The Blog Revolution  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   February/March 2006

The Blog Revolution   

Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture
By David Kline and Dan Burstein
CDS Books
402 pages; $24.95

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


A blogger interviewed for this book tells a charming story about launching his Web site back in 2002.

"It must have been four or five months into it, but the first time I broke a hundred visitors a day was kind of a shocking moment for me. I mean, I realized I couldn't fit a hundred people in my living room. And yet all these people are coming to hear me talk?"

Two years later, the blog (dailykos.com) was drawing more than half a million visitors a day, and the charm was fading. Blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga was worrying, "The traffic is at a point where, as the site grows, I don't get happy about it anymore. It just means more headaches."

Before 1997, the word blog, now defined as a regularly updated online journal, didn't exist. By 1999 there were a few hundred blogs. Today, the search site technorati.com tracks 23.5 million of them.

Seldom if ever has a media innovation exploded any faster. The authors' use of the word "revolution" seems totally justified. And what is most interesting, and probably important, may not be the blog revolution itself, but what it says and foreshadows about changes in our overall media, culture and society.

David Kline and Dan Burstein are journalists and consultants who put together their book in a somewhat bloglike manner. They offer their own excellent overviews of blogging history, status and impact; reprint key articles on the phenomenon; and interview more than two dozen bloggers and thinkers.

The result is a provocative primer, sometimes breathless, mostly balanced, and, for those in the conventional news business, both unsettling and arousing.

The instinct to blog, the authors point out, seems ancient. Cave-wall decorations, Colonial-era pamphlets and 19th-century journals all bespeak the human hunger for self-expression. The appeal is obvious: "You can publish what you write immediately and without editorial supervision," explains one blogger interviewed here.

What is most revolutionary today is not so much blogging itself as ease of use: newfound technology that lets writers publish and easily syndicate their work and lets readers automatically search, locate, compile and read blogs of interest.

Already, some short-term effects on the news media are obvious.

Blogs turn bystanders into sources and reporters, millions and millions of them. Thousands of bloggers posted firsthand accounts of the December 2004 tsunami.

They also turn these same millions into instantaneous fact-checkers. The furor that blew up the CBS report on President Bush's National Guard service spread through blogs.

Blogs increasingly challenge big media's dominance of the agenda. For example, the remarks that cost Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) his majority leadership were mostly overlooked in the mainstream but pounced on in the blogosphere.

Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign "would never have gotten off the ground without the Internet," says his campaign manager, Joe Trippi.

In the longer run, blogging's potential effects on major media are both exhilarating and scary.

Blogs could create what BusinessWeek called "media of the masses," a force field of "citizen publishing" by "stand-alone journalists" and "networks of dedicated amateurs" who can break "the monopoly of the mainstream media."

Audiences seem ready for the blogging alternative, given what Kline calls "the widespread public dissatisfaction with the mainstream media..coupled with a general loss of faith in the country's established political institutions." Where readers seem to penalize big media for their perceived biases, the "openly and proudly stated" biases of bloggers "have actually inspired trust."

The cumulative impact, the authors contend, amplifies a "steadily rising voice: the ordinary citizenry..re-engaging in the lost art of public conversation."

Blogging also connects with a much broader trend in today's business and culture toward "co-creating" goods and services with customers. "Consumers increasingly demand products and services customized to their individual needs whether it be on-demand TV programming, tailor-made financial services, built-to-order computers, or simply their own personal favorite concoction of Starbucks coffee," the authors write.

"Blog!" usefully conveys the enthusiasm and possibility encircling the world of new media. It also adds the occasional necessary dash of skepticism and realism, especially about the perils of too much unedited copy passing as journalism. Novelist Ayelet Waldman, a onetime blogger herself, makes a point about blogs that shouldn't be lost. "There is no second set of eyes," she worries. "I really rely on somebody editing and criticizing."

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