Blogging the Spotlight
Critics say bloggers are lazy, arrogant, and never leave the house. In reality, some of the best are revolutionizing journalism
Just before last June’s federal election, Canadian blogger Andrew Coyne asked his readers to show their cards. “Your predictions, please, for the number of seats each party will win,” he posted. “I’ll take the average of everyone’s predictions and we’ll test the ‘wisdom of crowds’ hypothesis.” Coyne, a political columnist for the National Post, was referring to The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki, a business columnist for The New Yorker. “Remember,” Coyne wrote, “it’s what you think will happen not what you want to happen.”
Over the next three days, 279 readers posted, the majority predicting a Conservative victory. Coyne’s forecast was: Liberals 95, Conservatives 132, NDP 21, Bloc 60, and Independents zero, which he then revised to: “Crooks 102, Fascists 124, Commies 26, Traitors 55 and Freaks 1.” Only 74 expected a Liberal victory, with one adding, “Coyne is right – polls are indeed crack, and the brain-damaging effects of an addiction to it are obvious judging from the delusional seat tallies I have read on this website.” When all was said and done, roughly 75 per cent, or 208 readers, predicted a Conservative win. The final average was: Conservatives 122, Liberals 106, NDP 22, Bloc 57, and Independents one.
As it turned out, the Liberals beat the Conservatives 135 to 99. Why did the crowd get it wrong? They disregarded Coyne’s only rule. “If they wanted one party to win, they’d say they thought it would win but wouldn’t bet money on it,” Coyne later told me. A crowd can become a mob when two things happen: “The first is that people start taking their cues from each other, so that they assume that if many people are doing something, they should, too,” Surowiecki told Forbes.com, the business magazine’s online edition. “The second thing that happens is that diversity – of opinion and information – vanishes, and the crowd starts to act almost as if it’s of one mind.”
Political preference, wishful thinking, and maybe even a mob mentality skewed the results of Coyne’s experiment. “We weren’t bang on, but then nobody else was either,” he said. “I don’t see why I wouldn’t do it again.” While his readers may have failed to predict the election results correctly, the wisdom-of-crowds experiment showed how the blog can transform the letter to the editor into a real conversation. Blogs strengthen the reader-writer bond, allowing journalists to hear from readers firsthand, while giving readers a stronger sense of the journalist’s personality and point of view. Although some critics see blogs as echo chambers for the arrogant and others dismiss them as a fad, defenders argue that the medium offers significant advantages for creators and consumers alike.
To see if I could benefit from these advantages, I did what anyone in my position would do – I started a blog about blogs. I named it Blog on Blog, playing on Bob Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, and used it to track and explore what I saw in the blogosphere. Each week my site attracted reader comments, some from big-shot journalists, and I quickly realized that my blog could indeed be a valuable journalistic tool.
In some ways, the first blog was the first website. It was created by Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web. In 1992, he started keeping track of all new sites, linking to them as they came online. The first known news weblog – soon shortened to blog – was Dispatches From the Coast, which reported on North Carolina’s Hurricane Bonnie in 1998. While most blogs are personal diaries, Cyberjournalist.net, a resource devoted to online journalism, lists about 450 news blogs, most run by U.S. journalists. Political bloggers secured press credentials at the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, and Ana Marie Cox, a self-proclaimed unsuccessful freelance writer who left journalism to edit Wonkette (her politics and culture blog), made the cover of The New York Times Magazine in September. Meanwhile, BlogsCanada lists more than 100 blogs under the News and Media category. Canadian mainstream media bloggers, essentially an all-male fraternity, includes music writers Aaron Wherry of the Post and Carl Wilson of The Globe and Mail, technology writer Mark Evans of the Post, and business writer Mathew Ingram of the Globe. Columnists such as Coyne and Paul Wells of Maclean’s also joined in, as well as the Post’s Colby Cosh, who started blogging in July 2002 after realizing it was the perfect format for someone with a short attention span: “I was hooked on the junk soon enough.”
