Newspaper readers who follow blogs remain cautious as they judge bloggers' credibility, but they say a willingness to challenge traditional journalists makes the network of personal sites a vital newcomer to the media scene.

About 20 percent of readers told a national group of newspaper editors that they read blogs at least sometimes, if not regularly. The responses were gathered in an online survey by the Associated Press Managing Editors' National Credibility Roundtables Project. The survey targeted the most interactive of newspaper users. This compares with a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which measured blogging's readership at about 11 percent of overall U.S. Internet users.

Readers who find blogs important say the online writers discuss stories mainstream journalists ignore, and are eager to question the decisions news networks make. They recognize the fallibilities that go along with blogging, but say those drawbacks are balanced out by openness, interactivity, and a communal nature that helps honesty rise to the top.

"If someone posts something that is inaccurate or incorrect, hundreds of people will correct them -- and the good ones acknowledge any mistakes made," said Megan Casto of Olympia, Wash.

Readers get a greater overall view of the news, said Michael Hodges of Nashua, N.H., because each blogger speaks in the context of one big conversation. "In the aggregate, bloggers are much more balanced because they instantly call one another on bias, slant, errors in logic, and inadequate information. It's a network effect that is better than the mainstream 'networks.'"

This diversified approach helps bloggers hold the media accountable. "With more events like the CBS 'document scandal,' bloggers could have the effect of forcing a closer look at journalistic integrity and a much wider line of separation between commentary and news reporting," said Chad Shue of Everett, Wash.

All this has forced the traditional media to re-evaluate its relationship with readers newly empowered to speak out and challenge the system. And the public voice is getting louder.

"Already, bloggers such as Instapundit or DailyKos have bigger readerships than many daily newspapers," said Ken Layne, who's been blogging for five years, and an online journalist for 10. "For example, my local paper in Reno claims to reach about 60,000 readers a day. That's in a metro area of over a quarter-million people. Kos and Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit) easily surpass that, and they are lone Web-slingers compared to the hundreds of people needed to put out a daily newspaper."

Steve Outing, senior editor at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, has watched the evolution of blogging as it intersects with professional journalism. "I think they are influencing mainstream media to become more interactive, to treat news more as a conversation and a bit less as a lecture," he said. "Blogs are blurring the line between who is a 'journalist' and who's not. A growing number of mainstream news companies are inviting the public to blog under their brand names. Readers benefit by getting new viewpoints and new styles of coverage."

Still, according to the APME Credibility Roundtables survey, about four in five newspaper readers aren't reading blogs, so trying to gauge their place in the public conversation isn't as simple as tallying up site traffic. Those skipping out on the sites offered a variety of reasons; for many, the question didn't even make sense: "What the heck is a 'blog'?"

Some said that although they don't visit blogs now, the CBS memo controversy had convinced them that they should. And others said they'd sampled blogs but found them self-centered, rude, or lacking the level of credibility they were after. "I browse them once in a while," said Bill Gillam of Arlington, Wash. "I find them to be akin to listening to the guy in front of you talking to his buddy when you are at Starbucks."

"I applaud them for their involvement, their creativity, and their resourcefulness, but they are merely a modern version of the soapbox speaker in the town square," said Jerry Gillooly of Lambertville, Mich. "They're entitled to their opinions, and I'm entitled to ignore them."

This raises the question for someone new to blogs: How do you choose which writers to trust? Readers who perceive bias in the mainstream media are quick to note that most bloggers don't make a point of objectivity. But survey responses suggest that such bluntness is part of the appeal: Because bloggers are open about where they're coming from, readers feel like they're given the background necessary to personally weigh the report.

"Most of the time they report something and it's clear which side of the fence they're on -- they make no claim to impartial observation," said Joe Schweigert of Rochester, N.Y. "I wish I could say the same for the national and local news media."

Survey respondents also say experience is key. There's plenty of junk out there, but if you follow blogs for a while, it becomes easy to separate the good from the bad. Look for writers willing to treat an issue honestly, and those who can speak with authority.

"Bloggers that are talking about something in their field of expertise are much more trustworthy than mainstream media," said Jason Hartney of Pullman, Wash. "A news reporter talking about guns is a prime example (they generally know very little). Likewise, it is easy to tell when a blogger is outside his area of expertise."

"I cull through them until I trust them. I believe you can read a blog to reinforce your beliefs ... or you can read a blog and learn something," said Sydney Cardner of Lakeland, Fla. "If a blogger never varies on his opinion on a topic, I become suspect."

J.T. Mims of LaGrange, Ga., said trying to zero in on the credibility of individual bloggers is missing the point. "It's not so much 'trusting' one blogger over another. What matters is that ALL sides of any issue can be researched by looking at the viewpoints proffered by all sources. Ideally, the truth would be portrayed by some single source. However, this is not the case with the Internet nor with the old media."

Journalists aren't ignoring bloggers any more; neither are they just covering them as a trend story. They're citing them, fighting with them, and talking about what they're saying.

This rising profile has put bloggers in the pressbox at the 2004 Republican and Democratic national conventions, on the editorial pages of national newspapers, and on the air for television broadcasts. As the media considers just what this broadening definition of the news means, Outing suggests taking some lessons from bloggers' success:

  • Commit to interactivity. Blogs beg for two-way coverage; public response shows that readers are anxious to join the conversation. "That's not a new lesson in journalism, but it's one that in my view still hasn't been absorbed adequately by many mainstream journalists."

  • Read blogs related to your beats. They're a great source of stories ideas.

  • Experiment with form. "I don't think there's one definition of 'blog.' So play around with the form; think outside the box."

  • When news breaks, blog it. Say a volcano erupts, or a hurricane strikes. One page with the latest updates and varied information is really useful to readers.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen said it doesn't have to be hard for a newsroom to put blogs in a proper perspective.

"Take three intelligent, open-minded newsroom people from different generations: Closer to retirement, prime of career, young. Give them two hours a day to read blogs, separating the wheat from the chaff and concentrating on those of most use to their colleagues, and let them form attachments to weblogs they like. Continue for a month. Then have them advise their colleagues on what is and is not important about blogs."

About This Series

This Readers Speak survey was sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editor's National Credibility Roundtables Project through its Reader Interactive initiative. A total of 39 news organizations sent email to 16,575 regular readers, and 2,543 responses were received from 49 states and the District of Columbia, a response rate of 15 percent.

The results are not scientific; those who responded are likely to be among the more wired and interactive readers that newspapers have. They were polled because they had given their email address to their local newspaper, and comments were taken only online.

The National Credibility Roundtables Project is funded through a grant from the Ford Foundation, and is intended to help the media address the credibility crisis that exists with the public. The Reader Interactive initiative, as part of that project, has assisted newsrooms around the country in setting up reader email networks so that editors can be in better touch with readers. On occasion, the newsrooms involved in that initiative work together on a national Readers Speak survey such as this one.

There are three parts to this series.

Part 1: The latest credibility crisis involving a CBS "60 Minutes" report stains all media; readers suggest ways to solve the problems they see. Also, readers say they get their national election coverage from a wide variety of sources, but most say that coverage has had little or no effect on their decision.

Part 2: Despite the recent surge in interest regarding online Web logs, four of five readers surveyed say they don't read Web logs, or “blogs.” Those who do read blogs urge caution but suggest the new medium offers great potential as a watchdog of mainstream media.

Part 3: Readers rely on a small number of media sources for coverage of local elections, and are much more trusting of that coverage than of national election coverage. Newspapers still play a vital role.