the transition to digital journalism

Blogs

The rise of weblogs in the early 2000s helped define the concept of Web 2.0.

Blogs are a reference to both a form of publishing content online and the software programs that make such publishing very easy for the average person.

Websites that later were referred to as the first weblogs surfaced in the mid 1990s. They often were short postings to static web pages of updates on particular topics by people interested in those subjects. One of the earliest by an individual was Dave Winer's Scripting News.

In 1999 a company called Pyra, which was developing project management software, released a software program - Blogger - that made it simple to set up and constantly update a website. With Blogger a person didn't need to know HTML coding to create a web page or to post content to it.

For the first several years, blogging was mostly done by people working in the technology sector or hobbyists in other fields. And their postings were usually very short and just informative.

The 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States brought to the fore two more aspects of blogging - the ability of people to post first-person accounts of news events and provide commentary on political issues. People who were eye-witnesses to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City posted what they saw on their blogs. Other bloggers engaged in debate over how the U.S. should respond to the attacks. The term "warbloggers" was coined to describe them.

Blogging then took off and by 2002 several thousand weblogs were being launched every day, according to an estimate by David Sifry of Technorati, which tracks weblogs.

By 2008, the number of weblogs was estimated to be well over 100 million, according to Technorati (although many of these blogs are dormant).

But at least among teens blogging may now be in decline. While 28 percent of teens blogged in 2006, only 14 percent said they did so in 2009, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  Younger people are gravitating instead to social networks like Facebook or Twitter (see this New York Times story).

Journalism and Blogging

News organizations initially were very reluctant to have their reporters or editors set up weblogs, and many viewed bloggers with suspicion or contempt. Bloggers were derided as "pajama-clad" amateurs writing late at night from the comfort of their bedrooms or basements, or "parasites" who did no original reporting and instead were just pundits feasting on the reporting labors of traditional media organizations. 

But some news organizations embraced blogging early on, with blogs written by columnists, editors or reporters, often on technology beats. These early adopters of blogs included:

  • San Jose Mercury News, which had one of the earlierst blogs by a reporter, Dan Gillmor, who covered the technology beat
  • Christian Science Monitor, which sponsored a blog by Tim Regan, editor of the Monitor online
  • Spokane Spokesman Review, which had 10 blogs up and running by 2003
  • Dallas Morning News, which launched a group blog by its editorial board members
  • MSNBC.com, which hosted blogs by a half dozen of its popular commentators
  • InfoWorld, which had a group blog called Tech Watch to which any staff reporter could post

In Fall 2002 the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism launched a weblog - biPlog - to cover digital copyright and intellectual property issues.

As blogs gained widespread public adoption in the mid 2000s, more and more media companies embraced them. Columnists and reporters set up  personal blogs, usually on their beats, and some news organizations began hosting blogs by members of the public or linking to popular blogs in their coverage areas.

The Spokane Spokesman Review hosts a number of staff written blogs and also has a directory to other bloggers in the Spokane area. The Lawrence Journal World has about 3 dozen staff blogs and also hosts weblogs by readers. Other papers are now following suit - see MediaShift's story, Newspaper Try Again with Local Blog Networks.

Other papers began using blogs to report on breaking news stories - everything from political campaigns and elections to courtroom trials and natural disasters. See for example the Philadelphia Inquirer's From the Source breaking news blog (and this story about the blog by Chris Krewson, the Inquirer's executive editor of online news).

Despite the now widespread acceptance of blogging by news organizations, tensions remain over the role a journalist should play as a blogger and how news organizations should handle their staff produced blogs.

Most successful bloggers have their own voice or point of view. That's fine for a columnist who starts blogging, but it can be at odds with the traditional media definition of the objective, impartial reporter.

Blog postings are usually not polished editorial products, like a heavily edited story, and a premium is put on doing frequent postings, especially on breaking news. The demands of individual blogging thus can clash with editing and fact-checking functions of news organizations.

News organizations have responded by adopting standards for postings by their in-house staff bloggers. Some publications require that blog posts be edited before being made public, while others allow a reporter to go public with a posting, and then have editors review the postings afterward.

Blogging is not for everyone. Some reporters take to it with enthusiasm, but forcing reluctant reporters to blog is usually a recipe for boring blogs and a demoralized staff.

For reporters who like blogging, it can be an invaluable form of personal branding - establishing themselves in an online community, connecting and engaging with the public, getting feedback and story ideas, and participating in the larger conversations going on all over the Internet.

Blogging Software

There are many software programs for easily setting up a weblog, either hosted on the blog software company's website or on a web server at your news organization or at a private hosting service. Blogging software even can serve as a basic content management system for many publications.

Blogger, which helped touch off the blogging revolution, provides simple blogs hosted for free on its website.

Another popular site that provides a simple-to-set-up-and-use blogging service is Tumblr.

Two other popular and more versatile and sophisticated blogging programs are WordPress and Movable Type.

We use WordPress for our blogs at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. See our tutorial on Using WordPress.

If you pick one blogging program and decide later you'd prefer a different one, check out Google's Blog Converters, which allow you to transfer your data, such as postings, from one blogging platform to another.

Readings and Resources

Top 10 blogging tips from around the web - Mark Luckie, 10,000 Words, 9/17/2008

Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults - Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2/3/2010

Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter - New York Times, 2/20/2011