Weblogs: A Road Back to Basics: 'Weblogs Will Not Save Journalism as We Know It. However, They Might End Up Improving Journalism as We Know It.'

By Mitchell, Bill | Nieman Reports, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Weblogs: A Road Back to Basics: 'Weblogs Will Not Save Journalism as We Know It. However, They Might End Up Improving Journalism as We Know It.'


Mitchell, Bill, Nieman Reports


When newsroom leaders brainstorm what's next for journalism these days, the talk runs more to the basics of the craft--and the business--than to the horizons of technology. With many consumers dismissing much of the journalism they read, see and hear as not that interesting, credible or essential, the time doesn't seem quite right for discussions of flat-panel delivery or reusable paper.

Right now, editors and publishers look to organizations such as the Readership Institute for help in reclaiming the fundamentals. Meanwhile, journalists scramble to be more compelling in their storytelling, more engaging in their presentation, and transparent in their ethical decision-making. Amid this understandable return to basics, there's at least one technological innovation that can help. It's the Weblog, the quirky, inexpensive tool journalists can use to persuade readers, viewers and listeners that they ain't dead yet.

Technology makes Weblogs easy to create and consume, but it requires imagination, enterprise and commitment to make them engaging and useful for readers. Newsroom bloggers--mostly columnists and beat reporters--are using Weblogs to connect with the audience between editions (and broadcasts) with news, information, links, tips, ideas--even fun. And they are using material that once remained stuck in notebooks or was shared in e-mails to friends and colleagues.

Weblogs are providing journalists with more edge--helping them show more personality, style and immediacy than they might have ever displayed in their regular reports. "The surprise, to me, was how I immediately changed my writing style just because of the change of media," says Carla K. Johnson, medical reporter at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane and author, since creating it in May, of the paper's Health Beat (1) blog. "The style is more intimate, playful and free. Let's have some fun here."

Daniel Weintraub, political columnist at The Sacramento Bee, launched his California Insider (2) blog just a month before Johnson did. He shares her view of the impact of the process on the craft: "The biggest surprise is how it's helped my writing. I had always heard that a writer should write every day, but I was never able to write for no audience.... Writing an online journal, I've discovered that when it comes time to write my column, everything flows even easier than before."

When Weblogs Work Well

Weblogs will not save journalism as we know it. However, they might end up improving journalism as we know it. They can help news organizations become more interesting, more credible, even essential in the lives of the people they serve. Especially when big news breaks, it's tough to beat a Weblog (3). Think Florida Today (4) on the day the shuttle exploded or Jim Romeneskos (5) during the Jayson Blair fiasco.

Weblogs also help journalists serve different niches within their audience. A newspaper is necessarily a smorgasbord; readers with intense interest in one area sometimes go away hungry. A Weblog can provide the added depth and detail they crave.

Sometimes it's the readers who provide the depth and specialized knowledge. Dan Gillmor, technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and author of the eJournal Weblog (6), is writing a book about what he describes as "We Media ... what happens to journalism and society when every reader can be a writer (editor, producer, etc.)." As Gillmor explained in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article (7): "Our readers collectively know more than we do, and they don't have to settle for half-baked coverage when they can come into the kitchen themselves. This is not a threat. It is an opportunity. And the evolution of We Media will oblige us all to adapt." [See Gillmor's article on page 79.]

Weblogs also enable groups of journalists to join forces on a common topic, as Poynter's Steve Outing and 20 contributors do in their daily briefing (8) on new media issues.

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