Fall 2003

Introduction

By Melissa Ludtke, Editor

At a time when access to the high-speed Internet is getting easier and do-it-yourself publishing software abounds, Weblogs are cyberspace’s quick-moving, multilinked, interactive venues of choice for millions of people wanting to share information and opinions, commentary and news. In launching the Chicago Tribune’s Weblog in August, columnist Eric Zorn—who writes that paper’s daily Weblog Breaking Views—described his new role as “leading the Tribune into this emerging hybrid media form.”

In this section of Nieman Reports, bloggers and journalists (some of whom wear both hats) write about the points of convergence and divergence of Weblogs and journalism. What separates these forms of communication? How do they influence each other? Is what’s happening on Weblogs changing how journalists do their jobs and, if so, in what ways? Can news organizations embrace Weblogs and maintain the standards of the craft?

Weblogger Rebecca Blood, author of “The Weblog Handbook,” tackles the issue of how Weblogs and journalism are connected. Many bloggers, Blood argues, are a part of what she calls “participatory media,” highlighting and framing news reported by journalists, “a practice potentially as important as—but different from—journalism.” Blood does not expect that bloggers will adhere to the journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy but regards transparency “as the touchstone for ethical blogging.” Paul Andrews, a Seattle Times technology columnist and Weblogger, contends that blogs, acting as catalysts, “are transforming the ways in which journalism is practiced today … [by nudging] print media to richer and more balanced sourcing outside the traditional halls of government and corporations.” Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online, envisions Weblogs as improving journalism by helping news organizations “become more interesting, more credible, even essential.” As he writes, “Especially when big news breaks, it’s tough to beat a Weblog.”

Tom Regan, who cowrites two blogs on The Christian Science Monitor’s Web site, gives examples of how bloggers “have forced traditional news organizations to change the way they covered a big story” and examines several areas of threat that some journalists feel from Weblogs. J.D. Lasica, a blogger and senior editor of the Online Journalism Review, observes that blogging communities exist on “grassroots reporting, annotative reporting, commentary and fact-checking, which the mainstream media feed upon, developing them as a pool of tips, sources and story ideas. The relationship is symbiotic.” And he contends, blogging is beneficial to news organizations. Former investigative reporter Paul Grabowicz, who teaches journalism students about Weblogs at the University of California at Berkeley, believes blogging can help journalism “to regain the public trust” by inviting readers to participate instead of seeming impervious to correction. “… this don’t-bother-calling-me attitude—all too common in journalism—is a message that has been taken to heart by the public.”

Sheila Lennon, a blogger and features and interactive producer at The Providence Journal’s Web site, explains how bloggers expand the news media’s agenda “by finding and flagging ideas and events until traditional media covers them in more depth.” She shows how her paper’s Weblog gave readers a way to share information about Rhode Island’s deadly nightclub fire in February and how that “reporting” helped to shape the paper’s news coverage. Dan Gillmor, technology columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News, uses his newsgathering approach to illustrate how blogging conversations with readers provides ideas and information for his reporting. While he is enthusiastic about this participatory journalism, he recognizes that “Some of this journalism from the edges will make all of us distinctly uncomfortable and raise new questions of trust and veracity.”

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, publishes two Weblogs and thinks that blogging—with its ability to gather information quickly and from everywhere in the world—will have a salutary effect on news coverage. As analysis and punditry replace more expensive news gathering operations, Reynolds says that Big Media would “be well advised to beef up their foreign bureaus and start reporting more actual news.” By raising funds from readers to report via Weblog from the Iraq War, freelance journalist Christopher Allbritton showed how interactive Weblog reporting can be done. While acknowledging that blogs are not likely to “replace The New York Times,” he writes that “blogs should be the seasoning—or maybe the garnish—in a reader’s well-balanced media diet.”

Eric Alterman, who writes a Weblog for MSNBC.com, shares with us thoughts from his introductory Altercation blog column in which he ruminates on what blogs are and why he, unlike a lot of other bloggers, likes having an editor for his blog. He says, “Ideally, I think every blogger would benefit from having an editor—and from knowing a little bit about the way journalism is produced (and conceived).” Mark Glaser, a columnist at Online Journalism Review, describes bloggers’ insatiable appetite for being linked and notes that “the attention of bloggers can’t help but make journalists do a better job in their reporting.”

Keven Ann Willey, editorial page editor at The Dallas Morning News, writes about the paper’s new Weblog, which lets readers find out more about the thinking that individual editorial board members bring to the process of forming the newspaper’s point of view. “It’s a delicate thing, blogging our opinions in ways we hope will help clarify and enhance—not confuse and degrade—what we do and why we do it,” she says. At the Houston Chronicle, former reporter Steve Olafson was fired after he created a personal Weblog and wrote commentary on it using a pseudonym. “My message to editors is this: Embrace the blog; do not fear it.” Hartford Courant editor Brian Toolan explains why he demanded that a staff editor stop writing opinion pieces on his own Weblog. “This is not an issue of freedom of speech,” he writes. Mike Wendland, who has two Weblogs and is technology columnist at the Detroit Free Press, describes how blogs connect him to new story ideas. “… with blogging, when readers can add commments and suggestions to my posts, my assumptions are routinely challenged, corrected and defended.”

Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, writes about the protection Webloggers have (or don’t have) under the First Amendment. But, as she points out, “… once somebody’s published material goes outside our borders—which is inevitable in cyberspace—all bets are off.” Larry Pryor, who directs the Online Program at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications, shows us how professors use a Weblog as a teaching tool with journalism majors, who produce the blog’s content under close supervison of editors. “I’ve seen how it [working on the blog] helps students to make their writing more concise and focused,” Pryor says.


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