Blog overkill.

Blog overkill.

Blog overkill.

Media criticism.
Jan. 26 2005 8:48 PM

Blog Overkill

The danger of hyping a good thing into the ground.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

A long, long time ago—OK, it was 33 years ago—Michael Shamberg and a clutch of other video visionaries from the Raindance Corporation visited my college campus to preach their gospel of the coming media apocalypse. Waving a copy his book Guerrilla Television, Shamberg prophesied that the Sony Porta-Pak—an ungainly video camera wired to a luggage-size tape deck carried over the shoulder—would herald a media revolution greater than the one fomented by Gutenberg's moveable type.

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Once the People got their hands on the video power and started making decentralized, alternative media, the network news programs would collapse under the weight of their own lies, Shamberg said. The Hollywood industrial entertainment complex was going down, too, man, and would be replaced by street stories recorded by Porta-Pak-toting freaks. The multiplexes out by the freeway would be shuttered and sold to neighborhood theater groups. In Guerrilla Television Shamberg wrote:

With portable videotape technology, anything recorded on location is ready on location, instantly. Thus, people can control information about themselves, rather than surrender that power to outsiders. ABC, CBS, and NBC do not swim like fish among the people. They watch from the beach and thus just see the surface of the water.

Shamberg convinced me that this clunky black-and-white camera would completely redistribute media power, although I didn't join the rebellion, unlike some of my classmates, who purchased communal shares in a new Porta-Pak. So long, CBS, I thought. Nice to have known you, Warner Bros.!

But the video vérité of proletarian life and the drama of the antipoverty demonstration, which the video guerrillas found so riveting, proved no competition for Starsky and Hutch and 60 Minutes. Even though video cameras continued to shrink in size and price throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s and have now proliferated to the point of ubiquity, the guerrilla uprising Shamberg and his comrades plotted never progressed much beyond the unwatched public-access channels at the high end of the dial. Their revolution was televised, but nobody watched.

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Memories of the video guerrillas percolated to my forebrain last Friday while I attended the "Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility" conference at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Many of the speakers, such as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and tech wizard/Ur blogger Dave Winer, echoed Shamberg's fervor as they testified to the socially transformative power of blogs. A blogswarm of amateurs, they proclaimed, is breaking the professionals' hold on the press. There's a major power shift going on, Rosen stated, tilting toward users and away from the established media.

In language only slightly less fervent than Shamberg's, conference participants declared blogs the destroyers of mainstream media. (See this page and this page for a real-time transcription of the conference.) Others prescribed blogs as the medicine the newspaper industry should take to reclaim its lost readers: Publishers should support reader blogs and encourage their reporters to blog in addition to writing stories. Podcasts would undermine the radio network empires. "Open source" journalism, in which readers and bloggers help set the news agenda for newspapers, was promoted as a tonic for what ails the press. Reporters were encouraged to regain the lost trust of readers by blogging drafts of their stories, their notes, and even their taped interviews so other bloggers could dissect and analyze them for fairness.

Winer discounted any chance that the clueless media would adapt to the blogofuture, saying publishers were as blind as the mainframe computer manufacturers of early 1980s who refused to believe PCs would replace their big iron.

I hadn't witnessed such public expressions of high self-esteem since the last time I attended a journalism awards ceremony.

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Despite all the blogger preening, none of the attending representatives of the "dinosaur" media—Jim Kennedy of the Associated Press, Jill Abramson of the New York Times, and Rick Kaplan of MSNBC TV—seemed hostile to or threatened by blogs. Kaplan (rightly) boasted about the proliferation of MSNBC blogs, including Hardblogger and Keith Olbermann's Bloggermann. (See also Dan Abrams' Sidebarand Joe Scarborough's Congressman Joe.) His network ran something like 19,000 video clips by citizens from the tsunami front and invites viewers to contribute to its Citizen Journalist Reportpage.

When the Times' Abramson asked rhetorically if the conference bloggers had any idea how much it cost to maintain a news bureau in Baghdad, the supreme confidence of a couple of bloggers fractured into petty defensiveness.

"That's a silly question!" snapped Winer. "Asking bloggers what this costs is silly. If you want to tell us what it costs, that's fine. ... But there are bloggers in Baghdad! That's your competition; that's what you have to deal with."

