The growing popularity of blogs and citizen journalism is only increasing as inventive citizens collaborate on news ideas to improve their offerings, buoyed by a fertile environment of low barrier costs and a healthy growth rate for online advertisers. Meanwhile, establishment media continues to race to capture some of the buzz for itself and one may easily predict mixed results.
One boost to citizen start-ups is the projected growth rate of online advertising; now at 20-30% per year. Jennifer Dorroh, writing in American Journalism Review says that advertisers are itching to put their spots where they can be carefully targeted to specific audiences. She quotes Procter & Gamble’s global marketing officer, Jim Stengel as saying, “We must accept the fact that there is no mass in mass media anymore and leverage more targeted approaches.” Dorroh points out that running online ads allows advertisers to do just that. Small sites hope to capture hometown advertisers like the local pizza restaurant who might not be able to afford advertising in the local paper.
Among the new sites that are made up entirely of citizen journalism or include it are NewWest.net which focuses on the Rocky Mountain West; WestportNow.com in Connecticut; Politics Left To Right, by West Coast writer Chris Nolan, and Backfence, in the Washington, DC area.
Bloggers are also starting to synergize by gathering formally or informally in loose-knit community groups. Blogger Robert Cox got the attention of Mark Glaser of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review when he launched BlogNashville, a blogger convention that mixed conservative and liberal bloggers. The trend of bloggers to meet in person and form their own communities is happening not only in America but as far away as India. Glaser had positive impressions of BlogNashville’s “Milblogging” session, a session about military blogging. Glaser reported the session included former Pentagon programmer and Winds of Change blogger Robin Burk, and military bloggers on video and audio links to Nashville. “We got Blackhawk and then Mustang23 on video,” Burk told Glaser. “Mustang23 is a company commander in Iraq right now, so it must have been the middle of the night for him. Greyhawk joined us by audio only from Germany, while in the chat room Barcepundit joined in from Spain.”
Not surprisingly Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit gave a videoblogging demo, showing just how easy it is to add video reports to online content.
In an interesting development, Glaser also reported that Cox announced he is working with the Poynter Institute to offer up online classes for journalists and bloggers explaining blogging basics. The classes will be part of Poynter’s NewsU and may include information to help bloggers understand liability issues. On my own blog several months ago I pointed out the great potential for such synergy.
Meanwhile newspapers continue to jump on the blogging bandwagon. Brian Gottstein, a former online columnist for the Roanoke Times, told AIM that he along with 6 other columnists were dismissed from the newspaper, which is focusing on a more “blog-driven” approach. Gottstein said all the columnists who were cut were contract columnists and included “mainly the web-only commentators on life, religion and politics.” The letter of dismissal, obtained by AIM states that “Interactivity and timeliness are the [sic] prevalent on the Internet today. That’s why you hear so much about blogs?We’ve decided we need more of that at Roanoke.com. To that end, we’re planning to change our model toward an interactive, blog-driven approach and away from the more formal single column format.” Indeed, the letter, penned by the Times online editor Jim Ellison goes so far as to predict that “We believe the day of the narrative, 1,000-word, expository column has largely run its course.” The newspaper suggested the columnists could start up their own unaffiliated blogs and the paper would link to them, but they would no longer be paid by the newspaper.
While the form of blogs is undoubtedly popular and has on notable occasions (as in the sparking of “Memogate”) contributed to a critical mass effect that moves politics and media, it’s the content that is the critical element. In addition, a great part of the appeal is that citizen journalism and blogs are outside of establishment media. Merely co-opting blogs and the form of the technology is not going to provide mainstream media with the effect they are seeking.
If newspapers focus too much on the outward form they risk adopting an “out with the old, in with the mediocre” position. The dismissal letter from Roanoke Times pointed to the Spokesman-Review’s production of a webpage that links to local blogs as an example of what the Times planned to (and did) create. The Spokesman-Review page currently features a link to “The Unbearable Bobness of Being” a blog written by Bob Salsbury, who likes “carving evil little trolls out of bars of soap” among other pursuits. Terry Bain’s Creative Axis is produced by citizen Bain, who says he is “an unusually sick and twisted writer, book designer, and teacher.” If those offerings don’t appeal to you, perhaps you’d like to check out Not So Fast by Kristin Hoppe, who tells us she “leads an exceptionally dull existence of interest to hardly anyone who lives anywhere else.” The Roanoke Times blog page offers a similar variety on its webpage. But are newspapers confusing the influence of a handful of well-written and entertaining blogs and the cumulative power of the distributed model with the age-old popularity of starting up your own (online) diary? Let’s face it: we’re a nation of people who love to talk about ourselves. But that doesn’t mean anyone will be listening.
Says Gottstein: “The blogs on there now are the typical assortment from crap to insightful. I think they gave up some serious, well-researched columns and replaced them with blogs. I don’t know why they couldn’t have co-existed.”