all the trappings – journalistic integrity, ethics, research, bias, profanity amongst others – is what makes one a blogger. We have been doing it for ages, really – but within smaller circles; like friends, peers, colleagues etc. And they were usually uttered and goes up in the air and into the minds of the small circle we shared them with. Now, we share them with a lot more permanence, usually online.

Let us not get into the repercussions of doing so – that is a different topic and one that gets nebulous since there are so many combinations and opinions involved – best taken as a separate topic of discussion.

Toon courtesy, Philippe Martin, via Flickr.