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Crashing the Blog Party

Academics, journalists move the Web's raucous alternative newsletters toward the mainstream

September 12, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rants are pulsing through the blog-o-sphere again, which, on most days, would mean that the online community is in its usual state of trippy high drama. Except that, this time, the topic is a radical expansion of the blog-o-sphere itself, one that would include a contingent of--quick, bottoms up on the Red Bull--traditional journalists (the ones who write, as the lexicon has it, dead-tree pieces).

In the quirky world known as the blog-o-sphere, hundreds of thousands of ordinary individuals run Web logs, or "blogs," interactive newsletters of sorts with bite-sized chunks of copy updated daily, or, in some extremes, several times an hour. On the personal Web sites, bloggers post tidbits of commentary and host unfiltered public forums in which rumors fly, news is weighed and the blog-o-sphere's stars (known simply as Dave, Meg or Evan) are pondered. The most popular bloggers build a sense of community by linking to each other and writing in a voice that cartwheels off the page, as a distinct alternative to what they see as the distant, establishment voice of newspaper journalists and others. Hence, the latest angst-filled question: Whither the blog-o-sphere, not to mention the future of the news media as we know it?

Recently, there have been unmistakable signs that blogs are seeping into the popular consciousness. In July, for instance, New York Times language watcher William Safire wrote a column on the use of the word "blog, " noting that the term came into vogue three years ago. "Blog" also is under consideration as a new entry in no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary.

And consider: This fall, UC Berkeley is offering a class on Web logs for the first time--through its highly regarded Graduate School of Journalism. Since spring 2000, journalism students at USC's Annenberg School for Communication have produced a Web log. This semester, at Cal State Stanislaus, an assistant communications professor is teaching an undergraduate class on the history of journalism that will cover "blogs as a new journalistic form."

The blog-o-sphere already includes members of the traditional media, such as MSNBC and the San Jose Mercury News, which have staff journalists who write Web logs for their organizations' sites.

Though no official statistics exist, unofficial estimates put the number of blogs at 200,000 to 500,000. Blogs have "achieved critical mass," said David Weinberger, author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web" (Perseus, 2002). Most news organizations eventually will be forced to respond to the influence of the blog-o-sphere, predicted Weinberger, a technology commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

"You can go with a well-researched, vetted, authoritative voice. Or you can find 50 voices [on a blog] that are wildly, hugely passionate, often one-sided and frequently wrong, but presenting a wider spectrum of viewpoints. That is frequently a better way of getting at the truth," he said.

Blogs have been thriving since late 1999, when free software became available that made it easy for anyone to create and update the sites and become an "amateur publisher." Some blogs are little more than online journals. Others have themes--for instance, www.popculturejunkmail. com, which covers "trashy TV, British royalty, the 1980s, toys" and more, is written as an independent undertaking by MSNBC's travel editor.

The best bloggers have signature voices in print, spinning news and musings the way a Rush Limbaugh does, or an Oprah Winfrey, and with the same sort of loyal followings. Until Sept. 11, though, even the most well-known blogs still were being read in relatively tight circles and largely ignored by the journalistic establishment.

On the day of the terrorist attacks, when masses of people logged on to the Internet for information, the Web sites of major news media either crashed or failed to provide timely updates. Bloggers noted huge upswings in traffic to their sites and in e-mailed comments from the public (e-mails are posted instantly in a forum that has been likened to an infinite and unedited letters-to-the-editor page). As a result, bloggers, who typically have day jobs, turned into "do-it-yourself journalists ... seeking out sources and sometimes assembling these ideas for others," noted a study on Sept. 11 and the Internet released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

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