TCS Daily


All Tomorrow's Media

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 10, 2002 12:00 AM

A few months back, I wrote about Old Media's unhappiness in the face of New Media, and in particular its unhappiness with the growth of weblogs.

Since then, weblog-mania has skyrocketed, and the obligatory Old Media weblog-putdown-piece has reached its apogee with Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam's assault on weblogs for inaccuracy and poor editing. (Sorry; no link because the Globe hides its stories in an archive after a few days). Beam's piece drew a less enthusiastic response than he probably hoped, in part because Beam was taken in by a fairly obvious April Fool's site by Norwegian weblogger Bjorn Staerk (among other tipoffs, it featured a portrait of Joseph Stalin, a quotation from the North Korean press agency, and instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail - and a prominent April 1 date).

Webloggers had a lot of fun raking Beam over the coals, and Beam largely deserved it - among other things, a weblogger who made such an error would have posted a correction within hours, if not minutes, while Beam never acknowledged the error online. By the end of the week, the response to Beam had reached the Los Angeles Times, where Norah Vincent suggested that Beam's real objection to weblogs was that they diminished the power of traditional media gatekeepers. (I'm hardly a neutral in this, as I run my own weblog, InstaPundit.Com, and took as much delight as anyone in pointing out Beam's rookie-level mistake).

Such coal-raking is half the fun of Internet punditry, of course, but now that the fun is over it's worth thinking about the relationship between new media approaches like weblogging and old media like newspapers. Right now the relationship is symbiotic: Bloggers link to news from all over - but mostly from mainstream Old Media sources - and then supply commentary, links to contradictory items, and other things that fill out the picture. Then Old Media guys cruise the blogs to see what people are saying about them and to troll for ideas. Though some bloggers do original reporting (Kevin Deenihan's CalStuff blog was the first to report the assault on Berkeley's California Patriot newspaper, and the Campus Nonsense site is starting to do this for campuses nationwide), webloggers in general are more like pundits or freelance editors than like reporters or newspapers.

But there's no reason things couldn't go farther, and I think they will. For the sad truth is that even top-of-the-line mainstream news institutions like The New York Times are becoming more like webloggers all the time, cutting the size and number of foreign bureaus, and relying more and more on wire services for original reporting to which they add commentary and "news analysis." That opens an opportunity for a widely-dispersed network of individuals to make a contribution.

The big thing that mainstream journalism brings is reach and trustworthiness. Critics of media bias may joke about the latter, but though reporters for outlets like Reuters or The New York Times may - and do - slant their reporting from time to time, their affiliation with institutions that have a long-term interest in reputation limits how far they can go. When you rely on a report from one of those journalistic organs, you're relying on their reputation.

But big institutions aren't the only way to have a reputation anymore. As web-based outfits like Amazon.com and Slashdot are demonstrating, it's possible to have reputation without bureaucracy. Want to know whether you can rely on what someone says? Click on their profile and you can see what other people have said about them, and what they've said before, giving you a pretty good idea of their reliability and their biases. That's more than you can do for the person whose name sits atop a story in the New York Times.

An organization that put together a network of freelance journalists under a framework that allowed for that sort of reputation-rating, and that paid based on the number of pageviews and the ratings that each story received, would be more like a traditional newspaper than like a weblog, but it would still be a major change from the newspapers of today. Interestingly, it might well be possible to knit together a network of webloggers into the beginnings of such an organization. With greater reach and lower costs than a traditional newspaper, it might bring something new and competitive to the news business.

Just another thing for the Old Media guys to worry about.

For another take on blogging, click here.
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