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Lines blur between blogs, newspapers

A marriage made in cyberspace: As traditional media gets 'bloggier,' blogs begin to look more like their traditional forebears.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2009

A marriage made in cyberspace. Only 3.5 percent of news stories appear first in the blogosphere and then percolate into traditional media.

Dan Vasconcellos

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When Jon Kleinberg wanted to study how news items bounced around the Internet, he set up an experiment. He tracked phrases in the news at the time – such as Barack Obama’s colorful presidential campaign line about putting “lipstick on a pig” – and traced their use online. For comparison, he split his analysis into two parts: the 20,000 or so “mainstream” news sources, as identified by Google News, and some 1.6 million “blogs.”

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The conclusion: Attention seemed to peak first among the “mainstream” sites – on average about 2-1/2 hours before interest surged in the blogging community.

That finding, released in a paper by Professor Kleinberg and two coauthors in July, needed to be interpreted very carefully because Google’s idea of the “mainstream” press includes numerous sites not affiliated with any newspaper or magazine. This new mainstream encompassed political talk sites such as the Daily Kos and celebrity gossip sites like Gawker and Just Jared. Bloggers appeared on both sides of the ledger.

Kleinberg, a computer scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., remains excited about this “meme-tracking” algorithm and its ability to view news cycles scientifically and discover complex underlying patterns, which he plans to refine. But he also says he probably won’t try to divide “news” and “blog” sites in the future.

“News and blogs now exist on a continuum, so there’s really no such thing as a two-part classification of the world into news and blogs,” he says. “You really have to think about the whole spectrum.”

His conclusion is echoed by close observers of the news world. Rather than any bright line between journalists and bloggers, they say, the picture gets muddier by the minute.

Not that news seekers are obsessed with the topic. Some argue that only professional journalists notice – or care.

“There’s a lot of confusion between what’s mainstream media and what’s other forms of media,” says Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor who teaches new media at Columbia University’s school of journalism in New York. But the average person poking around online doesn’t “necessarily focus on that issue,” he says.

“I have friends who get all their news from their Facebook news feed,” he says. They get links to news articles from friends, but they’ll also get news of friends who changed jobs, moved to a new house, or entered a new relationship. “That’s all ‘news’ to them,” Dr. Sreenivasan says. It’s not about mainstream versus nonmainstream. It’s all about, “What is news to me?” he says.

Rather than relying on familiar news organizations, people are more apt to trust their friends’ judgment. People may not even notice where the news item originated. “If my friend Jim sent me this article, I’m going to trust it more because he sent it to me,” Sreenivasan says.

“The best newspapers are going to end up looking like the best blogs, and the best blogs are going to end up looking a lot like the best newspapers,” predicted a 20-something new-media prodigy named Garrett Graff five years ago. Now, “that’s virtually happened,” Mr. Graff says. In 2005, he made news as the first blogger ever to be issued credentials as part of the White House press corps. This month, he takes over as editor in chief of long-established Washingtonian magazine, with 400,000 monthly readers of print and 400,000 more online.