When Bloggers Commit Journalism

When do webloggers commit journalism? What do informed amateurs and niche experts bring to the media ecosystem? Should journalists blog? And should they rely on weblogs as news sources? Should bloggers and those in traditional media engage in a dance of fear and loathing, or do both sides stand to gain from the other? Should blogging be taught in journalism classes?

Those were some of the questions tackled last week at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism. Three journalists -- Dan Gillmor, business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of Salon, and myself -- as well as veteran bloggers Rebecca Blood (author of The Weblog Handbook) and Meg Hourihan (co-author of We Blog) exchanged views before 75 journalism students and members of the public.

By coincidence, six days after our panel, The New York Times ran a piece that mirrored some of the topics raised by the panelists, and Providence Journal columnist Sheila Lennon did the same in her weblog. Here are selected excerpts from that conversation:

Moderator Paul Grabowicz: We made the mistake of putting the class description up on our Web site. Wired News ran a story about it, and all hell broke loose. One blogger said that the class, if journalists were doing weblogging, would be the Altamont of the blogging world. Why was there that kind of reaction?

Rebecca Blood: Because almost everyone
doing a weblog today had to teach themselves how to do it, I think a lot of people are offended by the very thought that you need an instruction manual. Webloggers are
mavericks, they don't like to be told what to do.

Grabowicz: Is this a good idea for journalists to be venturing into this area?

Meg Hourihan: Absolutely. It provides an
opportunity to get more information about stories, to create a more direct dialogue between people who are reading the information and people writing the information. I think it changes the way stories are reported and the relationship between the news producers and the audience.

J.D. Lasica: One of the reasons for the negative reaction was that bloggers are fearful that this is the mass media moving into our turf. The media have long dominated discussion in this country -- you have to be a newspaper publisher or own a television station to really have any say -- and the fear is that if this gets coopted by the mass media, it will just become another traditional media outlet. So they're very wary anytime a traditional journalist treads into this field.

Grabowicz: Are there advantages for reporters who interact with webloggers, and how does that change us?

Dan Gillmor: Clearly, journalists should never do these things. (Laughter.) I've been teaching a media class at the University of Hong Kong every fall, and I've been asking them to do weblogs for the past four years. These are mostly professional journalists getting master's degrees. My purpose for them was to remind them that they can be publishers, that they don't need permission. And that's the thing that I like best about weblogging.

Journalists should do them in large numbers. I'm amazed that I'm still one of the few who's doing it. I do have cautions for journalists: It's a lot easier for columnists to do weblogs, because you can throw in your opinion. There's a case where a reporter for the Houston Chronicle had a weblog on the side and he got fired for it because he was making comments that annoyed his editor, among other things. So you just have to be careful and recognize the constraints.

As far as communicating with the weblog community, I think that's part of the process. One purpose in doing this was to take advantage of something I realized pretty quickly, which was that my readers know more than I do, and that's not threatening, it's actually a great opportunity. It's this constant feedback process through which I find myself learning more about the stuff I write about.

Lasica: How many people here hope to work in a newsroom one day? (A half dozen people raise their hands.) And how many people here have weblogs? (A dozen do so.) To me, the most serious challenge facing newsrooms today is that readers think we're largely irrelevant to their lives. That's due in part to the fact that newsrooms have no transparency and, worse, no interactivity. Weblogs are a great opportunity for newsrooms to become more transparent, more accessible, more answerable to our readers. Participatory journalism brings them into the news equation.

Reporters ought to be doing their own weblogs. Some of the best independent journalists out there already have weblogs, people like Doc Searls, Andrew Sullivan and others. Having a weblog increases your authority and credibility in the eyes of your readers.

And a final point: Weblogs ought to be used much more as a reporter's resource and tool. Over the past year I've gotten more than 20 inquiries from mainstream journalists, from The New York Times to national magazines to smaller dailies, asking me for contact information and additional background information about items I've blogged.

