Suman Kumar’s Christmas Eve weblog post of a hearty “Merry Christmas folks” and accompanying photo gallery of his two children posing with a miniature Santa offers a sobering contrast to the disaster that would occur 24 hours later.
On the morning of Dec. 26, a tsunami spawned by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake ravished the coastal areas of many south Asian countries. This disaster, in a manner reminiscent of Sept. 11, prompted a massive request for information that at the time seemed impossible to obtain. Infrastructure was nonexistent, and most large media were hours away from affected areas.
An information gap in a world dependent on a 24-hour news cycle had been ripped open, leaving the public to fill the hole. Weblogs, or online journals of brief chronological entries commonly called “blogs,” were one way this was accomplished.
Kumar’s blog, “Sumankumar’s Yak Pad,” was one of many put on the Web by tourists and local residents that served as sources of information for the public and journalists after the tsunami. Several blogs posted first-person accounts and photos of the tsunami hitting land. Others posted useful information about relief efforts. All offered partial solace to people throughout the world wondering if friends or family made it out alive.
“These are bloggers. This is journalism. Raw, unedited, but still journalism,” said Jonathan Dube, MSNBC.com managing producer and publisher of Cyberjournalist.net.
Dube, whose Cyberjournalist Web site focuses on how the Internet, media convergence and new technologies are changing journalism, keeps a tab on bloggers’ tsunami coverage in addition to the dynamic nature of blogs in general. However, the growing power of blogs has not been confined to only those versed in online journalism; mainstream media organizations such as the Christian Science Monitor, the BBC and even the vaunted New York Times have been swept into the “blogosphere.”
Dube said his tally of blogs on news sites has grown from just two a few years ago to more than 200 on sites spanning the globe. He said it’s clear that news organizations have realized that blogs are a valuable form for publishing news and commentary online.
But with all the attention blogs have received during the past year, is it possible to define concretely what a blog is? And more importantly, how have blogs influenced journalism?
A simple explanation
Despite their lack of context when referenced in traditional media, blogs are actually quite simple to define, said Rebecca Blood, one of the emerging authorities on blogs. She describes the basic blog as a Web site with a continuous, chronological series of posts — some inviting comments from readers — on any topic imaginable, often containing links to sites throughout the Internet.
“(Blogs are) so very malleable that people are doing with it what they want to do,” Blood said. Her blog, “Rebecca’s Pocket,” is devoted to highlighting whatever catches her attention, including the themes of media literacy, sustainability, Web culture and domestic life. She also posts the occasional recipe.
While some blogs focus on news and current events, others might chronicle the daily happenings in that person’s life, not unlike an online journal.
“These are really the equivalent of letters,” Blood said. “They are a real-time version of that same thing, a window into that person’s life.”
Blood is a blogging elder of sorts — her posts date to April 1999, the early days of blogs. Her status has given her a unique perspective on how the medium evolved from a small group of Web designers linking to interesting or unique Web sites, to outlets influencing the journalistic record. But the reason blogs became funneled into the mainstream instead of being confined in eddies of the Internet is almost as important as their impact.
Part of blogs’ success is due to the refinement of tools that allow a person with average understanding of the Internet to build and maintain a blog. Though Blogger.com — created in August 1999 by Evan Williams, Paul Bausch and Meg Hourihan of Pyra Labs and later sold to Google — is probably the most well-known blog tool company, it was 30-year-old, Toronto-based programmer Andrew Smales that had the first.
Smales is credited with developing the first broad-based blog tool Pitas.com in July 1999. He created the tool to make his own Web site updates easier in addition to forming a base for what would become Diaryland.com, an online diary community. The two sites now have a combined 2 million users.
“I get the sense that not a lot of people know who I am,” Smales said. “If you don’t keep a blog that networks with other blogs, people forget about you pretty easily.”
Smales’ blog tool essentially allowed a person with limited or no knowledge of HTML, the code used to create Web sites, the ability to blog.
Smales said it was surprising how quickly the blogging community grew after Pitas and other blog building tools became available.
“There were less than 100 when it started,” he said. “Now 100 people probably sign up every hour.”
The state of blogging
There are few who will discount blogs’ establishment as a key part of online culture. If anything, blogs are quickly becoming synonymous with established users of the Internet, according to a late 2004 study on blogs by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, an independent nonprofit that produces reports on the impact of the Internet.
Pew conducted two November telephone surveys of nearly 2,000 Internet users, and found 32 million Americans, or 27 percent of Internet users, say they read blogs — a 58 percent jump from February. More than 8 million Internet users have created a blog or Web-based diary. Twelve percent of Internet users have posted comments or other material on a blog.
However, the blogging concept seems to be lost among the majority of Americans. Sixty-two percent of online Americans do not know what a blog is, according to the Pew study.
