Weblogs: A new source of news
Blogs will supplement, not supplant, traditional forms of media
Parts 1 and 2 of this series were included in the anthology We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture (Perseus Publishing, 2002).
By J.D. Lasica
Will Weblogs displace established media organizations as a source of news, information and opinion? Not in this lifetime. But they will continue to make inroads as a supplement to traditional news sources.
As Doc Searls, one of the deep thinkers in the blog movement, says: “It’s a matter of ‘and’ logic, not ‘or’ logic. Weblogs will inform old media. They will increasingly be a source of information that traditional media will rely on.”
The first Weblog has generally been ascribed to Dave Winer (interviewed below) in 1997. Blogs began taking off in 1999 with the launch of sites like Blogger, Weblogger and LiveJournal, which made self-publishing painless for the masses. While tens of thousands of blogs have blossomed, mainstream media have only recently shown a glimmer of interest in the form.
“Journalism is going to have to get used to making room for lots of other people who are not journalists by training but who are just moved by whatever their nature happens to be.”
– Doc Searls
That’s hardly surprising. Weblogs are the anti-newspaper in some ways. Where the editorial process can filter out errors and polish a piece of copy to a fine sheen, too often the machinery turns even the best prose limp, lifeless, sterile and homogenized. A huge part of blogs’ appeal lies in their unmediated quality. Blogs tend to be impressionistic, telegraphic, raw, honest, individualistic, highly opinionated and passionate, often striking an emotional chord.
Sometimes they veer toward immediacy and conjecture at the expense of accuracy and thoughtful reflection. But the best news blogs offer a personal prism that combines pointers to trusted sources of information with a subjective, passion-based journalism. If nothing else, Weblogs are about personal publishing – people sharing what’s in their gut and backing it up with facts or persuasion.
The serendipity factor looms large. Weblog writing may not often sparkle but it often surprises. Blogs unearth the strange, the quirky, the interesting nugget that would have remained hidden. As more people take up Weblogging and more of us come to rely on blogs to help us shape our own personal media universe, media organizations would do well to incorporate them into their Web sites as an important new addition to the journalistic toolkit.
Here’s a sampling of a few publications featuring Weblogs:
• Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News has been publishing a daily Weblog on the paper’s SiliconValley.com site for more than 18 months.
• Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a staffer with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, tackles subjects like genealogy, Webcams and other topics of reader interest in a weekly Weblog launched in February 2000 that recently began appearing in the print newspaper as well.
• Aaron Barnhart, television columnist for the Kansas City Star, publishes a Weblog at TVBarn.com.
• Boston Globe business reporter D.C. Denison recently began writing a tech-news Weblog.
• Suzanne Lainson writes a blog about the Colorado tech scene, written in the style of a society columnist, for Courtney Pulitzer’s The Cyber Scene. “It turns out it has been a much more enjoyable experience than I had ever imagined,” Lainson says by e-mail. “I can write about people, companies and events that wouldn’t be considered newsworthy in a traditional sense. While I do incorporate serious reporting, I offer considerable commentary – a good chunk of it done tongue in cheek.”
• Kathy Shaidle, a religion columnist for the Toronto Star, publishes the Relapsed Catholic Weblog.
• The Guardian in the United Kingdom run a good international-news Weblog.
• A number of alternative weeklies, such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian, run Weblogs.
• The Christian Science Monitor plans to launch five topic-based blogs in about a month.
“One of the things I’m sure about in journalism right now is that my readers know more than I do”
– Dan Gillmor
A word about the term Weblog: We’ll focus here on Weblogs in the strict sense (where the content may run from journals and diaries to political screeds or travelogues, but the owner-publisher decides whether anyone else may post) rather than the more loosely defined genre that we’ll call collective Weblogs (community news sites such as Slashdot.org, Kuro5hin.org, Freerepublic.com), which resemble forums but whose content relies heavily on links, short news snippets, essays, rants and other blog-like features.