Moments later, Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachinecriticized the Times for missing an antiterrorism demonstration in Baghdad that an Iraqi blogger photographed and posted. The Times ignored this story, Jarvis claimed, because it ghettoizes news gatherers who aren't professionals. Abramson shook her head as he spoke.

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"We're not trying to ghettoize anyone," Abramson said.

"So why did you shake your head!?" the ordinarily composed Jarvis barked, as if Abramson's modest physical expression of disagreement constituted the crime of arrogance. Such was Jarvis' yelp that conference host Alex Jones reminded folks to keep it civil.

The bloggers certainly weren't going to get much lip from me. I saddled up with the new media posse back in 1996, and much of what I do—write, post, link, read, communicate with readers, devote myself to an arcane subject—resembles what most bloggers do, except that I get paid for it, and I tend to write twice or three times a week at 1,000 words rather than several times daily at a paragraph or three. The biggest difference between me and conventional bloggers is that I usually pause between first thought and posting. Inspired by the slow food movement, I like to think of myself as a slow blogger. Sometimes I'm so slow—as this Wednesday dispatch from a Friday-Saturday conference proves—that I resemble a conventional journalist.

Maybe because I've been writing and editing on the Web for so long and reading, to my great edification, the blogs of such writers as Josh Marshall, Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, James Wolcott, Eugene Volokh, Glenn Reynolds, Mark A.R. Kleiman, Edward Jay Epstein, as well as Reason's Hit & Runand the essential Romenesko, to name a few, the alleged divide between the old media and this new whippersnapper media of blogs has never seemed real to me.

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With the exception of the "metro" section reporter covering a 12-car pile-up on the freeway, I think most practicing journalists today are as Webby as any blogger you care to name. Journalists have had access to broadband connections for longer than most civilians, and nearly every story they tackle begins with a Web dump of essential information from Google or a proprietary database such as Nexis or Factiva. They conduct interviews via e-mail, download official documents from .gov sites, check facts, and monitor the competition—including blogs—the whole while. A few even store as a "favorite" the URL from Technorati that takes them directly to what the blogs are saying about them (here's mine) and talk back. When every story starts on the Web, and every story can be stripped to its digital bits and pumped through wires and over the air, we're all Web journalists.

The premature triumphalism of some bloggers indicates that they haven't paid attention to how Webified journalists have become. They also ignore media history. New media technologies almost never replace old media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Radio killed the "special edition," but newspapers survived. When television dethroned radio as the hearthside infobox and cratered the Hollywood box office, radio became a mobile medium, and Hollywood devoted itself to spectaculars that the tiny TV set couldn't adequately display. The competitive spiral has continued, with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs, satellite TV and radio broadcasters, and now Internet broadcasters entering the fray. The only extinct mass medium that I can think of is the movie house newsreel.

The likelihood that blogs will vanquish mainstream media recalls the prediction Michael Crichton made in his 1993 essay "Mediasaurus." Crichton wrote that the New York Times and one commercial TV network would vanish within a decade and would be replaced by artificial-intelligence agents, skimming information and the news from news databases and composing front pages or broadcasts tailored to the interests and needs of individuals. Like Shamberg's guerrilla revolution, Crichton's infotopia failed to arrive as promised. In 2002, Crichton good-naturedly claimed that his vision will still come true; it's just running a little late.

If media visionaries underestimate the adaptive skills of the old media to imitate, acquire (as Slate did kausfiles and as the Washington Post Co. did Slate), and innovate, they also tend to underestimate their own abilities to take over the old media from within. [Jan. 29 Addendum: Slate acquired Kaus' services. He's free to give notice and take kausfiles with him if he so chooses.] When the guerrilla movement stalled, Shamberg worked his way up the media food chain and into the mainstream. Raindance Corporation morphed into Top Value Television, or TVTV, which shot the 1972 political conventions for several cable systems, produced documentaries for PBS, and then bunked with the bourgeoisie to create a comedy pilot for NBC, The TVTV Show. Ensconced in Hollywood, Shamberg became a motion picture producer in 1980 with a docudrama about Cassady and Kerouac, Heart Beat. Since then he's produced or executive-produced almost three dozen features, including The Big Chill, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Gattaca, Out of Sight, Man on the Moon, and Erin Brockovich. All have screened at your local multiplex.

