Archive for the ‘Blog Reflections’ Category

More on pamphleteers

May 5, 2009

After my post on how bloggers are the new pamphleteers, my capstone adviser raised a couple points about the comparison. To summarize, he basically pointed out that a) early pamphleteers, although they had a limited distribution, they also had a “larger share of mind,” and b) that while pamphleteers had this large share of mind and nothing comparable to immediately counter it, today’s blogging pamphleteers are subject to almost immediate scrutiny.

To the first point, I would agree with Bill. As he pointed out to me, it is easier to gain notice when your diatribe is the only only printed and hanging up in the town square. But with literally thousands and thousands of blogs up there, it is much harder to make your diatribe noticeable and have it gain that valued “share of mind.”

So how to build this audience and “share of mind?” Well, The Huffington Post seems to have a great formula. As one of the leading liberal blogs, it offers plenty of viewpoints, from liberal bloggers and authors to journalists to celebrities (at the moment of writing this, Drew Barrymore, Katie Couric and Baron Davis are all featured on the front page). They offer their own comedy channel. And, of course, they have news stories (with their own takes and those of their commenters) on the front page. It is essentially a one-stop shop for all things new and liberal. A virtual community, if you will.

Virtual community is something that also describes liberal blog DailyKos. Here, posters, both full-time and volunteer, offer perspectives on the news and happenings of the day. While there is a main page, where top posts go, there is a whole sub world of user diaries, in which people can rate and post their own thoughts and comments on those of others (much like they do with the posts on the main page). In addition to the (often-pernicious) liberal commentary, the site also has polls (which seem to always have their chosen candidate/cause slightly higher than more traditional national polls). But what is interesting is that just about everyone goes by a screen name (kos, BarbinMD, mcjoan, etc.) rather than a real name. These nicknames seem to reinforce the idea of “blog-as-community.”

These are examples of blogs that have grown and flourished into leaders, to the point now where gaining more readers is almost automatic: if you want a certain point of view, go to one of these sites. On a wall of pamphlets, theirs are among the largest and attention-grabbing. So how do smaller, lesser-known blogs get attention? Most often, through links from these larger blogs. For example, a post on the liberal blog Eschaton was linked to on DailyKos. By having this link from a more popular blog, the site receives exposure. If people like what they see, maybe they come back. But if a blog get enough links often enough, people begin visiting the site more and more often, even without being linked to by a bigger blog. This system of earning your readership is called a meritocracy.

This meritocracy makes it harder to capture the share of mind. As my last post pointed out, blogging allows any half-witted opinion large-scale publication. But, as we can see, it does not guarantee that opinion the share of mind that the pamphleteers of old could capture.

As this blog has often illustrated, these blogs of all sizes are reliant upon the content generated by news organizations, especially newspapers. So why, then, with the growth and expansion of blogs, are newspapers continuing to fall by the wayside? To this point, I will defer to Bill:

When its easy for a user to get the facts — ie, using digital delivery instead of pulp and petrol — suddenly the host of purveryors of “facts” are in less demand. Facts are a commodity, and whether you are getting your facts from the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune or the Picayune Register, they are just facts, and by definition are the same. And so why do we need 500 organizations supplying us with the facts?

To put it another way, the internet puts the world, and its news, at our fingertips. Whereas before, if someone in Billings, Mont. wanted the news from Washington, they would have to wait for that morning’s Billings Gazette. And if someone in D.C. was looking for who won the governor’s race in Montana, they would have to hope it was in that morning’s Washington Post. But the internet no longer makes that the case. Someone in Billings can just go to washingtonpost.com to find out what is going on in Washington without needing to consult their Gazette. And someone in Washington can go to billingsgazette.com for news about Montana. Neither of them needs the newspaper on their front stoop in the morning to find out what is going on in the world. For that reason, the old “pulp and petrol” model is falling by the wayside.

But where do blogs fit in with all this? Well, as we mentioned, they are places where people can go to discuss (or read the opinions of like-minded people talking about) the news of the day. Blogs can gather it (or that of it which fits their worldview) from the many sources out there and comment on it all in the same place. Essentially, they aggregate what they believe is the important news of the day, commenting on it how they will, and publishing it. Only instead of publishing it for the people of their city or town (like both the pamphleteers of old and newspapers), they now publish for a global audience.

With that instant global audience comes a global collection of instant critics. Part of the pamphleteers advantage in having the only flier on the wall was that their share of mind could grow because the flier would remain unchallenged for readers for a long period of time. Even if the opposition to the pamphlet was in the same town and had a printing press of its own, the production time involved in responding would put it at a significant disadvantage since word of mouth would have carried the original diatribe around. Now, however, blogs are subject to immediate scrutiny from all over, meaning something outlandish can be met with immediate scrutiny.