What does Weblogging herald for journalism? Here are perspectives from three significant figures in the Weblog movement:
Dan Gillmor, business columnist for the Mercury News, was the first mainstream journalist to author a Weblog and have it published on a newspaper Web site. His eJournal runs daily, with excerpts published in the print edition.
Among his peers, Gillmor is considered the leading trailblazer of this new online journalism form, but he’s typically modest about the mark he’s made. “I’m still feeling my way into it, so I don’t know the big answers here,” he says. “Everyone’s still kind of groping about where this is all heading, but Weblogs have already become a significant phenomenon.”
Regular readers of Gillmor’s eJournal will recognize his commitment to user participation. “One of the things I’m sure about in journalism right now is that my readers know more than I do,” he says. “To the extent that I can take advantage of that in a way that does something for everyone involved – that strikes me as pretty cool.”
One fascinating aspect of Gillmor’s Weblog is how he lifts the veil from the workings of the journalism profession. “There have been occasions where I put up a note saying, ‘I’m working on the following and here’s what I think I know,’ and the invitation is for the reader to either tell me I’m on the right track, I’m wrong, or at the very least help me find the missing pieces,” he says. “That’s a pretty interesting thing. Many thousands more people read my column in the newspaper than online, but I do hear back from a fair number of people from the Weblog.”
Gillmor rates the interactivity with readers as one of the most striking features about blogs. “I frequently hear from readers after a column, saying, ‘That was interesting, but have you thought about this or that angle?,’ and often the answer is no, I hadn’t, so the next time I return to the subject the missing piece makes its way into the article.
“I think journalists have to do that. I doubt there is a beat at any newspaper or publication or program where it is not the case that the readers collectively know more than the reporter,” he says. “That shouldn’t come as any great revelation. Anyone who’s dealt with networks knows that the network knows more than the individual.”
While other newspapers have been reluctant to embrace the form, Gillmor says, “In my case it helps that I’m working for people whose reaction is not fear and loathing but, Wow, that sounds interesting, let’s see how it works.”
He encourages other publications to weigh the possible benefits of launching a Weblog. “Journalists need to experiment more as a group – not with our core values or with things like getting it right, but with things like how we produce news. We’re just going to get dull if we don’t. We’re in the midst of a change, where journalism is changing from a lecture into something that resembles something between a conversation and a seminar, and that’s pretty exciting to me.”
For journalists thinking of taking up Weblogging, he cautions, “It’s important to recognize that it takes a fair amount of work to do it right. Man, this is a beast that’s hungry all the time.”
Gillmor says professional journalism needs to make room for a new brand of amateur journalism that Weblogs are helping to fashion. “No question, this is another kind of journalism. Technology has been leading us toward new ways of looking at things, and the idea of talented amateurs becoming part of the conversation is just the next logical step. It’s the model of the pamphleteer journalist. Will the pamphleteer journalist become Gannett? No, but I don’t think the pamphleteer wants to be Gannett.”
He pauses and considers the future of blogging. “Let’s see where it takes us,” he says, “because clear as hell it’s taking us somewhere interesting.”
Doc Searls, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a veteran journalist, computer industry analyst and senior editor for Linux Journal. He’s best known as one of four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a near-mythic essay that laid out 95 theses about the new reality of marketplaces in a networked world.
When Searls began his blog in November 1999, he found 9,000 search engine results for the term Weblog. That number has since grown to more than 624,000.
He launched the Weblog as an online counterpart to the book publication of Cluetrain. “But in the course of that I discovered that Weblogs are really personal, and as soon as you pluralize a voice, it loses some of its meaning,” he says.
Searls believes that blogs offer the news media a means of “re-personalizing journalism,” through their subject matter and by connecting journalists to other journalists’ journals and to expert sources.
