The Wide, Wide World of Blogs 

And the agony of new media

We are living in a new world of journalism. It is the dawn of the new independent journalist and while many have hopes for the new medium of blogging, it is going through its own unique growing pains. Blogging has become one of the fastest-growing Internet fads, but until last fall's presidential election most people had no idea of their existence, much less their power and widespread use.

An estimated eight million Americans currently operate their own blogs, and even more read them. But just who is plugging into these blogs might surprise you. Blogads.com conducted a survey of over 30,000 blog readers from the most popular blog Web sites and found that 75 percent of their readers are over 30 years old, 43 percent earn more than $90,000 per year and 75 percent were men. On the other hand, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported in January that 62 percent of people who use the Internet are unable to tell you what a blog is.

If you are part of that 62 percent, then "blog" is short for Web log. It is an online journal, usually updated quite frequently. It is a grandmother posting her daily recipe; a libertarian with his daily rant about the Federal government eating away at his rights; a humorist poking fun at Hollywood; a small town gossip column; and it is an investigative journalist who works for the mainstream media by day and then blogs by night. In other words, blogs are anything the blogger wants them to be.

While some bloggers are journalists exploring and using a new, nearly instantaneous medium, there are also those who have entered the mainstream journalism world through their blogs. Bloggers have broken major news stories and some have become media pundits. Ana Marie Cox, whose popular blog "Wonkette" comments on Washington, D.C. politics, is now seeing her byline in major newspapers and in magazines like Wired. Dan Rather's downfall can be attributed to blogger's almost immediate analysis and eventual proving of the faked documents in the Bush National Guard story (overshadowing the original valid story in the first place). James Guckert, who recently made headlines by getting issued press-passes to the White House under the name Jeff Gannon, was exposed through blogs as working for a conservative organization and being a male prostitute.

Blogs are grassroots journalism at its best. And while the instantaneous nature of the blog world has broken stories extremely quickly, individual blogs leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to accuracy. Bloggers don't have the resources that media organizations do to investigate stories. They don't have editors, fact checkers, libel lawyers nor travel budgets. As a result, they rely more on rumor, tend to editorialize and contain looser ethical reporting standards. Most bloggers aren't trained journalists so they don't follow the general reporting rules that professional journalists are required to follow.

But that doesn't answer the question of whether bloggers are journalists. Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media program at the UC Berkley Graduate School of Journalism was recently quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, "Under the First Amendment of the Constitution, I would be hard-pressed to find any distinction between bloggers and journalists."

Yet that is exactly what courts and federal agencies are questioning. Are bloggers journalists? Recently, a Santa Clara County, California, court ruled that three blogs that published leaked information about Apple Computer's as yet unreleased products do not enjoy the California shield law which protects journalists from revealing their sources. A reporter publishing the same information in a traditional newspaper would not have to reveal a sources. Ironically, one of the Apple bloggers, who must now expose his sources, is a student journalist by day for the Harvard Crimson.

To non-journalists this may seem like an open and shut case. However, if journalists cannot protect whistle-blowers from employee confidentiality rules-as happened in the Enron scandal-then it sends a chilling effect across America that you had better not talk to a journalist, even if you know something is wrong or illegal.

It's not just whistle-blowing that is in danger. It is freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is considering whether campaign rules apply to the Internet and whether to fine bloggers who improperly link to political campaign sites and forward campaign press releases to mailing lists of supporters. The FEC is arguing that the bloggers are acting on behalf of political campaigns. Critics of the proposed policies say blogging is no different than putting a bumper sticker for a politician on your car.

Dave Winer, a blogger since 1997 and one of the Blogosphere's pioneers, sees no difference between bloggers and journalists. "We can't have two classes," he recently told the Chronicle. "To the extent that may have worked in the past, it won't work in the future. Basically everyone is a journalist or nobody is."

But federal, state and city governments are discriminating against individual journalists and reconsidering who give issues press passes to these days. The White House, for instance, only issued its first ever day pass to a blogger recently.

Dick Rogers, writing for the Chronicle, recently said, "Asking whether bloggers are journalists is also the wrong question because it confuses the medium with the messengers." His recommendation: "Let's see blogs with conflict of interest and ethics policies, rules that quotes have to reflect what someone actually said, standards for correcting mistakes," all standards that are typically established at newspapers, radio and television news departments. Rogers said that ultimately, "Consumers will decide which bloggers are journalists based on what they're willing to read and what they're willing to trust."

On BW's new redesigned Web site we will soon explore the possibility of a blog community. If you are interested in creating your own blog, being on BW's blog link list or just want to find out more e-mail editor@boiseweekly.com and put "blog" in the subject line.

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