Politics & Media
May 08, 2009, 06:59AM

What If We Need Blogging?

Blogs can replace newspapers. Step one: take advantage of the inherent communities.

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The conversation has finally made its way to Capitol Hill. The newspaper is doomed, blogs can’t help us, and the industry needs a bailout. A few weeks ago, I took a shot at explaining that blogs weren’t trying to take the place of newspapers and fill a completely different niche in information consumption. But as I sifted through The Wire creator David Simon’s impassioned plea for government-backed newspaper aid, and a response from Gawker’s Ryan Tate, I realized there’s still some explaining left to do. (Full disclosure: Simon is a family friend).

Simon’s biggest concern is that bloggers, working virtually for free, do not show up to obscure city council meetings, spend time getting to know sources, or devote their lives full-time to journalism the way a salaried reporter does. Tate disagrees and brings up a lot of valid points despite the tasteless title of the post, “David Simon- Dead Wrong Dinosaur.”

As someone who covered local politics—student and city council at the University of Michigan and in Ann Arbor for a couple of years at The Michigan Daily—my experience more closely mirrored Tate’s. Often, a local blogger and I would be the lone public witnesses to the inane arguments of the councils. But what Tate overlooks is that in Ann Arbor and in the Bay Area and in Salisbury, MD, site of another decent sized university, concerned citizens have taken journalism into their own hands. Simon specifically points out that this phenomenon has not quite reached Baltimore in his experience. It stands to reason that activist blogger gadflies don’t exist everywhere.

This also overlooks the fact that sometimes outside forces affect localities more than any city council meeting. What happens in the Maryland State House in Annapolis can often trump Baltimore’s city council, and there is just no way for a single person to cover both thoroughly at the same time. I don’t agree with Simon and believe that bloggers can be just as connected and well-informed as a journalist, but I do think that the extra resources, like Simon’s Fallujah bureau example, are problematic if we’re actually expecting blogs to supplant newspapers. What’s sad is that Simon’s concern is already manifesting itself in the newspaper industry, and that second state house reporter probably got bought out a couple weeks ago.

Before tackling some of the biggest issues—international coverage and finding a feasible financial structure—blogging needs to grow. It is, after all, still a very young medium. What it can address for itself right now is depth and breadth of coverage. If blogs can begin to match newspapers on these fronts, they will be poised to replace the Old Machine without missing a beat.

Let’s take a look at how depth and breadth can be addressed by blogging through my favorite lens: the sports blog. For whatever reason, sports blogging seems more advanced and relevant than hard news, which I think is more a matter of devoted fans attacking the subject. After all, there are millions of sports fans but only a handful of people who can explain derivatives.
Sports blogging began as a realm of reaction and commentary, but now bloggers are becoming vocal members of the sports coverage world. Someone like Every Day Should Be Saturday get access to SEC media day and a spot in the press box at the National Championship game. MGoBlog seems to have more sources in the Michigan Athletic Department than the local newspapers.

Blogs’ biggest advantage right now is the presence of a synergistic community. This breaks down in two ways: the blogger-to-audience community and the blogger-to-blogger community. The best bloggers invite interaction and allow the audience their own prominent space to discuss concerns. MGoBlog has a separate column for diaries and comments where some of the best discourse occurs. This sense of community and the sense of personality behind the blog—everyone feels like they know Brian Cook—silently invites sources to get in touch.

This openness and accountability—he always gives credit where it’s due and takes responsibility when he makes a mistake—combine with an ideal that the blog belongs not just to Brian Cook but to the entire Michigan fan community. It is almost your duty as a reader to give back to this community with information when it comes your way. Not to mention Cook is a longtime member of the University and Ann Arbor community which comes with personal ties beyond his role as journalist that can breach the wall of Michigan athletics. An outsider professional journalist cannot walk into this, and even a talented one may never quite get to the same place as someone who has spent a great portion of their life here.

On the other side of the community equation, you have the blogger-to-blogger relationship. This spreads the coverage further and analysis deeper. As mentioned in the last column about this subject, niche blogs have pioneered new space in the information world. MGoBlog is the touchstone Michigan blog and serves as a hub for the entire Michigan sports universe. It can link to The Blog That Yost Built, who covers Michigan hockey more than anyone else really ever has, and now Yost’s specialized discussion is brought into the broader forum.

