Saturday, April 11, 2009

Herb Caen as Prototype Blogger

Herb Caen once told his "legman," the guy who does all of a great columnist's grunt work, that he was ruining Caen's items by doing too much reporting.

That's the irony that stood out to me in this Sunday S.F. Chronicle piece by Jesse Hamlin, who wrote about being Caen's legman from 1979 into the 1980s.

When I started with him in '79, I was too thorough of a reporter, in a way; Herb said I was asking too many questions and killing items. He wanted just enough confirmation to verify the basic story.

Far be it from me to critique Caen, a master of his craft. Caen probably worked harder on each of his columns than I have thus far in my journalism career.

But his philosophy, the need to get just enough for a juicy item, smells to me like what most mainstream bloggers do on the Web today.

What I see in too many bloggers today is a readiness to mouth off on rumors and news events without doing any independent reporting. If traditional journalism gradually crumbles to a hard, indestructible core, the act of making enough calls to dependable sources to flesh out the truth will be what remains. That's the difference between most of us and them.

Caen had his sources, but he didn't need to get to the bottom of the story. That wasn't his gig - didn't need to be. In those days, the Chronicle probably had enough of a staff to get the real news out.