Saturday, January 08, 2005

Are Blogs the New Journalism?

The way TIME magazine saw it in December, 2004 was the start of a "golden age" of blogging -- the rapid-fire web publishing scheme where anyone can publish their rants, photos or detailed reporting on the web in a matter of seconds. While blogging has been around for four or five years, the combination of the hotly contested election and the growth in popularity of blogging tools meant that blogging had hit critical mass.

Before this year, says writer Lev Grossman, "blogs kept a relatively modest profile, and the mainstream media could comfortably treat them like amateur productions that could never compete with real news organizations." But their power has been growing. In 2002 a liberal blog called Talking Points Memo pushed for Trent Lott's resignation as Senate majority leader. In 2004, Russ Kick obtained photos of US soldiers' coffins coming back from Iraq. "The next day they were on the front pages of newspapers around the world," says Grossman.

But the event that pushed blogs into the bigtime, if not the mainstream, was the 60 Minutes debacle, in which a blog called PowerLineBlog suggested that documents presented on "60 Minutes," which seemed to show that President Bush reniged on his National Guard service, were in fact frauds. The post was famously called the "61st Minute."

Half an hour after posting, "there were 50 e-mails in [PowerLine contributor Scott Johnson's] In box from readers offering further arguments and evidence disputing the CBS documents' authenticity. Johnson sifted through the comments and added some of them to his original post. This created a feedback loop. The more comments he posted, the more e-mail he got, which he then posted, generating even more e-mail, and so on. The process turbocharged itself. In all, he updated the post 15 or 20 times over the course of that day. ...

"By 10:30 a.m., Power Line had an arsenal of arguments attacking the memos-typographical, logical, procedural, historical. The three bloggers put up genuine National Guard documents from 1973 so that readers could compare them with the 60 Minutes memos. The Drudge Report, the Mondo Cane grandfather of all right-leaning news blogs, linked to their site about midafternoon, sending a torrent of traffic their way and promptly crashing their Web server. By the end of the day, about 500 sites had linked to Power Line. 'I think it's fair to say that that post that Scott began is probably the most famous post in the young history of the blogosphere,' Hinderaker says proudly. "

What's interesting about this story is not so much that there are "citizen journalists" out there, doing the job that "real" journalists are not doing. In fact, there was no reporting or investigation to the original post -- just a bit of reasoning and reasonable suspicion. It was the flood of posts from readers that created a virtuous circle of other people's ideas, documentary evidence, and widespread dissemination. It is this ecology of facts, opinions and linking that is best described by the term"blogosphere."

Dan Gillmor, who recently left his beat as technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, notes in his book "We the Media": "If my readers know more than I do (which I know they do), I can include them in the process of making my journalism better." Journalism, Gillmor suggests, is moving from a broadcast to a conversation. "The first article may be only the beginning of the conversation in which we can all enlighten each other."

Since he wrote those words almost a year ago, Gillmor's thinking has evolved -- so much that he has left his job at the Mercury to start a nascent company to take citizen journalism in new directions. Currently, Gillmor is thinking a lot about what he calls distributed journalism. On his Grassroots Journalism blog, Gillmor credits two sites -- Talking Points Memo and Daily Delay -- with putting the pressure on the Republicans to drop the rule change that would have allowed House Majority Leader Tom deLay to keep his position even if he were to be indicted.

"Something especially important occurred with these two blogs. They asked readers to call their Republican members of Congress and ask how they voted on the original secret vote to give DeLay a break. Readers responded in droves." They reported the responses back to the bloggers. The results were posted. Did you learn how Republicans voted from NPR or Fox or the New York Times? No. But the blogosphere has ways of finding out.

This is just the start of the new journalism, Gillmor thinks. "Suppose, for example, that we assemble a nationwide group of volunteers -- lawyers who are familiar with statutes -- and ask each of them to take a small section of one of those immense congressional bills that the members of Congress don't even read themselves. Suppose, further, that we could get this analysis posted before the House and Senate did their final votes. We might catch a lot of sleazy stuff before it became law. Today we're lucky if we know about any of it before it actually passes."

This blogging thing is starting to look interesting.