Thoughts before BloggerCon 2 – Blogs and Journalism

Tomorrow’s agenda for BloggerCon calls for a discussion of blog and journalism. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading what other people had to say, synthesizing it in my own head and trying to figure out what it all meant. From there, I came to a couple of conclusions:

  • Blogs are not journalism
  • Journalism happens on blogs
  • Blogs are the single biggest threat to the online publishing industry and the print publishing industry.
  • Blogs are the single largest opportunity to the online publishing industry and could represent a big opportunity for the print industry.

I know it sounds like 2 sets of contradictory statements but I’m really not hedging my bets here. What is happening is that blogs are representing such a radical shift in online publishing that what the response is from journalists and other content publishers will either increase or decrease the impact of the blogging phenomenon. What is happening is not so much a revolution as a continuing evolution of the trends started with the rise of the commercial Internet.

Looking back, looking forward

Let’s first take a step back in order to better understand the blogging phenomenon. They year is 1994. At that point, the world is riveted by thoughts of the information superhighway, or as we now know it Interactive television. Meanwhile, in parallel, the real revolution is happening, enabled by the invention of the world wide web. Without much notice from the traditional media, hobbyists are setting up web pages and having discussions outside of the traditional media. Over time, so much of this happens that people start taking notice. Over the next couple of years, the explosion in number of pages gives some silicon valley a few ideas about how this could be used as a new commercial vehicle. Netscape goes public and captures the public imagination, showcasing kids barely in their 20s with fortunes in the millions or billions of dollars.

Well, the same thing is happening with the rise of the blogosphere. It’s 1994 again. The people that are making their way to BloggerCon are the same kind of people that made their way to the first Internet World conference, a confab with only a few hundred people held in one hotel convention room more used to seeing Bar Mitzvah and weddings than conference attendees. I believe that we are on the cusp of a major revolution, powered by what we now know as blogs. In the future, companies and individuals will not only have web sites (something now de rigueur, whereas it wasn’t so in 1994) but also have weblogs. The reason for the future rise of weblogs is two-folds: first, the technology is cheap, cheaper even than setting up a regular website. Nowadays, packages are either free or in the low $100s range. However, the power of a blog is hard to measure. Because blogs allow for a direct communication, they cut through the existing media model of “talk to the press and then we will pick up some quotes to fit our story” (more on this in a minute). The second part is the immediacy of blog publishing: push a button and it’s out there, without any editing. RSS makes it easy to then distribute this to the new class of tools knows as news aggregators. This directness is an important factor because it allows something new: the possibility to take one’s case directly to the people without the extra filter of the press. For example, why would I want a reporter tell me what Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavericks, thinks when I can go and find out by myself by reading his blog.

Blog as Threat to Journalism

This is where blogs can be a threat to the traditional media. Journalism, as an institution, is about to change in a radical way. Whereas before, one had to have a good relationship with the press, blogs subvert that. This can be a force for good (allowing people to correct wrong impressions created by the press filter distorted) or a force for evil (allowing to bypass some of the criticism that the press can create when it does its job properly and sidestepping delicate issues.) The important question here in terms of the impact on journalism is in the value-add. As a former reporter in the tech field, I grew disgusted by some of the more lazy members of our industry who felt that just rewriting a press release was sufficient (though I have to admit having succumbed to that tendency myself at times).

Value of journalism

The real value of journalism is in doing the research, getting the larger picture, and wrapping it in an easy to understand and easy to read package. That takes some real work and that creates some real value. Oftentimes, reporters become experts in a particular field, sometimes knowing more about the industry they cover than the individuals they interview. The best ones use that knowledge to challenge their interviewees, to get the bit of information that no one else could get to. However, the truth of the matter is that this kind of expertise is one that most can get, provided they do the work. Already, we are starting to see the rise of expert blogs. In the case of most technical subjects, the bloggers are winning because they are generally geeks, people with such detailed knowledge of the intricacies of code that they can go beyond anything that a journalist can offer. A few exception, like Jon Udell, are journalists who actually do the geeky research and work like developers before writing their stories.

Readership Erosion

Already, computing magazines are seeing an erosion of their readership, as web sites like and have gotten readers of those publications to expect a more immediate fix. At the same time, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that some of the readers of technology sites are starting to turn to technology blogs because they can, in the words of one of the people who told me about this stuff, “get it from the horse’s mouth.” If you consider the backdrop of scandals about fabricated stories at the New York Times and USA Today, it starts making sense so what’s the publishing industry to do in that case?

Blogs as Journalistic Opportunity

Well, as publishers generally do when advertisers are fleeing, clean house and get new blood in at a cheaper rate (because why not kill two birds with one stone by lowering costs). This is where blogging can come in handy. Some bloggers, like Elizabeth Spiers, have already managed the move from blogging to traditional media. I’m pretty sure that more will join her in the ranks of blogger-turned journalists. The blogosphere should be used by traditional media as the new talent pool.

However, this will happen only in areas where legwork is actually being done by a reporter. In the case of Spiers, she was covering entertainment and made the transition only as a blogger for a publication, still covering entertainment and still in a blog format. Somehow, the traditional press does not yet trust bloggers to write for “the main product”

This is because, in many other areas, much of what is going on in the blogosphere is opinion, not actual reporting. For example, in the political realm, bloggers on the left and right opine on the policy of the day but few actually do the legwork of polling the public, reading through complete legislations, associating those parts to other existing laws, or going through the federal budget line by line (unfortunately, few in the press do this either. The odd thing is that Paul Krugman, a columnist, is one of the most thorough economic analysts at the New York Times.) In those areas, much discussion is held in the blogosphere as to whether Bush is right or wrong but much of it is tainted by clear partisanship and does not go into as much fact finding. Yes, journalism can sometimes be a boring job (as any journalists who has ever sat through a year’s worth of water commission meetings can tell you) and that’s why it’s a job.

Many people say that the immediacy of blogging means that there should a lower threshold in terms of fact-checking but if that’s the case, explain how wire reporters like the ones working for the Associated Press or Reuters get their facts right? The challenge of good reporting is in getting it right and getting it fast. Speed is not the only factor in a story and sometimes, speed can be a detriment. For example, the best (most rewarding and also often most difficult) type of reporting is investigative reporting. It takes time to build a story. For example, Woodward and Bernstein took almost two years building their stories up in the Watergate investigation, eventually leading to the big story. Once again, this can be either an impediment or an opportunity for the blogosphere. Earlier this year, members of the blogosphere united in building a story that eventually led to the resignation of Trent Lott. While the story of the initial racist remark was reported by the regular press, it is the blogosphere that put it in the greater context of a history of similar remarks. In this case, the chattering class put together a case that the mainstream media could no longer ignore. A collaborative effort by tens, hundreds of bloggers helped speed up the data gathering and provided a complete package to the press, pre-chewed and pre-digested, hence giving a lot of free investigative reporting back to corporate media. Lott would not have resigned if the story had only made the rounds in the blogosphere but once the traditional media attached their seal of approval, his fate was… well… sealed.

This last part represents an important concern for members of the blogosphere. How do we achieve legitimacy? Unfortunately, in this case, the answer is that legitimacy is only something that comes over time. It took almost a decade for regular people to start trusting online publications as legitimate (and a relatively large segment of the population still does not). Can we do anything to accelerate the acceptance of blogs? I don’t know but I hope that it will be a subject of discussion at the conference.

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