A set of questions e-mailed to me by a journalism student have given me the opportunity to organise my thoughts on the relationship between “blogging” and “established media”.
Be warned — there are more than 1,200 words below the fold. But they can be summarised like this:
Media bloggers face questions like this every few months, and the problem is always the same. For some reason, many journalists and journalism students are still asking questions framed around the assumption that “bloggers” and “journalists” are mutually exclusive species. They also seem to assume that “journalists” are defined as people who work in “mainstream media”. Both of these assumptions are wrong.
Blogs are just a publishing technology, which can be used for distributing any type of content, including journalism. Some bloggers are journalists but most are not.
The real distinction is not based on the characteristics of the content published with these tools, but an economic distinction between an established business model based on mass-market publishing and a new type of micro-publishing that is based on inexpensive tools and low-cost infrastructure.
The real conflict is economic: specifically, the disruption to traditional publishing businesses caused by the drastic reduction in barriers to entry to publishing.
So here are my long, rambling answers to the student’s questions:
1. Do you think that blogging will supplant mainstream news Web sites and other established media?
No. Blogging is transforming the journalism of ‘mainstream’ news sites, not supplanting it. In general, bloggers and ‘mainstream’ journalists are already operating an an increasingly symbiotic way, with journalists gaining story leads from bloggers, using expert bloggers as sources and with bloggers critiquing details of journalists’ stories once published.
As information overload becomes more problematic online, bloggers and users of social bookmarking and recommendation systems like Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us will collectively serve an important function as “the court of appeal in news judgment” — they will serve as guides who highlight important but under-reported stories in their areas of interest while ignoring the trivial and over-hyped.
There will also be more overtly cooperative efforts in which large numbers of bloggers participate in projects coordinated by journalists or interest groups. Some commentators have described this development as “networked journalism“. “Distributed journalism” would also be an appropriate label.
Some sectors of traditional publications will be affected in more profound ways. Opinion journalists — including reviewers of all sorts, arts critics and political commentators — will have to contend with competition from amateurs who are in some cases better-informed than they are. The Guardian already appears to be acknowledging this with its blog Comment is Free and its user-generated travel section.
Blogs’ biggest disruption will affect specialist magazines and specialist sections within generalist newspapers. This is because the low cost of running a blog means it becomes possible to cover very small niches at a level of detail that mass-market publications cannot. For example, newspaper sports sections will have to compete with specialist web sites for each of the sports they cover in a very broad way.
However, none of this should not be seen as a conflict between journalists and bloggers. Instead it should be looked at as a threat to major publishers that could actually present an opportunity for journalists. Some star journalists will realize that (in their niche) they personally have a stronger reputation than the publication they work for. Some will be able to make a living self-publishing bloggers, free from the constraints of editors and limited space. There are already a handful of examples of this happening, particularly in the technology sector.
2. Even if you don’t think that blogs will supplant traditional news media, don’t you think they have had an impact?
Bloggers don’t have to supplant traditional media in order to change the way they work. The conversational conventions of blogging are forcing ‘mainstream’ journalists to engage with their audience as never before. While some find this distasteful and continue to resist, the more enlightened have embraced the constant feedback as a way to improve their work and as a good way to develop new sources.
3. What aspects of blog-software do you believe can be improved?
For blogs with a large readership, social comment moderation will become more important. As the volume of comments of varying quality increases, I suspect that mechanisms which allow readers to vote on the quality of other readers’ comments (like those found on Digg or Slashdot) will become a more a more common feature.
The technical skill required to customise blog templates is a major barrier for most bloggers. The software still requires some a great degree of skill in HTML, CSS and even PHP to make significant alterations in the design and functionality of a site. I’m not sure how this can be overcome, though.
4. What blogs do you read regularly?
The list of blogs I personally read isn’t that important, because there can be no definitive list of good blogs. The list of blogs anyone reads will depend on their specific interests. For any given professional interest, there is a small group of high-quality expert bloggers. It’s just a matter of finding them.
When my interests were somewhat different, I used to read a lot more of Britain’s political blogs. Now that my main professional interest is in the intersection of professional journalism with social media, I have found a small network of bloggers who discuss this area. They include about 15 British journalists’ blogs and another 20 or so from other countries.
However, it’s important to bring new information into this debate, so I have around 800 subscriptions to other blogs and major publications in my RSS reader. It’s impossible to read it all, so I rely on recommendation systems like my del.icio.us network and keyword filters in my RSS reader to help me pick the important nuggets out of this torrent of information.
4. Are there any common misperceptions about blogs that you would like to debunk?
Too many to list here. The key misperception is the one I have already mentioned — that bloggers are in conflict with journalists and that journalists are defined as people who work in so-called mainstream publications
“Blogging vs. journalists” is a debate that keeps coming up despite being definitively declared over a long time ago. Blogging is a challenge to the business of publishing, not the craft of journalism.
More broadly, I think Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, the author of The Long Tail, has some of the best insights into how journalists misunderstand blogging.
On thing Anderson points out is the fallacy of “hitism” — the assumption by many people in the traditional mass-media cultural industries that only those things which attract huge audiences are of high quality.
The fact that most blogs have a tiny niche audiences is irrelevant. Collectively, blogs are drawing readers’ attention away from large publications because they can cover things people care about in much greater detail than generalist mass-market publications can. Advertisers are following readers’ eyeballs via mechanisms like Google’s advertising programmes.
The other important misunderstanding of blogs by journalists is what Anderson calls the “derivative myth” — the idea that nearly all blog content is parasitic on
traditional journalism first published in mainstream publications.
The low cost of publishing a blog means that it is viable for a blogger to cover obscure niche subjects to a level of detail that would be economically unviable for traditional mass-market publications, which have scarce space and must attract a huge audiences in order to make money. Many blogs are not covering their subjects better than journalists working in mainstream media — they are covering topics that mainstream media are not covering at all, because they are too specialised.
The derivative myth stems from the other major misconception journalists seem to have about blogs: That most bloggers are like the high-profile political bloggers that many journalists often read. In fact, most bloggers are not trying to be journalists and have no interest in competing with journalists.
5. How do you compare a journalist work with that of a blogger?
I don’t. A blogger is simply someone who self-publishes using cheap content management software. A blog is just a web site that uses this sort of software. What people do with it is as varied as people’s interests.
Consequentially, some bloggers are indistinguishable from journalists (because they are journalists). But most bloggers are just people talking to their friends about whatever happens to be important to them. Journalists tend to think of blogs as micropublications by people who aspire to compete with them. In fact, most blogs are just people having conversations.
6. Will those medias coexist in the future?
Yes of course, but (hopefully) people will stop asking this question.
As Technorati’s “state of the blogosphere” reports periodically highlight, online media readership will continue to have a “long tail” distribution, with big media holding a dominant share of both readership and advertising revenue. However, they will coexist with millions of tiny blogs with individually small — but collectively large — readership.
However, questions like the ones you have asked me will begin to disappear as the distinction between “blogs” and “traditional publications” begins blurs even further than it has already. Major news web sites are already adopting some of the characteristics of blogs, and some blogs are generating enough revenues to be self-sustaining on a small scale, or even highly profitable.
Some so-called blogs are already professional operations, with more readers and revenues than “traditional media” in their sectors.