Weblog Journalism: Between Infiltration and Integration
Jason Gallo, Northwestern University
There has been a great deal of buzz recently about the potential for Weblogs
(blogs) to revolutionize journalism, to make it more democratic, and to help
demystify the craft by exposing the wizard behind the curtain of the media establishment.
These claims, however, are only partially correct and are derived more from
speculation based on the potential of the medium rather than from actual results.
We need to move beyond the utopian claims and wishful thinking if we are to
understand the impact that Weblogs have already had and will continue to have
on journalism. Weblogs have begun to augment traditional journalistic practices,
providing the seeds for an incremental, rather than radical, change in how the
media reports and disseminates news. News-oriented blogs have created a real-time
virtual feedback loop that disrupts the temporality of the traditional
news cycle. Furthermore, they are helping to usher in a new form of hybrid journalism
that merges traditional newsroom practices with the decentralized intelligence
of individuals and groups spread across the Internet. The Weblog “revolution”
is more a prolonged infiltration than a sudden overthrow.
Weblogs have not, and will not, eliminate or replace established media outlets;
rather, they will be integrated into the ever-evolving palate of complementary
media available to journalists and to the public. Over the last two centuries,
new communications technologies, from the telegraph to the Internet, have revolutionized
the way in which news and opinion had previously been collected and distributed
by offering technological advantages over previous methods and platforms. Rather
than eliminate previous media, as often predicted, these communications technologies
have been integrated into the existing media landscape, providing for a diversification
of outlets and journalistic practices (Winston, 1998). Proof positive: Printed
words on paper, as a broadsheet, tabloid, magazine, newsletter, or pamphlet,
remain a vital component of our robust press. While it is undeniable that new
communication technologies have had profound and often disruptive effects upon
entrenched journalistic practices, they have primarily enhanced the speed, accuracy,
and geographic scope of reporting, or they have augmented the dissemination
and reception of news and opinion. It is reasonable to predict that Weblogs
will follow the pattern of prior communication technologies and initially disrupt
entrenched journalistic practices yet, over time, become integrated components
of the mainstream media landscape.
One “blog effect” that may permanently alter the field of journalism
is the creation of a real-time virtual feedback loop that breaks down traditional
barriers between journalists and the public, and provides for a greater measure
of press accountability. Weblogs have the potential to tangibly affect established,
mainstream media organizations by challenging the primacy and validity of articles
and opinions almost instantly. Weblogs have been described as do-it-yourself
journalism, Web sites through which an amateur pundit with an Internet connection
and a little technical know-how can enter the wider public of voices on the
Internet. Blog authors can respond in real time to news events, articles, and
opinions, acting at once as sites to contest the meaning of texts, as well as
challenge the veracity and integrity of news and opinion writing. The Internet,
as a many-to-many media model, allows for any article, link, and commentary
to be published on a Weblog to an infinite public of interconnected users who
may examine the text in question and instantly respond with collaborative evidence
and links or, conversely, refute the claims made therein by posting conflicting
data and criticism. The temporality of the existing “Letter to the Editor”
mechanism for public response to media texts is superceded by the creation of
a real-time virtual feedback loop, and the nondiscriminatory nature of most
(there are private and friends-only sites) Weblogs allows respondents to forgo
the intermediary step of editorial-staff review before publication of criticism.
The reflexivity of Weblogs also opens the respondent to the feedback and criticism
of other users, allowing every claim to be examined and vetted, leading in turn
to increased openness and transparency of dialogue.
The broad claim that Weblogs will “democratize” journalism stems
in large part from the notion that the media is not democratic or, at least,
not democratic enough. This criticism applies not only to countries that officially
control or suppress their media but also to nations with an ostensibly “free”
press. The centrality of a free press to democracy has been discussed at great
length by Jürgen Habermas (1989) in his analysis of the public sphere.
According to Habermas, the public sphere is "a specifically political space
distinct from the state and the economy, an institutionally bounded discursive
arena that is home to citizen debate, deliberation, agreement, and action."
