The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

oh me oh my
Much of the praise directed toward the blogging phenomenon deals with blogging as a challenge to old-line media. The idea is that blogging is a new form of journalism, a straight-from-the-people alternative to what's perceived to be an unreliable, overly conservative/overly liberal (depending on viewpoint), corporatist news industry. Actually, journalism itself, as a profession and vocation, is as distrusted as the vehicles that carries journalists' reports (see The New York Times' Jayson Blair Affair), and so it might be more proper to describe blogging as news-gathering.

This interpretation of blogs tends to ignore the fact that the vast majority of bloggers don't actually do any first-hand reporting themselves: They don't track down leads, they don't interview the players at the heart of a story, etc. Rather, those blogs that do deal with news items (this one included) specialize in presenting news reports from media organizations, and then adding the blog author's commentary on the specific report or the topic. That's why it's always seemed to me that the notion of blogs replacing newspapers and other traditional media was laughable, because where would blogs get their source material if the news media were to disappear? (More likely, if all the free news content on the Web were to dry up and become pay-access, what kind of effect would this have on blogs?)

It's more accurate to characterize blogs as punditry and commentary sources, where a reader can get supplemental and alternate perspectives on current events (as with all things, the quality varies depending on who's doing the writing). That doesn't make them any less important in the grand media mix. It does mean that blogs are dependent on old-fashioned reporting and reporters in order to have something to write about in the first place. In the other direction, established media has slowly come around to regarding blogs as feedback and sounding boards that can help them improve their process and product.

So, this state of affairs has developed into something of a symbiotic relationship. Is this where this relationship has settled? Or will it further evolve?

An indication of this may be found in South Korea. Traditional media there is viewed with extreme skeptism by both the general public and the government. In response, aided by a high percentage (70%) of broadband Internet saturation in Korean households and a strong preference for getting news online, a sprawling online news media network, composed of blog-like input from everyday people, has come into being and is becoming the first choice of Koreans looking for first-hand news.

As I said, the key difference between a blogger and a reporter is that bloggers don't get the news directly, and in fact don't blog for a living (with very few exceptions, all told). seems to be a model for putting the news reporting into bloggers' hands, changing their roles from pundits to first-hand sources.

"It's entertaining, it's heartfelt and it's caring," said Don Park, a Korean-American reader who said he visits OhmyNews daily. "It's like blogs. It has a personal side and an emotional side. It has human texture. It's not bland and objective like traditional news. There's a definite bias. It's not professional, but you get the facts…. I trust it."

Park said he'd love to see something like OhmyNews in the United States. Bored with what he sees as the button-down objectivity of U.S. media, he's sophisticated enough to read between the lines or take stories with a pinch of salt.

This is the same mindset I get from people who rely on blogs and (even worse) message boards for all their news. I seriously question how well-informed you can be from such sources. As many faults and biases the mainstream media may have, there's at least usually an effort to be thorough and comprehensive. Commando reporting like this, I don't know.

The more pertinent question is: Is blending blogging and reporting feasible?

It seems to me that being subject to editorial supervision and review is fairly repellent to most bloggers. Blogs are typically set up as unfiltered outputs of the writer's opinions and expressions; indeed, often they're created to avoid the editorial grind of traditional media. Instead of having their work scrutinized and reshaped by editors (and I can just imagine what a headache that editorial staff has in trying to fact-check with some of these citizen-reporters--professional writers are big enough pains sometimes), I'd imagine most bloggers would sooner just post their stuff on their own sites. The incentive to join in on a site like ohmynews,aside from the wide audience exposure, is getting paid. Yet, $16 per story can't be much of an incentive (I realize this might represent a bigger sum of real money in South Korea than in the U.S.; still, I don't think it's enough to live on).

The trends cited among Koreans in their 20s and 30s of relying on the Web, instead of newspapers, for news is a familiar one in America, too. To this point, however, the migration online for American news consumers has led to familiar sites, namely the online editions of broadcast and print news organizations--a stark contrast from Korea. As much as there's skepticism over traditional media in the U.S., I think there's more of an established basis of trust there than there is other political cultures (deserved or not).