On blogs and media

And now, a pause for a “meta” post…

Last Sunday (April 13), the Post-Standard ran a feature on the front page of its Op-Ed section called “Upstate Bloggers, Unite!” The article was by Brian Cubbison, assistant news editor at the paper, and (if you’ve been paying attention to Syracuse.com’s nest of blogs) the person behind their Upstate Blogs aggregator.

Now, RSS feeds are available to be grabbed from most any blog around – and if you run your own blog, depending on what is made available in the feed, you could conceivably re-publish the text of someone else’s blog on your own blog with as much or as little attribution as you see fit. I have some widgets that grab headlines from a couple of RSS feeds. I don’t know that newspapers do this a lot, though, so that makes the Syracuse.com project kind of interesting. And furthermore, I don’t know of too many newspapers that publish actual text from local blogs in the print edition. This happens on page A-2 of the PS often.

As for Sunday’s article, newspaper articles on blogging are usually the sort that “take a look at the phenomenon of blogging” and try to make a story out of that. That’s not what the PS article is about. It’s simply a preamble explaining the Upstate Bloggers online page at Syracuse.com and how it was done, and then excerpts from what bloggers (“independent [bloggers]” as the article stresses) have written. (But the Sunday piece doesn’t seem to have been made available online.)

The execution of Upstate Blogs on Syracuse.com has a not immediately apparent but important feature. It includes “Comment” links that lead back to the independent sites. That is, Syracuse.com is allowing their own reader traffic to move naturally to the originating blog, and off their own site and away from their own advertisers (the traffic may not necessarily come back!). This is not a minor matter. The impulse (or business model, if you will) of most online newspapers or portals is to scoop in the blog readers and their traffic, and to keep the commentariat hanging around their own pages. Online discussion is really the driver of the online “economy,” the true generator of page views — no matter how much a blogger blathers, it’s the comments everyone wants to read. Conversation is what is really desired. And everyone’s surfing time is limited, so you might wonder about such liberality of linking between corporate bloggers and independent ones.

However, it’s not just page-linking that has been going on.

A recent post on Danger Democrat illustrates the ambivalent relationship that many bloggers have with Big Media — or, just their local newspapers. Mainstream media and mainstream bloggers already have their minds made up about how things are and how they’re going to be.

But consider blogs back at the dawn of the Internet. This was before they became absorbed (or injected themselves) into the “new media” debate. Blog is short for “weblog,” emphasis on “log,” as in “ship’s log.” A weblog was originally a discovery and information accretion tool. The weblogger surfed the virgin net, logging daily discoveries (maybe with a quip or two, but often not) for the benefit of readers who didn’t have the time or knowledge of where to find interesting sites. The first weblogs were very general, and with a techno-geek flavor, since that was who used the Internet most often in those days. For a surviving example of this early style of weblogging, see the Presurfer. Or, check out English Russia, a weblog offering English-speakers the latest — or at least the weirdest — of the Russian web. These sites “pre-surf” the web for you. Before advertising and Google searches came along — and long before any newspapers had presences on the net — weblogs like these were “news” services offered to the Internet community, a human way to organize and interpret an unruly, mostly uncharted web.

Today, blogging as an activity has evolved very far both from its roots as an expression of raw curiosity, and from its previous mission of “community service.” When money, corporations and political operatives moved in, both the curiosity and spirit of community service morphed into something different. I don’t have much to say here about modern blogging, as a business model, that hasn’t already been discussed by any number of blogging professionals. (However, just to be clear, what they’re talking about is not the type of modern blogging I’m talking about; so if you want advice on search engine optimization, or driving up page views, or how to creatively rehash the most linked-to topics on Technorati, etc, you might want to stop reading now.)

Then there are the charged arguments about “old media” and “new media.” These often come to a head on the bigger political blogs. It’s very much in the business model of those blogs to have comparable ad traffic to “old media,” so of course the strenuous arguments about the legitimacy or delegitimacy of “new” and “old” media are very popular. Though it’s not as if those arguments haven’t been interesting at times.

From the other end, you have probably also heard about strategies by “old media” (struggling print publications and news networks and the like) to incorporate “new media” — blogs and their bloggers. Often what you see happening is someone on corporate media payroll — a Wonkette, or maybe a famous journalist or prominent columnist — setting up a blog which is still essentially top-down. Even if they have a huge and lively loyal commentariat on their blog, from which they may occasionally read the zeitgeist tea leaves, or even draw actual tips, you’ll note that the corporate media blogger (and the average newspaper staff blogger) rarely descends into their own comments area themselves. Needless to say, they rarely or never appear in the comments area of someone else’s blog. (There are other reasons for this besides indifference…)

As noted in the introduction to the Sunday PS piece, this wall between journalists and bloggers has not been universally maintained in Syracuse. That is another aspect that goes beyond liberal page-linking. I don’t even think it’s a “small-town” thing, as I’m aware of other newspapers in the region where journalists have blogs, but still do not get down into the comments, and do not seem to openly venture offsite. I think it’s pretty intriguing – not that anyone outside of Syracuse ever appears interested when I mention it to them!

So, when it comes to the interface between newspapers (or other media) and blogs, what’s the use of these relatively liberal policies, practices or impulses? I can’t comment on anyone else’s business or journalistic model… but I have a few more thoughts on journalism, curiosity and community service as it relates to the “blogging side,” which I hope to get to in another post.