Why I blog, and why the MSM should and many times shouldn’t

That’s the title of the talk I gave last week at IBC and that I have given in various forms at other places over the last year. I began the talk by showing off some numbers from Dave Sifry’s most recent State of the Blogosphere reports, the latest one being from early in August. Technorati is now tracking 50 million blogs, and that’s just a self-selecting sample of people who have registered with the site (well self selecting and plenty of splogs, spam blogs, which the Team Technorati is working on trimming from its ranks). That’s a lot of people.

The mainstream media, or MSM for short, can give 16-year-olds trying to lay their hands on the latest fashion a run for their money when it comes to herd-like activity. And newspapers, TV networks and everyone else trying to protect or resurrect an old media business model have jumped enmasse on what Jon Stewart called the Blogwagon. But it’s mostly been an unthinking, headlong rush towards the blogosphere, “to get snaps” from the good-as-advertising-gold 18-to-34 demographic.

Is this really about giving a voice to the already voiced, as Jon Stewart says? What value is it to our audiences to serve up ‘news sushi’, content we already produce and publish but just served up in bite-sized blog bits in reverse chronological order? And I can hear the editors out there saying: “But blogs are just snarky comment, and hey we’ve got snarky columnists in spades. We are so going to own the Technorati and iTunes Top 10.” (And I’ve heard them say this.) Sorry, but if you want to sit up on high and keep pushing your content out at the “great unwashed masses”, YouTube, CraigsList and their successors are so gonna own your asses.

This is not about changing your content management system. You’ve already sunk a lot of cash into those. This is about changing your culture. What do blogs allow you to do that you don’t already do?

  1. Blogs can get you closer to your audience
    And that’s exactly where you need to be. I met Robert Scoble at a Geek Dinner here in London last summer, and he talked about having a conversation with his customers on how Microsoft could better serve their needs. I don’t really understand when journalists moved away from their audience, but many people have that impression.
  2. Blogs can bring new voices to your journalism
    Since when did journalism become a game of pick the pundit? It’s lazy, and it’s turned a lot of journalism into a talking shop amongst pundits, politicians and other journalists. Google yourself some new voices. In the last year, blogs have helped me bring serving soldiers in Iraq onto programmes, helped me hear from a Saudi teenager calling for women’s right to vote and let me eavesdrop in on a guy’s thoughts as he left New Orleans to escape Katrina.
  3. Blogs can get you closer to the story
    Blogs and a world of tools that have grown up around them make creating multimedia stories in the field easier than ever. I’m an online journalist because I believe that the internet is a revolutionary medium. I can do better journalism with blogging tools: Real, raw and in the field, while being in constant contact with my audience. What do they want to know? What questions do they have for the people I’m interviewing?
  4. Blogs could just re-invigorate western democracy
    OK, OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But I’m still an idealist at heart. That’s one of the reasons I got into journalism. Steve Yelvington, who really should be in your RSS reader, put it this way recently:
    1. The end of mass media. Here’s what the 20the century gave us: A population of consumers whose economic role was to eat what they’re served and pay up. These “people formerly known as the audience” are alienated, disengaged and angry. Instead of setting our sights on building a nation of shopkeepers, bankers and passive consumers, what if we set our sights on building a nation of participants in cultural and civic life? Perhaps this world where everyone can be a publisher will not be such a bad place.

And as Steve says a few days later in his blog, there isn’t a silver bullet, and I’m not going to try to sell blogs as one. But Steve told me in Florida a year ago that blogs represent a complex set of social behaviours that we’re just understanding. Blogs are just the tip of the ice berg in this fast moving world of participatory media. Blogging and the mainstream media has to be more than ‘me-too-ism’, and it can be. With a little thought to understand these new behaviours and a willingness to actually accept and adapt to these changes instead of wishing they weren’t happening, we might just have a chance.

technorati tags:blogs, journalism, MSM