Friday, January 28, 2005

Are blogs overhyped?

Considering the amount of blog-related bleating we've had to sit through, first on blogs themselves, and now on other media outlets, the answer has to be yes, yes, now please make it stop! But I find this Slate article tone deaf on the reality of what traditional media and traditional blogs actually do.

To wit:
Michael Shamberg and a clutch of other video visionaries from the Raindance Corporation visited my college campus to preach their gospel of the coming media apocalypse. Waving a copy his book Guerrilla Television, Shamberg prophesied that the Sony Porta-Pak?an ungainly video camera wired to a luggage-size tape deck carried over the shoulder?would herald a media revolution greater than the one fomented by Gutenberg's moveable type.

Once the People got their hands on the video power and started making decentralized, alternative media, the network news programs would collapse under the weight of their own lies, Shamberg said. The Hollywood industrial entertainment complex was going down, too, man, and would be replaced by street stories recorded by Porta-Pak-toting freaks. The multiplexes out by the freeway would be shuttered and sold to neighborhood theater groups...

The premature triumphalism of some bloggers indicates that they haven't paid attention to how Webified journalists have become. They also ignore media history. New media technologies almost never replace old media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Radio killed the "special edition," but newspapers survived. When television dethroned radio as the hearthside infobox and cratered the Hollywood box office, radio became a mobile medium, and Hollywood devoted itself to spectaculars that the tiny TV set couldn't adequately display. The competitive spiral has continued, with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs, satellite TV and radio broadcasters, and now Internet broadcasters entering the fray. The only extinct mass medium that I can think of is the movie house newsreel.
Has anyone actually tried to make a movie? Video is a very very difficult medium to create, and it is even tougher to edit and produce with any sort of production value at all. It is unsurprising that handycams haven't replaced the Hollywood movie. It is also unsurprising that reality TV has become, and I think will remain, so dominant--the low cost production with professional editing and drafting make something competitive with scripted dramas.

Blogs on the other hand are extremely easy to make, and their production value is on par with professional sites. This means that their quantity will be great, and with enough quantity, quality will eventually emerge.

The article completely misses the boat on the next point:
When the Times' Abramson asked rhetorically if the conference bloggers had any idea how much it cost to maintain a news bureau in Baghdad, the supreme confidence of a couple of bloggers fractured into petty defensiveness.

"That's a silly question!" snapped Winer. "Asking bloggers what this costs is silly. If you want to tell us what it costs, that's fine. ... But there are bloggers in Baghdad! That's your competition; that's what you have to deal with."

With the exception of the "metro" section reporter covering a 12-car pile-up on the freeway, I think most practicing journalists today are as Webby as any blogger you care to name. Journalists have had access to broadband connections for longer than most civilians, and nearly every story they tackle begins with a Web dump of essential information from Google or a proprietary database such as Nexis or Factiva. They conduct interviews via e-mail, download official documents from .gov sites, check facts, and monitor the competition?including blogs?the whole while. A few even store as a "favorite" the URL from Technorati that takes them directly to what the blogs are saying about them (here's mine) and talk back. When every story starts on the Web, and every story can be stripped to its digital bits and pumped through wires and over the air, we're all Web journalists.
If you have ever read an article on a topic that you are knowledgeable about, you will probably find yourself disagreeing with the article. The writer, who probably did some research, simply cannot manage the level of expertise that a true expert can and so will probably get things wrong. This is not to say that experts are always correct, but experts arguing is usually more interesting than dilettantes arguing, and that's all that journalists can be.

Blogs let the expert voices be heard, and dilettante voices look really amateurish next to expert voices. The threat blogs post to professional media is that it makes them look like they don't know what they are talking about, which undermines their authority and credibility.

The point on the expense of running a Baghdad bureau is important, but not in the way Abramson thinks. To an Iraqi blogger, the cost of running a Baghdad bureau is zero, and he is likely to be more expert about what's going on than any foreign reporter. Higher expertise. Lower cost. I just don't see what MSM can do.

The author is correct though in noting that new media have never killed old media, they've just added, eclipsed, and overtaken them in importance. Blogs will not replace main-stream media, they will just take the "main-stream" out of it. For those who believe current journalism is an important vehicle for discovering and disseminating Truth, being reduced to just another pampheleteer may seem like a death of a sort.

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