Weblogs offer a vital, creative outlet for alternative voices
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).
Back around 1993, in the Web’s neolithic days, starry-eyed Net denizens waxed poetic about a million Web sites blooming and supplanting the mainstream media as a source of news, information and insight.
Then reality set in and those individual voices became lost in the ether as a million businesses lumbered onto the cyberspace stage, newspapers clumsily grasped at viable online business models, and a handful of giant corporations made the Web safe for snoozing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Web’s irrelevance: the blogging phenomenon, a grassroots movement that may sow the seeds for new forms of journalism, public discourse, interactivity and online community.
“I think the Web is actually becoming more credible while established media are losing ground,” says Paul Andrews
While no one is really sure where this is all heading, my hunch is that blogging represents Ground Zero of the personal Webcasting revolution. Weblogging will drive a powerful new form of amateur journalism as millions of Net users — young people especially — take on the role of columnist, reporter, analyst and publisher while fashioning their own personal broadcasting networks. It won’t happen overnight, and we’re now seeing only version 1.0, but just wait a few years when broadband and multimedia arrive in a big way.
For the uninitiated, a blog consists of a running commentary with pointers to other sites. Some, like Librarian.net, Jim Romenesko’s Media News or Steve Outing’s E-Media Tidbits, cover entire industries by providing quick bursts of news with links to full stories. But most blogs are simply personal journals — links-laden riffs on a favorite subject.
I spoke this month with six journalists or writers who publish Weblogs and asked for their take on the phenomenon and its significance for journalism. Three appear below and three will appear next week.
Andrews, who now lives in San Francisco, was technology columnist for the Seattle Times before taking an early buyout. He co-authored the book “Gates” (Doubleday, 1993) and wrote “How the Web Was Won” (Broadway Books, 1999), about Microsoft’s embrace of the Internet. He began his Weblog in November.
Weblogs come in all shapes and flavors, and Andrews has sampled plenty of them. “Some are tech-based, some are glorified dating services, some are nothing but a collection of links. The ones I like the most give something personal as well,” he says.
Not everyone who keeps a journal is a journalist, he points out, and “you can write on the Web about your work and life without being a journalist.” But professional journalists too often dismiss those who don’t work for traditional media, he says, when the truth is that the most vital and moral dispatches on the Web are being created by amateurs.
“It’s the role of institutional media to act as gatekeepers,” he says, “but what you have in print publishing today is a consolidation that’s inimical to the diversity that exists in everyday life. With the rise of the Internet, people don’t need to be bounded by those traditional filters anymore.”
The Net opens up the spigots for those who want to take on the mantle of journalist. “The Web gives voice to a lot of alternative points of view,” Andrews says. “Anyone connected with the WTO protests in Seattle and Quebec City knows that the protestors’ viewpoints were either ignored or misrepresented by the radio, TV and newspaper coverage. The commentary was almost willfully ignorant. How silly, how arrogant that alternative voices were not allowed to be heard. I always thought the role of the journalist is to ensure that the voice of the people should be exposed.
“Now, thankfully, the protesters who want to get their story out can bypass the media by using live audio or a Webcam to offer raw feeds during a live protest or forum. If you’re a guy with a video recorder filming an event in a certain neighborhood and streaming it on the Internet and reporting it on your Weblog, you’re practicing a straightforward kind of amateur journalism.”
Andrews thinks Weblogs and other forms of online journalism are on the rise in part because of the rapid decline in the credibility of big media. “I think the Web is actually becoming more credible while established media are losing ground,” he says. “And name me the last five serious efforts at public-interest journalism by institutionalized media.”
Andrews doubts that we’ll see many journalists at traditional media companies launch their own personal Weblogs. (New Republic columnist Andrew Sullivan is one exception.) “I think newspapers still look askance at the Web and they don’t want their reporters online even on their own time,” he says.
Part of the reason for the upsurge in blogging at sites like Weblogger.com and Blogger.com is that the tools for self-publishing have become far easier and more automated. “When the first browsers were invented, you still had to know how to script,” Andrews says. “Now you’ve got templates and applications and free server space so that all the nuts and bolts are taken care of for you and all you have to do is concentrate on the writing.”
Andrews lays out a sort of manifesto for journalism blogging in a disquisition called Who Are Your Gatekeepers? In it he gives a fascinating historical survey of the role played by publishers of first-person journals, noting that Columbus’ ship log with his personal ruminations became the hot news publication of its day, and that the first newspaper in America was shut down by colonial authorities for printing unsanctioned gossip about the king of France’s sex life and a local suicide.
Writes Andrews: “A new style of journalism, based on a ‘raw feed’ directly from the source, is emerging. Journalists testing the new waters are … bound to wreak havoc on institutionalized media. … Where the Weblog changes the nature of ‘news’ is in the migration of information from the personal to the public. … Hit the ‘post’ button and any personal writing becomes published writing. … As a thousand flowers bloom, the Web’s garden of information becomes more diverse, enlightening and transformative than anything the traditional paper-based print world can provide.”
Blogging represents ground zero of the personal Webcasting revolution.
Since writing that several weeks ago, Andrews has dialed back his rhetorical flourishes a notch. “I’m a little more measured today,” he says. “The dot-com implosion and the vision for the Internet has a lot of us going through a reassessment. It’s also been sobering to realize what a demanding form of expression Weblogging is. On the whole it’ll be a slower uptick than I predicted earlier. But my kids and their kids live on the Internet, and as their world evolves it will be much more of an electronically published world.”