For David Akin, a former national business and technology correspondent and current parliamentary reporter for CTV’s Ottawa bureau, the decision to start a blog in 2002 was a natural progression. He was the first to open an email account at the Orillia Packet and Times in 1992, and now gets up to 300 emails a day. He also uses instant messenger. “Blogs help me develop and maintain a relationship with the community I’m writing on,” says Akin, who expresses himself with his hands, uses finger quotes, imitates voices, and scrunches his face in deep thought. “Readers are suspicious of mainstream media. If I know how to use the newest technology, I gain credibility with my readers.” Reader rapport aside, Akin says one of his blog’s practical advantages is that it helps him find sources. In June 2004, while doing a CTV story on content in preteen magazines, he posted an entry headlined, “Help! Looking for parents of teenagers.” It worked like a charm.
Akin is hardly the only journalist to discover these charms. Cosh’s readers often help him with stories. “When I write about the U2 Spy Plane, the one the band’s named after, I immediately receive letters from people who have worked with the plane,” he says, “I get instant feedback from experts without calling anyone.” Meanwhile, in the weeks leading up to last year’s Canadian and U.S. elections, Toronto Star columnist David Olive started a campaign diary called The Pulse. He’d do it again in a heartbeat because “the feedback it generates helps give a reporter like me a sense of the electorate.”
A blog is also perfect for brainstorming; Wherry runs ideas by his online readers first. “Otherwise,” he says, “they’d just be bouncing around in my head.” And I found my readers often pointed me in the right direction. One visitor, a friend, let me know that eye Weekly, a Toronto alternative paper, had started a blog, and another alerted me to Merriam-Webster’s decision to name “blog” the No. 1 word of 2004. Many directed me to related articles, and one reader forwarded a Cyberjournalist.net link about a proposal to establish ethical guidelines for blogging.
Even without such guidelines, blogs already play the watchdog, helping build and defend a healthy relationship between journalists and their readers. The Montreal-based Regret the Error has assumed this role since October 2004. Editor Craig Silverman reports corrections, retractions, and clarifications from North American and international media. After viewing it on NewsDesigner.com, he informed readers when the Calgary Herald published a photo of people fleeing a massive wave. The front-page headline read, “Tsunami death toll could pass 100,000,” but the wave in the photograph had actually hit China’s Qiantangjiang River in 2002. He posts erroneous death rumours – the Ottawa Citizen knocking off Jennifer Aniston’s father, for example – and tracks sackings of journalists. To be fair, he corrects his own blunders every Friday under the heading, “We Crunked – Regret Corrections,” but most of his errors are typos, spelling and grammatical mistakes, and misuses of terms such as “beg the question.”
South of the border, news blogs, such as Power Line, Little Green Footballs, and Free Republic, are even more aggressive watchdogs. They questioned the authenticity of the memos 60 Minutes cited in an effort to show that George W. Bush shirked his National Guard duties. By the next morning, the sites pointed out that the documents featured kerning and typesetting techniques that proved the memos could not have been produced on a typewriter from 1972. After a week of scrutiny from blogs – and mainstream-media slowpokes – host Dan Rather admitted defeat and CBS launched an investigation that concluded with the network asking four key executives to resign.
Back home, Tart Cider began an investigation that led to a journalist losing her column. The site exposed the fact that Post columnist Elizabeth Nickson lifted passages for her July 2003 column headlined, “It’s time the left stop sheltering evil.” When the site’s creator Chris Selley read the column, he realized he’d read parts of it before. An online search turned up a similar portion in “Duranty’s Deception,” by U.S. journalist John Berlau in the online edition of Insight on the News. Although the Post didn’t reply to Selley’s emails, Nickson indicated that her failure to attribute the passage was inadvertent. The paper started an investigation that uncovered, “Beneath the glamour, you find film scum,” a 2002 column by Nickson, which contained five sentences that were almost a word-for-word reproduction of a piece by National Review Online editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg. The Post discontinued Nickson’s weekly column in November 2004.
