Writing a Number One pop single has been a dream of mine, stored in the vault of my overambitions near “topping The New York Times Bestseller List” and “inventing the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Unlike the music business, which I once covered, for print journalists, there are few Top 40 charts to climb.
Print journalists can chart the number of major newspapers that pick up their stories or how often their articles make the front page or are talked about by TV pundits. Or they might make radio or TV show appearances. There’s always the Google option, with a name search bringing a downpour of links to stories online.
Weblogs offer journalists tangible ways to achieve that Number One feeling. I write a column for the University of Southern California Annenberg School’s Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.org) as well as a regular newsletter for the Online Publishers Association (www.online-publishers.org). After I wrote columns about bloggers and described how they raised the level of public and media scrutiny of Senator Trent Lott when he made his now-infamous birthday comments about the late Senator Strom Thurmond and how they covered the war in Iraq, I noticed the incestuous, snowballing sensation of getting linked in the blogosphere.
The Chain of Weblog Links
Here’s how it goes: Interview a top blogger such as Glenn “InstaPundit” Reynolds or Josh “Talking Points Memo” Marshall, and they will likely link to your final article. Those links lead to links from their blogging “children,” those other bloggers who lap up their every word online. Then, they tell two friends, who tell two friends, and so on.
The end result is placement for your story on Weblog charts such as the Daypop Top 40 or MIT’s Blogdex (the “Weblog Diffusion Index”) or Popdex (“the Web site popularity index”). When I started covering Weblogs, I only used these charts to see what bloggers were squawking about. I never thought I’d be on the chart myself. Keep in mind that making the chart doesn’t necessarily mean bloggers love you; it only means your words are linked to a lot of other Weblogs. The authors of these other Weblogs could just as easily be tearing you apart as praising your work.
But it doesn’t really matter. After getting a few links in the blogosphere for OJR columns that quoted top bloggers and contained “blog” in the headline, I had a little brainstorm. What if I created a graph charting the most influential bloggers on the media? What if I included Top 10’s from various top bloggers? The idea was to create something original, perhaps controversial, but worthy of the attention of journalists and bloggers alike.
Nudging this plan forward was one driving ambition: Could I pen a column that would hit the top of the blog charts, lodging itself up there in a Beatlesque way, awaiting my next brilliant blog analysis? Sure, there were considerations of fairness, accuracy and artistic beauty. But could this chart shoot straight to the top?
My editors at OJR were willing to put resources behind it, and an illustrator helped get the graph in working order. After I struggled with the graph for a few days and nights—and got great input from top bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan and Jeff Jarvis—the beast was ready to be unleashed onto the blogosphere. But there was one final touch. When I asked the Big Bloggers to list their Top 10 most influential blogs, I allowed them to list themselves. Sure enough, almost all of them did; Sullivan listed himself at Number One.
The column and graph went live on OJR’s Web site on June 19, and I sent out a brief promotional e-mail to some colleagues. At 9:09 p.m., Glenn Reynolds posted a quickie link to the column. “Hmm,” he wrote. “I’m not sure that this chart is an accurate reflection, but you can decide for yourself.” A little later, Jarvis weighed in: “Debate starts … now!” And it did, with an avalanche of links over the next few days.
Sure enough, some people weren’t happy with the chart. A blogger called Pandagon said the graph was “beyond pointless.” Another named Atrios says he got “no respect” for being left off the chart. The most consistent quibble was that I put blogger/journalist James Lileks on the left side of the graph, when he really is a right-winger. (This being online journalism, we were quickly able to update the chart with him on the right.)
But with all this back and forth, my column about the chart was listed on the Daypop 40 in the 20’s and on Blogdex in a similar spot. Did this story have the juice to make it to the top? I obsessively read each blog link to my story, whether it was a simple link or a senior thesis on the subject. Many bloggers had similar reactions, calling the chart “egos on parade” or a “circle jerk” for its elitist, self-referential nature. And Andrew Sullivan and others who ranked themselves highly took a fair amount of criticism, as expected.
Others feigned being upset at being left off the graph. Still others made their own Top 10 lists and changed the topic to their favorite blogs or they made their own categories for blogs. This was the whole point of my exercise, in its artistic sense—to get the ball rolling, get people thinking, stir things up, and hear what people had to say.
Journalism in an Echo Chamber
This is where the blogging phenomenon really changes journalism. In part, because of Weblogs, journalists are being brought down from their ivory towers. Many journalists would like to think their reporting on a war or an election or a baseball game is the final word. But when reporters’ e-mail addresses were first published at the end of print stories, the dynamic started to change. Then, online forums and feedback loops gave readers more input and led to greater interaction.
The Weblog format provides an even bigger voice for nonjournalist readers by giving them ways to attack, counterattack and fact-check stories in ways that did not exist before. The echo chamber aspect of the blogosphere means that unknown Joe or Jane Blogger can post a thought, which is then picked up by one blogger after another until a reporter at a major news organization responds. One blogger, for example, picked up on a truncated quote of President Bush used by New York Times’s columnist Maureen Dowd, finding that she was twisting his meaning. Newpapers that had picked up Dowd’s column ran corrections; one paper even dropped her column. But the Times has yet to formally comment on the matter.
Whether it’s a scathing attack on a story or heartening praise, the attention of bloggers can’t help but make journalists do a better job in their reporting. With bloggers breathing down their necks, only the most insulated media personality could ignore the avalanche of criticism (or praise) that comes from the blogosphere. When print journalists start to write blogs, they begin to look at issues on a daily, possibly hourly basis, creating a news cycle that’s more like cable TV news. When they allow comments on their blogs, they are opening up an important public dialogue with readers, creating a forum for their work that invites feedback for each story or blog entry they write.
After my minor obsession with tracking my column died down a bit, I stumbled onto a cached copy of the Blogdex showing my story at Number Two. Later, I found out that I also hit Number Two on the Daypop Top 40. OK, it wasn’t Number One, but even hitting that lofty runner-up position brought me a weird, unbridled pride knowing that somewhere, somehow, a blogger was humming my tune.
Mark Glaser writes a column for the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication’s Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.org), as well as a regular newsletter for the Online Publishers Association (www.online-publishers.org) and a weekly software feature for TechWeb (www.techweb.com). He writes occasional features for The New York Times’s Circuits section.