In other words, it is a venue for individuals to express their interests and
opinions, generate discourse about them, and potentially develop a course of
collective action to further those expressed interests. In this model, mass
media acts as the mechanism that informs the citizen’s worldview as a
venue for sustained debate, deliberation, and criticism, and serves as a channel
through which citizens express their interests to their leaders (see Dahlgren,1991).
While Habermas has been criticized for the limitations of a model based upon
the exclusionary bourgeois publics of Western Europe, those who have sought
to update his model (Fraser, 1992; Benhabib, 1992) have continued to focus on
the democratic/revolutionary potential of a diversity of voices articulating
interest in the public sphere. Any medium that possibly enhances access to the
wider public carries with it democratic potential.
Nevertheless, there is the perception that mass media is in crisis and needs
an invigorating shot of democracy to remedy what ails it (see Dahlgren &
Sparks, 1991; McNair, 2000). There are several avenues of thought on this topic.
The first is that increasing vertical and horizontal integration of media markets
in the West, and particularly the United States, is detrimental to the diversity
of opinions reported to and presented to the public, as multiple channels fall
under the control and ownership of an individual, a family or a single corporate
entity (Habermas, 1989; McChesney, 2000). A second line of criticism central
to the discussion of Weblogs stems from the lack of transparency of media organizations
and from the unidirectional flow of information from reporter to recipient.
The perceived lack of transparency, coupled with the criticism of media integration,
leads to the charge that news and opinions are shaped or even manufactured as
infotainment before being disseminated to the wider
Can Weblogs address the perception that news and opinions are products of the
media industry rather than objective statements of fact or independent opinion?
The answer is yes. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in The Consciousness Industry
(1974, p. 104), writes that:
“There is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming, or broadcasting.
The question is not whether the media are manipulated, but who manipulates
them. A revolutionary plan should not require manipulators to disappear; on
the contrary, it must make everyone a manipulator.”
The revolutionary plan that Enzensberger traces above does not advocate a direct
overthrow of existing media practices; rather, it promotes infiltration of the
media hierarchy by the broadest public possible to remedy the manipulation of
the media. Blogs allow each user to acts as a manipulator of information, enabling
the user to construct an individual interpretation of information, and channel
that interpretation back into the discursive space of cyberspace, where it can
circulate indefinitely without further maintenance from its creator. Weblog
publishing allows authors to engage the wider public of cyberspace through the
circulation of texts and by providing a platform for sustainable discourse outside
of the control functions of traditional media. The circumvention of journalism’s
traditional control mechanisms allows for greater control over content and for
direct and immediate contact with other users.
This has lead to the inevitable characterization of Weblogs as the “next
big thing” on the Internet, following personal Web pages and online communities
as the standard-bearer for the utopian aim that cyberspace will lead to a democratization
of information. While the hype that surrounds a new mode of communication can
quickly outstrip the potential of a medium and lead to disappointment, Weblogs
do present an interesting model for reevaluating the role of the individual
in relationship to the media industry. Potential, however, does not a revolution
make. Statistics complied by David Wehlan for the Jul./Aug. 2003 edition of
American Demographics indicate that only 17 percent of U.S. adults
are aware of blogs, 5 percent have created or read a Weblog, and only 1 percent
describe themselves as dedicated blog readers. These statistics indicate that
any effect that Weblogs have at the moment are the product of the true early
adopters (see Rogers 1995), rather than of a broad democratic movement. Nevertheless,
the possibilities for democratization are evident.
The potential of the Weblog is situated in its very construction as an interactive
medium, and the intertextuality of the discourse that it supports. The fact
that Weblogs are maintained by individuals that can exist outside of the hierarchical
structures of traditional media organizations allows, at the very least, the
potential for a diversification of the voices engaged in public discourse. Weblogs
can serve to fill the gaps in public discourse that are not addressed or are
underrepresented by traditional journalism. An August 2002 Irish Times
article on the connection between blogging and journalism explains this phenomenon:
Bloggers are often specialists and deeply knowledgeable about their areas
of interest. They can delve more deeply into the detail; they have the endless
room of a webpage in which to do this. They can link to other sites of relevance.
In many cases they top up a reader's half-filled glass by supplying what a
reader didn't get from a mainstream journalist's story.
