TCS Daily

A Technological Reformation

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 9, 2002 12:00 AM

Big journalism is in trouble, and big journalists don't like it. They occasionally go public with their views, as in Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen's tirade against reader email last spring. But most of their complaints are shared only with other bigfeet such as themselves.

The trouble is encapsulated in Ken Layne's now-famous statement, "this is the Internet, and we can fact-check your ass." Where before journalists and pundits could bloviate at leisure, offering illogical analysis or citing "facts" that were in fact false, now the Sunday morning op-eds have already been dissected on Saturday night, within hours of their appearing on newspapers' websites.

Annoyance to journalists is the least of this, because what is really going on is something much more profound: it's the end of the power of Big Media. For almost a hundred years - from the time William Randolph Hearst pushed the Spanish-American war, to the ascendancy of talk radio in the 1990s - big newspapers and, later, television networks have set the agenda for public discussion, and tilted the playing field in ways that suited their institutional and political interests.

Not any more. As UPI columnist Jim Bennett notes, what is going on with journalism today is akin to what happened to the Church during the Reformation. Thanks to a technological revolution (movable type then, the Internet and talk radio now), power once concentrated in the hands of a few has been redistributed into the hands of the many.

This process was well under way before September 11, but it has accelerated since. The phenomenon of "warblogs" - weblogs, or personal webpages, dedicated to discussing the war - has played a major role in disciplining press coverage and punditry. Some blogs are run by journalists -- including big names like Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, and Virginia Postrel -- and some by amateurs with no credentials beyond a penetrating mind and biting prose. But all tend to have certain characteristics: snappy prose style, irreverence toward established sources, and rapid response. (I don't pretend to be a disinterested analyst of this phenomenon, as I run my own weblog, InstaPundit.Com. You may want to bear that in mind as you read these thoughts. You can follow the links from there to other weblogs, or visit this link page from journalist Ken Layne, who has a fine weblog of his own).

All of these are profoundly threatening. While webzine Salon, already $74 million in debt, snoozed through the holidays, webloggers continued as usual - some even snidely noting Salon's inactivity. The reason: love of the game. As columnist James Lileks notes on his own web page:

The folks in blogdom write daily at least, and even if they just post links there's generally a quip, a remark, a bit of wit that's sharper than 99% of most editorial page writing. Bloggers are usually having fun, whereas the grunting lumps of dead pulp punditdom are Shaping the Dialogue, and Forming the Discourse, and, more to the point, Cashing the Paycheck. This makes their laziness all the more indefensible.

Beware the people who are having fun competing with you! Nonetheless, weblogs are not likely to mark the end of traditional media, any more than Martin Luther marked the end of the Popes. Yet the Reformation did mark an end to the notion of unchallenged papal authority, and it seems likely that the weblog phenomenon marks the beginning of the end to the tremendous power wielded by Big Media in recent years. Tens of thousands of Americans who were once in awe of the punditocracy now realize that anyone can do this stuff - and that many unknowns can do it better than the lords of the profession.

In this we are perhaps going full circle. Prior to the Hearst era - and even, to a degree, prior to World War II - Big Media power was countervailed by other institutions: political parties, churches, labor unions, even widespread political discussion groups. The weblog phenomenon may be viewed as the return of such influences - a broadening of the community of discourse to include, well, the community.

And it's possible that weblogs will have a greater influence than these earlier institutions for a simple reason: they're addictive, and many of the addicts are... mainstream journalists, who tend to spend a lot of time surfing the Web and who like to read about themselves and their colleagues. This means that weblog criticism may have a more immediate impact than might otherwise be the case.

If so, it will be a good thing. Americans' trust in traditional Big Media has been declining for years, as people have come to feel that the news they were getting was distorted or unreliable. Such distrust, while a natural phenomenon, can't be a good thing over the long term. In this, as in other areas, competition is the engine that will make things better.

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