The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-1


Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I had no idea when I started it with a very tentative posting on January 26, 2005 where it would go or that it would take the shape it currently has. I had no idea, though, that it would be as much fun, as useful (to me at least), or require as much time and effort as has turned out to be the case. One thing that it has done that surprised me is that it has made me almost addicted to reading, researching, and writing about the things that I care about and that, I believe, is a good thing.

(Sandy Piderit and Vincenzo Liberatore gave me some welcome encouragement on my first feeble attempt. Jeremy Smith’s comments on my first posting had some excellent advice which I have followed and would recommend to others thinking about blogging.)

This personal anniversary coincides with some local media attention on the role of blogs in the new media age. Two weeks ago I appeared on the Cleveland NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 to discuss this question and then last week I taped a show for the local PBS affiliate WVIZ channel 25 program Feagler and friends with Doug Clifton (editor of the Plain Dealer) and Denise Polverine (editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com). (See below for details about its broadcast on Friday and Sunday.)

In preparing for both these shows, I started thinking about the role of blogs. What role are they likely to play in the media of the future and what uses do they serve for the authors of blogs and the readers of blogs? It seems a bit strange to be pontificating about blogging after doing it for just one year. But blogging is one of those fields where the cliché “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” applies. Most people are surprisingly unaware of what blogs are so even someone with relatively slight experience (like me) is perceived as an “expert.” So in this two-part series, here are my opinions on the topic, for what it is worth.

Some of the more obvious benefits of blogs are the following:

  • They can focus and maintain attention of stories that the major media do not highlight or follow up (Like the plan to bomb al-Jazeera during the attack on Falluja in April 2004, or the Downing street memos of July 23, 2002 of the meetings between the US and UK governments to fix the intelligence in order to support the attack on Iraq, or the story of US and UK complicity in Uzbekistan torture.)
  • They can immediately correct the record when there are attempts by interested parties to mislead the public about important facts and the mainstream media does not act (example: NSA wiretapping, who benefited from the Jack Abramoff payoffs, the war on Christmas)
  • Can clarify complicated issues like the Valerie Plame leak.
  • It can be a rich source of material for future historians. In the past, people wrote a lot of long letters to each other and historian have used these to get an idea of what people really thought, as opposed to what they formally published. Such voluminous letter writing is rare now, but blogs probably will give historians a good idea of how ideas germinate and propagate.

But there are other benefits as well. It enables many more people to resurrect an older model of news and commentary, that of political pamphleteers and political newsletters like the one created by iconic journalist I. F. (Izzy) Stone. Victor Navasky writes that although Stone

“never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world. His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

“But Izzy also got and made news by reading the dailies, the wire services and such, and then following up where others had not thought to tread. He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read “because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story.”

Most modern day newspapers and journalists don’t do that kind of close reading of documents, focusing instead on reporting on what people say at news conferences. Perhaps they lack the resources or it isn’t glamorous enough for them to do this kind of painstaking work. It requires a certain kind of passion and attention to detail to do that and bloggers are the people who are filling that niche, with individual bloggers specializing in their chosen areas of expertise. The internet enables such people to access an audience without going through all the hassle of printing and circulation, and we, the general public, can easily benefit from their research, quickly and efficiently.

For example, in its heyday, the weekly circulation of Stone’s newsletter IF Stone’s Weekly was 70,000. The top blogs, like daily Kos now get a half million visits a day! If I. F. Stone were alive today, I think he’d be the top-rated blogger too. It would have been a perfect fit for him.

This success of blogging has ruffled a lot of feathers in the mainstream media. As Glenn Greenwald comments:

The principal benefit from the emergence of the blogosphere is that it has opened up our political discourse to a much wider and more diverse group of participants. Previously, establishment journalists and their hand-picked commentators were the sole vehicle for the dissemination of political opinions. The only commentators and opinions which received any real attention were the ones which establishment journalists deemed worthy of attention. Those who were outside of the club of established journalists were ignored and unable to have their opinions heard.

All of that has changed with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a hard-core and pure meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your pedigree is. You either produce persuasive arguments and do so with credibility, or you don’t. Whether someone has influence in the blogosphere has nothing to do with their institutionalized credentials and everything to do with the substance of what they produce. That is why even those who maintain their anonymity can be among the most popular, entertaining and influential voices. The blogosphere has exploded open the gates of influence which were previously guarded so jealously by the establishment journalists.

For precisely that reason, many establishment journalists have raging contempt for the blogosphere. It is a contempt grounded in the fallacy of credentialism and a pseudo-elitist belief that only the approved and admitted members of their little elite journalist club can be trusted to enlighten the masses. Many of them see blogs as a distasteful and anarchic sewer, where uncredentialed and irresponsible people who are totally unqualified to articulate opinions are running around spewing all sorts of uninformed trash. And these journalistic gate-keepers become especially angry when blogospheric criticism is directed towards other establishment journalists, who previously were immune from any real public accountability.

As I said on the TV show on the relationship of blogs to newspapers in the new media age, there will always be a place for traditional journalists who actually go out into the field and collect the primary information. Most bloggers cannot do that. Although an increasing number are attempting to do this kind of journalistic function, they lack the financial resources and official credentials that can get them in the door of official functions.

The people who are endangered are the columnists and the writers of op-ed opinion pieces. Because what blogs have revealed is that there are a very large number of articulate, literary, informed, clever, and sharp-witted writers out there who are worth seeking out, much better than the ones delivered to my doorstep every morning.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25’s Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

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