Panning for gold in the blogosphere

Blogging has become a respected tool for amateur and professional journalists, reports Graham Holliday, but for news organisations hoping to make use of blogs, the trick is separating the truth from the chatter

MOST BLOGS are of little interest to anyone but the author, their cat and a few friends, but delve deep among the 30 million-plus blogs and you’ll find bloggers, or so-called citizen journalists, hounding companies, chasing down unreported stories, interviewing politicians and influencing the direction of government policy.

It is during the bombings in London on 7 July that many feel that the citizen snappers and scribes officially arrived. Some of the most iconic images and writing from that day came from ordinary folk whose daily lives were horrifically interrupted.

Alfie Dennen, who runs moblogging site MoblogUK , uploaded an image that was taken by Adam Stacey just 15 minutes after a bomb exploded near Kings Cross on the Piccadilly line.

"The image of Adam Stacey that I posted was an incredibly vital and visible example of the power that an ordinary person with a cameraphone can wield over traditional press in times of crisis,"he says.

"The immediacy of moblogging as a tool overarches any possible issue of quality of image, and in a way, the granularity of the image here served to augment the visceral power of Adam’s image. The future of integrated journalism definitely has moblogging in its pallete, Adam’s image served to highlight this."

Within 24 hours of posting the image, it had spread around the world, appearing in many newspapers, on TV, blogs and websites.

Dennen believes the free and immediate dissemination of newsworthy material by people on blogs, effectively circumnavigating old media altogether, is a critical new element in the news process. "I advocate the dissemination of vital information where possible without restriction.

Legacy licensing such as Reuters can impinge this flow of information at times when its circulation is vital," he says.

Bloggers not only break news, they analyse the newsmakers.

The Rathergate case in the USA is the most notorious instance. In 2004, the Power Line blog questioned the authenticity of evidence about President Bush’s service in the National Guard presented by veteran journalist Dan Rather on the 60 Minutes show. The evidence turned out to be based on allegedly falsified documents. Rather eventually apologised and resigned.

Ordinary men and women from all political persuasions collectively and rapidly destroyed the evidence presented by the veteran journalist. Strike one for citizen journalists.

Little more than a year later and bloggers are established newsmakers in their own right.

Loic Le Meur is a blogger and the executive vp and managing director of Europe for Six Apart, the company behind the TypePad blogging service and Movable Type software. He is one of the most popular bloggers in France.

In November 2005 he noticed that Nicolas Sarkozy, French Minister for the Interior and a future candidate for the 2007 French Presidential elections, had left a comment on a blog that was criticising him. Impressed with the politcian’s involvement with the blogosphere, Le Meur blogged about it.

"I posted a note on my blog congratulating him and asked if he would accept an invitation to a podcast interview. I didn’t email, I just wrote it on my blog. He replied and one month after my blog post, I interviewed him."

Le Meur published the podcast in December. The impact was immediate. "Very soon, two young bloggers in their twenties did the same with other political figures, from both the left and right.

Recently, I podcasted an interview with Dominique Strauss-Khan, one of the top candidates in the socialist party. It had about 50,000 viewers. The format is different from a TV interview as we have the time to talk. This last podcast was for more than one hour. It’s impossible to do the same in mainstream media."

Le Meur believes this is a trend in the French blogosphere. "I have already podcasted three potential presidential race candidates and many other politicians," he explains. "They all accepted my request to podcast them and some now contact me. What’s interesting is that the press now view my podcasts and report on them. This week in the French press, Dominique Strauss-Khan was quoted three or four times on what he said on my podcast."

Tim Worstall is one famous UK blogger. He was widely quoted for his analysis of bloggers’ response on 7 July, and wrote the book 2005: Blogged. He says many stories first reported on blogs, including some of his own, later make it into the mainstream press.

Much like the mainstream media, bloggers don’t always get it right. The recent sale of the British company Peninsular & Oriental (P&O) to the United Arab Emirates-owned Dubai Ports World (DPW) caused great controversy in the USA. It raised concerns over the perceived security risks of having an Arab-owned company controlling US ports. Many prominent US bloggers repeated what senators and the mainstream media were saying, calling for the government to intervene.

All apart from one man – Kenton E Kelly, who blogs under the name Dennis the Peasant. Kelly did what the journalists and bloggers didn’t do and went in search of facts.

“He was just about the only person who went digging into what was actually going on,” explains Worstall. “People like popular blogger Michelle Malkin and Senators Schumer and Clinton were screaming about ‘the selling of American ports and national security’. Dennis was the only person who went and read what P&O actually does — it operates some leases within the ports and has almost nothing to do with security at all.”

The story spread from the blog to Reason magazine , and the magazine paid Kelly to write the story. The best of old media are looking at ways of incorporating the best of citizen journalism into their brands. Worstall thinks sifting through the vast blogophony of voices to find the genuine nuggets of excellence is the main difficulty facing newspapers that might otherwise be open to using blog content.

“Success will go to the editorial team that can mix and match the best of both. For, as should be obvious, the 500,000 UK bloggers know more, in detail, on any and every subject under the sun than the staff of any individual newspaper,” he says.

“How to pick out of the rabble that one voice that has the truth on any specific subject will be
the difficulty.”

Freelance writer Graham Holliday blogs at www.noodlepie.com

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