Blogs Versus the Media

By now you know what a blog is. Online diaries created a big hype in the 2004 presidential election and people are still constantly scouring them for the latest news on everything from the environment to gadgets. Now that the initial buzz has died off, the online industry has to figure out the best way to incorporate the new medium. Online newspapers and advertisers are learning to cope. The relationship between blogger hobbyist and professional websites is a deep and complicated one.

Not all blogs are of consequence. A vast majority of them are the equivalent of teenage angst writings. Sites like LiveJournal.com host these types of blogs. While these blogs aren’t exactly hard hitting news, they certainly provide a service to a big market. I think almost anyone can find value in them.

More interesting, however, are blogs that attract thousands of viewers every day and push or pull the online community in various directions. Kotke.org, for example, the blog baby of Jason Kotke made big headlines when he scooped everyone by writing a post about Ken Jennings’ big loss on jeopardy. Since then, Kotke has become a full time blogger, financially supported by donations from his readers.

So what’s the deal with mass viewed blogs like Kotke’s? Well, what was the deal with the printing press? It made communication between engaged citizens easier and faster. The printing press changed the flow of information. It became a cheap means to distribute pamphlets books and the sort. While the Internet was never exactly under tight censorship reigns, blogs have further opened up the medium, giving every online citizen the ability to write what they see instantly for the entire Internet population to see.

For journalists this has been both a boon and a godsend. It provides a huge resource of eyes and ears constantly on the vigil for important and timely news. More importantly organized institutions of news and entertainment remain the most respected and mass viewed sources of information. So, their cultural memes become the fodder for bloggers who link back to them. A win-win situation, since bloggers feel like part of the process when they add their own unique thoughts along the way and their barrage of links drive up Internet traffic for big media sites. In this way bloggers don’t hurt the media, they drive up web traffic to whomever can catch their attention.

At the same time, bloggers are often seen as a mass of untrained journalists who are yelling wolf when there isn’t anything to report. While a lot of wolf yelling is spot on, they don’t always have the resources or training to make sure they are fair and honest in their reporting. We all know you can’t believe everything you read on the net, but that goes double when the source is just John Doe sitting at home on his computer. It’s easy to forget that bloggers, however adamant, are not journalists.

At least, not to the Supreme Court. Apple successfully ordered bloggers to reveal their sources of information when they leaked product announcements early. A journalist wouldn’t have to reveal these sources, they are protected by freedoms of speech specific to the trade which help them better act as watchdogs for democracy. But not everyone can be granted these freedoms, because it creates situations for libel, copyright infringement and other unwanted acts of speech. Yet, anyone can be a blogger and every blogger feels they have the right to report a scoop if they have one.

Another detriment to professional writing that blogs pose isn’t with how many eyes they have, but with the speed at which they write. Most blogs have a quick, witty and to the point approach to writing. They tend to link back to another source, only adding a few comments and their own personal interpretation. The Internet is already responsible for lowering the average attention span, and the short punchy style of bloggers adds to this, making full feature stories a pain to read. Now these longer stories might not be fun, but they are still critical if the journalists ever hopes to do their job of analyzing and critiquing democracy.

So we have two views of bloggers. In more academic language we could say the dialectic between bloggers and big media has two broad narratives. There is the ever popular “Blogger vs. Journalist” story, in which the masses are using their weight through blogs to influence the media. The David vs. Goliath archetype is a favorite, and in many ways this is true of blogs. When blogs work together they easily push and pull the media to certain issues. But that kind of unity is rare.

But through another lens the exact opposite narrative emerges. Bloggers can be seen as an aid to the pre-existing media structure, just waiting to be fully harnessed. The New York Times had this realization when they bought About.com. Blogs are un-organized right now, but as mentioned earlier they drive up traffic, sometimes even slash-dotting websites. Big tech blogs like Gizmodo, which tends to be an aggregation of the day’s best tech entries from smaller blogs, can send thousands of hits flowing over the Internet, often linking back to major news source. In this narrative blogs need to be adapted into the Internet industry not as a foe, but as a friend who needs guidance in its early stage.

The debate will rage on as bloggers continue to try and differentiate themselves from traditional media outlets and those same forces try and absorb blogs into their pre-existing network. For now it is too early to tell just who will win. With the number of blogs doubling every month (by some accounts) this is a saga that will evolve as quickly as memes fly through the Internet.

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