Like any self-respecting journalist, Tony Walsh has a ritual for soaking up the day’s news. Every morning, Walsh (at www.clickableculture.com) pours himself out of bed, pours a cup of coffee and pores over 24 of his favourite blogs. As a blogger and freelance writer for Shift’s online magazine and Exclaim! magazine, it’s his job to keep up with tech developments. His interest in weblogs makes journalistic sense. But reporters with non-tech beats can also use weblogs to snag or break a story – despite the new medium’s reputation of substandard self-indulgence.
Weblogs, or “blogs” for short, are online diaries. They’re updated in a chronological, CP-wire kind of way, with the most recent entries filed above older material. The entries take on a captain’s-log feel, and some might be two lines while others take up two paragraphs.They may be produced by individuals or groups, and the content may be professional (ex. reviewing journalism-related Web sites) or personal (reviewing last night’s bad date). Blogs first appeared in the mid-1990s among the tech elite, but the introduction of new software (www.blogger.com) made it easy for the average internet layman to publish and update theirpostings as often as they wanted.
Critics of blogs argue that the “blogosphere”(the catch phrase for the immense online network of blogs) is fraught with journalistic landmines, including dubious credibility and delusions of grandeur. Well, so is traditional journalism, with the most recent example being Jayson Blair’s serial plagiarism at The New York Times.. There is also the question of readership: if you build a journalism blog, will they come?
They will if your name is Andrew Sullivan (whose blog is found at www.instapundit.com). In the heady days following 9/11, Sullivan’s blogs dismissed U.S. foreign policy as a cause of the attacks and influenced the way gaggles of journalists and politicos squawked about 9/11. In a London Times column, Sullivan suggested that opponents of the war mount a “fifth column” on the Internet, as he had. Masses of people followed suit, dubbing themselves “war bloggers.”
But not everyone has the noble banner of the Times flying above them, and the blog movement is still evolving. “Very few people read [most reporters] weblogs,” says Rachel Ross, technology reporter for The Toronto Star.. “Very few people even read journalists’ bylines, especially in Canada.” The National Post) columnist Colby Cosh (whose blog is at www.colbycosh.com) agrees, but adds that the small audience is “a journalistically aware readership,” comprising editors, politicians and business heavyweights. It’s an insight that hints at the underlying importance of blogs, as shown in the Sullivan case: when the right people take journalists’ blogs seriously, those blogs can indirectly shape public opinion in the mainstream media.
The question, then, is which blogs deserve to be taken seriously? First, the credible blogs won’t read like Leah McLaren’s columns in The Globe and Mail. Good blogs will avoid the “too much information” syndrome, which Ross describes: “If you have too many friends in media, you start to get an elevated view of yourself,” she says. “You think people will be interested in you beyond the newspapers.” Walsh agrees, saying the best blogs “have a lot of information, but don’t talk about their cat or the fight that they had with the girlfriend.”
Though they don’t take on the structure of formal articles, Ross adds that good journalists’ blogs will revolve around the reporter’s beat, incorporating analysts’ reports and other reporters’ findings. But good blogs won’t read like financial statements, either. According to Cosh, they’ll also have personality and the literary standards of regular newspapers and magazines. At their best, journalists’ blogs can even usurp traditional media’s power. “Journalist blogs are in between alternative and mainstream media,” says Walsh. As stories break, blogs can be among the first to give minute-by-minute updates from grassroots, ground-zero perspectives that traditional media can’t.
It’s a role that Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian expatriate living in Canada, plays well. His English and Farsi blogs (found at www.editormyself.com) serve to anchor reports coming both in and out of Iran. Their influence on fellow Iranians is such that the Irani government is trying to block them. “He’s a voice from the inside,” says Walsh. “He’s online sending out information, but he’s got bombs falling all around him. What better way to get information?”
Good blogs keep mainstream media in check by, in effect, watching the watchdogs. “[They] give feedback and accountability to the mainstream news,” says Cosh. They can also aid other journalists’ reports. “Sometimes they’re good starting points for stories,” says Ross. “They can be a measure of public opinion, but they’re not [in themselves] sources.”
Like all journalistic media, blogging has an Achilles’ heel or two. “You’re working without an editor, and the problems with that are obvious,” says Cosh. “You put yourself at risk of saying absurd things.”
The issue of credibility continues to dog blogs. Like the little brother who lives in his older sibling’s shadow, Walsh says blogging will be overlooked in favour of traditional media – at least for a while. “[Journalism] is a reputation-based media. Mainstream media has an ironclad, monolith reputation of being infallible. People trust them no matter what they say.” He continues, “Any information you get from the Internet, you’ll scrutinize it more. If CNN said that the moon turned blue and was crashing into the earth, people would believe it. But if a blogger said it, no one would.”
New forms of journalism always need time to prove their worth – and their weaknesses (Truman Capote’s 1965 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood still has its sceptics). Who knows? Daypop might eventually be required reading with The New York Times. But until then, coffee-guzzling, tech-savvy journalists like Walsh just need to keep blogging along.