Scott Rosenberg: As far as whether journalists should be doing it, I'm not at all surprised that we haven't seen more of it, mostly for practical reasons. I worked in newsrooms for 20 years and I haven't known a whole lot of journalists who are underworked. The situation as most newsrooms, including Salon, is, ‘Well, if you want to do a weblog, you can, but you'll have to do it in your spare time.’

Should they be committing more resources to weblogs? Probably, and over time you'll see more of it. But blogging is really an online media format, it's really not a movement. I view it as a form of writing and a form of media that's native to the Web. Journalists are already doing things with the weblogging tool that they wouldn't have thought possible a couple of years ago. That may be why you had some of that resistance at first, the sense that it was going to become institutionalized, and the purist ideal of the blogger as the lone word slinger, beholden to no one, would be placed in jeopardy.

One of the key issues facing the collision of journalism and blogging today is the question of editing. Blogging tools today don't allow for much of an editing process. Part of what attracts people to blogging is, no one can tell me what to write. Part of what journalists uphold as part of their tradition is that more than one set of eyes reviews materials before it's released to the public.

Of personal and professional weblogs

Blood: Journalistic ethics hold to an ideal of fairness and accuracy. I don't know of any personal weblogs that are trying to do anything like presenting a complete and balanced story. We need to distinguish between journalists doing personal weblogs and journalists doing weblogs for their publication. If I'm a journalist doing a weblog for my publication, do standards of fairness and accuracy apply? How much do I need to know about something before I put it up? I can't just put an e-mail I get up there, or can I?

Rosenberg: We're facing those same questions at Salon. We have two staff weblogs on the site. One is by Joe Conason, a political columnist, and he wanted us to edit his pieces before we post them. The other is the weblog I write, and I said, I'm going to start doing this the way the more classic blogs have been done, since I'm already an editor. But it's still very much an experiment.

Grabowicz: Dan, how does yours get edited?

Gillmor: We do both, actually. I post a lot of stuff directly, and it's read carefully by an editor quite quickly. And if I have the slightest doubt about anything that I'm planning to post, then I run it by my editors first. It doesn't happen that often. But I don't lose standards just because it's going online. I will say what I write for the weblog is even less formal than what I write for the paper. Part of it is that I write my own headlines, like 'Jerks hack the RIAA web site' -- it's not a headline you're going to see in the newspaper, probably.

You have to understand that these things take a lot of time. Our solution was to cut back my regular column from three to two times a week and to take the weblog and do some more reporting and update it and put that in the paper. So unlike newspapers, which shovel a lot of stuff that's been in print onto the Web, we're going in the reverse direction.

Grabowicz: We're trying to get the students to explore the idea of what happens to
journalism here. What's the voice? If
someone's up at midnight reading something and gets torched, are they allowed to just post some rant?

Lasica: The more a weblog reads like a
traditional newspaper article, the less
interesting and relevant it is. I think it's really interesting, the question of whether there should be a difference between an official, sanctioned newspaper weblog and an
unofficial weblog that a journalist can keep. I think there is a difference. I know bloggers who work for newspapers who keep a personal weblog because there are some topics or means of expression that is off limits on the newspaper's official weblog.

I've gotten e-mails from journalistic colleagues who say, ‘How can you publish something on your weblog if you haven't verified the information?’ And my response is that I'm doing what all webloggers do, and I think it's fine to pass along tips or rumors as long as it's with the caveat of Here's what I know to be true, here's what I'm not sure about, and here's what I've heard from other users since my last posting. So it's more of a dialogue or conversation than an official record.

(Side note: For an example of this, I posted an e-mail I received that was ostensibly written by a member of a flight crew of a Delta airliner that was redirected to Gander, Newfoundland, on the morning of Sept. 11 last year. The account seemed heartfelt and authentic, I posted it with an editor's note warning that the details had not been authenticated, and it turned out to be the most-trafficked page I've ever posted. A reporter for a Newfoundland newspaper later corrected a couple of small details, but the account turned out to be true. Had it not, I would have taken it down.)

