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GOLDEN STATE

Experiment Starts Now: Call Me a Blogger

October 31, 2005|Michael Hiltzik

The Internet pioneer Bob Kahn used to joke about how the Web was growing so fast that eventually every atom in the universe would have its own site.

The world is different now. Forget websites; at the rate things are going, it won't be long before every atom in the universe has its own blog.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a blog, or weblog, is an online diary or journal. It can be as modest as a weekly rumination on cats for ailurophiles, or as weighty as a daily dissertation on foreign policy. There are now 10 million blogs, or maybe 35 million; no one is sure, because many get established (and perhaps rapidly abandoned) by users of free hosting services like Google Inc.'s Blogger that don't disclose figures.

And here I have a disclosure to make.

I am a blogger.

As of today, my blog will appear online at www.latimes.com/goldenstateblog.

Starting with this piece, my Monday and Thursday Golden State columns will be posted on the blog simultaneously with their publication in the Los Angeles Times. But Golden State the blog won't be merely Golden State the column in a new format.

Blogs differ fundamentally from newspaper work. Parcels of personal online real estate, they reflect the tastes, interests and styles of their proprietors more than do even newspaper opinion columns, which represent a compromise between the columnist and the mandates and standards of the newspaper. Golden State the blog will offer my thoughts and findings on a wide range of topics, many outside the portfolio of the column. These thoughts will be subjected to my audience's praise, endorsement, patronization, or ridicule as they wish: We encourage readers to post their own comments publicly on the site.

This is a multifaceted experiment. First, it's a test of whether I can balance a schedule of twice-weekly columns with the daily demands of a blog and the rest of my normal life without melting down.

It's also an attempt to figure out how the sponsorship of blogging by the corporate media should work. Can a company that derives economic value from its reputation for literacy, judiciousness and taste comfortably lend its imprimatur to an unfiltered online diary? Blogs are by nature almost impossible to censor. Where, and how, will the lines that were once well-understood be drawn now?

This question is different from the silly debate over whether blogging is "journalism." It all depends. Some bloggers report and research their items as aggressively as some newspaper, magazine and TV journalists. Some apply careful journalistic scrutiny to reporting done by others. Still others simply masticate news reports first served elsewhere, removing the flavor until the reports reach a form they consider politically or ideologically digestible. At the bottom of the barrel are blogs engaging in persiflage and lies. The blogosphere per se is just another information medium.

Finally, this blog is a test of my hypothesis that the economic model of blogging will inevitably evolve into one that resembles the traditional, or "mainstream," media -- complete with brand names and standardized formats.

Publishing houses, recording labels and movie studios serve a purpose: helping artists and performers find their publics, and their publics to find them. In other words, marketing and distribution. The artists and performers, in exchange for tailoring their material to the suggestions (or dictates) of the middlemen, get marketed. Those who scorn such tailoring must find alternatives -- "indie" labels, vanity publishers, etc. Some eventually reach an audience by this route, some don't. Do the best always win? Who knows? Do the intermediaries always pick right? Of course not. But sometimes they introduce creative talents to an audience that wouldn't find them otherwise.

Many bloggers believe their medium is exempt from this process because it empowers the individual, or something. But they're kidding themselves. Blogs are already too numerous for readers to find useful sites through trial and error. Life is too short and even broadband too slow for most readers to check out thousands of blogs in the hope of tripping randomly over a few that they find consistently interesting and amusing.

The marketers are already on the scene. The most prominent, Gawker Media, operates 14 blogs for specific interest groups: Defamer for Hollywood gossip junkies, Gizmodo for gadget freaks, and so on. These are highly professional, and almost as standardized as a Big Mac.

Gawker's not alone. Political commentator Arianna Huffington provides a brand-name site for a large roster of individual bloggers via her Huffington Post. Another consortium of bloggers spanning the political spectrum is banding together in something called Pajamas Media.

And, of course, mainstream newspapers and magazines such as the New Republic, Washington Monthly and now the Los Angeles Times are lending their own brand names to blogs in a search for symbiosis. They embrace blogging as a medium and bring their own audiences to the table. In return, they hope to capture some of the blogging audience for their traditional products.

Some blogs will remain independent under this model, just as some writers publish by samizdat and some bands peddle their recordings at bake sales. But indie blogs are going to face the same economic and artistic challenges as cult writers and performers.

How these experiments will work out is anyone's guess. Anything may happen. We start now.

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and view his weblog at latimes.com/goldenstateblog.

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