Conversations About the Internet #2: Scott Rosenberg on Blogging and Journalism

By

Scott Rosenberg

What motivates bloggers? They care. It’s as simple as that. To a lot of journalists that comes as a shock, because for many (not all) it’s just a job, and it’s a job they’ve been doing many years, and they’re jaded.

In 1995, Scott Rosenberg left a job at the San Francisco Examiner to take a chance on forming a new kind of media company, a magazine that would be published entirely on the World Wide Web. You may have heard of it — it was Salon — but the subject of this interview is something else that was beginning to emerge around the same time: blogging, as a practice and as a form.

Rosenberg has written a history of the subject called Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters. In the course of it he observes that, although blogs have only been around for ten to fifteen years, they have already become “the dominant media form online.” In fact, blogs have become such an ordinary and seemingly unremarkable part of our daily lives, it can be difficult to remember the single most important fact about them: they are among the most revolutionary and disruptive technologies that have so far emerged from the Internet and the World Wide Web. In principle, they have made an extraordinary power available to everybody: the power to widely publish one’s thoughts at little to no cost. And that ability, extended by the social media that grew out of blogging, has been steadily reshaping our world ever since.

Say Everything, in large part, tells the individual stories of early bloggers, because those pioneers were the first to face the kind of questions that would later become widespread: If you blog about your private life, what constitutes oversharing? Will blogging get you fired? Are you really a journalist if all your work appears on your own blog? What even counts as a blog, anyway? And that perennial favorite: Can anybody even make money from this thing?

After the case histories, Rosenberg draws back for a wider view. In three wonderful chapters of analysis, he offers his take on the meaning of all that has gone before, and attempts to address the larger questions in his subtitle. The ideas found in these final chapters — particularly his bravura chapter, “Journalists vs. Bloggers” — were the focus of our interview.

We met at a popular cafe in Berkeley, where upon seeing my recorder he immediately suggested we move to a table he knew to be quieter: “I always feel bad for the transcriptionist,” he said, “especially when he’s the journalist too.”

The Rumpus: People casually use the word ‘blog’ to denote many different forms of online publishing, everything from personal online diaries, to group blogs, to sites that aggregate news alongside a group blog, like the Huffington Post. So the first thing I wanted to ask was the most obvious question: what exactly are you talking about, when you talk about ‘blogs’?

Scott Rosenberg: Recently Jay Rosen claimed that the term ‘blogger’ has become so broad as to be meaningless, and perhaps you could extend that to the term ‘blog’ as well. But I don’t think that’s exactly true. When I use the word, I think of it having a formal definition on the one hand, and a meaning that is more historical and ideological on the other.

As you know, you could ask “What do you mean when you say ‘a novel’?” Any form has a definition that, if you took specific examples and diagrammed them as you would a network, there would be a cluster in the center with things that have all of the characteristics from some core definition — characteristics that all novels share — and around that cluster, at different distances, are things that have some of these characteristics but not all of them. You might call them all novels, even the ones quite distant from the core. And the same applies to the term ‘blog.’

The formal definition is not etched in stone, but I think it’s pretty clear, and it is something that wasn’t invented so much as it has evolved. So its boundaries have expanded and maybe will contract in some ways over time. Formally, we’re talking about personal websites that are organized in reverse chronological order and that usually, though not always, have lots of links. And that’s a useful and valuable definition to have.

But there’s also this whole set of ideas and attitudes and behaviors that we associate with the practice of bloggers, and that’s a little more elusive and complicated and subjective. But you can’t just shove this aside and say the formal definition is the only one that matters. You have to deal with it because when people hear the word, it triggers these associations too. Now, they’re different from listener to listener, and these differing associations cause endless confusion and problems.

Rumpus: I’m sure we all can agree that pajamas are involved.

Rosenberg: That’s not quite what I’m getting at. A quick, short list of the associations I mean would include things like personal authenticity; although you do have the counter-example there of anonymous blogging. There’s disintermediation; that is, “I’m going to tell my own story and not let the media tell it.” There’s a kind of rebellious attitude: “this is my expertise and I’m sick of seeing it misrepresented in the press, and here’s the truth as I see it.” There’s more, but those are some of the key things. In a way, the whole of Say Everything is an exploration of that side of things.

The thing is, the form of blogging is so useful and flexible, you can’t resist using it if you’re publishing on the web. When we were talking before, you characterized the Rumpus as a blog, but when we founded Salon 12 years ago, we didn’t have that term, so we called it an online magazine.

Rumpus: Well, I said it runs on WordPress. We actually call the Rumpus an online magazine as well. One stream is in fact a blog, with multiple authors, but we also have a homepage that features longer original pieces for a while, by people who don’t necessarily contribute to the blog per se. So that aspect is more like a magazine. What you’re mostly talking about in this book is the single-author, single-stream site.