The danger of fetishizing a new technology (the Porta-Pak) or a new media wrinkle (the blog) is obvious: In the rush to define the new new thing and celebrate its wonders, the human tendency to oversell kicks in. Am I the only one who remembers how John Perry Barlow, drunk on the Web nine years ago, issued his ridiculous "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace"? In hyperbolic fashion, Barlow wrote, "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before." Lenin subscribed to this sort of technological moonbeamism when he declared that socialism plus electricity would equal communism, and we know where that led.

News blogs, political blogs, sports blogs, community blogs, gardening blogs, tech blogs, shopping blogs, radio blogs, video blogs, and blog blogs all possess great potential. But we owe it to this prodigious new communications form not to demand too much too soon.

******

Watch the bloggers work me over here. (I've collected some comments below.) I'll send a U.S. dollar to the first who writes "Shafer doesn't get it." Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. Disclosure: The conference covered by airfare and lodging. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Bloggers Rip My Flesh: Here are comments from the blogosphere about my "Blog Overkill" column. Note on methodology: I harvested them from Technorati, Daypop, Blogdex, and from e-mails sent to me by bloggers.

(Jan. 27, 2 p.m. ET) BuzzMachine: "Shafer's column is pretty clueless." Lead and Gold: "I was surprised at this Slate piece on blogs. It is thoughtful and even-handed."   Blogenlus: "Shafer gives too much credence to those that believe blogs will revolutionize media." Captain's Quarters: "We may exaggerate our importance at times, but if Shafer thinks that the news and entertainment industries will remain essentially unchanged ten years from now, he may be one of the last casualties of the revolution." The Agitator: "Jack Shafer expounds on what I've been saying here for months--the blogosphere has begun to take itself way too seriously." EdCone.com: "Boring, Jack. And worse, inaccurate." EricRice.com: "I've got news for all you disclosure weenies. I disclose that I agree with a good deal of what Shafer writes." Ruminator: "[Shafer] still misses the most important point." The New SteveSilver.net: "… a tough-but-fair piece on blogs that I suspect the 'sphere will be all over tomorrow." Soul of Wit: "I don't buy everything he says, but he makes a compelling point that, despite we bloggers thinking we are the web-savvy journalists of the future, traditional journalists have long made use of the internet and computer technology in their work."

(Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m. ET) Bopnews.com: "What is different is that there is a wall around Jack [Shafer], and there isn't a wall around most bloggers."   Broadsheet: In an excellent review of last weekend's "Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility" conference at Harvard, Shafer makes the point that Bloggers might be getting a little too full of themselves in claiming the coming apocalypse of mainstream media." Light Seeking Light: "As a useful corrective to the optimism of bloggy zealots (that's right you--you know who you are) read Jack Shafer's "Blog Overkill" article in the current edition of Slate." The Liberal Conservative: "Jack Shafer doesn't get it. … And belittling that movement by directing his barbs at the particular representatives of blogging at a particular conference … only serves to demonstrate how deeply Shafer's ignorance lies." [Shafer note: You win the $1. Send your postal address to pressbox@hotmail.com and I'll send you the cash.] Hit & Run: "One thing I never see mentioned in these MSM-vs-blogs stories is how completely positive, ecstatic, and fawning the old media coverage of blogs is." Gawker: "Jack Shafer writes something about blogs or something. (It was too long, but Jeff Jarvis is mentioned!)" The Paul Wall: " … the bottom line is that Shafer gets about half of it. I appreciated his detailed report of the conference face-off, but even the most clued journos don't seem to understand that this is not a mutually exclusive enterprise." Projo.com (Providence Journal): "Jack Shafer of Slate vs. Jay Rosen of NYU take off the gloves in an intramural flap over old and new media, blog triumphalism and decency that really doesn't have anything to do with the act of blogging." Mr. Left: "I honestly believe that Mr. Shafer is going to look back someday and realize that this blog revolution is hell of a lot closer to causing the kinds of changes that the printing press produced than the results the Porta-Pak produced." Bless Our Bleeding Hearts: "Maybe you could forgive some of the hyperbole a little if you take into account how powerless we feel otherwise. So if I put in Jack Shafer's name will the technorati site find it?" Galley Slaves: "Inside payoff: Read Shafer's list of blogs he likes and find which one is missing. It'll make you glad to know that the rift must be real. If you know what I'm talking about, it'll make you smile."

