Web logs drifting into mainstream

Blogs: The forums, once used largely for online diaries, are eyed as a new frontier for news media.

October 10, 2002|By Renee Tawa | Renee Tawa,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The rants are pulsing through the blog-o-sphere.

On most days, would mean that the online community is in its usual state of trippy high drama. But this time, the topic is a radical expansion of the blog-o-sphere itself, one that would include a contingent of traditional journalists (the ones who write, as the lexicon has it, "dead-tree" pieces).

In the quirky world known as the blog-o-sphere, hundreds of thousands of ordinary individuals run Web logs, or "blogs," interactive newsletters of sorts with bite-sized chunks of copy updated daily, or, in some extremes, several times an hour.

On the personal Web sites, bloggers post tidbits of commentary and play host to unfiltered public forums in which rumors fly, news is weighed and the blog-o-sphere's stars (known simply as Dave, Meg or Evan) are pondered. The most popular bloggers build a sense of community by linking to each other and writing in a voice that cartwheels off the page, as a distinct alternative to what they see as the distant, establishment voice of print journalists and others.

Hence, the latest angst-filled question: Whither the blog-o-sphere, not to mention the future of the media?

Recently, there have been unmistakable signs that blogs are seeping into the popular consciousness. In July, for instance, New York Times language watcher William Safire wrote a column on the use of the word "blog," noting that the term came into vogue three years ago. "Blog" also is under consideration as a new entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Since 2000, students at the University of Southern California's School for Communication have produced a Web log. This fall, the University of California at Berkeley is offering a class on blogs for the first time through its Graduate School of Journalism, while at California State University at Stanislaus, an assistant communications professor is teaching an undergraduate class on the history of journalism that will cover "blogs as a new journalistic form."

Growing medium

The blog-o-sphere already includes some members of the mainstream media, such as MSNBC and the San Jose Mercury News, which have staff journalists who write Web logs for their organizations' sites.

Though no official statistics exist, estimates put the number of blogs at 200,000 to 500,000.

Blogs have "achieved critical mass," said David Weinberger, author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Most news organizations eventually will be forced to respond to the influence of the blog-o-sphere, predicts Weinberger, a technology commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

"You can go with a well-researched, vetted, authoritative voice. Or you can find 50 voices that are wildly, hugely passionate, often one-sided and frequently wrong, but presenting a wider spectrum of viewpoints. That is frequently a better way of getting at the truth," he said.

Blogs have been thriving since late 1999, when free software became available that made it easy for anyone to create and update the sites and become an "amateur publisher."

Some are little more than online journals. Others have themes, such as www.popculturejunkmail.com, which covers "trashy TV, British royalty, the 1980s, toys" and more, is written as an independent undertaking by MSNBC's travel editor.

The best bloggers have signature voices in print, spinning news and musings the way a Rush Limbaugh does, or an Oprah Winfrey, and with the same sort of loyal followings. Until Sept. 11, though, even the most well-known blogs still were being read in relatively tight circles and largely ignored by the journalistic establishment.

Sept. 11 brings change

On the day of the terrorist attacks, when masses of people logged on to the Internet for information, the Web sites of major news media either crashed or failed to provide timely updates. Bloggers noted huge upswings in traffic to their sites and e-mailed comments from the public (e-mails are posted instantly in a forum that has been likened to an infinite, unedited letters-to-the-editor page).

As a result, bloggers, who typically have day jobs, turned into "do-it-yourself journalists ... seeking out sources and sometimes assembling these ideas for others," noted a study on Sept. 11 and the Internet released this month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In the study, Internet expert Alex Halavais noted that blogs often published first-person accounts of the attacks: "Many of these accounts do not follow the canons in fact-checking, seeking out alternative or opposing views, or attempted impartiality. They are necessarily more socially constructed, and read more like rumors."

Still, wrote Halavais, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, "growing numbers of Americans seem to want to supplement the material they get from traditional media." And these days, colleges are giving the blog-o-sphere the sort of widespread legitimacy that bloggers are fond of dissing.

"Just when it was getting good," wrote a reader on the Daily Pundit blog, "the academics show up to suck the marrow from an infant art."

As part of the Berkeley course, students will produce a blog exploring intellectual property topics like Napster and copyrights on the Net, said Paul Grabowicz, director of the journalism school's New Media Program. Grabowicz said he understands - but doesn't agree with - the angst over the possible co-opting of the blog-o-sphere by mainstream media. Instead, he envisions an expanded community also populated by journalists applying the profession's basic principles of accuracy, fairness and integrity.

"The journalists can still do what journalists do in a Web log format and work with the people who are responding to that stuff [via an online airing]," he said. "Out of that comes maybe not a better story, but a different story with, hopefully, more collective knowledge."

Renee Tawa is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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