1. Andy Ihnatko: What the Mainstream Media Can Learn from Blogs

PREFACE: This is the first segment of the edited transcript from an April 6, 2004 panel moderated by CONTENTIOUS editor Amy Gahran: “Alternative Media: Attack of the Blogs.” See the index to this four-part series for links to other segments and panelist bios.

OPENING STATEMENT BY TECH JOURNALIST ANDY IHNATKO:

Andy Ihnatko writes on technology for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications…

Let me see another show of hands… OK, about half of the audience knows what a weblog is. That’s good.
(Note from Amy: In my introductory comments I did explain what weblogs are and the variety of ways in which they can be used.)

I’ve been blogging since 1995. I started my blog the way most people did. Early bloggers lacked automated tools for building Web pages, so we had to write a lot of HTML code. There were separate jobs: creating the content, building the content page, then updating the home page to point people to the new content.

That was tedious. It would take me 20 minutes to add one line of text to my home page – so I figured that if I’m doing already that, then I’ll write a little blurb every time I update the home page. So I started writing short items that would not merit a full article in themselves. Next, I automated the updating of the home page.

Everyone who was blogging got sick of doing everything manually, so I and some other people started writing our own software to automate various common processes. Even though better tools exist now, I’ve stuck with my own software. That helps me understand new technologies for blogging as they arise.

NEW TOOLS

What makes blogs powerful today are new features that allow any weblog, however important, to reach out to a wide audience

One of these features is RSS. Everyone using a commercial blogging program or hosted blogging service today has this feature built in for free. I hope you appreciate that, because it took me a day or two to write that code for my software!

Feed readers:These can be software that you install on your computer. I like NetNewsWire on Mac – it’s like Tivo for weblogs. This program will look out for things I’m interested in. It maintains a scrolling list of all the weblogs I’m interested in. Then it spits out new headlines and summaries.

There are also Web-based feed reader services (like Bloglines, which is free) that do the same thing. So you don’t necessarily have to install software on your computer to read feeds.

COMMENTS AND COMMUNITY

One great strength of blogs is the ability to leave comments on a blog item.

Just yesterday, I was on Wil Wheaton’s blog. He played Wesly Crusher on Star Trek: Next Generation – but today having good success as a writer, due as much to his weblog as to his Trek fame. Anyway, he posted a blog item asking his readers about a Star Trek cruise he went on in 1989. He couldn’t recall which port it set sail from. Someone commented that posting with the correct answer. Others comments posted links to photos from the cruise!

So a sense of community and interaction is what separates true blogging from reading an 11-year-old girl’s online Hello Kitty diary.


Here’s what I mean: On March 22, 2004, Salon.com published “The confessions of a semi-successful author.” This article was written by an author who enjoyed moderate success as a novelist. However, she had a hard time selling her second and third books. Now she’s had to take a regular job because she’s not getting great book advances anymore.

I’m not a regular reader of Salon.com, but I found this article through Neil Gamain’s blog. He’s a popular fantasy author.

I read the article and thought it was very interesting – but I wasn’t done. I then Googled and found other places (blogs) discussing this article. In particular, I found a lively discussion in an intense writers community, bookslut.com.

Let me tell you, the author of that Salon.com article is probably happy that she signed it anonymously, because she probably got more publicity from this article than from her books or publisher – and a lot of it was negative. There were a lot of authors who’d never been published who thought she had no business complaining that her success faded.

This is an example of how blogs have become a way to share info quickly.

MAINSTREAM MEDIA AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO BLOGS

My bottom line: I think the mainstream media is what Recording Industry Assoc. of America was like three or four years ago. See, RIAA hates – and I do mean hates – consumers. Because consumers insist on getting products instead of just sending the RIAA checks.

Back when people started downloading MP3s off the Net, buying CDs and ripping them to MP3s, and burning mix tapes onto CDs, the RIAA did not get the key message. They thought that people just wanted to steal music for free. Yes, there was a certain element of that going on. But the more important message from consumers was this: “There’s a whole new way of listening to music. We have needs being served by MP3 not being served by CDs.”

RIAA even at one point sued to make pocket MP3 players illegal because they “promote piracy” Well, the mainstream media generally has a similar attitude toward blogs.


EXAMPLE: HOW A BLOG CAN MOVE THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Josh Micah Marshall’s blog Talking Points Memo (mentioned by Arianna Huffington in her plenary yesterday) was the first venue that paid attention to comments that US Senator Trent Lott made as recently as 1998 that appeared to favor racial segregation. Marshall wrote some things in his blog that helped Lott ultimately get dumped as Senate majority leader.

Lott’s comments only got reported briefly by ABC News. I tend to believe that this was because Lott’s comments would have seemed, to most reporters, a minor issue – just an ill-considered joke. This would be a small item in any newscast not in Lott’s own state.

However, through research that he published, Marshall backed up his contention that that Lott’s comments were no accident – that in fact Lott used to write articles for marginally racist publications, saying that Jefferson Davis would have approved of the Reagan administration. Marshall documented a consistent pattern of racist-leaning statements.

Well, of course, other bloggers quickly found this on Talking Points Memo. Since Marshall’s blog gets syndicated by RSS, news spread from blog to blog.

Keep in mind: this was not a case of “the proletariat sticking it to the Man,” forcing the big corporate-owned media companies to pay attention. Rather, the mainstream journalists realized, from the documentation provided in the blog coverage, that this was indeed a big story. So they started covering it too. Eventually, this led Trent Lott to lose the best job that he probably would have ever had in his career.

(Note: Online Journalism Review detailed how this story got picked up by the mainstream news media

LESSONS FOR THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Here’s what the mainstream media learns to learn: Not that they should get stories from blogs, but rather they should earn from the RIAA’s mistakes in addressing the advent of MP3.

The mainstream media should learn that stories like Bush’s war record do indeed have teeth – not just because lots of people hate Bush, but because Bush ran as a strong military supporter. In other words, because Bush himself made that an issue.

Mainstream news organization need to let their audiences inform them about what kinds of stories they want. I regularly visit five or six sites (like Daypop) that rank the “virulence” of blog items, tracking which are being most widely linked to. The most popular topics are never sensationalistic jabber about Lacy Peterson or Michael Jackson. They are always important topics like politics, the military, the environment, breasts (well, okay…). These are the kinds of news that people are interested in.

I’ll close with my self-righteous sermon:

If Bush does not get re-elected, I don’t want the questions that bring him down to be “what did you do in 1972?” Rather, I’d want him to be thrown out because people are asking about the economy, hungry children in the US, losing civil liberties – substantive issues.

I’d like the blogging community to keep it real and serious. Keep it focused on the issues.

NEXT: Declan McCullagh’s opening remarks
INDEX to this series

One thought on “1. Andy Ihnatko: What the Mainstream Media Can Learn from Blogs

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  1. Andy gets it.

    Blogs are a type of Smart Mobs phenomenon that is easily overlooked by dinosaurs who think of themselves as having been early bloggers because they published a newsletter.

    Duh! Newsletters are not aliases are not blogs and the internet is not the wireless internet.

    Blogs are continually evolving. Only those with credible and interesting content will survive.

    Yesterday’s experts, like Declan, need to scramble in order to keep up. Technical curmudgeons don’t last long as panel guests.