Where did the journalism go? To blogs

I will confess that I don't subscribe to a hard-copy newspaper, nor do I watch tv. I do listen to the radio, but I don't donate to NPR. How do I get news?

Mostly, I read political blogs. I guess starting around last year I started a new phase of relationship with blogs. I've read them on and off since 2002 and my work has involved some study of them, and I've even written about them in a 2003 book. But last year marked for me the emergence of political blogs as active, investigative journalism--not just repeating or linking to stories in the mainstream media, but digging up information and discussing topics the MSM wouldn't touch. In short, they report and investigate. Blogs even combat the MSM (eg., the Washington Post, NYT) over their inherently lazy and establishment stance, as for example this typical post does.

Where did investigative journalism go? Into blogs. Sure, occasionally the MSM will pull out a major investigative piece such as this NYT piece revealing persistent torture by a secretive US task force (h/t Daily Kos). But the day-in, day-out performance of the MSM reveals that they are no longer the go-to source for news in this country.

I'm excited by blogs. They're a major presence. Some get a million visits per day. Most entries get hundreds of responses and follow-up discussion among readers. One thing confused me when I first started reading them: the "open thread" link. This is an automated post (by a "threadbot") containing no content to which you can post comments. Why on earth, I thought? Answer: simply because readers are so participatory that they need openings in which to post discussion. Can you imagine a situation in your own workplace where people need special automatically created openings because they are begging to participate? Can you imagine a college classroom like this?

There are several mistakes you can make about blogs. The first is to ignore their importance. Recently, members of my professional organization sent out a listserv message advertising a meeting in which people would talk about the relevance of our work and its involvement with the public. This group is very interested in connecting and working with the "people." No bloggers or even discussion of blogging was included, and I got no response to my suggestion for this. Let's see, technorati currently indexes 30.8 million blogs. This political blog has had 26.3 million visitors since April 2004. This blog has 3.7 million unique visitors this week and is one of the most-read websites in the world. Etc. Relevance? Try 39,763 links from 8,345 sites for this blog.

A second mistake is to imagine blogging as some kind of raucous, boiling mass of shouting. On the contrary, the best blogs provide new information, often reading documents, proposed bills, laws, small print of regulations, looking back at what people said in 2003 and what they say now (ie., research and investigation), even muckraking sites with full-time staffs, that is not done anywhere else. And it's not just opinion, but professional insight. Glenn Greenwald's amazing site for example, focuses on First Amendment issues, the FISA and NSA controversy and related issues. Why? He has over ten years experience in First Amendment litigation.

A third mistake is to characterize bloggers as people from the political extremes. Yes you can always find that (you can find anything in 30.8 million blogs) but the top blogs, the ones that make an impact are not extremist (well, apart from Michelle Malkin!).

Looking over the blogging landscape then we see a tremendous uptake in citizen participation of the political process. We're also seeing a marked decline in newspaper subscriptions and a shift to newspaper websites (some even have blogs that allow comments).

The point of all this? There's a couple of bills before Congress that seek to equate blogging with campaign finance, rather than the evolution of the press. MyDD explains here. Sure it's seemingly boring but the last thing we need right now is to squelch this political participation (of any stripe). As I understand it, one bill, supported by bloggers, would leave things as they are for the moment (HR 1606). Another bill, fronted by so-called campaign finance reformers like Nancy Pelosi, who are working on a pre-internet mentality, would say political blogs are political campaigns because they link to candidates and often endorse them (never mind that newspapers do that too).

We need to clearly state here at the transition of journalism from MSM to the internet that low-barrier citizen entry into politics is a good thing that shouldn't be regulated as campaigning.


derek said...

I'm sorry, but I disagree with your assertion that newspapers have given up on investigative reporting. Sure, I'm a biased observer, but you can check out the stories I blog about and see for yourself.

GISuser said...

Blogs are an amazing source, however, keep in mind many are anonymous, most publish posts based on opinion and not facts. On the upside, they are typically very candid and are much more honest and to the point than mainstream journalism.. replace traditional media.. not likely

ubikcan said...

Derek: glad to hear it! The more investigative journalism the better. I do think however that the day-in, day-out fact checking, investigation and research is being squeezed out of print papers and taken up in blogging (who are search tool savvy and have access to Lexis-Nexus for example).

GISuser: I've heard the "anonymous, opinion" meme before, but I can't see it. Look at the top political blogs now on technorati or TTLB or wherever. Kos is not anonymous, nor is anybody on HuffPo. Glenn Reynolds is not anon. I also don't agree with the "fact-opinion" division you set up. Both blogs and newspapers are full of both.

derek said...

Squeezed out of newspapers? Undoubtedly, as we've seen budget pressures in particular affect the quality of reporting. And while there are some blogs out there that do original reporting and post materials they've dug up, I'd still say at this point that newspapers do more of that daily fact-checking and investigation. I've yet to see bloggers do the kinds of things that the Orange County Register did on restraining orders or what the Charlotte Observer did on questionable billings by attorneys. And that's in the last week alone.

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