“That’s what Weblogs offer to journalism,” he says. “Weblogs are personal journalism. For real journalists who aren’t used to writing without a net, Weblogs have a self-informing and self-correcting system built into it. When Dan Gillmor published an item whose source said it wasn’t ready for public dissemination, Dan apologized and took it off his Weblog, and that increased his stature. You can’t do that with a regular paper – you’d get a retraction instead.”
Winer suggests that struggling sites like Salon begin broadening their content offerings by hosting user-created Weblogs, creating a sort of farm system for essayists.
One of the interesting hallmarks of a successful Weblog is that it becomes an authoritative source of information based on community endorsement. “People link to it, and those links increase the site’s authority and raise its profile in as natural a way as possible,” Searls says. “So what we have is a marketplace in which we grant authority to those we trust to alter or author our own opinions. I let Dan supply me with many of my opinions because he’s really good, not because his name is on the masthead of a print publication. Many of the Weblogs I visit have no connection to the print world.”
While many blogs get dozens or hundreds of visitors, Searls’ site attracts thousands. “I partly don’t want to care what the number is,” he says. “I used to work in broadcasting, where everyone was obsessed by that. I don’t want an audience. I feel I’m writing stuff that’s part of a conversation. Conversations don’t have audiences.”
Searls says the media remain blind to the cultural and technological changes that are overtaking traditional modes of communication. “What’s happening to every business is they’re melting into the marketplace,” he says. “It comes as a profound revelation to most in the first world when they discover that markets are a conversation. But in the third world that’s a given – market’s are a bazaar, not a conveyor belt moving goods. They’re about relationships and connoisseurship and social life – not something you can describe in accounting language. We forget that the price tag is only 125 years old. Before that, everything was negotiated.
“When we think about media or journalism,” Searls says, “you have content that’s loaded in a channel and delivered to a target group or demographic. That’s just not applicable to the world of Weblogs, where you go looking for interesting conversations, where you might run into soccer moms and students discussing Plato and a whole noisy marketplace speaking to itself. Journalism is going to have to get used to making room for lots of other people who are not journalists by training but who are just moved by whatever their nature happens to be.”
Searls agrees with Gillmor (as do I) that many Weblog authors are assuming the role of amateur journalists. “Just because you don’t get paid for writing a blog doesn’t mean you’re any less authoritative,” he says. (He writes more about what he calls “soft journalism” – the any-to-any system of talking and sharing rather than the traditional “hard journalism” model of writing that is distributed to the masses – in an essay on his blog.)
Searls finds himself writing often in his blog about Linux, open-source software and the hacker community because those topics reflect his interests as senior editor at Linux Journal. “The blog serves as a kind of steam valve for me,” he says. “I put stuff out there that I’m forming an opinion about, and another blogger starts arguing with me and giving me feedback, and I haven’t even finished what I was posting!”
For mainstream journalists, Searls believes that Weblogs will become an indispensable source of niche expertise. “For certain kinds of listings, farmer’s markets, community events, movie reviews and the like, it’s just a matter of time before traditional media give blogs their due. One loser in all this may be the traditional sources of authority – the analyst houses and think tanks and talking heads. They’ll be quoted less because they’re not part of the conversation. They won’t be your sources of authority anymore. The Weblog community is basically a whole bunch of expert witnesses who increase their expertise constantly through a sort of reputation engine.”
Weblogs are already becoming an important source of news for readers. Searls says he found out that the author Douglas Adams died by reading the news and an appreciation on Dave Winer’s blog. Says Searls: “I’d spent that day in the car listening to news stations in Santa Barbara and heard not a word about it – and he died in Santa Barbara! I picked up the local paper the next day and there wasn’t a single word in there about his death. I was astonished. ”
Does Searls have any advice for aspiring bloggers? “You don’t have to be a good writer. What matters is meaning. What you need is passion – a deep interest in a subject – and then all you have to do is say something interesting. For us readers, it’s actually a bit like eavesdropping. Who do I want to drop in on unannounced?”
