By: Carl Sullivan
Mitch Ratcliffe has only been running the Red Herring Blog since it launched on Jan. 26, but his expertise in blogging and the Internet goes way back. He wrote about networking and other issues for MacWeek back in the ’90s and was editor of Digital Media, which chronicled the Net’s early development. Ratcliffe covered Y2K issues for ZD Net before heading the content team at ON24, the financial news network. Ratcliffe’s personal blogging can be read at ratcliffeblog.com.
Now blogging for Red Herring, a defunct tech magazine that was resurrected online last fall by entrepreneur Alex Vieux, Ratcliffe is a believer in the power of Web logs — both as a tool for and a check on mainstream journalists.
1. Is it hype that blogs will “change journalism as we know it”?
Ratcliffe: Let’s make a distinction between the tools and the many styles that represent “blogging” when you ask that question. Blogging tools are profoundly easy to use and combine both composition and syndication capabilities (with the RSS protocol for distributing content authored using these tools). The tools are as transformative as the desktop publishing tools that changed the economics of publishing during the 1980s and early 1990s. That technology saw an explosion of new magazines, many addressing smaller niche markets that would not have been served by individual titles in the pre-desktop publishing days. Now, we’ve got not one publication in some of these markets, but several competing for advertising and readers.
So, the tools will definitely transform the news as we know it, because many more people are able to contribute to the recording of the news. Individual citizens can tell stories instead of waiting for “the media” to do it. Look at OhMyNews in Korea, where “Every Citizen’s a Reporter,” which has broken into the top five media outlets in the country. Here in the United States, we have individual bloggers, like Glenn Reynolds, who are breaking into established media outlets by blogging. They build an audience and that will always catch some company’s attention.
Now, will the blogging style, which is personal and conversational in many cases, change journalism? That’s not clear, though we can assume that bloggers’ influence will change the expectations about what should be on editorial, news and feature pages.
The tools will make their changes quickly and the style changes will proceed slowly.
2. Some mainstream outlets such as The New York Times have blog-like columns, but they’re edited before going online. Do you consider these efforts true blogs?
MR: I’m not a religionist about the how and what of blogging style. Edited postings by journalists are a way to lower the cost of putting news on a Web page; but no one expects those postings to show up on the pages of the newspaper. The absence of opinion and first-person perspective, though, is going to make some of these efforts less successful. Dan Gillmor, of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, is an example of a journalist who uses a blog to fill in the back story of his published work. On his blog, Dan is opinionated, political and all the things that you don’t expect a journalist to be; he’s a whole person, and some edited blogs pose as personal but read as sterile notes, devoid of the immediacy that makes a blog an interesting and enjoyable read.
3. But what place will blogs have in mainstream journalism, which professes to be objective and nonpolitical?
MR: As I mentioned, they can provide the other half of the story that doesn’t appear in the news story: Notes about interviews, reflections, and raw material that allow the reader to think along with the writer. It’s also where debates about the story can take place, in the comments section of the blog.
News is becoming a dialogue, not a one-way announcement. That can be profoundly good for democracy, if there are lots of voices with many opinions. It could also facilitate a mob mentality in which one idea overwhelms opinions held by minorities. Journalism won’t simply experience an impact from the rise of blogging tools, publishers and editors will face choices about what place blogs will have in journalistic endeavors.
4. And how will the independent blogs written by individuals in their spare time change the news media?
MR: They will fact-check, criticize and debate with the news media, remaking stories and spreading links. Most news blogs wouldn’t have anything to write about if they weren’t pointing to existing news stories about which they want to comment, so the proliferation of blogs should be generally good for the readership and traffic figures at commercial Web sites.
What I find most intriguing is the organization of independent bloggers into news gathering networks. This “civic journalism” will eventually compete with some existing news sources the way OhMyNews has in Korea. I co-founded a civic journalism site, Correspondences.org, to learn as much about this as possible. We backup our contributors’ efforts to gain press passes to events they might not be able to access as individual citizens and have had some success. We also find that there is a real need for editing, not line editing as much as helping writers think about how to approach a story and in structuring a story. I can imagine an informal network of civic j-schools that address the need citizens feel when trying to tell a story about events that are important to their community as one eventual form of competition to the news media. And, I think, these sites can pay for themselves.
5. What’s the next evolution for blogs as they relate to news?
MR: We’ll see more opinion columns and columnists coming from the journalistic hinterlands and capturing larger audiences than in the past. The election of 2004 will produce some of these personalities. For example, Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo raised money from his readers to go to New Hampshire to cover the primary. This kind of self-funding, an entrepreneurial journalism if there ever was an example of such a thing, is going to propel new voices into the mainstream. I believe these personalities, having proven they have an audience, will find employment offers from media companies coming to them, but it’s the ones who stick with their own blog and keep delivering news and opinion that is unique, informative and engaging, raising money from their audience and, eventually, aligning with others, that will shatter the idea among journalists that a staff job is the safest way to make a living.
We’ve had freelancers in journalism since the dawn of the press, but blogging tools give these people more leverage to create audiences than ever before and some of them will build media empires from scratch.