>Open source journalism is here

By: Tim Wood

Posted: 2002/09/13 Fri 00:00 EDT  | TMTweb 1997-2002

NEW YORK ­­ Blogging, shorthand for personal Web logs, has exploded in the US over the last year, but it remains a curiously American phenomenon.

There are certainly great blogs elsewhere, including top notch writers in the UK, Australia, Sweden and Norway, but there is nothing close to the density, quality and variety Americans offer up. South Africa is a case in point with just a handful of blogs. Few are updated regularly and the majority incline more toward vanity sites than real blogging.

A simple observation accounts for this blogging is directly proportional to the quantity and quality of media servicing a community.

That is not automatically obvious because blogging is in many ways antithetical to establishment media. Nevertheless, blogging cannot gain critical mass without relying on conventional news outlets which provide the fodder for critical dissections and maintain a role in keeping everyone on the "same page" in terms of broad themes and issues.


It also ends there. Blogging came about principally because of frustration with big media. The lead institutions are offensively arrogant and have become more so because of the cloning that goes on at journalism schools which faculties have sustained an exclusive ideological hue for forty years. This is confirmed by the effort to ignore or disparage blogging, although many newspapers have launched their own "counter blogs" lately.

Bloggers quickly discovered that they could compete with and contest establishment reporting and commentary through the Internet. The publishing medium is inexpensive and it provides access to facts and an audience not previously available.

With devastating results for regular journalists who seldom got second guessed, an army of independent commentators emerged to contest everything. The method was a relentless focus on facts and every major outlet has been upbraided for transparent distortions or juvenile logic; something the establishment grew lazy about because of the ideological homogeneity of the newsrooms and symbiotic alliance with the elite.


Ignored in the formative period, bloggers are getting tremendous results today. Fault finders have forced the New York Times to run a number of humiliating corrections that have compromised its credibility in basic reporting and editorial commentary, such as Andrew Sullivan's decimation of its reporting on climate changes in Alaska. James Taranto's Best of the Web has been successful in challenging corporate doltishness such as maps on the BMW and Mercedes Web sites that excluded Israel or merged it into a non-existent entity called Palestine.

New words have been coined such as "Fisking" which describes a point by point rebuttal of a particular idiocy and takes its name from Robert Fisk, the UK correspondent who can leave Norman Mailer looking brutish. And there are Krugman watches, Sontag awards and many others that entertain to lay bare the prissy superiority that has infected much of the media.

Writers must expect to have every word picked over, which can only be good for them and their readers.

For example, Rachel Swarns, the Time's South Africa correspondent, was shellacked this week for a desperate puff piece on Robert Mugabe's ethnic cleansing: "This is a man who jails his opponents, rigs elections and is fomenting a famine in his country by brutal evictions of the only productive farmers. He's viciously homophobic and reviled by any serious African analyst as a menace to any democratic trends in the region. But the Times sees his good side. Of course they do," Sullivan rightly sneers.

Blogging sea change

While Sullivan and others, notably Ira Stoll's fabulous, are successful thanks to the inanity of the Times and other outlets, there is a significant blogging sea change underway where blogs are becoming the primary news medium, while academics are coming into focus with a version of blogging peer review.

Many of the pioneer bloggers were fact and logic checkers extraordinaire, but a new wave of writers has emerged to claim the news space. Not only do they produce good commentary, but they're breaking news and in some cases setting the agenda for a particular news cycle. Matt Drudge, a proto-blogger, is the obvious example with his Monica Lewinsky story which Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post, had tried to cover up.

That became global news, but the trend is less that than the emergence of an entire alternative media matrix where news and commentary is not subject to the whims of politically pliant editors. That allows you to read about the cyber war being conducted by vigilantes hacking into Al-Qeda Web sites, or to learn of teenagers glorifying the ritual slaughter of Jews and reviewing videos of them, or to see satellite photographs decoded showing Kurdish villages being bulldozed, or to find out how Stephen Hatfill (the anthrax "suspect") has had his life destroyed by lazy Times and Post reporters.

Increasingly, people are getting their news and opinion from blogs rather than conventional media. Big media cannot compete because the "blogosphere" is literally millions of experts in harness, ready to comment and provide facts at any time of the day. No newspaper, radio or television station has access to those resources and the medium has utterly destroyed the news cycle as we know it.

That makes blogging a serious threat to the core business of journalism and it is something the establishment will have to address. Within that lies the important question of money, and to be honest there is little hope that blogs will make money. Fortunately, many bloggers support their habit with other jobs, but at the same time big media cannot expect to command the rates it does if its editorial appeal is vanishing. Then advertisers may as well move on to knock and drops.

Big media wasted a lot of money on the Internet and breathed a sigh of relief when the whole thing collapsed. They have sighed too early; the Internet's time has only just begun.


Best of the Web
Little Green Footballs
The Corner
N.Z. Bear
The Volokh Conspiracy
Bjorn Staerk
Matt Welch
James Lileks

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Open source journalism is here (Tim Wood)
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