For example, let’s consider the case of Sarah Palin being accused of secretly being baby Trig’s grandmother, not the mother as was reported. In the days of the original pamphleteers, a pamphlet may have gone up or been distributed saying that Palin was actually the baby’s grandmother and laying out the case for it, however truthful it may or may not be. This would then spread around the town, making it’s way into other towns by work of mouth or flier. Eventually this rumor would grow and persist anywhere from days to months until Palin or an ally caught wind of it, when they would counter with another flier decrying the rumor or attacking the suspected source of the original flier. This is assuming that she had access to a printer. Otherwise, the best she could hope for is a word-of-mouth campaign to counter the claims.

But in the days of the new pamphleteers, it actually went down much differently. The accusation came in the form of a diary entry on DailyKos, and was spread throughout the blogosphere. Initial resistance came in the comments of that diary that day. Then more bloggers from the left and right began disputing it, both that day in the days following. Within a couple of day, most people thought that the opinion was both wrong and in poor taste.

And so you see, there remain some differences between the pamphleteers of old and those of today. But what remains the same is that they still do not replace the need for fair, honest reporting that the traditional media provides. In fact, if anything, it highlights the needs of a trustworthy, independent-minded media. Without one, we would be caught in the dueling crossfire of America’s new pamphleteers with no one to show us out.

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The New Pamphleteers

April 27, 2009

Throughout the entirety of Garrett Graff’s class in my first semester, we heard a common theme about how the blogosphere was revolutionary, in part, because it gave almost everyone a voice. That is something that has stuck with me throughout my life since then. But never did it hit as close to home as when working on this project. Consider: literally any person with a computer and internet access now has a voice in the world. Blogs give people a place to publish their thoughts, no matter how insightful or stupid, for the world to see. That is certainly a revolutionary idea.

Before I get too far ahead with why this is important, let me provide some background on this project. Having taken a class on blogs and been a blogger myself, I was aware of how rapidly the blogosphere is growing and how it provides a voice to everyone, regardless of the level of insight it may actually provide. But the media’s fascination with blogs was something that had always amused me. So when I heard Barbara talk about doing a blog as a capstone project, I realized just how much credibility they had in journalism circles. I began wondering just how much of that esteem and credibility blogs, as a whole, deserve. I knew that I wanted to do a general exploration of blogs as a project. So after some fine tuning, I narrowed down the scope of my project: what is the role of blogs in modern journalism.

To start the project, there were several blogs that I was familiar with from reading them every so often. The Huffington Post and DailyKos were among those that came immediately to mind. The liberal blogs are among the internet’s best known, and have the traffic to prove it. I also added the conservative Drudge Report to the list of blogs I was familiar with. To add to my list of conservative blogs, I found this list of top conservative blogs from Conservatism Today. I began monitoring these and whatever blogs they linked to. My goals were simple: to try to see if any original reporting done by these news-centric blogs made the mainstream media, as well as seeing the differences in how these sides of the blogosphere covered different events.

From the outset, I knew that the blogs I read in this survey would be divided among partisan lines. What I was not so sure about was the role that blogs took in actually breaking and reporting actual news, given their predisposition to think one way or another about events. I had heard about the role that liberal blog Talking Points Memo played in the U.S. Attorney firings, so I knew that it had happened before. My hope was that these blogs would be able to provide some sort of news of substantial value, even if it was along their partisan divides.

What I found was not terribly encouraging. By and large, many of the blogs I followed did nothing to break news in the traditional sense, and almost none of them did any original reporting. So what did they do? In most cases, they took a story from an established media source (for sake of an example, let’s say The Washington Post). They would link to the story and comment on it, spinning it one way or the other. The would also have one breakout quote, the “must-read” part of the story. Then, they would go on to either laud the author as a tremendous, well-respected journalist or a partisan hit man, out to get whoever they were writing about and it’s just more proof of why the Post’s circulation is dwindling. Then the comments section would be several vitriolic, poorly-written sentence fragments agreeing with the author. And although this is not every blog post, any neutral blog reader would likely agree that they mostly follow this format.

But one thing is for sure: the average news blog piggybacks on the traditional media MUCH more often than the other way around. If the mainstream media went away tomorrow the vast majority of blogs would follow suit since, because they don’t report and just comment on published reports themselves, they would have much less to write about. I can’t say the same thing about the traditional mainstream media if blogs went away tomorrow.

This is not to say that all blogs are follow that template. SCOTUSblog, reporting on the Supreme Court, is almost like a C-SPAN in blog form. They write, often in thick legalese, about what the court did that day, what affect it has and what is coming up. Traditional media outlets like the Washington Post also have several blogs each, dedicated to a whole range of topics. There are also news organizations like Politico, that are mainstream in their goals and funding, but actually encourage their journalists to use their blogs to break news, instead of typing up an inverted-pyramid-style story and sending it through the copy desk. However, these make up a very small percentage when considering all the blogs focusing on the news.

And there are instances of partisan blogs gathering and reporting original information. Even when not doing it themselves, some blogs like the Huffington Post publish reports by citizen journalists. However, every instance that I encountered of these original reports were reports that support these blogs’ points of view.

