The growth of Weblogs as a new form of journalism has gotten a mixed response. On the one hand, many people, including many journalists, are intrigued by the notion of a self-publishing platform that allows writers to work without the bother of editors, publishers and accounting departments. Having been interviewed by quite a few journalists over the last couple of years, I have noticed that most of them get around to asking me if I think it would be possible for a journalist to make a good living as a blogger. Some have even implored me to try to maximize the revenues from my own blogging as a means of opening the door for others.
On the other hand, some people disdain Weblogs. Matt Drudge has made very clear that he has no interest in being called a “blogger.” He regards himself as a traditional journalist in the ink-stained tradition of the prewar years (notwithstanding the lack of actual ink). Other writers have dismissed Weblogs as mere personal diaries, as nothing more than a collection of annotated links to other people’s work, or as parasites on the body of real journalism.
But Drudge’s misgivings and those of others notwithstanding, I think that Weblogs are doing pretty well in both the money economy and the attention economy, though I suspect that their impact will be greater in the latter than in the former. But to understand the influence of Weblogs, it’s probably useful to break the subject into two parts.
The Money Side of Blogging
On the money side, Weblogs’ impact is trivial, though it’s growing. Some marketers have tried to exploit the blogosphere in order to generate buzz, but with extremely limited success (Dr Pepper, for example, tried to use phony blogs to generate interest in its “Raging Cow,” a “milk-based soft drink with an attitude.” The failure of this project, however, may have had something to do with the unappealing nature of the product itself.) Some journalists are making money from Weblogs: My InstaPundit site, despite a near complete failure on my part to exploit it as a source of revenue, generates a few thousand dollars a year. Andrew Sullivan has tried much harder and, in two “pledge weeks,” he raised well over $100,000.
“Determining the Value of Blogs”
– Eric AltermanOther freelance journalists, such as science writer David Appell, have solicited money from their readers to allow them to cover particular topics. Appell asked his readers to finance an article on the World Health Organization’s relations with the sugar industry; readers contributed more than he had requested within a few days. Thin-media mogul Nick Denton has managed to turn a profit with Gizmodo.com, a gadget-blog supported by referral fees from merchants like Amazon, and there are probably similar ventures elsewhere that I’ve missed. But so far blogs haven’t really lived up to journalists’ escape fantasies, and for the moment Big Media is in the driver’s seat where money is concerned. With the exception of Sullivan, almost everyone making real money from blogging is making it from Big Media outlets: Mickey Kaus at Slate, Eric Alterman and I at MSNBC.com, and so on. That may change in the future, and I expect it to, but we’re not there yet.
Blogs do help to sell books and music. Novelist Claire Berlinski let bloggers read chapters of her novel, “Loose Lips,” in manuscript; the resulting buzz helped get it published, and it’s now under option to Robert De Niro’s production company as a potential film. I’ve noticed that an approving link from my own site or from other high-traffic bloggers often drives books up into the upper reaches of the Amazon rankings. Some musicians, like punk-rocker Dr. Frank, have done well using blogs to market their music. And Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has used blogs as a fundraising tool with considerable success.
Blogging Gets Lots of Attention
On the attention side, however, things are far more dramatic. A few decades ago, there weren’t many voices in the public sphere. There were three national television networks, most towns had only one newspaper, and the opportunities for most Americans to have their views heard were limited indeed. Couple that with the generally favorable attitude toward authority and large institutions that prevailed in the postwar years, and journalists had the opportunity to enjoy monopoly profits in the attention economy. (Will any journalist enjoy the influence of a Scotty Reston or a Joe Alsop again? It’s doubtful.) Even after the Vietnam and Watergate era brought most big institutions into disrepute, journalism rode high—and even capitalized on the growing “celebrity culture” to turn news anchors and correspondents into superstars.
This situation began to change even before the advent of the Internet, as technological advances in low-cost offset printing made alternative weekly newspapers a common place. The Washington City Paper may have been no match for The Washington Post, but it was at least another voice. Most Americans, though, were still shut out. Talk radio opened things up a bit more, but it was still a matter of the host sharing the megaphone for a few minutes out of an hour in between commercials for baldness cures and investment newsletters.
But as James Lileks famously remarked, the Web is a conversation. Bloggers get lots of e-mail. Some (mostly those with lower traffic, because it becomes quite unwieldy past a certain point) allow readers to post comments. And Web-based tools like Technorati—which lists all the Weblog posts connecting to a particular article or Weblog item—make it very easy to see what people are saying about, well, pretty much anything. What’s more, blog readers are joining in the conversation. Readers of my site e-mail me suggested links, and some send first-person reports (sometimes with photos taken via digital camera or cell phone) from places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Iraq, Paris and Caracas. The same holds true for other Weblogs, as well.
Communication of this horizontal nature is likely to have several impacts. First of all, the term “correspondent” is reverting to its original meaning of “one who corresponds,” rather than the more recent one of “well-paid microphone-holder with good hair.” Second, the realization that anyone (or lots of people, anyway) can report news or write opinion pieces just as well as famous people is likely to undercut the status of celebrity journalists and pundits. Tiger Woods is a golf celebrity because he can play golf better than anyone. Most media celebrities, on the other hand, became famous because other people lacked access to the tools of the trade. That’s changing now.
Blogs’ Impact on Journalism
Mass participation in reporting and punditry will have some downsides, but for those who actually care about the craft of journalism it’s likely to have upsides, too. During the wave of consolidation and corporatization that swept the media world beginning in the 1980’s, the reporting of actual news got short shrift. Bureaus were cut, correspondents were laid off, and actual newsgathering was often outsourced to stringers and wire services. Analysis and punditry (that, conveniently enough, were cheaper) were supposed to provide the value-added that would allow media institutions to distinguish themselves.
There were two problems with this approach. One was that a strategy of corporatization didn’t sit well with a strategy of using opinion to achieve distinction in the marketplace: Corporations are boring, and so is punditry that has been run through the strainer of a corporate mindset. The other was that technology was undermining this strategy. Everybody has an opinion and, thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to share them, opening up boring, corporate-mindset punditry to a vast range of more interesting competition.
What this means, however, is that the most powerful application for 21st century media is likely to be hard-news gathering, something that news media organizations are still better at than their atomized competitors on the Internet. If Big Media outfits want to compete with the blogosphere, they’d be well advised to beef up their foreign bureaus and start reporting more actual news. And that, I think, would please both bloggers and traditional journalists.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee, where he teaches constitutional law and Internet law. He publishes two Weblogs, www.instapundit.com, and www.glennreynolds.com at MSNBC.com.