This is not a one-sided relationship, though. Because MGoBlog gets so many hits, a link to Yost’s discussion increases page views there, as well. Yost can then link back to MGoBlog and let the people reading his blog know that more discussion about his posts can be found elsewhere. Now, when MGoBlog links to someone like EDSBS, a Florida blogger, you then get people from different niche communities mixing together. I now know more about Florida and SEC football than I would ever expect because I was constantly getting directed to EDSBS from MGoBlog.

That’s what newspapers are supposed to do: take you out of your immediate neighborhood and expose you to the whole news. You may go to a paper for local news or sports news or comics, but it provides you with a greater view of the world and information of all kinds. We just focused on college football, but even these blogs link to world news and commentary. How does Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in The New Yorker affect Michigan football? Well, there’s a little blurb and a link and you can decide for yourself. This synergy is a world away from the moat-surrounded worlds of newspapers, and if it continues to flourish, blogging may yet be top dog.

  • David, nice work with this one. It's an interesting thing the way the future of industry is headed. The new will always be replacing the old, but the old rarely go out without a fight. I think the death of newspapers is a step in the right direction -- taking the power of information directly out of the hands of the few. I have a few concerns though, internet moderation is becoming more pervasive than ever. With sites like Facebook censoring messages with certain links in them, how long do we have really left of the age of free information? Seems like it's already on it's way out in a coffin.

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  • I agree that the death of newspapers (and magazines) is happening right now, but you seem to believe that delivery of information has been some sort of conspiracy. Journalism is a profession, like teaching or carpentry or practicing law or medicine, and all those who have worked in newspapers who are being displaced have been making a living at the profession they chose. I have no idea what will replace the current means of information delivery, but I certainly hope it's not the chaotic blogging that Mekelburg describes.

  • I don't believe that the delivery of information is shrouded in conspiracy. However, I do believe that the information the general public is exposed to has more to do with ratings than it does with informing. Of course this could be tied in directly to profit-margin, but in terms of the degree of quality information we're provided, we get scrap. Such is mainstream media.

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  • We need boots on the ground to gather the information and write about it. Even if bloggers became full time reporters or free lance writers, right now they can't make any money at it. As bloggers start writing in depth investigative pieces, exposing corruption or political and corporate antics they could be sued just like newspapers--liability for libel and defamation will be issues that could put investigative bloggers in the ice box. The newspapers as corporate entities have their own lawyers to cover their behinds. What individual blogger can afford that--particularly when he is not even making a living at what he does? Also opinions are a dime a dozen-there are plenty to go around but honest reporting is hard to come by. As Alison points out rampant blogging could become quite anarchic and the cacophony may be quite deafening with no distinction to be made between truth and lies. Though Modal Soul is disillusioned about the scraps being served by the mainstream media, it is quite scary to me that I will be getting my morning news from several individual bloggers or a group of bloggers--what are the checks and balances in such a system? How do I know what is truth and what is fiction? Do I even know if the bloggers have any journalistic standards or ethical principles? I presume Modal Soul will ask, "Do you know now?" I admit I don't know the veracity of everything the mainstream media is spouting but when the bloggers take off as our main sources of information we better watch out--I am certain they will make the mainstream media pale when it comes to gossip and hearsay written as authentic news. Some will say vigilante citizen bloggers would expose the liars and replace the fact checkers and the editors of the newsroom--but this is fond hope--Alison is right--the chaos would make Time Square seem like a quiet street in a remote village. unellu

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  • The point being stressed here is that the age of information is changing. It can't be denied that the print-industry is dying. In its current form blog-ring communities are far from acceptable sources for quality news; the idea is what can we do to accommodate the change of scenery?

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  • Modal Soul: "We" can't do anything to accommodate the transformation of the media. Just as "we," meaning consumers of news, had nothing to do with the emergence of radio, television and personal computers. "We" will discover what form the media will take and either accept it or not.