Other results found by the Pew organization indicate the blogging community is still far from average, even among Internet users. Blog creators are more likely (82 percent) to have been online for six years or more and have broadband (70 percent) at home.
This study, paired with a prior Pew report indicating 59 percent of Americans access the Internet as of 2002, begs the question: What, if any, impact do blogs have on how the public gets their news and information?
The answer, not surprisingly, appears to be mixed.
Dan Gillmor, former technology columnist with the San Jose Mercury News and founder of Grassroots Media Inc., said blogs and other online media have almost replaced trade magazines. He said this trend is likely to spread across other media genres as well.
“Journalists need to read what’s online to know what’s going on,” Gillmor said, who recommends journalists also do their own blogs. While at the San Jose Mercury News, Gillmor ran the SiliconValley.com blog and has been a frequent commentator on the medium. After leaving the newspaper industry in December 2004, he began work on his new project to inspire, enable and create grassroots, citizen-based journalism.
Gillmor’s citizen journalism is perhaps the closest reference to how blogs could merge with traditional journalism, resulting in participatory journalism.
“This is the best part,” Gillmor said. “Readers collectively know more than we journalists can possibly know, and they are a great resource for us.”
One area of traditional journalism that almost always incites public feedback and participation, often in the form of letters to the editor, is political punditry. It seems reasonable that blogs’ freewheeling content latched onto this notion, pushed in part by the presidential election of last year.
One of the more successful political blogs is Instapundit.com, run by University of Tennessee constitutional and Internet law professor Glen Reynolds. He began the blog in August 2001 in an attempt to add application to his theory-based teaching. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 proved to be the tipping point for his blog’s readership.
“A lot of regular pundits were paralyzed,” Reynolds said. “I wasn’t.”
He now estimates Instapundit’s daily pages views at a quarter-million on weekdays; a stark contrast to the meager 1,600 daily page views during its first month.
Reynolds has received praise from University of Tennessee administrators for his commentary, which he describes as neither conservative, nor liberal.
“I’m what you might call a disaffected, libertarian democrat,” he said.
Reynolds said the gathering of hard news is still traditional journalism’s biggest advantage. He disagrees with what he sees as mainstream media’s advance into opinion journalism.
“I think it’s a mistake,” Reynolds said. “It puts them on the same level as bloggers.”
A symbiotic relationship
The field of journalism doesn’t appear to be under immediate distress from competition brought about by blogs. A blog still amounts to a form, in this case a Web site, rather than a discipline, as journalism is.
Sheila Lennon, features and interactive producer for the Providence Journal, said that in addition to spreading news, journalists perform an essential function in society — a part of the system of checks and balances on government and corporate power. She said bloggers write about what they care about and what they know about — the two often overlap.
“Bloggers are independent publishers,” Lennon said. “It’s what they blog, and with what intent, that determines what’s journalism, what’s public relations, what’s just heckling.”
Lennon said blogs are superb about blanketing niche interests — medical news, developments in science and technology among others — yet most blogs are functioning as an editorial form. She said bloggers react to news gathered, assembled, packaged and distributed by traditional news organizations, while offering their perspective.
“I think we’re going to see more collaboration,” Lennon said. “Reporters and editors will participate in conversations, follow up on facts and questions that come from bloggers and readers, and include these in ongoing reports.”
One blog functioning in tandem with other forms of media is Gothamist.com. This blog summarizes the big stories in New York City with sections such as entertainment, food, sports and interviews.
Jen Chung, editor of Gothamist, said the site tries to go the “distillation route” by sharing information and stories readers might have missed. She said the site also focuses on questions she and readers might be curious about, which often leads to traditional reporting.
“Blogs and newspapers are starting to feel comfortable with their relationship of feeding off each other,” Chung said. “Though perhaps it’s a symbiotic relationship, not mutualistic.
“Blogs can be a significant journalistic medium, but unlike newspapers, magazines or TV networks, there’s a higher ratio of nonjournalistic uses to journalistic ones.”
Chung said that although she isn’t a journalist by trade — her other job is with an advertising agency — editing Gothamist has forced her to be more curious about everything.
Despite the present hoopla surrounding blogs, blogging and the blogosphere, and the fact that anyone with a computer wired to the Internet can start a blog, blogging journalists such as Lennon believe not everyone wants to be a journalist.
“It’s demanding, time-consuming, and when you turn off the computer the dishes are still dirty, and you haven’t seen your friends in weeks.”
Patrick Beeson is a graduate student of journalism at the University of Alabama. His Master’s project focuses on weblogs, blogging ethics and the use of weblogs in college journalism programs. He writes for many publications, including The Tuscaloosa News, Tuscaloosa Magazine and Equipment World Magazine. He is also editor of DatelineAlabama.com, winner of the 2003 SPJ Mark of Excellence award for the nation’s best all-around independent online student publication.