The good news is other journalists take such measures as a warning. “Every time I think of plagiarizing, I only don’t because of other bloggers,” jokes Post theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck. He maintains a blog called On the Fence about politics, journalism, and theatre. “It’s not like my editors would catch it, but bloggers would.”
The irony is that many journalists are wary of blogs because they lack accountability and professional editing. “Weblogs are what they are,” says Cosh, who says the Post hired him because of his site. “Why attack them for being what they’re not?” According to Coyne, blogs benefit from a different form of editing – one he calls horizontal editing. If an entry is wrong, readers and other bloggers react immediately. “It’s a collective process of correcting mistakes,” Coyne says, adding that it’s a level of interactivity mainstream publications can’t compete with. “People say that no one edits blogs, but Jayson Blair proved that no one’s editingThe New York Times either,” he told me. Although the Times editors screwed that one up large, it’s silly to say the paper isn’t edited. Though Coyne said the same thing on CBC’sInside Media in October, it didn’t sound as ludicrous on TV as it looks in print.
Coyne’s jab at the world’s most respected newspaper may have been mostly in jest, but not everyone is amused by his defence of horizontal editing. “People who dismiss editors are wrong for doing so,” says Dan Gillmor, the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People. “Editing is more than just fact checking. Although readers check facts, it’s very rare that people will correct typos or do more than basic fact checks. The conversation can be interesting, but it’s a mistake to assume it’s editing.” Gillmor’s right. I’ve been corrected by a reader only once: an anonymous technology manager informed me that “Internet” is spelled with a capital “I.” “Down-caps style is incorrect no matter what they may be teaching at J-school these days,” he commented. Sor-ry.
While style glitches can be embarrassing, some errors are more serious. Steve Outing of the Florida-basedPoynter Institute makes another case for editing: an extra pair of eyes, he says, helps when it comes to legal liability. “A libellous statement left online for even a day puts a blogger at tremendous risk,” he wrote in aPoynter Institute article. Tony Walsh, a Canadian blogger and freelance journalist, says that as blog writers start to get sued, they’ll begin to understand terms like “libel” and “slander,” and blogging will become more like “serious business.”
Even as blogs become serious business, few media outlets have established any policies to govern the practice. Akin suggests his editors care about his site as much as they care if he had peas for dinner, to which Globeandmail.com editor Angus Frame replies, “I’m excited to hear David had peas for dinner – it’s important to have a balanced diet.” Frame says the Globe’s only rule is that when its journalists are on the clock, they cannot be working for another organization. Financial Post managing editor Charles Lewis says the paper’s writers can’t write stories for other publications if they haven’t pitched it to the Post first. So breaking a story on a blog is “a big no-no here.”
One place blogs get a big yes-yes is in the classroom. Belleville, Ontario’s Loyalist College is in the fifth year of its e-journalism program, so I took a road trip. At 9 A.M., instructor Robert Washburn takes off an oversized blazer, rolls up his sleeves, and, smelling of Froot Loops, he’s raring to go. For his 12 students – all of whom maintain their own news blogs – Washburn’s enthusiasm is infectious. Later, in his office – a small space crammed with two 12-packs of Diet Coke, a Ziploc container of jelly beans, a gigantic bottle of Listerine, and mounds of disks, VHS tapes, and folders on the floor – he talks about the blog community. “It’s about a relationship with an audience that works with you. The press is disconnected from their audience and now we’re connected. What a dynamic and beautiful way to deliver the news! It’s humanizing.”