One of the things I think is lost in traditional sanctioned weblogs is that (1) writers with quirky, original voices who like to rock the boat are not always the ones chosen to write a blog, and (2) the writers who are chosen often pull back. You don't see them display the full range of honest, frank, even obscene language. The voice can become institutional and formal, and you get a sense that they're afraid to cross lines or take chances.

Blood: There are ways to write, though, without having to use that kind of language. I want people to respond to my ideas. I want to be credible as well as personable. People tend to describe my site as a personal site even though I never talk about myself on my site.

Grabowicz: Are webloggers journalists or just writers?

Rosenberg: There are weblogs out there that are practicing journalism, and others that aren't. Is there a commitment to traditional standards of accuracy? Is the person trying to ascertain the facts first and then report it?

Blood: I don't believe the personal commentary you find on most weblogs is journalism. Some 99.99 percent of the weblogs I've seen, I don't think you can consider them journalism. To my mind, there are journalistic standards of completeness, accuracy and fairness. Journalists tend to rely on sources. They do more than just give an eyewitness account of something, they get 17 eyewitness accounts to provide a complete story.

I've been astonished at the stories I've read where reporters have talked about weblogs as journalism in a completely unskeptical way. Maybe I have an inflated idea of what a reporter does.

Gillmor: I'd like to disagree with Rebecca. Weblogs are certainly part of the process that adds up to journalism. I'm talking about the trend of do-it-yourself journalism. We think of journalism in terms of this late 20th Century model of mass media, where gatekeepers
gather news from sources and send it out to readers. Something's going on that's amazing right now, and it's the process of people getting involved in the creation of information that is valuable and often accurate, such as Dave Farber's mailing list, which I consider absolutely to be journalism. I think we make a mistake if we don't use these as sources for our journalism. There's this blurring of lines and I don't know where it's going to come out, but I do know that something major is going on that is bringing journalism from the top down and the bottom up.

Lasica: To me, a journalist is anyone who is an eyewitness to events or an interpreter of events and who reports it as honestly and accurately as possible. Period. You don't need to have the resources of The New York Times behind you. You can be a lone-wolf weblogger out there in the field with your Apple laptop, and when you blog an event you're reporting. We forget the derivation of the word journalism: someone who keeps a journal.

I agree with Rebecca that the vast majority of weblogs is not journalism, but a lot of it is. The people who were eyewitnesses to the events of Sept. 11 and posted their experiences online were engaging in first-person reporting. Almost every day I come across weblogs with a high degree of sophistication and focused information and analysis. There's an entire arena of amateur journalism that's being born through this phenomenon, and mainstream journalism would do well to encourage and embrace it.

Blood: I think a lot of reporters are looking to weblogs as sources of story ideas. There was a stretch of time where anything you read on Metafilter would be picked up by Wired News a week later ...

Gillmor: And a week later in the newspaper.

Audience member: What are the consequences when journalists pay a lot of attention to weblog indexes like Blogdex, Daypop and Metalinker?

Gillmor: The tools are still in their infancy. There's something called RSS that's all about finding ways to collect information so you don't have to run around the Web looking for things, it's going to get to you if it has a certain level of relevance. How this all fits together is going to be fascinating to watch. The tools are getting better fast. It's useful for journalists to know what lots of individuals out there are thinking about. It's just good for us to know what matters to people. The tools will let you select the topics and the fields of interest to you and figure out what intelligent people are saying about them.

Lasica: Anything that expands the media ecosystem is a healthy thing. Anything that lets conversation bubble up from alternative media sources give you and me and our circles of friends a chance to be heard. It also helps the news media in a sense. A lot of people will turn to the news media for their authentication function. I read this on the Web, is it true or not? That's always going to be part of the mission of a news organization, to ferret out the truth, to report what you've been able to verify.

Rosenberg: What we're saying here is, there's value in weblogs because the unusual and the signal that would not otherwise be heard will come through, which is something I consider a positive good. But I'm also saying that as more and more participants come into the pot, the ability to find those relevant postings becomes harder. The tools have to become much better.

