Mass Medium

Forbes , May 22, 2005

Something about blogs makes a lot of respectable journalists hyperventilate. News pros seem terribly threatened by online amateurs. Blogging is a "solipsistic, self-aggrandizing, journalist-wannabe genre," writes David Shaw in the Los Angeles Times. Shaw, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his media criticism, declares that bloggers are "practitioners of what is at best pseudo-journalism" and that "many bloggers--not all, perhaps not even most--don't seem to worry much about being accurate." (Emphasis added.)

Shaw doesn't follow the basic journalistic formula of backing up a generalization with names and quotes, so we can't be sure who he's talking about. But he needs to do more reporting. Generalizing about blogs is like generalizing about books. A blog is simply a Web page whose author adds new content, or posts, over time. Blogging is a format, not a genre.

Blog entries can be short or long, dashed off or carefully composed, highly personal or abstractly philosophical. Some blogs are written by a single person, some by a group. Some allow readers to post comments. Others don't. Some bloggers, including me, are also professional journalists.

There are blogs devoted to knitting, to the Boston Red Sox, to biochemistry, to Macintosh computers, to art criticism, to movies, to California politics, to space exploration, to dandyism--to any subject, in other words, that someone somewhere has some interest in. About the only thing blogs have in common is that their posts are arranged chronologically.

As Web-based publications, blogs generally link to the sources they cite, including other blogs. That gives the blogosphere the self-referential quality Shaw finds "solipsistic" and the Project for Excellence in Journalism calls "an echo chamber."

But all that linking makes public the conversations and connections that have always informed journalistic discussions. You can follow ideas as they percolate through the system and easily find multiple sides of any debate.

Linking also keeps bloggers honest. If Shaw's article were a blog entry, readers would wonder why he didn't link to specific examples of the evils he bemoans. Other blogs would demand answers, and Shaw's site would lose credibility if he didn't start backing his assertions with hyperlinks.

Newspaper-based critics like Shaw have a desiccated notion of their own profession. Roam a newsstand and you'll find a journalistic world that looks a lot more like the blogosphere than the L.A. Times does. From Vogue to Sports Illustrated to Cat Fancy to Rolling Stone to Military History, magazines feature focused interests, strong voices and passionate attachments.

Magazine journalism doesn't confuse accuracy with neutrality. Magazine editors know they have to appeal to readers' enthusiasms. They can't rely on habit or civic duty. (Neither, of course, can newspapers, but the critics haven't fully accepted that.) To a magazine journalist, bloggers' idiosyncrasies don't seem so disreputable.

Besides, many bloggers are what's known in the business as "sources." They have more authority than mere journalists.

Some are economists, technologists, scientists or academic experts, like U.C.L.A. law professor Eugene Volokh. Some, like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, are celebrities who want to voice their unfiltered opinions. Some are professionals, from industrial chemists to marketing executives to graphic designers, who write about their fields. Source-bloggers are the kinds of people workaday journalists interview and quote.

Some bloggers, including the most controversial, are political advocates. But they, too, are essentially sources. Reading blogs is an efficient way to find out what partisans are thinking; you get a wider source selection than from a New York Times Rolodex.

Blogs also provide firsthand accounts from eyewitnesses: soldiers in Iraq, South Asians organizing tsunami relief, Iranian and Lebanese citizens seeking reform, American expats observing anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. Newspapers are closing foreign bureaus, but the blogosphere is international.

Former blogger Steven den Beste made the distinction between "thinkers," who post primarily their own thoughts, and "linkers," who mostly direct readers to other sources. If thinkers are sources, linkers are what journalists call "editors."

Readers gravitate to these sites for the same reason people have favorite magazines--because they share the editor's interests, sensibility and point of view. That's how Glenn Reynolds, a little-known University of Tennessee law professor, turned into a destination with more than 100,000 visitors a day.

In the intense competition for attention, bloggers have found new ways to give readers value. Journalists should be asking not what we can teach them but what they can teach us.