  • Spartan, as a consumer you have everything to do with shaping the transformation of every moderate to extreme channel of communication. Ratings are based on what "you" want to watch, revenue generated is based on what "you" want to hear, computers are built according to "your" needs and specifications. The print-industry is dying because of "your" lack of interest in it. Which in itself is transformation. So don't throw that kind of belligerent garbage around, it's people like "you" (the masses) who choose to be ignorant about the circumstances that place us in these precarious situations. Perhaps you should take Econ 101, just so you can educated yourself on how much "we" (the consumers) matter in the shaping of industry.

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  • Oh great, a utopian in our midst. The print interest is, as you say, dying because of consumers' lack of interest. And why is that? Because it's easier to get news from a multitude of sources online than simply relying on the local paper. I love being able to read the dailies from London online, as well as papers across the United States, but I had nothing to do with that transformation, and neither did you. Modal Soul.

  • I'm not a utopist, far from it. You're arguing to the point of ad nauseam - you seem to be missing the point; if you're choosing to get your news from alternative sources, then you are, whether you choose to admit it or not directly affecting this transformation. I'm not arguing based on the weight of an individual's financial impact, but based on the impact of the consumer collective, which most of the time is what directs the course of consumer-related industries. If you can't see that, I have to ask, what can you see?

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  • Modal Soul, I would argue that every change engendered in the communication business is not driven by consumer interest alone. That is part of it--the other part is this: communications Titans convince you that what they want you to consume is what you actually want to consume. Ads work on this principle--the final product may not deliver but the ads will promise it is exactly suited to your discriminating palate and the masses you speak of do fall for these ads--otherwise the ad industry would not be thriving as it does. I may be wrong, but I believe Spartan was merely telling you whether we want it or not the print media will die--that ideas are introduced by industry analysts and Titans and some ideas take and others don't. These ideas are not necessarily a result of what we the consumers want. Did newspapers start putting the content of their papers on-line because we want the news there? Perhaps but perhaps they did this because some person in some board room thought, "Heck-the medium is available--let's put it there and see if the readers will flock to it." Of course readers like Spartan are having a jolly good time flocking to these Internet news sources because they are free. Start charging a subscription fee for content viewing then patrons like Spartan may flee--or may not be reading numerous papers from cities across the world. Your assessment that lack of consumer interest is what is killing newspapers and Spartan's assertion that consumers have nothing to with it are not mutually exclusive and may be correct. Newspapers are dying because they cost money to print--they can't come for free. People like Spartan can get the same thing for free on the Internet--hence the consumer rejection of newspapers--but the free lunches won't last. If we want reliable news then we have to start paying the people who write and edit for us which means we have to subscribe to get the news--when major players in the news business join cable companies and start charging us a hefty package price for getting the news from sources we trust then newspapers may begin to look good--consumers have been driven where the lunch is free--but is this sustainable and will capitalism allow this to be sustainable? I think not--what say you and Spartan? unellu

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  • This long, and not entirely incorrect post, would've made a lot more sense seven years ago. Had newspapers started charging for content at the start of the decade they'd be in much better shape. But once content is free, there's no going back. You may be correct that a new paid model will supplant what's available today, but the newspapers will be left in the dust. The opportunity has been lost.

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  • You may be right-but then again county newspapers across America continue to survive-ditto for small town papers. Everything goes in cycles and gets reinvented. I won't sing a permanent obit to newspapers. Also the people who are running newspapers now will be back--resurrected for the digital age. The same conglomerates will hire the reporters, charge the fees and run the show. Free won't last. The Wild West will be reined in. unellu

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  • Yes, everything goes in cycles. But don't kid yourself: the people running the current media conglomerates WON'T be back; they've been discredited. A younger generation will take over. Free may or may not last, but it'll be an almost entirely new set of players.

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  • Will they be any different from the old set? If so why and how different? I am interested in reliable news-I don't care young, old or otherwise as long as reporters aim for ethics and truth in reporting, the writing is good, and they keep digging to get to the bottom of their stories. A younger generation will always take over--but how soon? The new set will coexist with the old set even on-line and may be followed in time by an even younger generation hell bent on reinventing newspapers for niche groups that want the "rags" back for the sheer fun of having them as curios. The grand finality of your statements falter in the face of the fact old granddad radio coexists and even thrives side by side with the Internet and television. unellu

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