Weblogging: The trees fight back
Jul 4th 2002
From The Economist print edition
Should old media embrace blogging?
BACK in the mists of early Internet history, online publishing was going to wrest power from the inky fingers of old media groups and put it in the hands of ordinary people. Well, it never happened. Yet just when old media began to feel smug again about its old-fashioned paper-based products, weblogging (known as blogging) happened. The question for the big media world is whether to embrace the phenomenon that, in part, claims to undermine it.
Blogging, the publication of running commentary on personal online weblogs, has in the past couple of years exploded from a cultish techie activity into a cottage industry churning out increasingly compelling content. In 1998, there were about 30,000 weblogs; today, there are some 500,000, according to Cameron Marlow, who runs blogdex, which tracks them.
Blogging has taken off thanks to the development of online tools, such as Blogger and UserLand, which make it simple and cheap to update personal web content instantly. Weblogs range from the political (InstaPundit, Kausfiles, AndrewSullivan) to the high-tech (Dan Gillmor's eJournal, Scripting News, 802.11b, Boing Boing), and from the personal rant to the thoughtful critique. One recurring theme is their quirky, counter-cultural nature. As a recent article in the Online Journalism Review put it: “Weblogs are the anti-newspaper.”
Many thrive on correcting or deriding content published in newspapers and magazines. “Blogs have emerged as an instant critique of major media,” says Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic, whose weblog book reviews can lift a title into the top ten on Amazon. “At the same time, bloggers are parasites on big media, relying on them for stories and raw material.”
How then is big media to respond? Some publishers, such as the San Jose Mercury News and Britain's Guardian newspaper, were quick to set up weblogs. But the general response has been to ignore them. This was not entirely foolish: weblogs do not make money. Some bloggers earn commissions on items bought through a link from their weblog, or receive donations from charitable readers. But even Mr Sullivan says his weblog brings in only about $6,000 a month from such sources. Most bloggers do not blog for money.
So what do big media groups stand to gain from adopting a format that delights in promoting competitors' content, and relies on relinquishing editorial control? Such a question, say bloggers, misunderstands the force of weblogs. “Traditional publishing is about putting on a show; building a network of weblogs is like hosting a party,” says Simon Waldman, head of digital publishing at the Guardian.
For all the costly and failed efforts by media companies to create and charge for online material, blogging suggests that the web works best as a link to other people—and a way of finding and raiding their content. As InstaPundit's Glenn Reynolds says, “the threat to big media is not to its pocketbook but to its self-importance.”