Weblogs have the potential for opening discursive space to the collective breadth
of a text’s public. The value added is that Weblogs alter the life-world
of texts by at making them immediately accessible to an indefinite public. They
provide a virtual space for interactive discourse to flow around a text and,
by exposing a text to the breadth of knowledge and opinions of the public, they
create new meaning through the intertextuality of that discourse (for a longer
discussion of the relationship between texts and publics, see Warner, 2002).
Blogs enhance the meaning of previously written texts, allowing for their reevaluation
and contextualization in real time, through the application of independent scrutiny.
In a New York Times article titled “At Large in the Blogsphere,”
Judith Shulevitz writes, “Blogs provide a counterweight to the increasing
unreality of mass journalistic culture—its quality of having been processed
beyond the realm of the recognizable, its frequent tone of unearned authority.”
This is echoed later in the article by David Weinberger, author of the Internet-culture
tome Small Pieces Loosely Joined, who notes that, through blogging,
"We get to kick in the teeth of the idealized—and constricted—set
of behaviors known as professionalism." While the merits of a metaphorical
tearing down of the walls of institutional journalism may seem apparent for
individual authors, especially those outside the professional media, the effect
that Weblogs have on institutional journalism in not instantly ascertainable.
However, the potential exists. Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor of The
New Republic magazine and well-known blogger (www.AndrewSullivan.com),
sees an enormous transformative potential in Weblogs. In a dialogue published
in Microsoft’s online magazine, Slate.com (http://slate.msn.com/id/2070360/entry/2070363/),
with Kurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century and host of the public
radio program Studio 360, Sullivan writes, “In an age of PR and
marketing and media conglomerates, the blog stands apart, unvarnished, raw,
unmediated.” He goes on to state, “It's democratic in the best sense
of the word. It helps expose the wizard behind the media curtain.” For
Sullivan, the transformative quality of Weblog communication lies in the transparency
of discourse supported online. Beyond merely demystifying the role of the journalist
in the eyes of the average cybercitizen, Sullivan feels that Weblogs have the
potential for revolutionary effects on the field of journalism. As more lesser-known
(and, potentially, anonymous) individuals begin to utilize Weblogs as mechanisms
for self-publishing to an increasingly wider audience, the exclusionary rituals
journalism will fade from importance. Sullivan writes:
The real power will be unleashed by unknown writers finding a way to get
their work in front of readers more easily than ever before. The whole process
of interning, or begging for work at local papers, sucking up to agents and
editors, and so on can now be supplemented by real self-publishing.
Sullivan’s optimistic outlook mirrors the infiltration of media organizations
advocated by Enzensberger. While this sounds promising coming from someone straddling
both the traditional and non-traditional media world, it is also reminiscent
of the profuse utopian claims made in the early 1990s about Internet technology
that have yet to play out as expected.
There is little doubt that blogs have democratic potential; however, they have
yet to reach the critical mass necessary in order to be truly revolutionary.
They hardly pose an immediate threat to institutional journalism. More realistic
is a convergence between the blogosphere and mainstream media, which is already
beginning to take place as bloggers sign contracts with media outfits, as media
outlets publish blogs on their official Web sites, and as employed journalists
privately publish Weblogs on their own time. A number of journalists maintain
Weblogs, and several prominent bloggers have moved on to run Weblogs for mainstream
organizations (e.g., Mickey Kaus, who operates a Weblog for the Microsoft-run
Slate.com). Andersen sees a great deal of potential in this crossover
and believes that the synergies created between the transparent and participatory
world of Weblogs and the capital and resources of the media giants could be
the missing ingredient in the revolutionary recipe. He writes in Slate:
If more bloggers start being paid by rich institutions … then maybe
we can start getting some real reportorial fiber into the very, very starchy
blog diet. Which could be the beginning of a glorious Third Generation of
journalistic blogs with impact and influence that would no longer be in question.
The potential upside to Andersen’s convergence model is a cozy marriage
between the clout and cash of the mainstream media with the democratizing power
of Weblog journalism. However, Andersen’s proposition focuses solely on
the positive effects of well-funded journalistic blogs but fails to recognize
the obvious potential for conflicts of interest, as Web-based discourse steers
away from the editorial control of the parent organization. In his exchange
with Andersen, Sullivan notes that bloggers have been successful in:
Forc[ing] the [New York] Times to correct itself many
times over now, which can only help improve journalism. But will bloggers
actually deeply undermine editorial and corporate power in the media? So far
I think the answer is no. Blogs aren't replacing mainstream media; they're
infiltrating, supplementing, and buttressing it.
