Sunday, Jun. 13, 2004
Meet Joe Blog
Why are more and more people getting their news
from amateur websites called blogs? Because they're fast, funny and
A few years ago, Mathew Gross, 32, was a free-lance writer living in
tiny Moab, Utah. Rob Malda, 28, was an underperforming undergraduate
at a small Christian college in Michigan. Denis Dutton, 60, was a professor
of philosophy in faraway Christchurch, New Zealand. Today they are some
of the most influential media personalities in the world. You can be
Gross, Malda and Dutton aren't rich or famous or even conspicuously
good-looking. What they have in common is that they all edit blogs:
amateur websites that provide news, information and, above all, opinions
to rapidly growing and devoted audiences drawn by nothing more than
a shared interest or two and the sheer magnetism of the editor's personality.
Over the past five years, blogs have gone from an obscure and, frankly,
somewhat nerdy fad to a genuine alternative to mainstream news outlets,
a shadow media empire that is rivaling networks and newspapers in power
and influence. Which raises the question: Who are these folks anyway?
And what exactly are they doing to the established pantheon of American
Not that long ago, blogs were one of those annoying buzz words that
you could safely get away with ignoring. The word blog — it works as
both noun and verb — is short for Web log. It was coined in 1997 to
describe a website where you could post daily scribblings, journal-style,
about whatever you like — mostly critiquing and linking to other articles
online that may have sparked your thinking. Unlike a big media outlet,
bloggers focus their efforts on narrow topics, often rising to become
de facto watchdogs and self-proclaimed experts. Blogs can be about anything:
politics, sex, baseball, haiku, car repair. There are blogs about blogs.
Big whoop, right? But it turns out some people actually have interesting
thoughts on a regular basis, and a few of the better blogs began drawing
sizable audiences. Blogs multiplied and evolved, slowly becoming conduits
for legitimate news and serious thought. In 1999 a few companies began
offering free make-your-own-blog software, which turbocharged the phenomenon.
By 2002, Pyra Labs, which makes software for creating blogs, claimed
Most of America couldn't have cared less. Until December 2002, that
is, when bloggers staged a dramatic show of force. The occasion was
Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, during which Trent Lott made
what sounded like a nostalgic reference to Thurmond's past segregationist
leanings. The mainstream press largely glossed over the incident, but
when regular journalists bury the lead, bloggers dig it right back up.
"That story got ignored for three, four, five days by big papers and
the TV networks while blogs kept it alive," says Joshua Micah Marshall,
creator of talkingpointsmemo.com, one of a handful of blogs that stuck
with the Lott story.
Mainstream America wasn't listening, but Washington insiders and media
honchos read blogs. Three days after the party, the story was on Meet
the Press. Four days afterward, Lott made an official apology. After
two weeks, Lott was out as Senate majority leader, and blogs had drawn
their first blood. Web journalists like Matt Drudge (drudgereport.com) had already
demonstrated a certain crude effectiveness — witness l'affaire Lewinsky
— but this was something different: bloggers were offering reasoned,
forceful arguments that carried weight with the powers that be.
Blogs act like a lens, focusing attention on an issue
until it catches fire, but they can also break stories. On April 21,
a 34-year-old blogger and writer from Arizona named Russ Kick posted
photographs of coffins containing the bodies of soldiers killed in Iraq
and Afghanistan and of Columbia astronauts. The military zealously guards
images of service members in coffins, but Kick pried the photos free
with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. "I read the news constantly,"
says Kick, "and when I see a story about the government refusing to
release public documents, I automatically file an FOIA request for them."
By April 23 the images had gone from Kick's blog, thememoryhole.org, to the
front page of newspapers across the country. Kick was soon getting upwards
of 4 million hits a day.
What makes blogs so effective? They're free. They catch people at work,
at their desks, when they're alert and thinking and making decisions.
Blogs are fresh and often seem to be miles ahead of the mainstream news.
Bloggers put up new stuff every day, all day, and there are thousands
of them. How are you going to keep anything secret from a thousand Russ
Kicks? Blogs have voice and personality. They're human. They come to
us not from some mediagenic anchorbot on an air-conditioned sound stage,
but from an individual. They represent — no, they are — the voice of
the little guy.
And the little guy is a lot smarter than big media might have you think.
Blogs showcase some of the smartest, sharpest writing being published.
Bloggers are unconstrained by such journalistic conventions as good
taste, accountability and objectivity — and that can be a good thing.
Accusations of media bias are thick on the ground these days, and Americans
are tired of it. Blogs don't pretend to be neutral: they're gleefully,
unabashedly biased, and that makes them a lot more fun. "Because we're
not trying to sell magazines or papers, we can afford to assail our
readers," says Andrew Sullivan, a contributor to TIME and the editor
of andrewsullivan.com. "I don't have the pressure of an advertising
executive telling me to lay off. It's incredibly liberating."
