Weblogs Threaten and Inform Traditional Journalism; Blogs 'Challenge Conventional Notions of Who Is a Journalist and What Journalism Is.'

By Regan, Tom | Nieman Reports, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Weblogs Threaten and Inform Traditional Journalism; Blogs 'Challenge Conventional Notions of Who Is a Journalist and What Journalism Is.'


Regan, Tom, Nieman Reports


On July 16, 2003, a burgundy Buick LeSabre drove through the Santa Monica Farmer's Market at 60 miles an hour. The 85-year-old driver killed 10 people and injured scores of other shoppers. Within minutes of the accident, reporters from newspapers, radio and TV stations were rushing to the scene. But if they were hoping for a scoop, they were already too late. That's because a blogger named Andy Baio (www.waxy.org) had already blogged the entire incident.

Baio's office, where he manages the Web site staff of a large investment firm, is located beside the Farmer's Market, and he saw the event unfold from his window. Even though Baio isn't a journalist (or is he?), he did what any good journalist would do. He reported what he saw. He also took advantage of his medium and included a map of the area and, as photos and film began to appear on other Web sites, he provided links to fresh coverage.

Throughout the day, often in a personal way, Baio described the scene of carnage outside his office. Almost as affecting (and totally missed by the body-count-driven traditional media) is his description of how quickly life came back to normal on the following day, as vendors quickly set up shop again. And then at the bottom of his blog, Baio allowed his readers to post comments on what had happened. What they posted added layers to the coverage of this story; as some people raged against the elderly driver, others debated at what age should people not be allowed to drive.

Weblogs Push Journalists

During the past year, Weblogs have risen to near the top of the media's collective consciousness. There are several reasons for this awakening: More well-known journalists have started blogs in the past year, and Web sites of well-known media brands have created blogs to help cover news, politics and other issues. But more important to their ascendancy has been the fact that on at least two noteworthy occasions, Weblogs have forced traditional news organizations to change the way they covered a big story.

Perhaps the best known example is the untimely political demise of former Republican Senate majority leader Trent Lott. When Lott first made his now well-known comments about how the country would have been better off if voters had elected then segregationist presidential candidate Senator Strom Thurmond in 1948, not a single media outlet picked up on the significance of the remarks, even though plenty of reporters were there to hear him say it. Thus, the job of reporting this story was left to bloggers, who kept the story alive for days until the mainstream media woke up to what had happened.

The second example involves the resignation of New York Times's executive editor Howell Raines. For a while, it looked as if Raines might survive the Jayson Blair scandal. But political blogs such as Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds (at www.Instapundit.com) again refused to let the issue die. [See story by Reynolds on page 81.] While the bloggers' ongoing postings about Raines were not the only factor that led to his dismissal, they played a role.

With this kind of track record, wouldn't journalists welcome bloggers with open arms? Instead, many journalists tend to regard bloggers as a sort of mutant breed, viewing them with skepticism and suspicion. In the eyes of many journalists, blogs are poorly written, self-absorbed, hyper-opinionated, and done by amateurs. At the same time it's true that blogs are often crammed with blunt and sarcastic comments about what a poor job journalists are doing, with bloggers calling journalists' work stagnant, hyper-elitist, and arguing that they spend too much time writing for each other rather than for the public.

Who's right and who's wrong? They both are.

Blogs are quickly becoming a very influential media tool, one that can challenge conventional notions of who is a journalist and what journalism is. But if bloggers are to continue to help shape the political, cultural and media arenas, they will need to adopt some of journalism's practices that they now eschew, often because of laziness. …

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