TCS Daily

We Have Met the Enemy, and They Will Be Us

By N. Z. Bear - November 29, 2004 12:00 AM

These days, enjoyable sport can be had observing the ongoing battle royale between the staid defenders of traditional journalism on the one side, and the young punks known as bloggers on the other. (Full disclosure: I am of course a card-carrying member of the latter, young punk, category -- or would be, if we had cards, which we don't). Old media journalists have spent many barrels of ink gnashing their teeth and decrying the barbarian hordes of bloggers, and equally as many bits have been spent in spirited rejoinders from the blogger camp.

Look closer at the two sides, however, and you'll find that there's far more crossbreeding going on between these particular Capulets and Montagues than you might expect from all the hue and cry. The reality is that the line between "blogger" and "journalist" -- and between "amateur" and "pro" -- is already extremely fuzzy. And if you think things are blurred now: well, just wait a little while longer, because soon enough, things are going to start to really get interesting.

In the traditional media universe, the question as to whether you were part of "the media" was a binary proposition. Normal people were Out; professional journalists with paychecks from the New York Times, NBC News and their like were In. But weblogs have destroyed this black-and-white distinction: now, the media spectrum can be seen as a fuzzy gray smear where nearly anyone can hop on a virtual soapbox and join in. At the top end of the spread, traditional media still reins supreme: the sheer size of audience drawn by Fox News, the big networks and the major daily newspapers is unchallenged by any weblog, and is unlikely to ever be. But step down a bit you find major weblogs such as Daily Kos and Instapundit receiving hundreds of thousands of visits a day -- arguably larger readerships than many "professional" columnists in magazines and newspapers. Continue down further, and there are middling blogs with a few thousand visitors a day, and eventually, down in the dark murk, the vast number of small fry weblogs that have yet to find a broad readership and scrape by on a handful of visits a day.

And so "media" in general, and journalism in particular, is no longer restricted to a small guild of paid professionals. Everyone who wants to be is now In -- some are simply more In than others.

But another consequence which blogs have brought is that the media hierarchy is now far more dynamic. While it would be Pollyanesque to pretend that the blogosphere represents a perfect meritocracy where the highest quality work always receives the most visibility, the fact is that in general, the weblog community does a remarkably good job of filtering the best writing, and the best writers, to the top of the heap -- and can do so with astounding speed. "Paying dues" is a concept that is near and dear to the heart of traditional journalists who tell tales of years spent slogging through tedious and unrewarding beats for local rags: it is complete anathema to bloggers. If a brand-new blogger's first post is a good one (and they put a little effort into promoting it), chances are it will get noticed --- and readers and other bloggers will come back again for more. I myself received two Instalanches -- links from Glenn Reynolds dumping huge loads of traffic on a weblog -- within two weeks of my first weblog post. (Whether this is an example of talent being recognized, or the exception which proves the rule, I'll leave to others to decide).

This dynamism is not restricted to weblogs themselves: the growing symbiosis between blogs and old media means that the hottest bloggers are not simply rising to the top of the blogosphere, they are crossing over to traditional media outlets. Glenn Reynolds writes for MSNBC; Kevin Drum is the in-house blogger for Washington Monthly. Examples of the reverse pollination are also well-known: Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Welch and Ken Layne are just a few high profile bloggers who were drawing pro-journalism paychecks of one sort or another years before they began blogging. And of course, TCS itself is an example of the meeting point between old and new media, offering an outlet for both "professional" pundits and bloggers alike.

So with regard to the battle with old media, bloggers are already quite happily sleeping with the enemy, and the two forms are unlikely to get out of bed anytime soon. Indeed, the current generation of freshman pro journalists is the last one which will have been hired in the pre-blog era. If you were an editor looking for a new hire these days, what would your first move be after checking your candidate's resume and clips?

To check their blog, of course. And what self-respecting Bob Woodward wannabe doesn't have a blog now? (As our hypothetical editor, would you even consider hiring a candidate who didn't?) In the Good Old Days, an editor would have to rely on a few clips that the candidates chose themselves, and maybe if they were lucky would be able to get their hands on additional pieces from the college rag their young supplicant learned their craft. Now, the blogosphere provides a ready-made proving ground for any aspiring writer to show that they have the talent and the craft necessary to string words together in forms vaguely pleasing to a reader's eye -- and the imagination and stamina to keep those same readers coming back for more. In a dialogue on blogging with Kurt Andersen at Slate way back in 2002, Andrew Sullivan summed it up well:

"But at a more profound level, I think the real power will be unleashed by unknown writers finding a way to get their work in front of readers more easily than ever before. The whole process of interning, or begging for work at local papers, sucking up to agents and editors, and so on can now be supplemented by real self-publishing. You can make your own clips! This can only help -- however marginally -- discover new talent. The discipline of writing for a real paper or magazine is still very, very useful. Blogging well is not as easy as it sometimes looks. But all in all, the new form and new medium can only advance a writerly meritocracy. And that can only be good, no?"

And so the wheel turns, with more and more entry-level pro journalists being blog-savvy from day one, at the same time more and more of the top bloggers "go pro" (or as we like to say, "take the Boeing"). The day is not far off when a significant portion -- and soon enough, a majority -- of traditional media journalists will be either bloggers or former bloggers.

To the die-hard old-media types who sneer at "blogging as typing" and bloggers as pajama-clad losers, then, we can quite simply say: laugh while you can. Time is not your friend, because before long, people like us will have your jobs -- and people like you will be a fading memory, shuffled away to the same journalistic dustbin as and black-and-white photos on the front page of the Times.

N.Z. Bear publishes The Truth Laid Bear, an online weblog which includes both his own writing and The TTLB Blogosphere Ecosystem, an online directory and ranking of weblogs."


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