Rosenberg: Yes, the single-author site is part of the core definition, but I don’t think the form is limited to that. Because even when you have a multi-author blog, whether it’s something like Gawker or something like BoingBoing, each individual blogger usually has an identity, and usually has the freedom to write personally, more personally than in traditional media.

This gets complicated further as traditional media adds blogging to their operations. You know, the New York Times has at least seventy blogs right now. Those people are obviously doing something related to what we’ve been talking about, but it’s not identical. They’re more likely to be edited, for example. And the personal voice is more narrowly limited: for a Times reporter, writing on a Times blog is freer than writing for the paper. But it’s still a lot less free than writing on your personal blog. So here you have the formal definition coming into a little bit of conflict with the ideological baggage, and that confuses people because people say, “Now that the New York Times has blogs, blogging has gone mainstream!” Well, yes and no.

Rumpus: Speaking of the Times, I’d like to dig into the ideas in your chapter, “Journalists vs. Bloggers.” In those pages, you make a convincing argument that the entire debate — as reported in major media, anyway — can be understood as a story constructed around the insecurities and fears of older journalists. You characterize much of it as special pleading and even “thumbsucking,” and you write that bloggers and journalists aren’t really enemies but “more like feuding cousins, squabbling over a family legacy: Who gets to call himself a journalist? Who should readers trust?”

So who does get to call himself a journalist? What credentials do you need to do journalism?

Rosenberg: Until the web arrived, credentials were a by-product of your employment and the institution that supported your work as a journalist and paid your salary. And that was it. There was no real question about it. If you asked for a press pass to an event, you needed letterhead from your employer or something, and there were these things called press cards, ID cards for journalists, if you can imagine that concept! They still exist for police lines and such, I think, but back then it was the norm for everything.

Then the web comes along and simultaneously undermines the economic basis for those salaries that are providing the credentials, and provides the tools for people without the paycheck to do the work that only the credentialed people were doing before. So this question has been blurred on two different axes, the credentialing by employment, and the actual work.

That is basically where we are today. There has been no clarifying of that blurred picture, and I don’t know that there ever will be. I recommend Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody, in which he writes in far greater detail than I did about the legal confusion we now face when anyone is potentially a journalist at any moment.

Rumpus: Like with the Josh Wolf case.

Rosenberg: That’s one of the canonical examples, but there are many more. And you basically see two different reactions to this.

One is a desire to somehow build a dam and block all this stuff because it’s too overwhelming, because we don’t know how to process the volume of information that is potentially available to us from every citizen with a cell phone and every writer with a blog, and therefore we need to turn back the clock and get the government to subsidize newspapers so we still have newspapers.

Obviously, I think this is folly, and the other reaction, which I share in, is the hope that we’ll continue to find interesting, helpful ways to surface the valuable stuff in this torrential flow of information. Will we also end up with the kind of individual situations where bad information hoodwinks us? Of course!

Rumpus: Well, that happens on television more than anywhere else.

Rosenberg: Yeah, it does. And the worst failures happen at the connection between the new stuff and the old. The worst informational trainwrecks happen where traditional journalists, who still have a very powerful megaphone but are not as well-versed in the ways of the online world — somehow something lands on their desk and before they know it they’ve done something foolish.

For example, at the very beginning of the web era, Pierre Salinger, this grand man of the old media establishment, came forth one day late in 1996 and said that he had evidence that the US Navy had shot down TWA flight 800, which had crashed earlier that year. And because he was the one saying it, it made headlines. A few hours later, he took the documents to the FBI and the FBI said, “actually, this stuff has been bouncing around the Internet for the last few months and we’ve already debunked them.” And in the meantime I was on the WELL, which was the first real online community, and people there were saying “boy, we hope that Salinger isn’t talking about this stuff that we already know is bogus.” And this kind of thing continues to happen.

Rumpus: Well, that’s a nice segue into the other question posed earlier. Who should readers trust? How does a reader go about evaluating a blog for trustworthiness? How is that similar to the way people evaluate other media, or how they evaluated media before the age of mass broadcast?

Rosenberg: It used to be that you had this proxy for trust, which was the brand of the media outlet. And that worked fairly well, although there would be these periodic breakdowns; the biggest in recent memory would be the Iraq war buildup. But in general it was a useful mechanism. And the same mechanism applies with blogs, on a much smaller level. Each blog has a brand. A reader of political blogs knows that Talking Points Memo is pretty trustworthy, for example.

But there are several differences. The visual cues are less useful than they used to be, because anyone can publish a blog that looks like almost any other blog. So you can’t rely on that. But in place of that kind of superficial thing is a whole set of other criteria that more readers are coming to understand. The most important of these would be links, reputation, and comments.