While some believe that blogs are humanizing, others say they’re a cheap form of exhibitionism. Bill Doskoch, a CTV.ca writer, started his blog, Media, Politics, Film and Minutiae, in August 2004, and was nominated for Best New Blog at the 2004 Canadian Blog Awards. So it’s no surprise that his site generates about 15,000 visitors a month, compared to my measly 1,000 tops. I called to interview him at 11 A.M. one January morning. He’d been posting to his site until after 4 A.M. the night before and I’m pretty sure I woke him up. Doskoch believes his blog makes him a better journalist, and being a journalist makes him a better blogger, but calls the echo-chamber effect their biggest weakness. “Blogs are mostly read by your virtual friends. It’s a like-minded club and doesn’t offer as much honest debate as it could,” he says, adding he’s never received one critique. “You need debate to test and strengthen ideas, but most of the people who leave comments on my blog tend to like what I have to say.” Other journalists I spoke with take this even further, speaking of bloggers as egomaniacs who like the sound of their own voices. “Blogging strikes me as an arrogant thing to do,” says Wells, “and arrogance is not a particular stumbling block for me.”
More than arrogant, some old-time reporters think bloggers are plain old lazy. Former CBS news correspondent Eric Engberg made himself clear in his “Blogging as typing, not journalism” article onCBSNews.com last November. “Given their lack of expertise, standards and, yes, humility,” he wrote, “the chances of the bloggers replacing mainstream journalism are about as good as the parasite replacing the dog it fastens on.” The dog certainly bit back when it revealed that Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, who averages more than 350,000 visitors a day to his Daily Kos political blog, was paid US$12,000 to promote Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Meanwhile, legend has it that columnists used to wear out shoe leather getting material for stories, whereas today’s pajama-clad columnists sit at their computers, communicating with self-selected readers, skipping the pavement-pounding research that, theoretically, great journalism is based on. I figured my favourite old-school journalist, Post columnist George Jonas, would take a hard line on this matter, but he surprised me. When it comes to research, he says, there’s no right or wrong method. “Some writers feel research involves talking to people, making going places essential to the process; and some feel that reading books and other materials is enough to formulate an opinion. It depends on what works for the piece and what works for the writer.”
Some level of research will always be in, but critics say blogs may ultimately be out. It’s impressive that blogs went from 0 to 100 km/h in two years, says American University journalism professor W. Joseph Campbell, but “burnout or blogger fatigue is likely to set in soon.” It already has for Nestruck, who expects to shut down On the Fence soon, but isn’t sure when. “It sometimes feels like a weight around my neck,” he wrote on my blog. And I know where he’s coming from. I often feel like Maud Newton, a blogger who wrote in an October/November Maisonneuve article, “I’m paralyzed with guilt if I take a day off.” At Toronto hot spot Bar Italia, a dimple-chinned Nestruck expanded on the subject. “I don’t know why I’m writing it anymore. Rather than half formulating an idea, I’d rather spend some real time on it. It seems half-assed to me – I wish I could do it all out or not at all.”
But if that’s how writers feel, what are the readers thinking? A few days after the American election, I posted an excerpt from Andrew Sullivan’s U.S.-based blog. A well-known gay conservative, Sullivan averages about 30,000 visits a day to his political blog. His post, thanking the 330,000 readers who dropped by on election day, made me wonder if blog readership would die down with the election over.
“People have a dangerous tendency to treat new trends with an evangelical vibe,” says Wells, the man behind Inkless Wells, one of the best political blogs in the country. “I don’t like to get cosmic about blogs because I think it’s a fad. Blogging is the CB radio of the 21st Century.” Harsh words from a Canadian blogger. But then, wasn’t it Bill Gates who said the Internet was a passing fad?
Still, those who say blogs are a fad are in the minority. Even William Safire of the Times wrote: “The ‘platform’ – print, TV, Internet, telepathy, whatever – will change, but the public hunger for reliable information will grow.” Washburn is even more optimistic. “When I’m in an old folks’ home eating porridge,” he says, “this is what you’ll be doing.” And he may be right. I won’t be leaving the blogosphere any time soon. Now officially an Internet geek, I’m quite attached to my virtual friends and use other blogs, as well as reader comments, as daily resources. Although Blog on Blog will end with this article, I know I’ll start another one soon.
Stephanie Girardi was a Spring 2015 departments editor of the RRJ.