(Jan. 28, 9 a.m. ET) Wizbang: "Captain Ed writes eloquently as to how Shafer missed the revolution." Anil Dash: "I wasn't at the conference, so I can't comment on the specifics that Jack Shafer references, but I'm finding it hard to disagree with anything that's written in this Slate column." Threadwatch.org: "Well, im [sic] happy at least, half the blogosphincter want his blood for pointing out the patently obvious but it's made my day to see that someone actually sees through all the ridiculous hype and ego preening nonsense about blogs out there." Culture Hack: "I won't say Jack Shafer doesn't get it, but his comparison of blogging and Shamberger's [sic] 'Guerrilla Television' misses the target."  Eight Diagrams: " … a well-earned a chuckle from this corner." Dohiyi Mir: "Slate's Jack Shafer writes about last week's SloMoBloJoCred. And gets it." Tom Watson: "Shafer's point is this: modern journos are--in general--incredibly blog-savvy. Sure, they get busted by bloggers; but the good ones use the blogosphere as a Candyland of rumor, data, and story leads." Random Thoughts: "Jack Shafer believes all of this emphasis on blogs, especially the emphasis on blogs somehow replacing traditional journalism, is so much overkill. And it is." Reasonablenut: "Jack Shafer has an article on the continuing self-gratification that bloggers are giving themselves. He apparently attended some forum at Harvard last weekend that included MSM types and the archetypal 'rogue, independent' blogger that is out there digging for the truth on a daily basis. The forum included Jeff Jarvis who seems to have permanently thrown his dress over his head." Fafblog: "A POX upon Jack Shafer, who mocks the Holy Revolution of Blogtopia from his old-media citadel of Slate Magazine! Giblets will explain why his Bloggian Revolution beats your old-style mainstream 'internet journalism,' Shafer. Oh sure, you also write independent fast-paced web-based fact-checking on the media. But the difference is you have 'experience' and 'resources' and 'training,' while Giblets rides the unbounded electronic fury of the internet which he can unleash upon you at his whim! Destroy him, my pretties!" Hawk's Net: "The editor at large of Slate has some sobering thoughts about the blog hype. … His arguments sound similar to discussions about e-books replacing real books. The Evangelical Outpost: "Bloggers don't want to replace the media. We only want to be included in the process." Blogghype: "Jack Shafer har en bra artikel i Slate om hur bloggare inte verkar förstå att tidningar faktiskt inte hotas av bloggar som många verkar tro."

(Jan. 28, 12 noon ET) E-mail from video guerrilla turned Hollywood producer Michael Shamberg:

Dear Jack,

I enjoyed your piece about the enthusiastic prophecy of my youth.  In some ways I was right, decentralized media tools did open up many new points of view on television in a gamut that runs from the Rodney King video through The Real World to America's Funniest Home Videos.  But at every turn mainstream media assimilated these new points of view and there are less media companies today than 33 years ago so I was wrong to think that new content would mean new ownership. I think the reason is that the scale of investment needed to run distribution outlets is too large for small groups to manage. However, with the internet the economic barriers to entry are very low so it is possible to imagine new businesses growing out of them.

While I support the messianic fervor of bloggers it is too soon to predict what structural change, if any, will emerge in the media. The ultimate limit isn't economic, but talent.  Not that many people have something original to say. But the bloggers are right that you can get alternative information to people quickly and without censorship. Indeed, I read your article because someone in my office forwarded it to me.  In the old days, it would take a letter or a fax to circulate the information. I think that is revolutionary. When I speak to college classes I tell them that now is the most exciting time in history to work in the media. Making a living at it is another story. ...