So what, then, IS the role that blogs play in modern journalism? That is certainly a tough question to answer. Although we hear them talked a lot about in the media, they do not seem to be breaking the news as much as makingthe news. But why are they making the news? Well, as we discussed earlier, blogs give virtually everyone in the world the power to make their thoughts known to the world. Sometimes these thoughts can gain enough momentum while more and more people read and pass them along, creating such a commotion that they can’t be ignored. The DailyKos post claiming that Sarah Palin’s youngest child, Trig, was actually that of her daughter and that the Alaska governor adopted the baby to avoid the family scrutiny is an example of this. It was a boneheaded report by some anonymous blogger that was so sensational it spread throughout the blogosphere and into the campaign trail. The McCain-Palin camp seized on it, making a big deal of it so the traditional media followed suit. In fairness to DailyKos, other posters and commenters didn’t buy into the hype, and a poster there actually helped debunk the rumors. But it did not come in time to stop the firestorm.

This, although extreme, is a great illustration of what blogs are: pamphleteers for the 21st century. From the 18th through 20th centuries, pamphleteers were spreading ideas throughout the nation. They may be truths, spun truths or out-and-out lies. But the only restriction on pamphlets was that they were somewhat limited in who could produce or distribute them because you obviously need access to a printing press and paper. Although the cost to produce these things on a small scale may be relatively cheap, producing them on a large scale was not. But with blogs, the cost to spread truth, spin or lies on a global scale is much cheaper. And by “much cheaper” I mean “absolutely free.” While before, when a small group of people had access to the works of a small group of producers, the whole world now has access to each other’s work. This is a truly awesome power. And it comes with an awesome responsibility.

Just as you wouldn’t trust a random flier you were given on the street, you shouldn’t trust a random blog you stumble across. But what you can safely do is do what you would do if given a flier on the street: think about it. You certainly shouldn’t take it as gospel, but it wouldn’t do any harm to think about what was said any maybe do a little research on the topic. Hey, you’re already online, so why not? You might just find a new way of thinking about things. It could be like reading the opinion section of a newspaper.

And that, I think, is what the blogosphere is to modern journalism: a big, worldwide opinion page. Yes, there are some blogs that report news. But blogs are, at their most basic function, nothing more than an electronic system of publishing. There are bound that use this publishing system to get original information out there. But for the most part, when people refer to blogs (especially the blogosphere) they are referring to this giant system of columns, where everyone details their views on whatever is going on in the world. It’s where people try to convince others that their side is right while the other is wrong. People comment, argue and discuss all within the same electronic world. It is a truly remarkable idea.

So when people talk about how blogs affect journalism, know that they mostly affect it in the same way a stinging column or editorial might: it may not break news, but it may make it.

A good read on online tone

April 6, 2009

Internet and former Hillary Clinton Web strategist Peter Daou has a great piece over at Huffington Post about the harsh tone often found in the blogosphere:

In a nutshell, online progressives (and their hubs like Huffington Post and Daily Kos) have borne the brunt of the blame for allegedly poisoning the national discourse.

Daou, making the case for liberal blogs, argues that much of the venom comes from a sense of moral outrage: that the Bush era policies were so egregious that liberals SHOULD be indignant, thereby fueling their harsh tone. He does not, however, feel that the most outlandish, ofensive comments found on blogs should be included when measuring the blogosphere’s tone or -more importantly- worth, since they are essentially a fringe that appears everyone and knowledgeable comenters to well enough to ignore them.

It’s certainly an interesting read and I am probably somewhat oversimplifying his arguement. However, it also adds to the point that blogs tend to mostly be an opinion source, a new punditry of the population.

Taking stock

March 12, 2009

So since we’re about halfway home, it’s time to take stock of where we are and where we’re going. So far, in the cases we have studied, blogs tend to be a bit more opinion-oriented. They tend to take a news item from an established media outlet and comment on it, presenting their view and allowing their commenters to have a discussion about it. These blogs include DailyKos, Hot Air and too many others to list in one place. So why is it that these blogs have such an attraction to readers? My early guess is that people enjoy reading arguments and news from their point of view and, in several cases, that fits their own pre-existing point of view. For more on this, read a post I did on this topic on my blog for Garett Graff’s class, You’re Making Me Do This…
To be completely honest, I am a bit disappointed in this project. When I pitched it, I had this vision of blogs posting stuff that the mainstream media would then jump on and report out themselves. After all, Talking Points Memo is helmed by Josh Marshall, the journalist who broke the U.S. Attorney firing story. So we know cases like that EXIST, we just have yet to see any this semester (aside from Deadspin breaking news about Mark McGwire’s steroid past). In fact, we have pointed out that The Huffington Post offers unique reporting on a daily basis. However, from what we have seen this reporting tends to be supplementary, as in it provides further detail into someone else’s story. It also sometimes include a level of personal opinion injected into it.

So where do we go from here? Well, the monotony of reading echo-chamber opinion blogs is certainly headache-inducing. So while we continue to monitor them just in case, we will focus closer on blogs like TPM and The Huffington Post, those with reporting staffs to see what kind of reporting they do and how much of what they do gets taken up by the mainstream media.