The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.He goes on to show some very successful examples of blogging: hybrid journalist bloggers (trained journalists who blog, but also use the tools of traditional journalism to promote their blogging); amazingly talented bloggers off the street, with lots of time on their hands but no particular specialized training, who somehow manage to rise to prominence through sheer ability; expert blogs, written by people with specialized knowledge (when writing on their subject of expertise) who blog instead of struggling to get space on the Op-Ed page; and ideological bloggers who gain large followings of like-minded readers. (Of course, these categories aren't mutually exclusive.)
Large media organizations can rage against the web all they want, but the fact is that blogs can work: in each of the above categories, there are successful examples of bloggers consistently doing very high-quality stuff.
The problem is filtering. Publishers and editors are filters, for better or for worse. They pay for the expensive aspects of journalism - salaries of dedicated, full-time reporters, editors, and support staff, legal fees, travel, professional graphics, etc. In part because of the money involved, news organizations filter - they filter for quality (a good thing), and they can filter to protect their interests (legal, financial, access, etc.) - which can be a bad thing for the public that seeks access to information. The net has blown open that filter. Experts with a worthwhile analysis don't have to struggle to get on the Op-Ed page. Bloggers can say things that should be said, but aren't in print, because large corporate media organizations are beholden to someone.
The somewhat chaotic nature of blogging bear some resemblance to the free-wheeling days of early 19th century newspapers, when it wasn't so hard to get affordable access to a printing press. There may be a lot of unfiltered garbage, but the discussion is less conformist, more wide-ranging. Too often large media organizations are like department stores where you can't buy a winter jacket in February (because every damn one of them is stocking the spring wardrobe) - everybody offers the same, conformist thing, because it's too risky to do otherwise.
On the other hand, the problem of filtering doesn't go away in the blogosphere:
The polemical excesses for which the blogosphere is known remain real. In And Then There's This, an impressionistic account of the viral culture on the Internet, Bill Wasik describes how "the network of political blogs, through a feedback loop among bloggers and readers," has produced a machine that supplies the reader with "prefiltered information" supporting his or her own views...
With so many voices clamoring for attention, moreover, a premium is put on the sexy and sensational. Headlines are exaggerated so as to secure clicks and boost traffic—the all-important measure of Web success. At any moment, site managers can see which pieces are faring well and which poorly and can promote or bury them accordingly.
And then there is the problem of filtering out information that's just plain wrong - it's not ideological, it's not necessarily sensational, it's just lousy information or error-ridden analysis (the kind of thing you can find in certain dustier sections of Wikipedia).
There is one more challenge blogs haven't solved effectively:
Writers on the Internet are under constant pressure to post so as to keep the traffic flowing. Many who write full-time for Web sites complain of the Taylorite work pace and the lack of time it leaves to think or to work on longer pieces. Readers themselves seem allergic to reading extended pieces on computer screens. "The one nut we've never fully cracked is how to do long-form journalism online," says Jacob Weisberg, the former editor of Slate. "Doing New Yorker -type pieces on-line doesn't work." In an effort to fix that, Weisberg's successor, David Plotz, is requiring each Slate writer to take off six weeks to work on longer projects.
The bottom line: there are demonstrated blogging successes that provide material every bit as good as what you find in the best print publications. And there is still room for new blogging business models - the ranting ideologue, dressed in his pajamas, banging away on a beat-up laptop in the basement, is not the only (or predominant) approach to blogging. It's a great time to be writing.
For those of you in the San Fransisco area, I'll be speaking next week about the role of science blogging in the communication ecosystem, at the AAAS Pacific Division meeting, where Hank has organized a great session on science communication, with a lineup of speakers much more interesting than me. (In other words, don't let the fact that I'm speaking deter you from attending!)