Reading, Writing, and Blogging
The weblog revolution just might change journalism for the better. TV talking-heads, beware.
11:00 PM, Mar 13, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
FOR THE RECORD, I've never thought that the Internet would change the world. And now that blogging has come of age, I'm even more sure of it, because this "revolution" is a reactionary force. Blogging is returning us to a time when the written word was supreme and for that we should be grateful to the bloggers. Despite everything.
The blog--short for "weblog"--is a relatively new journalistic animal (if you know everything about blogs, skip down a couple of paragraphs; if not, shame on you--read this excellent synopsis by Rebecca Blood). A blog is a list of dated entries, usually compiled by a single person, on a website. They read a little like a diary and there are blogs for everything under the sun, from dog owners to music fans. They are cheap to create, easy to maintain, and hugely popular (see National Review's group-blog, The Corner).
News blogs, the important blogs for our purposes, link to stories on the web and feature mini-analysis from the blogger (John Hiler describes the typical blog format as "link + quote + comment"). There are lots of great news blogs--InstaPundit, Andrew Sullivan, and Josh Marshall are my three favorites--and lots of silly ones.
In the last six months, the sheer number of blogs has grown at an almost geometric rate and many bloggers have talked themselves into believing that they are in the vanguard of something big. Andrew Sullivan's Blogger Manifesto proposes that, by putting the printing press in the hands of the writer, blogs are going to stimulate public debate. Since blog writers don't have to suck up to editors, "the universe of permissible opinions will expand, unconstrained by the prejudices, tastes or interests of the old media elite."
In an essay on The Tipping Blog, John Hiler examines how Malcolm Gladwell's "tipping point" concept has been put on steroids by blogs, making the spread of ideas, to use an old new-media expression, viral.
Both Sullivan and Hiler are right, to a point. Blogging does broaden the universe of printed opinion and those opinions do disseminate very, very quickly. What Sullivan doesn't mention in his essay (but has commented on elsewhere) is that the blog's bigger value isn't in spreading opinions, but in allowing just about anyone to break news.
The biggest online newsmaker, of course, is Matt Drudge. When the Drudge Report debuted in 1994 it was a proto-blog. Drudge linked to stories of interest, and while he didn't comment on them at length, his headlines provided their own small dose of opinion. But what made the Drudge Report's popularity explode was the news it made. He would do reporting and find stories that other news outlets either didn't have or wouldn't run. And after he published them, the traditional press would often be forced to play catch-up. Without Matt Drudge, it's possible we would never have heard of Monica Lewinsky.
And it isn't just Drudge who makes news. A few months ago in Milwaukee, Bruce Murphy, a man with a blog (Milwaukee World), uncovered a story about a multi-million dollar county pension scandal that the local paper, the Journal Sentinel, had ignored.
Of course, bloggers don't often break news. But even when they don't, they serve a public good as the fact-checkers of established media (the way Smartertimes does with the New York Times). Armed with research tools such as Nexis and Google, the average blogger is perfectly capable of uncovering errors in the mainstream press. Without bloggers, the debunking of Michael Bellesiles's "Arming America" would have taken years--or might not have happened at all. Just last week the blogging community took up arms against Ted Rall's despicable "terror widows" cartoon. A few hours later, the New York Times yanked the strip from its site.