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April 15, 2005

Unnatural Hybrids

In his "Off Message" column slot, William Powers writes a nice piece about chimeras: half-newspaper, half-weblog:

Off Message (04/15/2005): If you've been following the media wars, you know that two armies are facing each other across a great divide. On one side are the dry, withered old media, most often represented by the plodding big-city newspapers and the increasingly beside-the-point network news operations. On the other is a ragtag band of independent bloggers, those bold warriors who fight with just their keyboards.

Something real is happening in the middle ground between blog and establishment, and quality is emerging in places.

Typically, the two are presented as discrete, mutually exclusive options. Follow the coverage, and you get the feeling that one of these days, we're all going to have to choose. ''Old' Media, Bloggers Square Off at Conference,' said a recent headline in the Chicago Tribune. Which side are you on, establishment or renegade? Are you hip to the future, or hopelessly stuck in the past?

Weirdly missing from this discussion is the fact that there are outlets with a foot in each camp, establishment news operations that are giving the blogging form a whirl, alongside their traditional content. These experiments are overlooked, partly because they give off the unmistakable odor of Me-Too. Indeed, to blogging purists, it's not possible for an establishment outlet like a newspaper to have an authentic blog. It's like Marie Antoinette playing the noble peasant in her fake-rustic cottage. Those old-media monarchists can frolic all they want with their petite blogs, but they can't hide their real selves: The truth is written all over their business cards.

The other reason the establishment's move into blogging is not much discussed is that it doesn't play into the dramatic story line of the hour, the David-Goliath intramedia narrative that gives the blog story its edge. If you hear that insolent blogs and starchy mainstreamers are 'squaring off,' that's pretty exciting. It's not half as thrilling to discover that they are converging, though that could be the deeper truth.

In fact, it's too soon to call it a convergence. But something real is happening in the middle ground between blog and establishment, and quality is emerging in places. I see it every time I go to The Washington Post's Web site, which has been tending a little side garden of bloggish columns for several years. The Post's unusually robust lineup now includes Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing, Howard Kurtz's Media Notes, Robert MacMillan's Random Access about technology news, Jefferson Morley's World Opinion Roundup, various sports blogs, and, recently, a new blog by Post writer Joel Achenbach, called Achenblog.

Beyond the fact that this is all coming from a powerful mainstream outlet, there are other ways in which much of this fare doesn't meet the strict definition of blogging. I asked Froomkin, who has worked in online journalism for years, whether his column, a daily rundown of what's happening in news coverage of the White House, qualifies as a blog. He noted that the column fails to meet several criteria: 1) It is edited, while 'real' blogs come straight from the minds of their creators. 2) He files once a day, while blogs are updated continuously. 3) His items do not appear in reverse chronological order, as blog postings do, and are not independent of each other -- White House Briefing has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 4) Unlike a true blog, Froomkin's column isn't highly personal.

Still, as Froomkin points out, his column has a lot of bloggishness. It has a voice; it's all about linking to other sites; and it has a palpable connection with its readers, often including their responses to the content (readers can't post comments, although other Post blogs run with this feature).

According to Froomkin, the model for his column was Romenesko, a blog-style Web site about media news that's become in recent years an online watering hole for journalists, the place where you go to hear the latest dope. Froomkin says that it was Post Chairman Donald E. Graham who wanted to create something similar for White House coverage: 'Don Graham had long been agitating for us to do for the White House what Romenesko had been doing for media.'

Maybe I'm just being an insular mainstream journalist here. I used to work at The Post, and have many friends (including Achenbach) at the paper. Froomkin's column and Romenesko have both linked to this column. With those caveats, I have to say that when I look at the paper's online-only content -- including its live discussions with readers -- I see a traditional outlet adopting some of the better qualities of the blogosphere, and in true blog fashion, even openly struggling with the transition. In his blog, Achenbach has made fun of his own ignorance about the craft. Last week, he mentioned that the blog would soon allow reader interaction: 'We're taking this blog out of its 1995-level format and giving it more of a 1998 feel. I guess the idea is that a blog shouldn't be merely my solipsistic musings, that it should include reader reaction. I fear that's a slippery slope.'

The joke works because it's based on a real question that's hanging out there in the culture: Can mainstreamers do the blog thing? In the end, I think that the point isn't whether a piece of writing has been sanctified by the church of blogging. The point is whether it's good. Jim Brady, the executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, told me: 'There are a lot of people who feel that professional journalists can't blog, because it's a totally different thing. I consider blogs a format more than a content type.... It's all about what you put in it.'

Posted by DeLong at April 15, 2005 03:20 PM