Journalism in the Age of Blogs

Turbulence in the blogosphere will continue to affect mainstream journalism for the foreseeable future. Wind and rain, harsh criticism and second-guessing will remain part of the weather system influencing newsrooms throughout the country.

Get used to it.

Then figure out how to deal with it.

The latest storm swirls around the validity of a memo about President Bush’s National Guard service allegedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian in 1973.

The LA Times reported earlier this week that CBS Anchor Dan Rather hadn’t even signed off Sixty Minutes II when critics began to question his report. Within hours, a guy with the screen  name of Buckhead (so far, he’s refused to be identified) posted this observation to www.freerepublic.com , an open weblog:

Every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman.

In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts.

The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90′s. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn’t used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80′s used monospaced fonts.

I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.

This should be pursued aggressively.

And it was. In the week that followed, the American media and public went to school on the evolution of type and font. We also got an education on the blogosphere, which looks a lot like what Free Speech advocates call the marketplace of ideas.

We journalists are no longer the gatekeepers in the marketplace of ideas. The doors have been flung wide open by the egalitarian nature of the Internet and when you look at the big picture you see – chaos. You see a medium in its infancy, howling and kicking against the limitations of the world into which it was born.

The surplus of stories about the blogosphere reflects an attempt to explain and gauge this creature to ourselves, as well as to the many readers and viewers who don’t participate and perhaps aren’t even aware of the cacophony of commentary and criticism.

Here are a couple of  columns on the subject, one by William Safire of The New York Times and the other by Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News

The chatter over the memos about President Bush’s National Guard Service is an object lesson for journalists. We should monitor the blogosphere the way we monitor other subcultures we might have ignored in the past — by looking and listening. We should recognize that, like cable television and tabloid newspapers, the Internet is a force that will change the way we cover the news. (Remember the O.J. chase or the opening of the Persian Gulf War on cable news? Remember Gary Hart and Monkey Business?)

Blogs are even more powerful. Information travels at the speed of light, yet with unpredictable force. And bloggers play many roles as they influence the world of journalism. The roles include:

  • Watchdog guarding the watchdog – Bloggers question and criticize the professional media, who question and criticize and the powerful. That’s what Buckhead was doing when he posted his comment about typewriters to FreeRepublic.
  • Newsmaker – Some bloggers make news. That’s what 26-year-old Jessica Cutler did earlier this summer when she dubbed herself The Washingtonienne and published the details of her busy sex life on blogger.com. The online diary included thinly veiled references to White House and Congressional staffers. Thanks to a link from another blog, Wonkette, all of Capitol Hill got to read it. She deleted the blog.  She got fired. She posed for Playboy and got a six-figure book deal. And the Washington Post Magazine did a great story on Aug. 15.
  • Newsbreaker – This is how Trent Lott lost his job as Senate Majority Leader in 2002. Among the bloggers agitating for action was Andrew Sullivan, who used his blog, The Daily Dish, to stir up a tempest over comments Lott made at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday.  Lott suggested that if Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948, the country would not have “all these problems.” Sullivan was among the bloggers urging Lott to step down.  
In its many roles, the blogosphere will make us better journalists. Blogs have formed to monitor individual newsrooms and even certain journalists.

It’s a sure bet that bloggers will continue to challenge and undermine the work of journalists. In response, journalists will get better and tougher. Anticipating the constant scrutiny, reporters will tell readers and editors where they got their information, why they think it’s sound, what they did to check out their sources.

Journalists can no longer assume the audience will trust the story. Instead, newsrooms will take extra steps to articulate their mission and educate their audience with every story, every day. This is what we did. This is how we did it. This is why you should trust us. We used to hide all this. We didn’t want the competition retracing our steps, tracking down our sources, doing a better story. The mystery of making the news is no longer worth preserving. 

CORRECTION: This column was corrected to accurately reflect the time of Buckhead’s posting to www.Freerepublic.com.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column referred incorrectly to the former title of Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who lost his position as Senate Majority Leader after bloggers objected to his comments at a party celebrating the 100th birthday of Sen. Strom Thurmond.

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