Lines blur between blogs, newspapers

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

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

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.”

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.

Today, big blog sites such as The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, or Talking Points Memo – sites originally designed to be different from newspapers – “are basically evolving into newspapers,” Graff says.

They have bureaus, reporters, and editors.

“The term ‘blogging’ is going to become obsolete because what we once considered blogs are morphing into something broader,” adds Tom Rosenstiel, a veteran news-media analyst and journalist who now heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

On the other side of the equation, traditional reporters are blogging themselves, as well as posting observations on throughout the day, holding a two-way conversation with readers in which they not only dispense news but pick up information that enhances their reporting.

Other traditional journalists are jumping to new-media sites. Politico, a website covering US politics, was started in 2007 by two former Washington Post reporters. Now it has more White House correspondents than any print-based media outlet.

“It’s a really fascinating evolution that I think has happened much more quickly and with less hurrah than most people expected it to,” Graff says.

Maybe we should be talking about “big-time” media rather than “mainstream,” Sreenivasan suggests. A dwindling number of American news organizations have the financial muscle to report methodically on the big stories, he says, especially in remote (and expensive) regions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran.

Still, old-fashioned but online newspapers set much of the news agenda, these experts argue – at least for now. In contrast, most blogs act chiefly as news “amplifiers,” taking that information and redirecting it, getting more attention and broadening the discussion of the original report.

“That’s going to change as newspapers begin to shrink further and as alternative operations grow,” Mr. Rosenstiel says. “But day in, day out, much of what you see in other media started in newspapers.”

What’s developed is a “symbiotic relationship” between traditional news organizations and new media online “in which they are both helped,” Graff says.

“Both sides need each other,” Sreenivasan agrees.

The Drudge Report, for example, wins a huge online following by displaying headlines from traditional news sites. But Drudge, in turn, drives traffic back to the original publications, creating a “win” for both parties.

While newspapers are struggling financially, they’re also enjoying a boom in readership, the first upturn in 20 years, Rosenstiel says.

“The audiences for even struggling publications like the San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe are larger than they’ve ever been,” he says. “The problem is that the Web isn’t generating revenue. So all those new readers and consumers aren’t bringing with them any financial benefit to the news operation.”

As traditional and new media may be morphing into one another, one aspect of news may be lost in the transition, Graff suggests: the bread-and-butter newspaper story. The Washingtonian’s website sports the short news snippets that people seek online, while the print magazine luxuriates in leisurely in-depth reads of 6,000 words or more.

“What I think you’re going to see die,” he says, “are the mid-length stories, from 500 words to 2,000 words, that are too long for people who aren’t interested in the subject, but too short for people who are.”

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