THIS BLOG HAS MOVED AND HAS A NEW HOME PAGE.

January 26, 2006

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-1

Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I had no idea when I started it with a very tentative posting on January 26, 2005 where it would go or that it would take the shape it currently has. I had no idea, though, that it would be as much fun, as useful (to me at least), or require as much time and effort as has turned out to be the case. One thing that it has done that surprised me is that it has made me almost addicted to reading, researching, and writing about the things that I care about and that, I believe, is a good thing.

(Sandy Piderit and Vincenzo Liberatore gave me some welcome encouragement on my first feeble attempt. Jeremy Smith's comments on my first posting had some excellent advice which I have followed and would recommend to others thinking about blogging.)

This personal anniversary coincides with some local media attention on the role of blogs in the new media age. Two weeks ago I appeared on the Cleveland NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 to discuss this question and then last week I taped a show for the local PBS affiliate WVIZ channel 25 program Feagler and friends with Doug Clifton (editor of the Plain Dealer) and Denise Polverine (editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com). (See below for details about its broadcast on Friday and Sunday.)

In preparing for both these shows, I started thinking about the role of blogs. What role are they likely to play in the media of the future and what uses do they serve for the authors of blogs and the readers of blogs? It seems a bit strange to be pontificating about blogging after doing it for just one year. But blogging is one of those fields where the cliché "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" applies. Most people are surprisingly unaware of what blogs are so even someone with relatively slight experience (like me) is perceived as an "expert." So in this two-part series, here are my opinions on the topic, for what it is worth.

Some of the more obvious benefits of blogs are the following:

  • They can focus and maintain attention of stories that the major media do not highlight or follow up (Like the plan to bomb al-Jazeera during the attack on Falluja in April 2004, or the Downing street memos of July 23, 2002 of the meetings between the US and UK governments to fix the intelligence in order to support the attack on Iraq, or the story of US and UK complicity in Uzbekistan torture.)
  • They can immediately correct the record when there are attempts by interested parties to mislead the public about important facts and the mainstream media does not act (example: NSA wiretapping, who benefited from the Jack Abramoff payoffs, the war on Christmas)
  • Can clarify complicated issues like the Valerie Plame leak.
  • It can be a rich source of material for future historians. In the past, people wrote a lot of long letters to each other and historian have used these to get an idea of what people really thought, as opposed to what they formally published. Such voluminous letter writing is rare now, but blogs probably will give historians a good idea of how ideas germinate and propagate.

But there are other benefits as well. It enables many more people to resurrect an older model of news and commentary, that of political pamphleteers and political newsletters like the one created by iconic journalist I. F. (Izzy) Stone. Victor Navasky writes that although Stone

"never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world. His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

"But Izzy also got and made news by reading the dailies, the wire services and such, and then following up where others had not thought to tread. He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read "because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story."

Most modern day newspapers and journalists don't do that kind of close reading of documents, focusing instead on reporting on what people say at news conferences. Perhaps they lack the resources or it isn't glamorous enough for them to do this kind of painstaking work. It requires a certain kind of passion and attention to detail to do that and bloggers are the people who are filling that niche, with individual bloggers specializing in their chosen areas of expertise. The internet enables such people to access an audience without going through all the hassle of printing and circulation, and we, the general public, can easily benefit from their research, quickly and efficiently.

For example, in its heyday, the weekly circulation of Stone's newsletter IF Stone's Weekly was 70,000. The top blogs, like daily Kos now get a half million visits a day! If I. F. Stone were alive today, I think he'd be the top-rated blogger too. It would have been a perfect fit for him.

This success of blogging has ruffled a lot of feathers in the mainstream media. As Glenn Greenwald comments:

The principal benefit from the emergence of the blogosphere is that it has opened up our political discourse to a much wider and more diverse group of participants. Previously, establishment journalists and their hand-picked commentators were the sole vehicle for the dissemination of political opinions. The only commentators and opinions which received any real attention were the ones which establishment journalists deemed worthy of attention. Those who were outside of the club of established journalists were ignored and unable to have their opinions heard.

All of that has changed with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a hard-core and pure meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your pedigree is. You either produce persuasive arguments and do so with credibility, or you don’t. Whether someone has influence in the blogosphere has nothing to do with their institutionalized credentials and everything to do with the substance of what they produce. That is why even those who maintain their anonymity can be among the most popular, entertaining and influential voices. The blogosphere has exploded open the gates of influence which were previously guarded so jealously by the establishment journalists.

For precisely that reason, many establishment journalists have raging contempt for the blogosphere. It is a contempt grounded in the fallacy of credentialism and a pseudo-elitist belief that only the approved and admitted members of their little elite journalist club can be trusted to enlighten the masses. Many of them see blogs as a distasteful and anarchic sewer, where uncredentialed and irresponsible people who are totally unqualified to articulate opinions are running around spewing all sorts of uninformed trash. And these journalistic gate-keepers become especially angry when blogospheric criticism is directed towards other establishment journalists, who previously were immune from any real public accountability.

As I said on the TV show on the relationship of blogs to newspapers in the new media age, there will always be a place for traditional journalists who actually go out into the field and collect the primary information. Most bloggers cannot do that. Although an increasing number are attempting to do this kind of journalistic function, they lack the financial resources and official credentials that can get them in the door of official functions.

The people who are endangered are the columnists and the writers of op-ed opinion pieces. Because what blogs have revealed is that there are a very large number of articulate, literary, informed, clever, and sharp-witted writers out there who are worth seeking out, much better than the ones delivered to my doorstep every morning.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

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Comments

Congratulations on a year of such great blog entries!

