Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Blogging on Blogging

UPDATE: Deadspin vs. Bissinger on Costas


After blogging now for about 10 months, I have started to reflect on it more as a new medium. I primarily do it to help sort through my own ideas and trot them out for folks to read if they choose. Nevertheless, the more I read others blogs, it makes me wonder where this medium is going. How significant is the blogosphere? Do bloggers matter? How are they changing journalism? Recently, I have come across a couple of interesting articles discussing the blogging phenomenon in different contexts. One was in the NYTimes, one on the sports blog, CincyJungle, and one on the political blog, Art of the Possible. The consensus is that there is definitely a rising tension between the mainstream media and bloggers, and it cuts across many interests and aspects of life. The rise of blogging has opened a number of questions. Are bloggers journalists? Are they poseurs and wannabees? What about paid journalists who also blog? Who owns the video and audio produced by a particular news source? Should bloggers have access to press conferences just like reporters? Is the line blurring between professional and non-professional media? Is this permanent, or will a new hierarchy develop? What about journalistic integrity and objectivity?

These are many thorny issues raised by the information age and the proliferation of computers, hand held video and audio recording devices, and the expansion of internet access. As I have argued before, there is a tendency for bloggers to overestimate their own significance. Largely because bloggers spend a lot of time reading each others blogs, getting in blogging wars, and competing for the blogger readership. In other words, blogging is extremely important to other bloggers and their circle of readers and regular posters, but it isn’t clear how important it is to the rest of the world. Of course, there also tends to be a significant class divide between bloggers and the general public. Becoming a blogger assumes a certain income, lifestyle, and education which does not necessarily make it the democratizing force it is often considered. It may challenge the existing media structure in some ways, but in many ways it leaves it quite in tact.

It is clear, however, that among the "educated" class, blogging has become more important as a means of disseminating information and opinion. I first noticed this in 2004 during the Presidential election when Air America radio began to regularly interview bloggers and cite blogs during many of their shows. At the time, I wasn’t even sure what a blog was—but obviously bloggers opinions seemed to matter to someone. In past years, I have seen a similar phenomenon in music and sports. Multiple times I have been solicited to write music reviews on my blog to help publicize a particular band (I have yet to do this, I am not opposed to doing it, I just thought it was an odd thing). Also, sports blogging has exploded as an alternative way to get information and opinion about sports and offering many alternative perceptions of sporting activity.

The blogs that seem to be the most successful are collective endeavors. They are either part of a larger blog network (SB Nation is a good example, but there are many others) or they are collectively run, with multiple writers helping to keep the blog up to date, and relevant. The best case scenario is to be both. Although these blogs aren’t run by “professionals,” most are quite professionally run, meaning they look nice, have high quality posts, and try to avoid ad hominem attacks (at least at other posters)which are so prevalent in many discussion forums.

The biggest tension between bloggers, the mainstream media, and major commercial organizations is over “who owns the news?” The media’s case is that they have invested millions in equipment, technicians, and staff to produce video and interviews and that therefore, they own the information they produce. Large commercial enterprises like Major League Baseball make similar arguments. We pay the players and produce the games, therefore we own the images (and even electronic representations) of those games and have the right to limit use. Networks make similar claims about political debates and programming. The counter argument is that once the information is out in “public space,” it becomes public and you can’t really stop someone from discussing, debating, or presenting this information. And if organizations like Major League Baseball expressly limit the use of images and audio, are bloggers and the main stream media bound by the same rules?

Another issue often raised is that of objectivity. Supposedly journalists are supposed to be objective. It is true that most professional journalists are trained to write—well-- like journalists—which means they are trained to write poorly. I once did a stint as a sports reporter for the Indiana Daily Student and I learned the hard way—write like each sentence could stand alone or be the last in the article to ease editing, sloppy constructions like passive voice are fine and often preferable, let the facts tell the story, etc. This creates the illusion of objectivity because the writer seems more detached and, and half the time, the reader can’t tell what is going on or who is doing what to whom. Although this may contribute to some level of objectivity, it is pretty well established that the media is hardly bias free, with the biggest biases coming from the nature of the medium itself (big, profit making corporations).

Supposedly, on the other end of the spectrum are the bloggers. Although many bloggers claim objectivity, it is almost impossible to state with a straight face that they are objective. Many are worse writers than their professional counterparts. And, thankfully, many bloggers don’t even make the pretense. The notion of objectivity is even more ridiculous when it comes to sports. Few sports reporters are remotely objective—in fact their jobs hinge on not being objective (gotta support the team!). Therefore the loss of “objectivity” (or at least the pretense) is really a small one indeed.

The main stream media has largely reacted to theses challenges by trying to roll with them as best they can. They seem to know that, like it or not, the internet is here to stay so you might as well get used to it. Therefore many reporters have also created blogs and larger newspapers also allow discussion of articles. By the same token, their websites have become increasingly advertisement laden and include many “premium sections” where one has to pay to get access. Entertainment organizations like Major League Baseball have tried to stem the tide as much as possible—using legal measures to control access to information as much as possible under threat of lawsuits and copyright infringement. The music industry as done a little of both. Many smaller, lesser known groups, find the freedom of the internet to be a great way to circumvent the big label monopoly and directly market to their fan base. Big labels have tried to clamp down on the internet as much as possible through legal machinations. Who will win the struggle isn’t clear, however, the distinct possibility exists that major media and entertainment industries may end up self-marginalizing their activities—particularly if they become too draconian--giving more space to alternative forms of media to develop.

Exactly how all of this is going to play out is anyone's guess. One thing that is clear is that the way people get information is being restructured, with man new voices entering the din. This has some libratory potential as the medium of the internet allows for more multi-directional discussion and allows folks to circumvent the conventional “opinion shaping” media. It also raises serious long-term questions about ownership of news and entertainment. It seems like the tendency is towards making news and entertainment more decentralized and even more subservient to public demand than in the past. With some notable exceptions, however, I have found the blogosphere to be less than impressive. Call me old school, but I still believe that the internet format is problematic and that books are still the best way to learn—but that is just me.

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