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Crashing the Blog Party

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rants are pulsing through the blog-o-sphere again, which, on most days, would mean that the online community is in its usual state of trippy high drama. Except that, this time, the topic is a radical expansion of the blog-o-sphere itself, one that would include a contingent of--quick, bottoms up on the Red Bull--traditional journalists (the ones who write, as the lexicon has it, dead-tree pieces).

In the quirky world known as the blog-o-sphere, hundreds of thousands of ordinary individuals run Web logs, or “blogs,” interactive newsletters of sorts with bite-sized chunks of copy updated daily, or, in some extremes, several times an hour. On the personal Web sites, bloggers post tidbits of commentary and host unfiltered public forums in which rumors fly, news is weighed and the blog-o-sphere’s stars (known simply as Dave, Meg or Evan) are pondered. The most popular bloggers build a sense of community by linking to each other and writing in a voice that cartwheels off the page, as a distinct alternative to what they see as the distant, establishment voice of newspaper journalists and others. Hence, the latest angst-filled question: Whither the blog-o-sphere, not to mention the future of the news media as we know it?

Recently, there have been unmistakable signs that blogs are seeping into the popular consciousness. In July, for instance, New York Times language watcher William Safire wrote a column on the use of the word “blog, " noting that the term came into vogue three years ago. “Blog” also is under consideration as a new entry in no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary.

And consider: This fall, UC Berkeley is offering a class on Web logs for the first time--through its highly regarded Graduate School of Journalism. Since spring 2000, journalism students at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication have produced a Web log. This semester, at Cal State Stanislaus, an assistant communications professor is teaching an undergraduate class on the history of journalism that will cover “blogs as a new journalistic form.”

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The blog-o-sphere already includes members of the traditional media, such as MSNBC and the San Jose Mercury News, which have staff journalists who write Web logs for their organizations’ sites.

Though no official statistics exist, unofficial estimates put the number of blogs at 200,000 to 500,000. Blogs have “achieved critical mass,” said David Weinberger, author of “Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web” (Perseus, 2002). Most news organizations eventually will be forced to respond to the influence of the blog-o-sphere, predicted Weinberger, a technology commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

“You can go with a well-researched, vetted, authoritative voice. Or you can find 50 voices [on a blog] that are wildly, hugely passionate, often one-sided and frequently wrong, but presenting a wider spectrum of viewpoints. That is frequently a better way of getting at the truth,” he said.

Blogs have been thriving since late 1999, when free software became available that made it easy for anyone to create and update the sites and become an “amateur publisher.” Some blogs are little more than online journals. Others have themes--for instance, www.popculturejunkmail. com, which covers “trashy TV, British royalty, the 1980s, toys” and more, is written as an independent undertaking by MSNBC’s travel editor.

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The best bloggers have signature voices in print, spinning news and musings the way a Rush Limbaugh does, or an Oprah Winfrey, and with the same sort of loyal followings. Until Sept. 11, though, even the most well-known blogs still were being read in relatively tight circles and largely ignored by the journalistic establishment.

On the day of the terrorist attacks, when masses of people logged on to the Internet for information, the Web sites of major news media either crashed or failed to provide timely updates. Bloggers noted huge upswings in traffic to their sites and in e-mailed comments from the public (e-mails are posted instantly in a forum that has been likened to an infinite and unedited letters-to-the-editor page). As a result, bloggers, who typically have day jobs, turned into “do-it-yourself journalists ... seeking out sources and sometimes assembling these ideas for others,” noted a study on Sept. 11 and the Internet released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In one chapter, Internet expert Alex Halavais noted that blogs often published first-person accounts of the terrorist attacks, some of which were compilations: “Many of these accounts do not follow the canons in fact checking, seeking out alternative or opposing views, or attempted impartiality. They are necessarily more socially constructed, and read more like rumors....” Still, wrote Halavais, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, “growing numbers of Americans seem to want to supplement the material they get from traditional media.” And these days, universities and colleges are giving the blog-o-sphere the sort of widespread legitimacy that bloggers are so very fond of dissing.

“Just when it was getting good,” wrote a reader on the Daily Pundit blog, “the academics show up to suck the marrow from an infant art and bind its feet so that it limps about like some rich man’s bride from China.” Added another reader in an English-challenged entry: “Berkely J-school ... looks like the parties over.”

On the blog Slashdot, a reader bemoaned the change: “For those of us old enough to remember, the [core] blog phenomenon could turn into an amusing rerun of the mainstreaming of sixties hippie culture by seventies marketing weenies.... We’re gonna need a new buzzword pretty soon that means ‘painfully lame yet expertly produced synthetic blog.’ ”

Following the blog-o-sphere’s credo of referencing each other’s works, the co-creator of Berkeley’s new course, veteran journalist Paul Grabowicz, lists a selection of other reaction through links on www.journalism.berkeley.edu/prog ram/newmediaclasses/weblogs/, the class’ home page.

As part of the course, students will produce a Web log exploring intellectual property issues that arise in areas such as Napster and copyrights on the Internet, said Grabowicz, director of the journalism school’s New Media Program.

Grabowicz, who is co-teaching the course with Wired magazine co-founder John Battelle, said he understood, but doesn’t agree with, the angst over the possible co-opting of the blog-o-sphere by major media. Instead, Grabowicz sees an expanded community populated by bloggers and by journalists applying the profession’s basic principles of accuracy, fairness and integrity. “The journalists can still do what journalists do in a Web log format and work with the people who are responding to that stuff [via an online airing],” said Grabowicz, "....Out of that comes maybe not a better story but a different story with hopefully more collective knowledge.”

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The bloggers-versus-journalists distinction already is hard to pin down. News of Berkeley’s course, Grabowicz pointed out, was first reported in a blog and then picked up by traditional media. In a wager outlined on www.longbets.org/bet/2, in fact, pioneer blogger Dave Winer, who runs Scripting News, bet New York Times Digital CEO Martin Nisenholtz that in 2007, in a Google search of that year’s top five news stories, Web logs will outrank the newspaper’s Web site.

At USC this semester, journalism students in online classes will study the Web log phenomenon, said Larry Pryor, director of the Annenberg Online Program. “Web logs are now a very important form of communication,” said Pryor, a former Los Angeles Times journalist. “The only question is, are they all journalism? I’m not going to answer that one.... I think our Web log, onlinejournalism.com, is clearly journalism. It’s done by students. They receive training. It’s edited before it goes up. It’s timely. It’s objective and informative.”

So do bloggers have to contribute original stories, rather than simply commenting on links, to be considered journalists? USC’s bloggers, who cover the world of online journalism, are writing their own stories, said graduate student Melissa Milios, the site’s managing editor. “You’re not getting the source firsthand, you’re not getting the quote firsthand,” she acknowledged.

But reporters might rewrite a story, giving credit to the original source, and emphasize another aspect, while adding a perspective in their own words. “It is journalism,” Milios said, “but it is a hybrid.... I think that journalism is original writing and reporting, so that would be my definition. I think we’re doing the original writing, and we’re reporting that this obscure African Web site is reporting ‘this,’ a journalist in Zimbabwe wrote ‘this.’ To that extent, we’re reporting.”

Berkeley’s Grabowicz said he isn’t sure if such a hybrid will catch on. “Whether [blogs] are going to sweep the nation and world, and ... transform the way we communicate, it’s way too early to tell.”


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