Saturday, October 04, 2003

BloggerCon 2003 II

Weblogs and Journalism: Ed Cone, Joshua Marshall, Glenn Reynolds, and Scott Rosenberg

Ed Cone is a senior writer for Baseline, a business and technology magazine published by Ziff Davis Media, and an opinion columnist for the News & Record, the monopoly daily newspaper in Greensboro, North Carolina. Joshua Marshall is a columnist for The Hill and contributing writer for Washington Monthly. Glenn Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. Scott Rosenberg works for Salon. Here is a rough transcript of their panel discussion:

Ed Cone: Josh, you got an interview with Wesley Clark. Why did you put it on your Weblog? Why was he willing to let you put it on your Weblog rather than in a more traditional venue?

Joshua Marshall: The whole point was for it to be on the Weblog. It seemed obvious to me that they're just getting into the campaign. The Dean campaign is one of their things. This was their attempt to leapfrog and get into the game. They're Internet savvy. For my part, I'm much more invested in my Web site than any of the places that pay me money to write for them. That's my thing. That's what I'm associated with.

I've been doing the site for three years now. When I first started it and the hit count was so low, there was the question that if I got a big interview, would I use it on the site or take it somewhere else? There's the professional question and the money question. Over time, I had the money question less and less. I do things on the site because I can control how it comes out.

As the site got more hits, there was no question for me. It benefits me personally.

Cone: Glenn, how do you build the biggest media brand in independent media, how do you build hit count? Was it 911?

Glenn Reynolds: That was part of it. I teach Internet law. I thought having a blog would be kind of cool. Traffic took off pretty fast. The only thing I did that you could call marketing is that when I wrote a story, I would email it to a reporter or a pundit. It grew faster, even before 911, than I expected. Other sites link to me more. It's a viral thing. Every time someone links to you, your hits go up.

The only thing I've done is that I link to a lot of people. There is a school of thought that if you link to people, people might like them better. This whole "Keep people on your site" theory reminds me of Glen Baxter-style journalism. People come to me because I'm not really that interesting a guy, but I seem to find the interesting people.

Cone: You can get 100,000 page views a day just by writing the word "Indeed," after something someone else said. Scott, you work for an organization. How is that different than what these people are doing?

Rosenberg: The question on people's minds is that we have this thing called blogging, which is very individualistic. Then we have these large, hierarchical media organizations looking at blogging. People are very afraid. At Salon, I'm lucky. I wear several hats. I'm an editor. I'm a writer. As managing editor, I'm able to do a blog. And the organization is concerned with me saying something that will disrupt the organization because I'm a key part of it. We don't have a concern with writers holding the mic.

A lot of writers, particularly people who are used to doing professional journalism, actually want to be edited. Some writers prefer to work that way. The editing question isn't black and white: Let the individual voice free. Don't edit me.

Cone: That sort of new frontier is interesting. One of the most tired questions is positing that blogging is either/or -- that it's either a blog or journalism. What are some of the places that blogs are going to take journalism that are currently closed to journalism?

Marshall: It will allow journalists to do a little more Hunter S. Thompson tagging along with campaigns. There's the issue of what's on the record and what's not. There are contexts in which you can repeat what people say. And there are contexts in which you can't.

Reynolds: I remember Irving Goffman writing about the importance of the back stage. That's not just psychologically important, because a lot of things need to be said not in public. But the backstage is disappearing. The whole idea of closing things to the press is meaningless.

This guy who does was trying to get his picture taken with every candidate. And the Kerry campaign was trying to keep him away. Kerry's campaign got blogging more than they've gotten anything else. You used to worry about Hunter S. Thompson catching you, or some famous journalist. Now you're worried about some guy who's name I don't even remember whose had a blog for three weeks.

Rosenberg: Then there's the backstage of journalism itself. Look at Jim Romenesko's site. Just by having one place where the entire spectrum of the coverage of media and adding a letters page, that simple little opening of a window an inch has had made a huge difference. Now we have an entire blogosphere of people writing about what's happening inside their newspapers and magazines.

I agree a little more with Doc. I'm dedicated to reading my New York Times as it is. I want it to be what it is. I don't want it to become a blog. But the impact of blogs is that an institution like the New York Times needs to open itself up a little more. It already has. Just recently, there was an item about how they select letters. They never would have done that before.

At this point, the conversation largely devolved, fracturing into Q&A and unproductive targeting of Reynolds. Some people did comment on several interesting concepts: your personal reputation as the institution you represent, the challenge of not short-changing other media outlets by blogging stories first, how people decide what stories go where, and the ethics of amateur journalism.

Marshall: If I worked for a large institution, there'd be pressure for me to ask more and different questions. My interest is much more, can they talk at length. You can't stay on message if you're talking at length. Here it is. If you think it's too long, don't read it. It's not a take it or leave it, but I think that people who read the site are willing to read longer stuff.

Question: We're getting to the Fox News-ification of blogs. Be up front with your bias. Say where you stand. Blogs are basically doing what's the worst of traditional journalism does.

Question: That's a particularly American view. The thinking that people should declare their biases is talking down.

Cone: What I think he's saying is that people need to stop smoke-screening their biases.

Dave Winer: Let's talk about the future. What's the vision for what you want to do?

Reynolds: The writing is easy. The hard part is that you have to pay attention to the news. There are all sorts of studies that prove the more you pay attention to the news, the more depressed you're going to be.

Question: We all tend to edit our opinions about each other. If I read in 15 places that I consider reputable that Glenn's statements are facts, I will tend to believe what he says. Whatever's written is something that I should evaluate. Weblogs have allowed you to do your own fact checking.

Cone: We'd all like to get paid to do our dream jobs. I would love to do nothing but blog all day. Where are you guys going to be? Josh, you're cited by Paul Krugman as the guy he reads. What happens when the New York Times comes to you?

Reynolds: They ought to give him a blog.

Marshall: I haven't considered that for a lot of reasons. It's difficult to consider any job opportunity that would make me give up the blog.

Cone: Would you consider putting your blog under a logo?

Marshall: No.

Winer: Why not? You're sitting next to a guy who puts a logo on his blog.

Rosenberg: Salon is an exception. It was started by a bunch of people from the San Francisco Examiner who were upset by how a strike had turned out. My hope for the future is that in a year or two years, we're no longer asking this question. I've spent the last eight years to turn a Web magazine into a successful business. We're not even close to making money. My advice in terms of blogging to make money is: Don't even try.

Cone: Then there's the idea of the local Weblog. When I think of my audience, a lot of times, with something like Rush Limbaugh, I don't even care what I think about Rush Limbaugh. In North Carolina, there were all sorts of local issues that weren't being covered, so I started writing for a local audience. I target my stuff to journalists, political readers, and a local audience.

Reynolds: SK Bubba has become a factor in local politics. A lot of stuff doesn't get covered. He's made a difference. That's a huge marketing opportunity.

Question: Journalists cannot afford to cover every issue or every meeting. Bloggers bring out more information.

Cone: Weblogs and links create more Weblogs and links.

The discussion devolved again, but Jay Rosen, chair of the journalism program at New York University brought up an interesting point about every reader being a writer. Doc Searls then said that it was moot to even think about audience or readers when blogging. That dovetailed interestingly with the fact that Reynolds, Winer, and others don't allow comments on their posts because they're afraid of the troll factor or comment spam. If you don't allow comments, you're missing part of the point of blogging. If you're not open to feedback -- and replying to that feedback publicly -- you're not participating in a conversation. One audience member suggested that blogging facilitates parallel conversations. Another said, "People who are used to writing monologues need to be open to a dialogue." I'm with her.

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