Does he still think Weblogs will bring about a new form of journalism?
“That’s the key question,” he says. “I don’t know. If the tools become more sophisticated, if bots can point you to other bloggers whose ideas match criteria you’ve set up, then I think we’ll evolve to a different kind of journalism. Right now it’s still too hard to make those connections. But I’m still hopeful. We’re getting there.”
Branscum, based in Berkeley, Calif., is a contributing editor to Newsweek who wrote a feature on blogging for the magazine’s March 5 issue. She is also a contributor to Fortune.com, Macworld, Wired, PC World and other publications. She began her Weblog in December.
“I began doing a Weblog for a patently self-serving reason: to promote my not-yet-world-famous conference for technology and PR executives,” Branscum says. “A Weblog gives me a forum where I can bitch bluntly about the many failings of media PR. But it’s become just addictive and incredibly fun to do.”
Branscum ticks off four cool things about Weblogs:
• Creative freedom. Part of a blog’s allure is its unmediated quality. “For a working journalist, there’s no luxury like the luxury of the unedited essay,” she says. “I’ve been an editor longer than I’ve been a writer, and I know the value that an editor brings to your copy. Even so, there’s an enormous freedom in being able to present yourself precisely as you want to, however sloppily or irrationally or erratically. I don’t have an editor to pitch the story to, or a copy editor who decides he’s not happy with my syntax… You think it, you write it, you put it out to the world.”
• Instantaneity. “Even when you’re writing for a weekly magazine, it seems like it takes forever to see your work in print,” Branscum says. “With a Weblog, you hit the send key and it’s out there. It’s the perfect disposable journalism for our age.”
• Interactivity. “It’s a kick to get feedback from people you’ve never heard of who stumble on your Weblog,” she says. Branscum estimates that 30 readers might surf her blog on a slow day and 900 might read it on a busy day, with pointers from other sites and other bloggers often driving traffic to archived material.
• Lack of marketing constraints. “The people who are interested in your perspective find you, instead of you having to find a publication that reflects their interests,” she says. “You don’t have to necessarily tailor your work for a certain readership or demographic.”
Does Branscum think we’re slouching toward some new form of journalism? “I’m not quite willing to go there,” she says, “but I do think it’s an interesting question for PR folks and the people who have to deal with Webloggers. My attitude is, if you haven’t established your credibility by writing for any major publications, it’s not written down anywhere that people have to answer your questions. So far, the Weblogs I’ve seen tend to be less about actual reporting and more about analysis and punditry and opinionated commentary.”
For now, independent journalists will continue to devote their time and energy to publications that pay, Branscum says. “Unless someone figures out a way to pay journalists for our Weblogs, my best efforts will go to Fortune.com and Newsweek. For now, Weblogs are a fabulous exercise in self-indulgence because you’re writing for yourself.”
Fleishman, based in Seattle, is a free-lance reporter for The New York Times, Wired and Fortune and a computer columnist for The Seattle Times. He began writing a Weblog on technology and his personal life in November.
“Blogging was this phenomenon that I thought of as not very interesting for a long while,” recalls Fleishman, a free-lancer since 1994. “When the Guild at the Seattle Times went on strike last November, I came across Paul Andrews’ Weblog and discovered how easy it was to set up the tools. I decided to try it out.”
Fleishman came to the same conclusion as Branscum: that Weblogs are taken more seriously than a static Web page. “It’s this gem, this nut, that people interact with differently,” Fleishman says. “A Weblog gives off a patina of credibility and authoritativeness that you don’t find in other corners of the Web.”
The medium seemed well-suited to Fleishman, a self-described “pretty opinionated guy.” His Weblog tends to focus on technology issues like low-speed wireless networks or his six-month stint at Amazon.com. His goal is to parlay his blog into a “dead-tree job” as a full-time columnist for a print publication.
Fleishman found that he could use his Weblog to report or discuss issues that fell outside the scope of an article he was writing for a print publication. “Issues kept coming up in my reporting that I couldn’t include in my report, often because I was expressing an opinion and my story wasn’t an analysis or how-to piece,” he says. His Weblog gave him a forum to publish relevant reporting that would have remained buried in his notebook.
Another advantage of Weblogs is that you’re not completely at the mercy of big media. Fleishman cites the example of Dave Winer, a software entrepreneur whom John Markoff interviewed for an article in the New York Times last month. “Dave said the article gave an inaccurate interpretation of what he had to say. He gave his own account on his site to clarify his position.”
For journalists, Fleishman says, Weblogs offer one overriding appeal: Here’s a media form that lets you write at any length about any issue you care deeply about. “As a reporter, it’s nice to be able to present an informed conclusion, based on your own experience, without having to go to the requisite two dozen so-called expert analysts who cancel each other out,” he says. “You’re the only one who’s standing behind this opinion.”
Fleishman doesn’t buy into the standard blogger mantra that unmediated writing is superior to copy that has passed through the editorial sausage factory. He finds blogging neither superior nor inferior to traditional journalism — just infinitely fascinating. “One of the most interesting things about blogs is how often they’ve made me change my mind about issues,” he says. “There’s something about the medium that lets people share opinions in a less judgmental way than when you interact with people in the real world.”
That’s what seems to resonate with bloggers: not the publication of a first-person journal but the chain of interaction it often ignites. Says Fleishman: “Someone spots an article or commentary you’ve posted, which triggers a blog entry, which triggers further responses, and before you know it your blog becomes part of an interactive discussion in this obscure backwater of the Web that’s being read and cited by thousands of people. It’s pretty amazing.”