I returned this week from giving a speech in Washington State to a very nice group of economists (the Pacific Northwest Regional Economic Conference, if you must know). I sat in on some of the other presentations. One, on the challenges of measuring inflation, had speakers from the BLS and the BEA. The BLS presentation in particular set itself up as addressing the criticisms of bloggers.
And which bloggers were featured? It led off with two quotes from that famous blogger…..William Gross of PIMCO. It was quite apparent that the head of the world’s biggest fixed income fund manager was tagged as a mere blogger to discredit his remarks.
When I first heard of blogs, back sometime in the 1990s, I recoiled. The name is so horrid as to create a negative response. Blog. Let’s see. What words begin with the “bl” sound? Black, bleck, blight, blither, bluster…you get the picture. Rhymes aren’t much better. Bog, fog, slog, dog, cog, wog, flog. You’d have to try really really hard to come up with a word that elicited worse associations.
The popular image is not much better. While blogs clearly have loyal fans, to the populace at large that doesn’t partake, they are disreputable. Blogs are just another way to waste time on the Internet, fitting in there somewhere with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, but no corporate sponsorship to legitimate it. Bloggers are a faceless rabble, pamphleteers trying to whip up interest in their pet causes. Sure, Patrick Henry was a pamphleteer too, but he was a rabble rouser in his heyday.
There is also a lack of differentiation in types of blogs as far as nomenclature and media presentation is concerned, which adds to the confusion. Some engage in original reporting, many in commentary and analysis of news, a few in original analysis or reporting of research (ie, newsworthy to specialist audiences but generally outside mainstream news channels), many in entertainment. It would be nice if there were more precise terminology, but that’s unlikely to happen save via description of the blogger himself (“Manfred, an expert in Old English poetry…”).
And the media, despite promoting in house blogs, is still ambivalent at best, seeing blogs as more competition than a complement. They aren’t entirely wrong, since more time reading blogs means less time for other reading, including traditional media. But is it still puzzling to see academics who monitor the media also ignore bloggers.
For instance, Barry Ritholtz passed along a post from BeatBlogging that describes the efforts of Columbia Journalism Reviews’ blog, the Audit, which focuses on inaccurate reporting in the MSM. Ritholtz has complained that they ignore the ways blogs have tackled important areas that the major business outlets overlooked, such as the credit crisis (well, until the economy started falling off the cliff). The response was that blogs were too peripheral, given the resource constraints, to be worth covering.
Now it is fair to say that blogging for the most part is not the same as journalism, although that misses the point. Bloggers generally lack the resource to do much in the way of original reporting, but they have often have the expertise to dig much deeper into stories than the media ever could And they also can provide reactions and analysis much faster than many official commentators can.
To the extent the MSM deigns to take note of bloggers, the references to individual blogs and bloggers are comparatively few. More often, articles refer to “bloggers” as if they were a Mongol horde mounting an assault on whatever established institution is on their radar today, or pieces that, while technically newsworthy, nevertheless serve to underscore doubts about bloggers standing. Witness the Wall Street Journal’s “Bloggers, Beware: What You Write Can Get You Sued“:
In March 2008, Shellee Hale of Bellevue, Wash., posted in several online forums about a hacker attack on a company that makes software used to track sales for adult-entertainment Web sites. She claimed that the personal information of the sites’ customers was compromised.
About three months later, the software company — which contends that no consumer data were compromised — sued Ms. Hale in state court in New Jersey, accusing her of embarking “on a campaign to defame and malign the plaintiffs” in chat-room posts.
In her legal response, Ms. Hale, 46 years old, claims she is covered by so-called shield laws that protect reporters from suits, because she was acting as a journalist and was investigating the hacker attack while researching a story on adult-oriented spam.
Um, since when is participating in chat rooms blogging? The story has section headings of a similar ilk:”Slapped With Lawsuits”, “Copyright Infringement”. Sounds scary.
Of course, there is no ready way for a highly decentralized activity to in fact marshal the resources and consistent effort to reimage itself (I somehow don’t see a “Blogger Anti-Defamation League”, as amusing as that could be). However, open source software, which operated under a cloud of suspicion for most save the hard core techies who understood how robust the code that came out of that process could be, eventually legitimated itself through the superior performance of its product. So we’ll all just have to keep at it and hope the more and more people are smart enough to figure out what where we fit in and we have to offer, despite the rag tag appearance.
Don’t get me wrong. The activity has already moved up market a fair degree. Well trafficked blogs create visibility for their authors that it is hard to imagine them otherwise achieving outside outside a large institution. It’s one of the few ways an unaffiliated individual can build a (hopefully positive) reputation. But in our modern world, the lack of a big name organizational backing still cuts both ways.