Some bloggers earn their bias the hard way — in the trenches. Military
bloggers, or milbloggers in Net patois, post vivid accounts of their
tours of Baghdad, in prose covered in fresh flop sweat and powder burns,
illustrated with digital photos. "Jason," a National Guardsman whose
blog is called justanothersoldier.com, wrote about wandering through one
of Saddam Hussein's empty palaces. And Iraqis have blogs: a Baghdad
blogger who goes by Salam Pax ( dear_raed.blogspot.com) has parlayed his blog into a book
and a movie deal. Vietnam was the first war to be televised; blogs bring
Iraq another scary step closer to our living rooms.
But blogs are about much more than war and politics. In 1997 Malda
went looking for a "site that mixed the latest word about a new sci-fi
movie with news about open-source software. I was looking for a site
that didn't exist," Malda says, "so I built it." Malda and a handful
of co-editors run slashdot.org
full time, and he estimates that 300,000 to 500,000 people read the
site daily. Six years ago, a philosophy professor in New Zealand named
Denis Dutton started the blog Arts & Letters Daily artsandlettersdaily.com) to create a website "where people
could go daily for a dose of intellectual stimulation." Now the site
draws more than 100,000 readers a month. Compare that with, say, the
New York Review of Books, which has a circulation of 115,000. The tail
is beginning to wag the blog.
Blogs are inverting the cozy media hierarchies of yore.
Some bloggers are getting press credentials for this summer's Republican
Convention. Three years ago, a 25-year-old Chicagoan named Jessa Crispin
started a blog for serious readers called bookslut.com. "We give books a better chance," she says.
"The New York Times Book Review is so boring. We take each book at face
value. There's no politics behind it." Crispin's apartment is overflowing
with free books from publishers desperate for a mention. As for the
Times, it's scrutinizing the blogging phenomenon for its own purposes.
In January the Gray Lady started up Times on the Trail, a campaign-news
website with some decidedly bloglike features; it takes the bold step
of linking to articles by competing newspapers, for example. "The Times
cannot ignore this. I don't think any big media can ignore this," says
Len Apcar, editor in chief of the New York Times on the Web.
In a way, blogs represent everything the Web was always supposed to
be: a mass medium controlled by the masses, in which getting heard depends
solely on having something to say and the moxie to say it.
Unfortunately, there's a downside to this populist sentiment — that
is, innocent casualties bloodied by a medium that trades in rumor, gossip
and speculation without accountability. Case in point: Alexandra Polier,
better known as the Kerry intern. Rumors of Polier's alleged affair
with presidential candidate Senator John Kerry eventually spilled into
the blogosphere earlier this year. After Drudge headlined it in February,
the blabbing bloggers soon had the attention of tabloid journalists,
radio talk-show hosts and cable news anchors. Trouble is, the case was
exceedingly thin, and both Kerry and Polier vehemently deny it. Yet
the Internet smolders with it to this day.
Some wonder if the backbiting tide won't recede as blogs grow up. The
trend now is for more prominent sites to be commercialized. A Manhattan
entrepreneur named Nick Denton runs a small stable of bloggers as a
business by selling advertising on their sites. So far they aren't showing
detectible signs of editorial corruption by their corporate masters
— two of Denton's blogs, gawker.com
and wonkette.com, are
among the most corrosively witty sites on the Web — but they've lost
their amateur status forever.
We may be in the golden age of blogging, a quirky Camelot moment in
Internet history when some guy in his underwear with too much free time
can take down a Washington politician. It will be interesting to see
what role blogs play in the upcoming election. Blogs can be a great
way of communicating, but they can keep people apart too. If I read
only those of my choice, precisely tuned to my political biases and
you read only yours, we could end up a nation of political solipsists,
vacuum sealed in our private feedback loops, never exposed to new arguments,
never having to listen to a single word we disagree with.
Howard Dean's campaign blog, run by Mathew Gross, may
be the perfect example of both the potential and the pitfalls of high-profile
blogging. At its peak, blogforamerica.com drew 100,000 visitors a day, yet the
candidate was beaten badly in the primaries. Still, the Dean model isn't
going away. When another political blogger, who goes by the nom de blog
Atrios, set up a fund-raising link on his site for Kerry, he raised
$25,000 in five days.
You can't blog your way into the White House, at least not yet, but
blogs are America thinking out loud, talking to itself, and heaven help
the candidate who isn't listening.
With reporting by Maryanne
Murray Buechner/New York and Leslie Whitaker/Chicago