Links are about verifying the blogger’s use of sources. If it’s a blog that’s purporting to present public information, is the blogger linking to sources or not? If there are no links, or if they do link, but the information seems to conflict with what you’ve read on the blog, that’s a sign of untrustworthiness.

The overall reputation of the blogger is another factor. Does the blogger tell you who he or she is? Google the person and figure out what other people think. Does the person state their identity, or do they blog anonymously? Sometimes there are good reasons for anonymous blogging — whistleblowers are an example of that. But in general it’s a bad sign if they’re blogging anonymously and you can’t see any good reason for it.

And another indicator is the comments. Are there any? Are the commenters engaged in an interesting, substantive discussion? If the comments are filled with spam, it’s likely that the posts are spam too, because nobody’s tending the garden.

Sometimes I feel a little foolish saying these things, because it seems like common sense. But I think it’s helpful to repeat. We’re at a point in history where there’s a smaller group of people who do this second nature, and a wider group of people who are still learning.

Rumpus: I’d like to talk about the role of the blogger as gadfly. In that chapter, you cite a number of examples where a major media source either decided to drop a story, incorrectly reported a detail, or got the story completely wrong, and dedicated, gleeful, outraged bloggers — one or the other or all three — kept it alive or fact-checked it until the journalists in question, or their employers, are forced to acknowledge it. You write (and I really like this line): “Journalists found many reasons to detest bloggers, but their most consistently irksome trait was their relentlessness.” Most bloggers don’t earn money from this intensive work, so what does motivate them?

Rosenberg: They care. It’s as simple as that. To a lot of journalists that comes as a shock, because for many (not all) it’s just a job, and it’s a job they’ve been doing many years, and they’re jaded.

In the chapter, I wrote about how Joe Klein got some details wrong in his reporting on the FISA courts, and that was a crystallization of this. Here are all these bloggers outraged by this relatively minor error, and there you had Klein sitting there saying, “I don’t have time to deal with this.” As a practicing journalist and a former managing editor, I know exactly what he’s talking about: he doesn’t have time to deal with that, and most of his readers didn’t care about his errors either. But then you have this claim of the traditional media that they are more reliable, that they are taking a last stand on the quality of their information. It’s pretty damning when they have to admit that they don’t always have time to get it right!

There is this constant refrain in the journalism-blogging dialogue, about how we need to support the institutions of journalism because bloggers don’t have the resources that a real newsroom has. The classic example is the Baghdad Bureau of the New York Times, which costs millions of dollars a year, and reporters are putting their lives on the line to go there, and bloggers are less likely to do that.

That’s all true, but you can also say that actually, newsrooms have very limited resources. I know this as a managing editor: you have X number of people, and X cubed number of stories: you’re constantly making difficult choices about what to cover and what not to cover; you’re constantly thinking about how you’re deploying your troops; you’re always thinking about how you’re spending your limited newshole.

The news world is a world of constrained resources. That’s more so today, but it has always been like that. And the blogger who cares about some particular subject really doesn’t have the same constraints.

Rumpus: He has all the spare time in the world.

Rosenberg: Yes, if he has the spare time. And perhaps our rhetorical blogger only cares about reviewing the baked goods in his community, and who cares about that. But if you assemble the patchquilt of all of these concerns, you find that the coverage is pretty broad. Do you have comprehensive coverage of everything? No: there are biases built in. Bloggers have done a better job covering tech gadgets than they have homelessness. But within the world of tech gadgets, the coverage that you get from the collective universe of bloggers is so much more intensely deep than anything that any national outlet can provide. Deeper, more reliable, quicker to correct its errors, and faster. That’s kind of an overwhelming thing for a journalist to face.

Rumpus: I want to talk for a moment about another aspect of the passion of bloggers for their work. And this starts with your observation that, although blogs would seem to privilege the present moment, by default modern blogging software creates a meticulous archive and preserves it indefinitely, and bloggers are very careful with their archives, at least in comparison to many media sites.

Rosenberg: That’s hugely important! About a blogger’s relationship to his archive, you know, when I moved my blog from one platform to another a few years ago, I was determined to save every post. It took me hours; I had to go through thousands of posts. And I did it, why? Because I cared! It was my writing.

Rumpus: Yeah, I’ve been through two migrations of my own stuff: LiveJournal to Blogger to WordPress. I did much the same thing.

Rosenberg: Of course you did! It’s your work. You want to preserve it. And yes, it’s such a contrast with what so many print publications have done when they do a platform transition. All sorts of information is just discarded because it’s of no importance to the institution. In general the pros care less than individual bloggers. This point, about blogs having this relationship with the past, is a very interesting point that people don’t always understand.

