The Blog-Only News Diet
Last week, blogger and public relations executive Steve Rubel conducted a news experiment: He gave up his regular media habits (newspaper, online, radio, and to a lesser extent TV) and learned what was going on in the world solely by checking weblogs.
His intent: See if at this stage in the evolution of blogging, weblogs are an adequate entry point to current events -- if they could replace more traditional forms for people who want to learn what's going on in the world.
Rubel could do no clicking through to articles cited in the weblogs, only read what bloggers wrote. He averted his eyes as he passed newsstands on his way to work in Manhattan. He left the room if his fiance turned on the television. And he changed the subject when family members started talking about Iraq or other current events.
After a week, Rubel -- a blogging aficionado and practitioner who writes about the narrow topic of how blogs and participatory journalism are affecting the practice of public relations -- says he definitely lacked the depth of knowledge of current events gained in a normal week. "I felt a little naked," he says, having received the basics of the week's news from blogs, but not getting the real meat.
I agreed to participate in his experiment by sending him a short "news quiz" -- 20 questions in the areas of news, business, sports, and entertainment. After grading him over the weekend, I can see that he's right. While getting most of my questions right (12 out of 20), he missed some stories that most people would have picked up by consuming a traditional media diet.
While knowing why President Bush hired a criminal lawyer last week, and the official reasons cited for George Tenet's resignation from the CIA, Rubel missed actor Daniel Radcliffe's statement that he thinks his Harry Potter character will die at the end of the J.K. Rowling book series. He didn't catch ex-Beatle Paul McCartney's admission that he tried heroin and was a cocaine user. And he missed more obscure stories, such as one of Seattle's famed monorail trains catching fire.
What did he learn?
Rubel learned a few things during the week-long experiment -- one of them being that he'll happily return to a normal media diet and continue to include blogs in that mix. Among his insights:
- Some news travels very quickly in the blog world. Speculation about the real reason behind CIA director George Tenet's resignation was on blogs within minutes of the first reports.
- Yet, many blogs tend to be about a day behind in discussing news stories. On a day-to-day basis, Rubel says, you probably wouldn't want to rely on some blogs to keep up with the pace of events.
- Some of the blog aggregation sites -- Blogdex, Technorati, Memeorandum, Daypop, Popdex, Blogsnow -- are very good at keeping you up to date. Such services link to the most popular news stories of the day as ranked by the number of bloggers who link to the stories. Using those sites, you're sure to stay abreast of the top headlines of the day.
- Rubel felt that, on the whole, he got a more liberal than conservative slant on the news from reading a wide variety of blogs. (Then again, he may not have found enough conservative blogs to track.)
- The world of news-related blogs is largely very professional. Many blog sites are well-designed, well-written, and well-edited. That's not to say that of the millions of blogs on the Web -- the majority of them personal projects -- many aren't poorly designed and chock full of bad writing and editing errors. But at the top of the genre, those bloggers do a credible and professional job.
- There's not a great deal of innovation in terms of storytelling technique. We're still talking about text and a few static images, mostly. (Rubel did see the widely distributed photo last week of President Bush fighting a wind-damaged umbrella, for example.) But when it comes to audio, video, Flash, and interactive content -- for the most part, forget it.
Prior to starting his experiment, Rubel spent time researching blogs to find the best ones to keep him informed of general news. As you would expect, there's lots to choose from, and he found some blogs that he'd never heard of -- and neither had I -- to be outstanding sources.
For overall news, he relied mostly on the blog-aggregation sites. Sites like Blogdex calculate what the blogging community is writing about most on any given day, and as a means to simply see the most popular headlines of the day, Blogdex is (arguably) nearly as effective as Google News. Rubel also was quite taken with Memeorandum, a new website that presents an hourly synopsis of the latest online news and opinion, combining weblog commentary with traditional news reports. That may have been the most overall useful site in executing his experiment, he says.
Otherwise, general-news headlines came from such blogs as Drudge Report (and Drudge Retort) and Instapundit. Then there were the useful political blogs, like Electablog and Political Wire.
For keeping track of news in topic niches, blogs do quite well. Rubel says that the Hollywood news/gossip blog Defamer turned out to be the best source of entertainment news. Defamer is part of Nick Denton's Gawker Media stable of PG-13 and R-rated city and topic blogs. For sports, Rubel found SportsBlog to be excellent, as well as Baseball Musings, Notes From a Basketball Junkie, and ThePostGame.
For business news, blogs turned out to be slightly less useful. Rubel found many of his business headlines via the blog aggregators and a few news blogs that mix business in with other stuff. He read several marketing blogs, and picked up some tech headlines from Gizmodo (another Denton blog).
It's these topical blogs where there's still opportunity for new bloggers to make waves, Rubel thinks. For instance, he didn't find many stock blogs. And he sees some opportunities still open within sports. An enterprising blogger/journalist could do well by figuring out how to own a topic -- blogging the Tour de France, or Wimbledon, for instance. We're early enough in the game that bloggers with talent and some marketing smarts can become the primary entry point for people looking to stay current on niche topics. There remain topics that no one has grabbed yet. (This is the strategy of companies like Denton's Gawker Media and Jason Calacanis' Weblogs Inc.)
Far from perfect news source
What, if anything, can we take away from Rubel's blog-only diet experiment? Probably that blogs remain in their infancy, despite the wave of press they've received in the last year. They provide a reasonable, but far from perfect, entry point into the news space, better at offering commentary and starting conversations than serving a current-events-indicator role.
Paul Grabowicz, director of the new media program at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, points out that recent studies (most notably the Pew Foundation's) show blogging is still in the early adopter phase; audience penetration percentage is still in the single digits.
Grabowicz thinks that blogs do hold serious promise in the near future, not so much for general news but for niche topics. Indeed, well-written and smart blogs can give business-to-business publications and websites a serious run for their money, he says, by serving up news that's not reported by mainstream media on a daily basis and even by beating some B2B publishers to publication.
Industry niche blogs also serve up better contextual information and are better at getting conversations going. B2B publishers best watch their backs -- or better, figure out how to build B2B blogging into their business models.
Feeding the beast
Rubel did his week-long experiment with the help of RSS feeds -- using an RSS reader application to keep track of new posts to dozens of different blogs. RSS (sometimes called "webfeeds") made such an experiment less of an ordeal than having to visit all those blogs every day.
But Grabowicz is uncertain of how blogging as current-events source will play out in the long run. He cites his own behavior in using an RSS reader to track multiple blogs: the posts stack up unread as he gets busy and distracted by other work and tasks. (This has been my experience as well.) While RSS is handy, Grabowicz quips, "I hope it doesn't go the way of Pointcast."
Finally, what about Rubel's experiment? Was it just a publicity stunt dreamed up by a smart PR guy? Rubel, of course, insists it's not. It was merely a modest test to try to see how far the blogging world has come, he says -- whether people can now rely on the "blogosphere" to be their entry point to the world of news and still be well-informed. It did not test whether bloggers could completely replace mainstream news -- of course they can't, since most do little if any original reporting but rather link to mainstream-media sources -- but only a glimpse at how well bloggers in mid-2004 handle the entry gate to news.
If anything, perhaps Rubel's experiment will spur more serious research into the blogging phenomenon.