This quote captures the inherent tension, and mutual benefits, of any mainstream
media/Weblog relationship. Weblogs thrive off of a steady diet of journalistic
texts and are able to function as a virtual real-time feedback loop and fact-checking
service; however, the ability to perform these functions is rooted in the autonomous
nature of individual Weblogs.
Convergence could set up a scenario in which cross-postings to a media-run
Weblog could compel the Weblog to engage in a debate about the merits of texts
generated elsewhere inside the same media organization. By being forced to confront
the work of a colleague, the Weblog author would run the risk of running afoul
of the same editorial board that monitors his/her work or, perhaps, would feel
undue pressure to defend the text out of professional loyalty. In effect, an
increased coupling of Weblogs with media organizations could potentially undermine
the objectivity and autonomy of the Weblog author. The dangers of convergence
are exemplified by the case of Steve Olafson, a seven-year Houston Chronicle
veteran, fired from his position because his editors felt that his personal
Weblog, run under a pseudonym, compromised his ability to do his job as a reporter
by poking fun of some of the politicians that he covered (see Olafson, 2003).
Additionally, the example of two U.S. journalists, CNN correspondent Kevin Sites
and Time freelancer Joshua Kucera, reporting from Iraq during the Second Gulf
War being pressured by their parent organizations to shut down their weblogs
underscores the tensions that exist between intuitional journalism and independent
blogging (Cyberjournalism.net 03/22 and 04/17/2003). On his Weblog The Other
Side Kucera writes, “My editors have demanded that I stop posting
to this site until the war ends. And they pay the bills, so what can I do?”
If convergence between media organs and prominent bloggers becomes institutionalized,
then Weblogs will increasingly be subject to the same institutional policies
and controls under which traditional journalists operate, diminishing the democratic
potential and transparency of weblog journalism.
The potential for a media organization to encounter legal trouble also increases,
as their editorial boards take on the responsibility of content posted to any
blog associated with the publication. According to University of Minnesota professor
of media ethics and law Jane E. Kirtley, quoted in a September 23, 2002, New
York Times article about Weblogs, “You start getting into the question
of, is this part of the paper or not? If I'm a lawyer advising a news organization,
the idea of a Web log like this would just make me break out in hives."
Convergence brings with it the very serious risk of comprising the autonomy
of the Weblog, as well as tremendous legal risks for the host organization.
In all likelihood, Weblogs will be incorporated into most major media organizations
in some capacity if their popularity remains sufficiently high and user figures
increase. However, a true blog revolution remains a future phenomenon at best.
For the foreseeable future, Weblogs seem well positioned to continue to do what
they do best: to allow a forum for open and autonomous debate about media texts
in the discursive space that they provide and to function as a real-time virtual
feedback loop fostering an interactive debate about the veracity of media texts.
An additional benefit of the increasing presence of journalism blogs is the
creation of online resources for the support and maintenance of a vibrant Weblog
journalism community. CyberJournalist.net, run by the Media Center at the American
Press Institute, and Poynter.Org, which claims to represent “Everything
you need to be a better journalist,” are excellent examples of Websites
that enhance the health and vitality of independent and transparent Weblog journalism.
Yet the positive potential of Weblogs is coupled with troubling potential side-effects.
The current state of Weblog journalism is paradoxical at best, a relationship
eloquently summarized in an Information Advisor report titled “Are
Weblogs a Legitimate Business Research Source?” It states:
The rapidity in which a new story or report can be transmitted also increases
the chances that misinterpretations, errors, and outright hoaxes can be spread.
One check on this problem of misinformation is that there is also an equally
quick self-correcting mechanism on the Internet, whereby those who detect
the error send out a correction or raise a red flag just as quickly.
The democratic Weblog revolution in its infancy is fraught with contradictions,
yet it shows signs that steady infiltration and integration will produce lasting
changes to the norms of journalistic practice.
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