Thursday, January 27, 2005

Blogging and Big Media

I'm not a blogging futurist like Instapundit or Jeff Jarvis. I don't spend a lot of time contemplating the potential of the new medium. I don't attend blogger conferences. I'm not a journalist or writer by profession. I just wanted a place to bitch and whine without forcing the Wraith Wife to endure it all. (It's a lot for one woman.)

I read a little bit about the Harvard's Blogging, Journalism & Credibility conference. And I just glanced through Jack Shafer's piece in Slate. I didn't read every word. (Note to Shafer: bloggers tend to get to the point and skip the three paragraph intro. Tick tock pal. Time is money and all that.)

I'm not going to sit here in my pajamas and tell you that bloggers are going to replace the major media outlets next year. But sooner or later a more advanced form of this tool will force a dramaic redefinition of what "news" is and what "reporters" are. Even as crude as they are today, I am fascinated and impressed with the power and reach of blogs. There are huge differences between blogs and print or broadcast journalism, differences that make blogs more attractive as a reader and a writer.

Blogs are dialogues. News is a monologue. This is true in a structural sense in that blogs link between each other and allow comments from readers that also link between each other and link to other blogs or even other comments on other blogs. This makes the reading experience dynamic and fluid. It also creates an environment of fact-checking. Or what I call the "bullshit" factor. How often have you read a traditional article or watched a report on tv and thought, "What a load!"? If you're like me, nearly everyday (especially if you're an NPR listener). With blogs you have a chance to enter your comments into the blog itself. This is very different from the old-school Letters to the Editor (paradied so well by Granpa Simpson). There is no gatekeeper to pick and choose which letters to print or read. This is a profound change in the way we consume information.

The dialogue/monologue goes beyond merely structural changes. It affects the psychology of the writer. The monologists in print and broadcast use the Authoritative Neutral Voice: "This is the way things are." Monologues encourage the idea that the author is in a superior position, that the audience has nothing to add. This is a short step to the kind of arrogance and even contempt for the audience we saw from several media outlets last year, notably from Dan Rather. Arrogant bloggers get ripped apart by commenters and other bloggers. In about 10 seconds. Forget the 24 hour news-cycle. The blogosphere is constant, never sleeping, omnivorous.

Big Media apologists often complain that bloggers have no editors. First, editors are overrated. Look at all the crap that gets past them in print and on broadcast news. What exactly are these people doing? Are you telling me that essays by Belmont Club are worse than essays in Newsweek because Belmont Club doesn't have an editor? Read both for a month and get back to me. Second, other bloggers and commenters serve as the editors, but in a public way. Bloggers don't get to hide behind closed doors when editors catch their mistakes. It's all out there in the open and archived forever.

Blogs are decentralized. They are, in a way, omnipresent. Here's a quote from the Harvard conference. "When the (New York) Times' Abramson asked rhetorically if the conference bloggers had any idea how much it cost to maintain a news bureau in Baghdad, the supreme confidence of a couple of bloggers fractured into petty defensiveness.
"That's a silly question!" snapped Winer. "Asking bloggers what this costs is silly. If you want to tell us what it costs, that's fine. ... But there are bloggers in Baghdad! That's your competition; that's what you have to deal with

"There are bloggers in Baghdad." This is the real threat to the MSM. There are bloggers all over the world, in every city, on every college campus, in every corporation and institution, covering every topic imaginable. Millions and millions of people. The tsunami was another great example. Local bloggers, in Iraq or Thailand or Holland, speak the language, know the territory, the history, and the people. And they have an immediate, person stake in the future. Big media talking heads must rely on translators, they don't know anything about the area, etc. And for them this disaster, war, bombing, scandal, is just another story. In a week they are back in New York working on a different story. I trust the local guys more.

For me this is the knock-out blow for Big Media. In the aftermath of the van Gogh murder in Amsterdam I didn't read much in the media because their wasn't much to read. I read Dutch bloggers. People who knew the story because it happened up the street.

As technology advances bloggers will be able to more easily post video, even video live from the scene. At that point, why would I watch CNN? For tsunami coverage I'll watch blog-broadcasts by, say, a Canadian woman who has lived in Thailand for 20 years and is married to a Thai man. News from Baghdad? Smart, brave English-speaking Iraqis will be my choice over a media dweeb in a flack jacket. The tsunami coverage cost Big Media a fortune but the most dramatic footage and the best still photos were always from tourists or locals who filmed it for free. In the future these people will post their video on the Web via blogs, or whatever the next generation of blogs are called, and the Big Media will be out of the loop.

At that point, is my Candaian woman in Thailand a Reporter. Maybe she only makes a dozen or a hundred broadcasts and then gets back to her life or returns to broadcasting about local events or her family vacation. So what? How exactly is a nation or a world of part-time or occasional journalists worse than what we have now? In many ways it's better. If she is hired by MSNBC and sent to report from somewhere else she would lose her credibility, her local focus and become just another media drone. We don't need more media drones.

Combine these two features, dialogue and omnipresence, and you get something very different from a guy behind a desk in New York telling you what some other reporters told him. All in a few hundred words or maybe one minute of video.

Reporters can't be everywhere. Bloggers can. And are. Back to you Jack.


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