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Blogs Go Highbrow and Lowbrow; Net Playing Growing Role in U.S. Elections

Everyman gets a weblog

We're barely a week into 2003 and already I can safely declare this the Year of the Blog. Mainstream behemoth America Online has plans to offer its teeming masses the ability to blog to their hearts' desire. The British are agog over a daily weblog that will run Samuel Pepys' saucy diary from 1660 onward in real time for about 10 years. And insiders like Rafat Ali of PaidContent.org are dreaming of old-school media companies buying up the best weblogs, business models be damned ("it could be a savvy PR move," he offers).

You can look at the AOL blogging news in two ways: 1) Running weblogs will soon become as mundane and widespread as setting up a home page; or 2) the company is totally desperate to find something, anything hip, happening and now that will keep its millions subscribed. Either way, the news is good and welcome, and will likely create a wasteland of self-absorbed babble, providing the perfect foil for us professional writer types.

As for Pepys, aka Clerk of the Acts and Secretary to the Admiralty, I was intrigued by the historical diary-as-blog replay idea as an avid diary reader (who has time to write them?). The first few entries proved to be pretty cryptic and dull for the average non-British Joe, but the annotations by scholarly types are quite lively. For instance, one passage read, "Then my wife and I ... went to Mrs. Jem's, in expectation to eat a sack-posset, but Mr. Edward not coming it was put off; and so I left my wife playing at cards ... " More interesting is the side discussion of sack-possets, which apparently were either hot winter drinks or runny custard, and a forerunner to egg nog.

But in both cases -- with AOL's lowest common denominator crowd and Pepys' intellectuals -- the hook will be community and a group experiment in opening diaries to a wider audience. They might not become buyout material for media companies, but they could at least take the blogging craft to higher -- and lower -- levels.

 

Let's get political

I admit I did pooh-pooh the idea that the Internet was going to revolutionize the mid-term U.S. elections last fall. Now the Pew Internet Project comes along and shows -- with a real survey and real people -- that more folks are depending on the Net to make their decisions on Election Day. To be precise, 22% of respondents said they went to the Web for election info, up from 15% that went online in the last mid-term election in 1998. There were significant increases in the number of people who researched candidates' positions on issues and their voting records.

Now, this doesn't exactly show a revolution, but perhaps an evolution, and a good omen that people are actually interested in the issues versus TV's typical campaign sound bites. Another evolution in the Net?s favor is that of news consumption. Another media survey showed the growing strength of the Internet as a general news source, and the decline of network news and even cable news to some extent. Ad Age, which commissioned the survey, found that 16% of people turned to the Internet first for news, almost doubling from 9% a year ago. Network news was down to 31% as a primary news source, from 36% a year ago.

Again, these numbers show incremental growth and a steady erosion for network TV as the be-all, end-all for political and general news. Few people are predicting the demise of TV news, and it will remain a force for visual journalism. But the Internet is taking its place as a popular source for deeper information, especially for people looking for alternative viewpoints. And there?s no reason to pooh-pooh that.

 

Quotable

? ... The ability to post comments on the [Samuel Pepys blog] site has proved crucial. Entries and footnotes are already being annotated by readers who provide explanations and additional information, creating a more communal experience than conventional publishing allows. So rather than simply publishing a dead - albeit fascinating - text, I now find myself in charge of a far more exciting living read.?

-- Phil Gyford, writing a first-person account for the BBC, explaining why he started the Pepys weblog. Gyford claims the site will only take him a few nights a month to keep updated -- though he admits he?ll get caught up in the lively annotations.


Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for The New York Times, travel stories for the San Jose Mercury News, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at glaze@sprintmail.com.

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