I’ve been thinking a bit about a chance conversation I got involved in at the Social Computing Symposium.
There’s so much anxiety among journalists working for mainstream newspapers and magazines about bloggers and blogs. I think a lot of the anxiety is unwarranted when it comes to opinion, which is most of what the blogs provide. Let’s face it: very few bloggers on a one-to-one basis are providing political or social commentary which overwhelmingly surpasses what you can read on the op-ed pages of the major dailies or in the major commentary magazines like Harper’s, The Nation or National Review. Yes, I think there are some heralded political bloggers who could do a better job than the entire army of anointed commentators presently getting paid to spout off. Most of them, though? They’re just people who got in early, got a lot of links, and aren’t any better than the Kristofs, Dowds, and suchlike. In some cases, they’re worse: people who can’t write a substantial piece, just people who can link and snark.
The lesson when it comes to commentary, analysis, or features isn’t to match up the most-read bloggers against the most-read op-ed columnists, and get a few more of the former in order to cash in on the blogging phenomenon. That’s not what the blogs are, in relation to journalism. What they are that’s better, when it comes to analysis or commentary, is two things. First, a bigger world. The op-eds are a small town, full of gossips, the Peyton Place of news analysis. You can write what they have to say in advance: you’ve read it all long since. Most of the dominant news bloggers aren’t any different. They’re just the operators listening on the lines, recirculating the gossip. But the blogs as a whole? Richer, deeper, more fascinating by far. Explore for even a while, and you’ll find someone interesting who in no way resembles anything you’ll find in the WaPo or the NYT, in the Atlantic or Harper’s, in the National Review or the Nation. Someone beautiful, someone unexpected, someone lyrical, someone provocative. Something you’ve never seen before. No matter how long you walk the linking road, there’s always a new sight (or is it site?) over the next horizon. The papers and magazines, by contrast, are exhausted quickly. They’re inbred. They’re the kid in Deliverance, poking on his banjo and grinning his mutant grin down at the rafters drifting by.
That’s the big thing that the papers and magazines could learn. Go out, find something new. The rest of what the blogs do, they can’t do and I don’t expect or want them to. I don’t expect them to get the basic advantage that open source or free culture solutions do: more eyeballs on the problem. One blog by itself may not be much; ten thousand blogs on the same issue amounts to a public sphere bigger and more powerful than a single paper could hope to be. That’s as it is. If the newspapers and newsmagazines envy that, let them come out from behind their stupid software walls and rejoin the conversation. The other thing I don’t necessarily expect from the big outlets is active comment sections. Not all blogs have great comments. Most don’t, in fact. But when they do, it’s a kind of added value a newspaper or magazine can’t achieve. They don’t have to aspire to that: it’s just what blogs do and they don’t.
What they could do, and don’t, is reach outside their worlds. The sad thing so far is that when they screw up their courage and try, all they do is hire the people who are basically just like all the people they already hire. Or worse yet, people even more mediocre than the people who presently write analysis for them.