Best,

MS

(Jan. 28, 4:30 p.m.)  The Doc Searls Weblog: "Six months ago, I would have said the main conflict is between journalists and their employers. But the number of publishers and broadcasters who see the need to embrace the Web--especially the Live Web we call the blogosphere--is rapidly increasing. The big questions now are no longer If or Why?, but How?" The Dread Pundit Bluto: "It's been pointed out to me that I was too easy on Slate's Jack Shafer regarding his attitude toward blogs and bloggers. That's true, but it was by design. … Shafer obviously hoped to provoke intemperate diatribes so that he could poke fun at them in updates to his column." A Shel of My Former Self: "Shafer notes that all new media are additive. Radio didn't kill newspapers and television didn't spell the end of radio." Editorsweblog.com: "Shafer thinks that the bloggers are arrogantly and prematurely exaggerating the success of their medium as well as the extent to which blogging is revolutionizing mainstream media by declaring 'blogs as the medicine the newspaper industry should take to reclaim its lost readers' and open source journalism as the 'tonic for what ails the press.' " TwoRights.com: "Although, Shafer is drawing some heat from Conference attendees, like New York University Journalism professor Jay Rosen, I think he raises some very valid points regarding this debate." Popular Thinking: that whole business about Shafer being a 'slow blogger' doesn't quite cut it. He is an online columnist for an online magazine. That's not quite Web logging." Veggie Potluck: "I think this article by Jack Shafer is very intelligent." The Middle Stage: "In a wonderful piece in Slate, Jack Shafer puts some of the hype around blogs into perspective." Blogging About Incredible Blogs: "If you think blogs are the end-all, be all, take a moment and read Jack Shafer's thoughtful article. …"

(Jan. 29, 12 noon) Jay Rosen on the Blogging, Journalism & Credibility Web Site: "It's Decency Jack Shafer Lacks: Besides being lazy, Jack Shafer's suggestion that the conference theme was blogs will triumph over the traditional news media… and you guys are toast! (I paraphrase) is intellectually dishonest. That's a few doors up from lying, but the same general neighborhood." Poliwog: "I think Shafer neglects one thing in his discussion, and that is, the tipping point, when it comes to this technological change, is almost here, and it has arrived with astonishing swiftness, and no one really knows where this is going to end or how." Stormed Blue Sands: "I've never understood the idea that blogs would up-end traditional media outlets. Most of what blogging -- especially political and news blogging -- entails is linking to some 'Old Media,' a.k.a. 'Mainstream Media,' a.k.a. 'MSM' (ugh!) piece either approvingly or disapprovingly and providing (if lucky) some pithy piece of commentary in the process." NYCPastor: "Excellent piece from Jack Shafer at Slate on why blogs are overrated. I love the idea of "guerilla television," though. Pity it never took off." Up in Ontario: "This is good stuff that starts to cut through some of the aggregate bumpf of the bloggy world (named 'The Blogosphere by the in crowd) to find some clarity on the real issues at play here." Ruminate: "Shafer's sarcasm (while earning his coin from a web publication) is more unforgivable than his final bit of cluelesness."

(Jan. 30, 11:00 a.m.) Pressthink (Jay Rosen): "The rhetoric of transformation by Web--and of the Internet revolutionizing journalism for the better--isn't foreign to Jack Shafer. Not long ago, he was speaking it." Joho the Blog (Dave Weinberger): "Jack Shafer's piece in Slate misrepresents what went on at the WebCred conference. … Shafer's piece, which contains good thoughts, irks me because he is letting himself play the hard-headed realist at the cost of making others look foolish." New Media Musings (J.D. Lasica): " … I think he underestimates the gathering force of the forces at the grassroots." Ezra Klein: Jack Shafer's decided to take on the dicks who tout the blogs and I, as a blogger, could not agree more. …" Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks: " … there's something funny about fighting the elitism of the establishment with the elitism of the non-establishment." Bordbuch: "One point did ring positive in Jack's piece and rumble at the conference: slow blogging. I like the idea, even of active blogging, post everywhere there is a net connection." Dix Hill Publishing: "Me, I look at Rosen as a paper tiger himself, a la Winer and Jarvis: guys who are earning points in the 'espectable'media world by hyping those crazy, transgressive bloggers." Common Sense Journalism: "OK, silly season has opened again in the blogosphere, or as it's known around here, Chapter MCMLXXXVIIIIIIEIEIO of the seemingly never-ending debate of blogs v. mainstream media." Rant Wraith: "I didn't read every word. (Note to Shafer: bloggers tend to get to the point and skip the three paragraph intro. Tick tock pal. Time is money and all that.)" The Blog of M'Gath: "Tis morning, while contemplating getting up, I also was contemplating writing a post about the overhyped claims that blogs will overthrow mass media. But Jack Shafer has already said it better than I would have." Bogus Gold: " … Shafer is not a serious critic of modern media. But he gets attention, so we acknowledge him, if only to point out why his opinions aren't worth serious consideration."