Journalism's fear and loathing of blogs

Mainstream journalism is running scared. It's watching its audience numbers decline and its public trust numbers drop. Newspapers, magazines, and network television news have been shaken by major scandals. The media have seen the future and it is blogging.

Or at least that's the story this year. "Mainstream journalism," however you want to define it, has been under siege so long it's hard to keep track of all the people, things, and outlets that were or are still going to destroy it.

Blogs, or weblogs - websites on which a person or a group of people opines about events, reports what's been heard, or simply links to other sites (many of which are also blogs) - are the latest concern among journalists who look at them with curiosity and fear.

Many believe blogs are a dangerous direct competitor to mainstream journalism - a way for individuals and interest groups to reach around the gatekeeper function that newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio have traditionally held. Some even see them as the future of journalism; an army of citizen journalists bringing the unfiltered news to a public hungry for the inside dope.

"The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment is the blog," Richard Posner wrote last week in The New York Times Book Review. Actually Mr. Posner wrote about a lot of challenges the media faced, but gave blogs a lot of space as he spelled out their advantages. They bring expertise. They bring flair and opinion. They bring more checks and balances than the mainstream media.

"It's as if the Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising," he explained.

Ah, yes, in the future news will be bountiful and free with no advertising. Can't beat that. If they throw in complimentary ice cream we've really got something here.

Let me just say for the record, I have nothing against blogs. I actually like them. Their formula of opinion, links, and reportage can be refreshing - though they are often short on the last part of that mix. And the voices they enter into the media dialogue sometimes offer perspectives that otherwise might never be heard.

But if you really look closely, all this "and in the future ..." talk seems a bit far-fetched for a number of reasons.

For all the bloggers' victories (like raising questions about memos in CBS's Bush/National Guard story) there are numerous failures (gossiping about John Kerry's affair that never happened or how the presidential election was rigged in Ohio). And most bloggers simply don't have time or staff to, say, launch an investigation into the internal workings of the Department of State. Getting leaks and tips is one thing, digging for the fuller story is quite another.

But the main reason blogs can't really supplant the mainstream media is what they cover. If you go looking for blogs about national politics, foreign affairs, celebrities or (yes) the media, you won't go wanting. In fact, every one of the country's top 10 most visited blogs deals with one of these subjects, according to itself a "portal to the blogosphere."

That's not really that surprising. To be a serious blogger - one who can devote his time and energy to the job - one needs to make a name for himself, sell ad space, and get paid. And to make a name, sell ad space, and get paid, one needs a national audience.

In other words, if you live in, say, Grand Rapids, Mich. and are looking for the latest developments on the construction on the nearby highway, or the city council budget, or a millage dispute - things that impact people in very real ways - you're not going to have much luck in the blogosphere.

Even large cities and state capitals, except for those that are part of the media/government industrial complex, are relatively blog free. And it's hard to see how that will change.

The number of people interested in devoting their life to things like local zoning rules is a bit more limited than those interested in national politics. Getting paid to do it would probably be all but impossible. And that's a problem.

For all the fretting, blogging ultimately is bound to be less a replacement for the traditional media than a complement. The fact is, journalism's most critical responsibilities in a democratic society - seeking, reporting, and analyzing news and holding people accountable - aren't easy to fulfill.

People rightly point out that the media often fail at those tasks. It's just hard to see how making it a volunteer position or a part-time job could improve the situation.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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