Rumpus: You write that blogging has a largely-untapped capacity for timelessness.

Rosenberg: Yes. Blogs are so interesting to me because they’re at the fulcrum point of so many different things. For example, it’s at the fulcrum point of the individual and the group; much more so than on a social network, where it’s all about the group. Similarly, a blog is right at the fulcrum point of the present and the past.

Rumpus: You write, in your chapter “When Everyone Has a Blog,” of the very common experience of trying to find some obscure information online — in your case, you were looking for a substitute for some exotic ingredient you can’t find — and sure enough, you found it on some blog with the help of Google. I find it amazing that this depth of information, and this degree of access to it, has come to exist in such a short period of time. In only fifteen years, we have collectively assembled what is, by many measures, the largest single archive of information ever assembled by humanity, and it’s publicly available to anybody who can get access to it. And a great deal of that information is contained in blogs. It staggers the mind.

Rosenberg: It staggers the mind, and it’s surely, to me, something to be celebrated, something to be amazed at, something to be in awe of, and something to delight in. And blogs are an important piece of it. If you were online before the Web, on Usenet and the WELL, and if you knew anything about that world and that culture, when the web came along and you could see how easy it was becoming to contribute to it, it seemed so clear that this was the path it would ultimately take.

For years I had these two voices in my head, one saying, Yes, this is happening and isn’t it great, and what fun! And the other saying, Oh, but you know, that energy will be commodified and turned into something much more banal, and it’s all doomed.

Rumpus: That these creative energies would be co-opted to sell Pepsi.

Rosenberg: Yes. And of course there is commodification on the web. There’s spam and there are SEO-driven splogs. But the interesting thing is that even though we see those things, and we know they’re there, they haven’t ruined the good stuff. They’re not getting that much in the way of the real information, as it turns out. So my personal trajectory, with regard to this, has been to laboriously slough off some of the cynicism that I felt was my birthright as a journalist.

But that’s a tough thing to talk about, because often merely making the case on the positive side for a phenomenon like blogging, even when you balance it with the negative side, you can’t avoid being cast as an idealist and a cheerleader.

Rumpus: To continue on this theme of collective knowledge, at the top of the chapter I mentioned a moment ago, you quote Douglas Adams about the web: “One of the most important things you learn from the Internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.” Would you be willing to expand on the implications of what is happening as media becomes less of a broadcast and more of a global conversation?

Rosenberg: Well, at this point that’s sort of a fait accompli. Blogging, as I describe in the book, in the stories of all these early bloggers and proto-bloggers, was this sort of initial microcosm of something that’s now much larger, that encompasses everything that people do on social networks, and on Twitter, and on YouTube — on the whole panoply of sites that are all about user-contributed content. They have all these different labels, but they all kind of mean the same thing.

And it’s great for what it is, but it’s easy to get into trouble in this discussion, because when you describe this situation, people hear this and they assume you’re saying that therefore we can now discard all of the old forms along with all of the professional dimensions that go along with them.

So the first thing I always try to do is remind people that the examples of dead media are actually very few. For example, theater is still around! It’s not as big as it maybe was in the 19th century, but it has survived movies, it’s survived television, it’s surviving the web. It’s not going away.

Rumpus: Well, in general a given technology doesn’t disappear when a new one comes along and takes over some of its functions. The old one stays around and is put to its best use. That goes for media as well.

Rosenberg: Right. But when the economic foundation for certain kinds of media do disappear, you will have major convulsions during the transition, and that’s not an easy thing to negotiate. We have all of this change to reckon with, and at this point, my guess is that this is so new, each of us is responding to that change in a way determined by our psychological temperaments. You find people who are generally pessimisstic being specifically pessimisstic about this. People who are inclined to be cynical, apply that cynicism to this stuff.

imageDBRumpus: And those who are inclined to be fearful…

Rosenberg: Well, there are things to be fearful of! Look, the business of print journalism has been in overall decline for my entire career, since the early 1980s. That’s a long-term trend that predates the Web. And in fact the Web initially slowed the decline: back in the late 1990s, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times were putting out these fat editions full of full-page ads for the latest bubble-driven company. But ever since that bubble burst, the Web has been accelerating this decline in many ways, not because bloggers are cutting in on journalists’ turf, but because the Web has allowed people to offer separately what had been sold by newspapers as an indivisible bundle, classified ads being an obvious example of that. People think they’re reacting to changes in the technology, or the relationship between the writer and the public, or the interactive potential of the web, but what’s really driving these discussions at the deepest level is the underlying economics of the situation. That has changed, and the way forward is not obvious.

Flowchart illustrations by robinhamman; illustration of Scott Rosenberg by Ilyse Magy.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →