Blogging and Other Citizen Journalism: What's Their Impact on Mainstream Media, Politics, Democracy?

Blogging tools such as the one we're using right now allow journalists and nonjournalists alike to self-publish to the world. Sometimes the tool is used to create a personal journal or travelogue; sometimes it's use to round up lots of published writing and links on one topic; sometimes it's used to report, write and update a story on deadline; sometimes it's used strictly for commentary--and to build a community of like-minded people.

I’ve heard numerous definitions of blogging, including these given a few years back by blogger-journalists participating in a national Online News Association conference in Berkeley, Calif.:

• “It’s a template with dynamic content, updated frequently, with links. It doesn’t have to be commentary.” — Denise Polverine, then editor in chief of Cleveland.com, which started several Weblogs in spring 2003
• “It’s a new form of journalism. It’s irreverent, it’s not in the authoritarian male voice … and transparency is important.” -- Sheila Lennon, who writes a blog on www.projo.com
• “Blogging is a conversation…” – Jeff Jarvis, president and creative director of Advance.net and author of the blog the BuzzMachine

Others have tried to define it in writing:

“Call it participatory journalism or journalism from the edges. Simply put, it refers to individuals playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, sorting, analyzing and disseminating news and information — a task once reserved almost exclusively to the news media.”-- J.D. Lasica, senior editor of OJR, writing in the fall 2003 Nieman Reports

“It should be obvious that Weblogs aren’t competing with the work of the professional journalism establishment, but rather complementing it.” — Managing Editor Scott Rosenberg writing in Salon in 2002.

Many would agree on these descriptions: blogs are updated often, from the top down; they include reader comments and questions; they include links to documents or stories; they can build a nongeographic community based on interests, or a geographic community based on shared locale; they are sometimes reported, but often simply commentary or roundups based on others' reporting; they are sometimes but not always written with attitude and edge.

Leslie Walker, who until late-summer 2006 wrote a dot.com column for The Washington Post, reported that free blogging tools have been available since 1999, but they didn’t catch on in a big way until the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. She quoted Evan Williams, chief executive of one of the earliest tools — blogger.com — saying that site had more than a million registered users in early 2003.

Technorati, which allows users to search for blogs, was tracking almost 113 million sites as of November 2008.

Teens are turning to blogging and other forms of self-publishing in a big way: A December 2007 press release from the Pew Internet & American Life Project stated that 64 percent of online teenagers ages 12 to 17 engage in at least one type of content creation; 28 percent of online teens have created their own blog.

Web logs have also played an important role in emerging democracies.

Jeff Jarvis estimated, for instance, that in 2003 there were about 100,000 Weblogs in Iran. He said: “Countries without free speech are finding free speech in Weblogs.”

Are there negatives to blogging?
Tom Regan, associate editor of csmonitor.com, wrote in the fall 2003 Nieman Reports: “In the eyes of many journalists, blogs are poorly written, self-absorbed, hyper-opinionated, and done by amateurs.”

Some have called the nonjournalists who sometimes write them a threat to the gatekeeper role that news organizations have held.

On the flip side, supporters have argued: “They introduce fresh voices into the national discourse on various topics and help build communities of interest through their collection of links.” — Walter Mossberg writing in the Wall Street Journal in March 2003.

On a personal note: Friends and students have found blogs are a good way to stay in touch with friends and family, while traveling or studying abroad.

Bloggers’ Influence

And, of course, lots of political stories have been influenced by bloggers. Among them:

• Then-Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott’s comments in 2002 about how the country would have been better off had it elected segregationist presidential candidate Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 eventually cost him his leadership post. Initially, the mainstream media ignored Lott's comments, which he made at a birthday party for Thurmond. But bloggers kept the story alive, and Lott stepped down as minority leader.
• During the 2004 presidential election, bloggers questioned the credibility of CBS News Anchor Dan Rather’s September 2004 piece, which alleged President Bush had used influence to evade the draft and join the Texas National Guard. Bloggers raised the possibility that the documents Rather and his producers built the story around had been forged; Rather later resigned the anchor job.

In addition, blogs come in handy in times of crisis.

For instance, citizen reporters and bloggers helped to detail and put a face on the devastation of the 2004 tsunamis in South Asia.

They helped the Times Picayune in New Orleans to report on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005.

And citizen journalists and blogs brought video and still images to the world from the scene of the Virginia Tech shootings in Blacksburg, Va., in April 2007.

Getting Started

To start blogging, read up on and choose one of the commonly used blogging publishing tools:

blogger.com (you're on it!)
livejournal.com (for blogging and social networking)
MySpace.com (for blogging and social networking)

To see how others are using blogs, do some searches on Technorati.com.

For your assignment this week:
Read the published readings attached to your syllabus for this week (week 13):

Then, check out four well-established blogs, for content and interactivity:

Buzz Machine;

E-Media Tidbits; and

Romenesko, PLUS:

One blog of your choosing.
(If you don't have one you that view regularly, search through technorati.com to find one to review.)

For each of the five blogs, answer these questions in a Word doc, which you will attach in an e-mail and send to me before the end of class Wednesday. Give just a couple of paragraphs per blog:

1. Is this a reported blog, commentary, or an aggregation of lots of links and info? And how good is the content?
2. How easy is it to navigate and find archival entries?
3. How well does it encourage reader interaction?
4. How could the blog be improved?

That's it! Looking forward to reading your e-mails.

Happy Thanksgiving! Chris

Backgrounds Matter for Video: Palin's Gobblegate

If you had any doubts about how important the background is on the video you shoot, take a look at this clip of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin chatting with reporters after she gave a turkey its Thanksgiving pardon. If you're like me, you'll find it impossible to concentrate on Palin's words, as the man behind her proceeds to end the life of another turkey. (Alert to the squeamish: This could make you queasy.)


Poynter Institute video guru Al Tompkins reminds that when the eyes and ears are receiving competing messages in video, the eyes win. What we're hearing becomes difficult to process.

More on "gobblegate" from the Anchorage Daily News:

Putting LInks in Your Multimedia Stories

Class, I got a good question from one of you, about where to put your required two "Related Links" on the story page of your multimedia project.

To make them stand out, and to also make them easy to find, I'd recommend you put most related links in the table you're creating for your top-of-page photo. In that case, your photo table would have three rows: one for your image; one for your photo caption and photo credit; and one for your related links. Here's an example, from one of my Maryland Newsline students:


If you handle it this way, please make sure your font face for your caption and related links is different than the font face for the body of your story. You don't want them all to blur together. On Newsline, our main text font face is Times New Roman, and our headlines, captions and related links are Arial.

Another way to handle some links, of course, is if a report or company is specifically cited in the text of the story, you could link to it right there in the story. See this example, which uses the side table for one link and the main story for others: