Bloggers, Traditional Journos Face Off in Harvard Square

By: (AP) The managing editor of The New York Times threw down the gauntlet as she stared across a big O-shaped table at the prophets of blogging.

Did they have any idea, asked Jill Abramson, what it cost her newspaper to maintain its Baghdad bureau last year?

The unspoken subtext was clear: How can you possibly believe you can toss a laptop into a backpack, head for Iraq's Sunni Triangle and pretend to even come close to telling it like it is?

For that you need a bulwark of experience, credibility, and financial, medical, legal and logistical support. Not to mention a staff of savvy locals. And that cost Abramson's paper a million dollars last year, she said.

The ear-pricking scene punctuated a two-day conference on "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility" at Harvard University at which a Johnny Appleseed of blogging, Harvard fellow Dave Winer, had compared established media to the mainframe computers rendered obsolete by desktop PCs and Macs.

Bloggers, derived from the term Web log, include citizen journalists who publish on the Internet. Most aren't worth our time. But plenty of these real-time diarists can't be ignored as they second-guess and otherwise hound professional journalists like no in-house fact-checkers ever would or could.

As such, they are beating down the walls of the media establishment.

The bloggers aren't quite overrunning the newsroom, but they are engaging established media in keyboard-to-keyboard combat that's benefiting public discourse and making the journalism "franchises" more accountable.

Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley's graduate school of journalism, calls it the fracturing of "The Roman Empire that was mass media" into a near-feudal period where centers of power and influence are more diffuse.

We in traditional media should have no illusions.

Web publishers and bloggers are already stealing readers, advertisers, and classifieds. Particularly for young people, journalism has become, in the words of NYU professor and blogger Jay Rosen, more of a conversation than a lecture.

That conversation, at least for now, almost always begins with a traditional news story, which is then subject to annotation and dissection on blogs, which are now read by 27 percent of the U.S. adults online, the Pew Internet and American Life Project says.

The sovereignty of Big Journalism is eroding.

In the news business, AP chief executive Tom Curley observed recently, what matters now is not the container but the content. That may sound self-serving, coming from a news wholesaler, but for the most tech-savvy news consumers, most information they receive, books and magazines excepted, is in electronic form and delivered to inboxes via RSS feeds.

The best single war story I've seen out of Iraq, a piece on the fight for Fallujah by Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lassiter, I learned about from a blog's RSS feed.

(Note to bloggers: You've got to build credibility and respect before you'll be allowed like Lassiter to accompany soldiers into combat. That will happen in the future, but for now, at least, bloggers do very little original reporting).

But how to gauge a blogger's authority and reliability? Easy: reputation management, something eBay does well. Reputation tools for bloggers are needed and one of the most respected voices in tech journalism, Dan Gillmor, is looking to technologists to develop them.

Before its publication last year, Gillmor posted chapters of his book "We The Media" online to solicit feedback. Then he finished the final draft.

First law of Gillmor: My readers know more than I do. Ignore the Internet feedback loop at your peril.

It's old news that bloggers were pivotal in toppling Trent Lott and alimenting Howard Dean's campaign. Then they shamed CBS News over the shoddily reported Bush National Guard record story.

Was traditional media as hard on CBS as a chorus in cyberspace? Probably not.

Tom Rosentiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, sitting down the table from Gillmor at the conference that ended Saturday, said Americans generally believe mainstream media is overly profit-motivated while "the journalists are too interested in self-aggrandizement."

So how to regain the people's trust?

The editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record, John Robinson, thinks blogs are part of the answer. His 5-month-old blog is one of six currently offered by the daily newspaper, with business, religion, and editorial-page blogs due to join them in the next week or so.

Robinson reports that he's trying to build a virtual Town Square, where communities can form and people can engage civically. None of the News-Record's blogs, by the way, are edited. Robinson expects his reporters to be accurate on their blogs, but he's not expecting poetry.

Other traditional media have been less bold in diving into blogging.

The cable network MSNBC has blogs attached to its major shows. And The New York Times has blogs by columnists Nicholas Kristof of the Op-Ed page and David Pogue in personal technology. The AP published blogs during last year's political conventions and the November election, and BusinessWeek recently launched some Web logs.

But the experimentation has by and large included an editor's eye.

That said, the blogosphere is no longer underestimated by the likes of Abramson. Asked at the conference if she considered it a pool of potential talent, Abramson left no doubt.

"Hugely, yes," she said.


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