The emergence of echo chambers and vertical domains

Blood: The thing I've seen happening that's disturbing to me is I've seen echo chambers being created in the weblog universe. People who link only to people who agree with their point of view. Back in the day when there were only 100 of us, there were real discussions going on. There are now so many weblogs out there that you see people linking only to those who share their basic world view. The danger is that if everyone you meet online is echoing the same point of view that you share, you get the idea that that is in fact what everybody thinks, and it's not true. Democracies don't function well like that. Democracies are based on real dialogue happening between groups of thoughtful people who draw different conclusions.

Hourihan: A lot of weblogs are created by impassioned amateurs. Initially a lot of weblogs were started by people who knew how to do the tools, people who knew a lot about technology or Web design or HTML standards. And as more people have come aboard, you have all sorts of people who are vertical domain experts who are passionate about cooking or knitting or '65 Mustang convertibles. They're passionate amateurs.

Lasica. But they're also niche experts in their own fields. A lot of people have told me, ‘Why would I want to go to a journalist to get a second-hand report when I can go directly to someone who knows more about a subject because they live it day in and day out?’

Audience member: What's the business model for weblogs?

Hourihan: Besides money? An incredible amount of things have come to me from my weblog. Being written up in The New Yorker, meeting my boyfriend, I get things all the time from my Amazon wish list --

Blood: Really? (Laughter.)

Hourihan: When the whole Pyra-Blogger thing went down, I got several gifts a day.

Gillmor: It's the same business model as community theater. But there really will be a business for some. I like what was just mentioned about the individual expert who does something so well that in effect they become journalists in the traditional sense. Glenn Fleishman is doing a weblog on 802.11b wireless technology. It's the best source on that subject I know about, period. If Glenn started charging in a way that was convenient, I would probably send money. For other people, the weblog is the greatest resume in history.

Grabowicz: One of the fascinating things about weblogs is that conversations start when someone posts something and then these conversations spread to other weblogs, so there are these parallel conversations going on. It can be maddening to tackle all of this.

Blood: There's something new out called TrackBack. If I put a post on my site, and you put a post on your site, you can use TrackBack to ping my site and automatically a link to your post will appear underneath my post. Up until now, the linking has all been very crude and done by brute force.

Lasica: The linking histories are also a lot more honest in some ways than what you see in traditional media. How many times does even a great paper like The New York Times credit The Washington Post for a story that they broke the day before? It happens, but too rarely. Here, you can see the origins of a story as it works its way through the media ecosystem, whereas in traditional journalism you're taught to slap a second-day lead on a story, and the reader doesn't get the context of how that story originated.

Audience member: Some weblog postings find their way into the mainstream media. What are the downsides of that -- what is the possibility that innuendo and rumor will find their way into traditional publications?

Gillmor: What do you mean the possibility? (Laughter.) The standards of mainstream journalism have been dropping for a long time. I'm leery of bright lines. But there are some things I won't say in the weblog. I won't libel people and I'm not any less anxious to check facts. I like the idea of more conversational journalism going on, and if some of that leaks into print or broadcast news, that won't bother me, as long as it's good journalism.

Lasica: I agree, but I also think there's a possible downside that mainstream news media need to guard against. After the Monica Lewinsky matter broke, all sorts of rumors were published, especially in the early going, and there was a lot of soul searching in the industry afterward about the ethics of reporting second-hand reports that you couldn't verify on your own. I remember one newspaper publisher who said, ‘Well, since the rumor was out there, we felt it was our obligation to report it.’

Gillmor: The 'out there' defense.

Lasica: I don't believe in the out there defense. It's still your job, if you claim to practice journalism, to verify information, to pin it down to the best of your ability, and not to merely pass along a report because it's out there in the ever-expanding media ecosystem. We are entering an era in which more and more people are part of the media ecosystem. So, there is a downside, but only if we let ourselves buy into it.

Senior Editor J.D. Lasica hosts a page of online resources on his home page at jdlasica.com. He also writes a popular weblog, New Media Musings.


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