By Dante Chinni
WASHINGTON - Mainstream journalism is running scared. It's watching
its audience numbers decline and its public trust numbers
drop. Newspapers, magazines, and network television news have been
shaken by major scandals. The media have seen the future and it is
Or at least that's the story this year. "Mainstream journalism,"
however you want to define it, has been under siege so long it's hard
to keep track of all the people, things, and outlets that were or are
still going to destroy it.
Blogs, or weblogs -- websites on which a person or a group of people
opines about events, reports what's been heard, or simply links to
other sites (many of which are also blogs) - are the latest concern
among journalists who look at them with curiosity and fear.
Many believe blogs are a dangerous direct competitor to mainstream
journalism -- a way for individuals and interest groups to reach
around the gatekeeper function that newspapers, magazines, TV, and
radio have traditionally held. Some even see them as the future of
journalism; an army of citizen journalists bringing the unfiltered
news to a public hungry for the inside dope.
"The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic
establishment is the blog," Richard Posner wrote last week in The New
York Times Book Review. Actually Mr. Posner wrote about a lot of
challenges the media faced, but gave blogs a lot of space as he
spelled out their advantages. They bring expertise. They bring flair
and opinion. They bring more checks and balances than the mainstream
"It's as if the Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters,
many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers
that carried no advertising," he explained.
Ah, yes, in the future news will be bountiful and free with no
advertising. Can't beat that. If they throw in complimentary ice
cream we've really got something here.
Let me just say for the record, I have nothing against blogs. I
actually like them. Their formula of opinion, links, and reportage can
be refreshing -- though they are often short on the last part of that
mix. And the voices they enter into the media dialogue sometimes offer
perspectives that otherwise might never be heard.
But if you really look closely, all this "and in the future ..." talk
seems a bit far-fetched for a number of reasons.
For all the bloggers' victories (like raising questions about memos in
CBS's Bush/National Guard story) there are numerous failures
(gossiping about John Kerry's affair that never happened or how the
presidential election was rigged in Ohio). And most bloggers simply
don't have time or staff to, say, launch an investigation into the
internal workings of the Department of State. Getting leaks and tips
is one thing, digging for the fuller story is quite another.
But the main reason blogs can't really supplant the mainstream media
is what they cover. If you go looking for blogs about national
politics, foreign affairs, celebrities or (yes) the media, you won't
go wanting. In fact, every one of the country's top 10 most visited
blogs deals with one of these subjects, according to
www.truthlaidbear.com itself a "portal to the blogosphere."
That's not really that surprising. To be a serious blogger - one who
can devote his time and energy to the job - one needs to make a name
for himself, sell ad space, and get paid. And to make a name, sell ad
space, and get paid, one needs a national audience.
In other words, if you live in, say, Grand Rapids, Mich. and are
looking for the latest developments on the construction on the nearby
highway, or the city council budget, or a millage dispute - things
that impact people in very real ways -- you're not going to have much
luck in the blogosphere.
Even large cities and state capitals, except for those that are part
of the media/government industrial complex, are relatively blog
free. And it's hard to see how that will change.
The number of people interested in devoting their life to things like
local zoning rules is a bit more limited than those interested in
national politics. Getting paid to do it would probably be all but
impossible. And that's a problem.
For all the fretting, blogging ultimately is bound to be less a
replacement for the traditional media than a complement. The fact is,
journalism's most critical responsibilities in a democratic society --
seeking, reporting, and analyzing news and holding people accountable
-- aren't easy to fulfill.
People rightly point out that the media often fail at those
tasks. It's just hard to see how making it a volunteer position or a
part-time job could improve the situation.
. Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the
Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.
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