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Blogs: Good or Evil?

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006; 7:42 AM

I write again today about blogging because I believe it has become the most vibrant, innovative and controversial form of information delivery in the media world today.

Also, I was stuck for a column.

The old parameters for this discussion seem pretty stale. Will blogs replace the Old Media? Of course not. Are blogs inherently evil? Puh-leaze. Are bloggers a bunch of misfits with too much time on their hands? A few, perhaps, among the 10 million keeping online journals, but there are too many smart people who have made their mark through blogging for that question to be taken seriously.

A better series of questions: What can MSM types learn from blogs, both in terms of criticism of their work and as a more freewheeling form of communication? Should reporters blog, and if so, what are the boundaries? Would blogs be more of a factor in public debate if more of their practitioners did a little research -- say, including the very old-fashioned notion of calling people up -- instead of merely pontificating?

Why are the best blogs sometimes more compelling than the "Senator Jones said yesterday" style of too much newswriting? Because the bloggers have a voice and emotions and are speaking directly to you. Because they're up front about their biases. Newspaper stories often seem like straitjackets, incremental, dulled-down, written in a sort of insider's code. Plus, blogs are faster, which is part of the reason that Washingtonpost.com and a number of other newspaper sites have either hired outsiders to write columns or put staffers in touch with their inner blogger.

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series of columns about this over the weekend, including this one from the Weekly Standard's online editor, Jonathan Last, who expresses skepticism toward his own:

"Blogs can be a real force for good when they act as supra fact-checkers. They can add serious value when they quickly elevate experts in obscure topics to the fore of public discussion (see, for example, the Bush 'National Guard memo' fracas). And they have enormous potential to enable on-the-ground reporting when news happens suddenly or in remote locations. We've seen some of this potential realized, as in sites such as Iraq the Model, but not nearly so much as one might have hoped.

"Balanced against these goods are the pernicious effects of blogs: They elevate analysis over news-gathering; they value speed over judiciousness; and they encourage the practice of journalism to turn in on itself, to tend ever more toward navel-gazing.

"This last bit is the most annoying. Show me a New York Times story on war in Sudan, and I'll show you 20 bloggers who think the real story is how the Times fails in its coverage of war in Sudan.

"But the biggest evil of blogs is that first flaw, blogging's original sin: the discounting of news-gathering in favor of news analysis. Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it. Sure, they may have written opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter, but opinion writing is a tiny - and let's be honest, inconsequential - corner of the journalism world. Real journalism - the practice of adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news - is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Bloggers want no part of it. Everyone wants E.J. Dionne's job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs . . .

"Another worry is that, as a medium, the blog does not value well-crafted writing. Except for Mark Steyn and James Lileks, it's hard to pick out even three beautiful writers from the millions of bloggers. Again, the fault here lies with the medium: Being a good writer helps a blogger about as much as a good singing voice helps a broadcast anchor."

Jeff Jarvis is ready to dispense with paper:


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