“There are actually 7 million blogs being watched on this one site called Technorati. And it gives you an idea of what is going on. And there’s so much out there. And it’s so hard to keep track of it all. But if you take a look at a site like this it will break it down for you.” — Jacki Schechner, CNN’s blog reporter, talking on “Inside Politics”
Nothing could be weirder than the first time you watch CNN’s “Inside the Blogs,” a segment on Judy Woodruff’s “Inside Politics.” CNN’s “blog reporter” Jacki Schechner does a tag team with producer Abbi Tatton, as they bring up Weblogs on dueling computer monitors and tell you what the blogs are saying about the issue du jour.
But this is the logical next step in the evolution of blogs — whether the old-school bloggers like it or not — as mainstream culture grapples with the concept of Weblogs and their growing power in punditry. Increasingly, mainstream media outlets will need to explain how memes spread in the blogosphere, who is saying what, and what their agenda is, if any.
While bloggers might resist attempts to superficially or technologically assess “what the blogosphere thinks” on a particular issue, these aggregated looks by CNN and now Slate’s “Today’s Blogs” (also launched in February) are windows into a world that is new to so many people. Plus, very few bloggers would turn down the promotion they receive from mainstream media exposure.
And for journalists, aggregators can be a blessing, giving them a quick read on an issue, offering new insight on a topic of research, or putting them in touch with new sources for a story. After journalists’ stories have been posted online, they can track feedback by searching via engines such as Technorati or Daypop.
So here’s a guide to some of the better blog aggregation efforts so far. I’ve kept away from pure RSS readers such as NewsGator or Bloglines, as they offer more of a software solution than an editorial or weighted view into blogs. Keep in mind that most of these features and services are new and sometimes buggy or inaccurate. But having a flawed reading is better than the alternative: reading all 7 million blogs yourself.
The list is in order of those with the most human touch to those that employ the most automation. In all cases, I tried to focus on how blogs viewed the recent death of Pope John Paul II.
CNN’s Inside the Blogs
So how do you do good TV about blogs? Many cable news shows have started booking bloggers such as Robert Cox and Jeff Jarvis regularly. But CNN decided to take a different tack with its blog reporter and politics producer going on-screen in a special section of the set. The pair shows actual blog pages and postings with the CNN talking heads poking out of a small box in the corner of the screen. On the pope’s death, they noted that some bloggers were actually happy about it (though they didn’t name names), and pointed to The Pope Blog and the Catholic Insider podcast as good sources.
The broadcast has shades of the old TechTV channel, though the segment was severely hampered by not even listing the blog URLs — nor were they even on the show’s Web site or transcript. Predictably, some bloggers cried foul for bias, and one knocked CNN for referring to many more conservative blogs than liberal ones. Still, the segment is worthwhile despite its shortcomings, even if it only helps Woodruff and other newbies “get” the blogosphere. Of course, the special guest on “Inside Politics” that day, Rev. David O’Connell, president of Catholic University, couldn’t help getting off a dig about the “incivility of blogs” that didn’t respect the pope.
Grade: A for effort, C+ for execution
Slate has made its mark not just with political reporting and insightful features, but with its people-powered aggregators like the groundbreaking Today’s Papers and In Other Magazines. The concept is simple: Have a writer read other media and sum it up in a witty way for the time-challenged consumer. Taking on Weblogs makes a lot of sense for Slate, and they promise in their promos to deliver “Five Million Blogs in Five Minutes.”
Today’s Blogs is a lively read and largely focuses on the most popular A-list bloggers and the memes they are following. The feature, written by rotating interns and editorial assistants, has the disadvantage of trying to sum up millions of blogs in the space of a short column — unlike Today’s Papers’ limited purview of the top stories in the top five newspapers. Worse still is the ethical mire the column descends into by almost always linking to news stories in the Washington Post, the flagship paper of Slate’s new owner. There are plenty of resources such as Daypop Top 40 and Blogdex that can help point the Slate interns to which news stories are most linked in the blogosphere; these should be the ones that get the links from Today’s Blogs.
[Update, 4/6: Slate editor Jacob Weisberg said: “We do NOT have a policy of favoring the Washington Post for newslinks in the body of stories. Our policy is to use whatever story seems best to us, or whichever one has more relevance to the bloggers we’re covering. Apparently, the editorial assistants have been favoring the Post for just the last week. This was not according to our editorial policy, and they won’t be doing it that way any more.”]
