Weblogs and Journalism: Back to the Future? A Blogger Predicts That Weblogs Might Push Big Media Back to Better News Reporting

By Reynolds, Glenn Harlan | Nieman Reports, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Weblogs and Journalism: Back to the Future? A Blogger Predicts That Weblogs Might Push Big Media Back to Better News Reporting


Reynolds, Glenn Harlan, Nieman Reports


The growth of Weblogs as a new form of journalism has gotten a mixed response. On the one hand, many people, including many journalists, are intrigued by the notion of a self-publishing platform that allows writers to work without the bother of editors, publishers and accounting departments. Having been interviewed by quite a few journalists over the last couple of years, I have noticed that most of them get around to asking me if I think it would be possible for a journalist to make a good living as a blogger. Some have even implored me to try to maximize the revenues from my own blogging as a means of opening the door for others.

On the other hand, some people disdain Weblogs. Matt Drudge has made very clear that he has no interest in being called a "blogger." He regards himself as a traditional journalist in the ink-stained tradition of the pre war years (notwithstanding the lack of actual ink). Other writers have dismissed Weblogs as mere personal diaries, as nothing more than a collection of annotated links to other people's work, or as parasites on the body of real journalism.

But Drudge's misgivings and those of others notwithstanding, I think that Weblogs are doing pretty well in both the money economy and the attention economy, though I suspect that their impact will be greater in the latter than in the former. But to understand the influence of Weblogs, it's probably useful to break the subject into two parts.

The Money Side of Blogging

On the money side, Weblogs' impact is trivial, though it's growing. Some marketers have tried to exploit the blogosphere in order to generate buzz, but with extremely limited success (Dr Pepper, for example, tried to use phony blogs to generate interest in its "Raging Cow," a "milk-based soft drink with an attitude." The failure of this project, however, may have had something to do with the unappealing nature of the product itself.) Some journalists are making money from Weblogs: My InstaPundit site, despite a near complete failure on my part to exploit it as a source of revenue, generates a few thousand dollars a year. Andrew Sullivan has tried much harder and, in two "pledge weeks," he raised well over $100,000.

Other freelance journalists, such as science writer David Appell, have solicited money from their readers to allow them to cover particular topics. Appell asked his readers to finance an article on the World Health Organization's relations with the sugar industry; readers contributed more than he had requested within a few days. Thin-media mogul Nick Denton has managed to turn a profit with Gizmodo.com, a gadget-blog supported by referral fees from merchants like Amazon, and there are probably similar ventures elsewhere that I've missed. But so far blogs haven't really lived up to journalists" escape fantasies, and for the moment Big Media is in the driver's seat where money is concerned. With the exception of Sullivan, almost everyone making real money from blogging is making it from Big Media outlets: Mickey Kaus at Slate, Eric Alterman and I at MSNBC.com, and so on. [See Alterman's article on page 85.] That may change in the future, and I expect it to, but we're not there yet.

Blogs do help to sell books and music. Novelist Claire Berlinski let bloggers read chapters of her novel, "Loose Lips," in manuscript; the resulting buzz helped get it published, and it's now under option to Robert De Niro's production company as a potential film. I've noticed that an approving link from my own site or from other high-traffic bloggers often drives books up into the upper reaches of the Amazon rankings. Some musicians, like punk-rocker Dr. Frank, have done well using blogs to market their music. And Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has used blogs as a fundraising tool with considerable success.

Blogging Gets Lots of Attention

On the attention side, however, things are far more dramatic. A few decades ago, there weren't many voices in the public sphere. …

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