Blogs and Web magazines are looking more and more alike. What's the difference?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 15 2010 6:43 PM

This Is Not a Blog Post

Blogs and Web magazines are looking more and more alike. What's the difference?

Gawker. Click image to expand.
The beta version of Gawker's new design.

Soon, Gawker will no longer be a blog. The same goes for other sites in the Gawker network—Deadspin, Gizmodo, Jezebel, Lifehacker, et al. There won't be any change in their editorial missions: Gawker won't drop its gossipy tone, Gizmodo will never hesitate to tell you about the secret iPhone it found in a bar, and Lifehacker will continue to offer tips on how to turn your PC into a Mac. The difference is that when these sites publish their scoops, they won't be doing so in a "blog" format—that is, as a reverse-chronological, scrollable index of posts. Instead, Gawker and co. will transform into something more akin to conventional Web magazines.

To see what Gawker and its sisters will look like, replace the www in the URL with beta—e.g., beta.gawker.com. The front page will be dominated by a large image and headline from the site's most popular post, and a list of other headlines will sit along the right side. You'll be able to navigate the entire site at a glance, no scrolling required.

While this might sound like a small change, Gawker is often credited with legitimizing blogging as journalism. If Gawker is not, technically, a "blog," then what is? Gawker honcho Nick Denton seems to wonder the same thing; in a recent New Yorker profile, he says that the redesign will "probably be seen as the end of the blog."

Not so fast, Nick! While Gawker is dropping the blog format, sites of magazines like Wired and The Atlantic are embracing it. (At both outlets, all articles, other than those that first appeared in print, are published in a blog-like format.) Or check out Newsweek, whose home page lists headlines and snippets in reverse-chronological order, just like at your friend's Blogger site.

The design shifts—with blogs looking more like magazines, and magazines looking more like blogs—aren't just superficial. These changes in presentation are collapsing all distinctions between "blog posts" and "articles." Over the last few days I contacted various bloggers and editors at big sites around the Web to ask how they define each term. The answers I got were surprisingly diverse—while each of these organizations has its own rules for what it calls a "blog post" and an "article," the rules aren't at all consistent across newsrooms. What's more, the lines are blurring—blog posts are looking more like articles, and articles are looking more like blog posts.

So what's the difference—what's a blog post, what's an article, and does it make any difference vis-à-vis how you navigate the Web? "I say this with all possible deference: Who cares?" wrote Joel Johnson, the Gizmodo blogger, when I approached him with such questions. Scott Rosenberg, author of Say Everything, a history of blogging, echoes this point: "Just as journalists think readers have a deep awareness of distinctions like 'hard news piece' vs. 'feature' vs. 'news analysis,' we think they understand or care about the line between 'article' and 'blog post.' But they're just reading what we're writing for them and responding. It's our hang-up, not theirs."

Still, to the reporters and editors who produce these pieces, these labels often carry great weight. Writers online are sensitive to old, cheap stereotypes regarding their professionalism—"young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting," as Andrew Marr, the former political director of the BBC put it recently. While blogs aren't treated so dismissively these days, perceived misuse of the terms "blog post" and "article" can still inflame journalistic class consciousness. The other day, the New York Times' David Brooks referred admiringly to Nathan Heller's Slate article about The Social Network. But Brooks didn't call Heller's piece an "article." Instead, he pointed to Heller's "intelligent blog post." Is it possible that the Times columnist used "blog post" as a subtle denigration—a way to downplay the fact that Heller had made Brooks' argument first?

I'm going to give Brooks the benefit of the doubt and say probably not. (I wasn't able to reach him for comment.) A lot of times this sort of confusion carries no greater meaning. Readers often mistake my blog posts for articles and vice versa; "Farhad Manjoo is the worst blogger at Slate!" is not an unusual comment in these pages. (I'm the worst columnist, thank you very much.)

Still, I heard from other media folks who consider "blog post" to be insulting terminology in certain circumstances. Anna Holmes, the founding editor of Jezebel (she stepped down from the editorship this past June), says that she sorts posts on the site into two mental categories. Pieces that are primarily "reactions to something that already existed in the media or on the Internet"—the bulk of Jezebel content in its early days—are "blog posts." But Jezebel also publishes many essays that are not riffs on outside material. These weightier, original pieces aren't set off in any special graphical way on the site, but Holmes still thinks of them as articles, not blog posts.

Often, Holmes says, readers and others in the media would refer to these longer stories as "blog posts," and that term didn't sit well with her. Holmes cites a widely read piece last June by Irin Carmon on why female staffers of The Daily Show felt "marginalized" on the set. "If someone would have referred to that story as a 'blog post,' I would have been annoyed," Holmes says. "I wouldn't necessarily have been annoyed enough to say something, but I would have grumbled about it to Irin, because it would have lessened the work she did." She adds that she wishes it weren't this way: "Blog posts tend to be underrated. 'Blog' shouldn't be a pejorative. But the word always seemed to be dismissive, especially among old-school media types."

The anxiety over what to call "writing that lives on the Web" stems in part from changes in publishing technology. Over the last few years many online magazines and newspapers have ditched their lumbering, expensive "content management systems" for quicker, more flexible blogging software. The fact that you use blogging software, though, doesn't mean that you consider yourself a blog. Bob Cohn, the editorial director of Atlantic Digital, says that he calls everything on his site a "post." But Evan Hansen, executive editor of Wired.com, says that he doesn't use "blog post" to refer to most of the pieces on Danger Room, Epicenter, and Threat Level—sections of Wired.com that are labeled as "blogs" on the home page. Because these stories are reported and edited, he thinks they're articles—even though to all of us, they look like blog posts.

If all blog posts are morphing into articles, and all articles are morphing into blog posts, you might wonder which form is winning out. The question is particularly interesting considering the impending death of print. At some point in the future, date TBD, the New York Times will stop printing a newspaper. What will we call it then? Will stories on its site be "blog posts"?

I doubt it. I'd venture that Gawker's redesign is a harbinger of a coming shift. Even though tradition-laden outfits like The Atlantic have adopted the blogging format, these blogs aren't the kind of DIY ventures that we might've seen as recently as five years ago. Nearly all journalistic blogs—even Gawker's—are thoroughly professional. They engage in reporting, they've got layers of editors, and they're aimed at satisfying a target audience in order to gain traffic. They're called blogs, but they're really trafficking in articles.

Scott Rosenberg points out that this has little bearing on whether "blogs" remain a popular feature on the Internet; lots of ordinary, nonmedia people will continue to blog as a "labor of love." That may be true, but we're still in the midst of an important shift in the way the news business works. When I asked Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds how he defines blogging, he said the most important thing was "the lack of an institutional voice." Whatever software it uses, he added, "I don't think the NYT will ever really be a blog, in that sense."

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