Winer, founder and CEO of Userland Software in Silicon Valley, has been credited as the first regular, widely followed blogger. He started Scripting News, a Weblog about technology, business and other Weblogs, in early 1997, and began Weblogging in early 1995 (“it wasn’t called Weblogging then,” he notes).
Userland’s software products power tens of thousands of Weblogs. But for Winer, blogs are not just a publishing medium but a personal crusade that could foster a new brand of journalism. (He wrote about amateur journalism on his DaveNet site.) His dream is to put a live Web server with easy-to-edit pages on every person’s desktop, then connect them all in a robust network that feeds off itself and informs other media.
Winer might well be the godfather of the blogging movement, but a better term might be agent provocateur. His blog is peppered with musings, pointers to other sites, and Molotov cocktails that he lobs in the hope of sparking a lively debate. “We’re all players in Uncle Dave’s court,” Searls says. Adds journalist-blogger Glenn Fleishman: “When you look at your stat sheet and see that your traffic spiked by 900 percent, you know that Dave has linked to you.”
How great is Winer’s influence among bloggers? When I asked Gillmor and Searls what spurred them to start a blog, both said the idea came from Winer.
For months Winer, a software developer and technology columnist for Hotwired in 1995-96, has denied that he’s a journalist. But he now says, “I’ve finally resolved in my mind that I am a journalist. It’s not how I earn my living, but I’d argue there’s no less quality and integrity in being an amateur journalist. Maybe there’s more integrity, because my writing doesn’t depend on a paycheck.”
Winer stirred the pot April 17 with a provocative essay on Web publishing that concluded: “writers who work for others have less integrity to offer than those who do it for love.” That drew retorts from Fleishman, Deborah Branscum, Searls and others, while Gillmor also chimed in.
Winer often returns to the theme – familiar to any journalist who has wandered through Usenet or other back alleys of the Internet – that professional journalists are inherently compromised by the business interests and skewed editorial policies of their publications. (Winer would use language a tad stronger.)
Says Winer: “Some of the success I’ve had as a software developer is related to the fact that I’d had the ability to put my own story out there (on Scripting News), where I don’t have to deal with cynical reporters who are interested only if it’s being pushed by a big-name company or by editors who insist on dumbing down a concept because they think it’s too complicated for their readers to handle. What happens if the casualty in that process is the truth?”
Winer says journalists are ignoring the serious work being done on Weblogs, and online publishers should embrace the form. “Then they won’t have to worry about dumbing it down, and multiple points of view will be able to get through.”
He suggests that struggling sites like Salon begin broadening their content offerings by hosting user-created Weblogs, creating a sort of farm system for essayists. “Salon could highlight the best ones on page one and invest time and effort in the ones that are inspiring and exceptional.” He says online newspapers, too, should “go out and let anyone write for you. That’s scary for professionals, who’ll be put off by writers who may be just as talented but didn’t have the patience to climb your stupid career ladder.”
Winer says he checks in on about 200 Weblogs on a regular basis. “You do it not so much to see what it gives you,” he says. “It’s more like checking in on a friend to see what’s going on. It’s like walking through a neighborhood, or reading columnists in a newspaper, even those you dislike because you enjoy the experience.”
Winer has this advice for new bloggers: “If you have a story to tell – even if it’s about some really mundane aspect of your life – you’ll attract others who share your interest. Just don’t set a goal of becoming the most popular person on the block. If you work too hard to be politically correct, if you go back and change your Weblog because someone complained about something you posted, you’ll wind up with writing that gets flat and boring. Self-censorship defeats the whole purpose of a Weblog.”
Indeed, Winer says his most gratifying moments come when he posts an entry without running the idea by his colleagues first. “It can be a very scary moment when you take a stand on something and you don’t know if your argument holds together and you hit the send button and it’s out there and you can’t take it back. That’s a moment that professional journalists may never experience in their careers, the feeling that it’s just me, exposed to the world. That’s a pretty powerful rush, the power to publish as an individual.”