The first blog I started reading proved to be a great example of "Blog as alternative news source". It was Where is Raed by Salam Pax. I found it because after 9/11 I started looking for more information about Terrorism, the Middle East, etc. I put together a compendium of links on this topic so that others could also review these sources (sources from all sides and opinion—right, wrong and in between).

As talk of war in Iraq grew, I added to the site, and that is when I found Salam's Blog. Salam is a sharp young man in Iraq, and he wrote regularly about what was really happening in Baghdad. He did this under a false name, and could have been in serious trouble if caught. But he did not. Instead he gave me and thousands of others access to information that just wasn't available in the mainstream media. He became so popular that a book of his entries were published and he became a regular part time correspondent for the Guardian—alternative news turned mainstream. He's now blogging at Shut up you fat whiner! and still providing the news on the street that we'd otherwise miss.

What's interesting about your blog though is that in addition to being a terrific source of information and clarification, it is also a source of community. The comments made to your blog often generate rich dialogues that build upon the entry giving us all yet even more to ponder.

When I first started reading blogs I'd thought of them as unidirectional reading material, but as I've seen yours and others develop here, they really seem to have grown into something much more.

Kudos!!!!!

Posted by cool on January 26, 2006 10:54 AM

Congratulations on a year of blogging, Mano! It's been wonderful to read your work every day and I very much look forward to doing so in the years to come.

Also, I notice that there've been some stylistic changes. Adding the little "About me" explanation and the photo was a good idea, I think, for those who come across this from outside the University.

Posted by Nicole Sharp on January 26, 2006 11:09 AM

Thanks for both your comments and support. I agree with Heidi. I read all the Case blogs daily, via Planet Case, and it does give me a good feel for what concerns are happening on cammpus.

Yes, I have made some stylistic changes. It came about because several people (some from from my distant past) found my blog via the internet and were either not sure I was the person they were looking for or were not sure how to send me an email. So I decided to update and make it easy for them. And, Nicole, I studied your blog and realized that it was very well laid out, so I shamelessly copied your site!

Posted by Mano Singham on January 26, 2006 11:42 AM

Your blog played a key role in my starting my own. Though I am not sure if mine shall come up to the standard of serious alternative journalism. I just started one on social issues but all I have in there are links to Chomsky, Pilger and yes, yourself!
One reason why I did not start posting in the blog space provided by Case is that I did not know if one could continue maintaining the same after gradution.

It was a terrific year reading your postings! The changes you have made are pleasing to the eye.

Is there any way for us to listen and watch your radio and TV interviews off the net?

BTW, Cool, thank you so much for the links you provide here. very helpful.

Posted by arvin on January 26, 2006 01:49 PM

Arvin,

I followed the link to your site and see that we both like PG Wodehouse's Jeeves stories! I have read them over and over so many times and they still remain funny.

I have asked WCPN for a CD of the radio interview. It is possible that I might be able to get permission to podcast it. The TV show is not going to be videostreamed and is unlikely to be allowed to be digitized but I'll see if I can't get permission.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 26, 2006 02:54 PM

Also, like you, Simpsons is the only thing I watch on television!

Posted by arvin on January 26, 2006 03:01 PM

Wow, I never thought this blog was missing anything, but that was before I knew you were a Simpsons fan. Have you read "The Gospel According to the Simspons?" Very good read. "Simpsons and Philosophy" was ok, but was really just a bunch of philosophy papers that had tenuous (at best) connections to OFF.

(I'm a Simpsons freak, btw)

Posted by Barry on January 26, 2006 03:53 PM


(Sandy Piderit and Vincenzo Liberatore gave me some welcome encouragement


Oh, yes, I did that! Who would have known how this blog would have turned out? :-)

Well, as the computer nerd around here, I should add some thought about the proliferation of blogs. It is clear that there is a very large number of blogs these days, including my misplaced attempts to use blogs as a "Web Log" to keep track of research and teaching. The explosive proliferations of blogs reminds me of the similarly increase in the amount of Web contents starting from the mid-80s. Very much like the Web, the amount of posting is now too much for any single individual to keep track of what is going on in the Blogosphere. This is a serious problem. [Time passes; Enters Google]. Voila'! You can now search blog contents on Google. But what does this really mean?

Google ranks Web pages basically on their "popularity". Although the exact algorithm Google uses is proprietary, much of it is known, and entire scholarly conferences these days are devoted to Web searching. To make a long story short, the number of incoming links to your Web page determines how high a Web page is on a Google search. In other words, if people seem to agree that your Web page is relevant to a certain topic, they will presumably link to it, and your Google rank will go up (note to fellow nerds: much technical oversimplifications going on here). Hmmm. Ok, but. I'm still confused to what blog ranking would do to some of the things Mano's talking about. And, more generally, how will rankings and search engines impact the blogosphere? Surely a question that has been addressed in many scholarly conferences ... ?

Posted by Vincenzo Liberatore on January 26, 2006 07:15 PM

I'm reminded of this:
http://www.paulgraham.com/opensource.html

Posted by Paul Jarc on January 27, 2006 12:47 AM

I'm intrigued by the dichotomy between what people express and what they actually think. Perhaps I'm not as optimistic that the age of the the blog will make this distinction any cleaner. Blogs strike me more as a propaganda device than a clear window into the writer's soul. Perhaps that isn't always true. I wonder if future generations will dismiss cyber-ramblings by saying, "Oh, that's just what they wrote in their blog. They didn't really mean it."

Posted by Mike Coday on January 16, 2010 04:52 PM

Mike,

It can be argued that all our communications have at least in part a propaganda purpose, in that we are trying to persuade the reader. But I think that people are more likely to reveal their true intent in a blog rather than in more standard media, because the writing is more spontaneous and less subject to revision and second-guessing.

Posted by Mano on January 17, 2010 09:00 AM