Grade: C+ for effort, B+ for execution
CJR Daily’s Blog Report
From the ashes of CJR’s much needed CampaignDesk.org site during the election comes CJR Daily, a continuation of that site with an expanded focus on daily journalism. One of the regular features has been Blog Report, which also has its roots in election coverage and politics. CJR Daily’s managing editor Steve Lovelady has taken heat for saying, “The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail,” in reference to bloggers taking down former CNN honcho Eason Jordan.
But that hasn’t stopped Blog Report from being a smart read on chatter in the blogosphere. Sometimes CJR’s rotating writers take on a more patrician tone toward those unruly bloggers, but other times they get into the spirit of things. On the day of the pope’s viewing at the Vatican, for example, Blog Report was agog over the start of the baseball season and how bloggers reacted to the Yankees’ win over the Red Sox. In their defense, though, CJR Daily had a number of other items on papal coverage.
Grade: A- for effort, B+ for execution
Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire
Goddard, an author and political consultant, runs one of the more interesting hybrid aggregator sites, Political Wire. The Front Page is a blog that Goddard maintains with an editorial voice, looking mainly at mainstream news reports on U.S. politics. Then he has two separate automated sections for liberals (“Southpaws”) and conservatives (“Wingers”). Again, the focus is on established A-list bloggers such as Daily Kos and Powerline, but it often has the look of a high-powered group blog, with a clean layout that doesn’t force you to click through to the blog posts themselves. On the pope, Goddard had a nice pointer to “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” an old novel and movie about a Russian pope that foreshadows in many ways the rise of Pope John Paul II. Political Wire does a better job of making sure you don’t miss the top political issues without digging much past the A-list.
Grade: B- for effort, A- for execution
While programmer Gabe Rivera’s Memeorandum is a fully automated look at the top news stories and blog posts relating to those stories, there is a very human element in Rivera’s choice of which Weblogs to aggregate. While Google News has also made the claim of full automation, we know that some person had to program the software, pick the sources and rank them. Rivera was aggregating in “the low hundreds” of blogs as of last summer, and he mainly focuses on top U.S. news stories and controversial op/ed columns that catch fire in the blogosphere. Rivera maintains that stories are chosen by popularity of links in to them, as are Weblogs, similar to the Technorati system. The page is simple and clean, but the headlines and blurbs don’t always give you an idea of the subject matter. For example, an item on Peter Jennings’ lung cancer originally linked to his bio instead of an AP news story.
Grade: B for effort, A for execution
Though it hasn’t received as much attention as Nick Denton’s other blog ventures, Kinja could evolve into a valuable blog aggregator in time. Currently in beta, Kinja allows you to follow various favorite blogs on its site without encumbering you with the nuances of RSS or reader software. As for aggregation, there’s the Editor’s Digests of subjects such as Baseball, Food, Sex and Politics (with Liberal and Conservative subgroupings). A strength of the site is the simple navigation and nice layout for newbies, but its weaknesses are pretty glaring. Technically, headlines spew out in unintelligible bites at times, as do the blurbs from blog posts; editorially, some blogs were miscategorized (e.g. Outside the Beltway in the Liberal section); ethically, you can’t help but sneer at the prominent placement of Denton blogs Gawker, Wonkette, et al. However, in the Editor’s Showcase of good blog writing, there was a recent inclusion of LA.comfidential, a competitor to Denton’s Debaser blog. With some technical attention and a more neutral viewpoint, Kinja could become indispensable.
Grade: C for effort, D for execution, B for potential
This comes in as perhaps the most high-concept entry. Findory attempts to take the Google News format two steps further — by offering an interface with just news headlines and blurbs, and another with just blogs. But Findory’s most interesting feature is that the weight and placement of stories depends on what you click through to read on repeat visits. There’s even a little icon that comes up next to stories it considers to be of keen interest to you. I decided to have a little fun by clicking on the weirdest news stories relating to aliens and a woman breastfeeding tiger cubs in Myanmar. Sure enough, on future visits, I was presented with more of those types of stories. Findory makes you think before you click through (“will I be permanently tainting future recommendations?”), but still provides you with top world stories despite any fetish you might have for less newsy items. It has a very simple design that could use photos to break it up. And blog posts are sometimes miscategorized by the blogger’s background rather than the subject matter. Otherwise, a fascinating experiment.
Grade: A- for effort, B+ for execution
Which are your favorite blog aggregators, human or automated? Click the button to tell us which ones you like and why.