I’ve recently been reading ‘Making Online News‘ a book of ethnographic studies of online news production. Tucked towards the back of the book is a chapter called The Routines of Blogging by Wilson Lowrey and John Latta. It is one of the few studies I’ve read to look not at journalists, but at the work practices of bloggers – specifically, political bloggers.
And their findings support what I’ve increasingly suspected: “the more relevant bloggers become in terms of audience and influence, the more their production routines resemble those of professional journalists.”
A few years ago this would have been held up as evidence that bloggers could hold their own with journalists, that ‘blogging can be journalism’.
It’s a sign of how much has changed that, now, it’s actually rather disappointing to read that bloggers aren’t experimenting with exciting new ways of doing things.
The central argument of the chapter is that the pressures of being a popular blogger lead to the same routinisation that affects mainstream journalism, as well as an aspiration towards ‘professional’ ways of doing things:
“More than one blogger said a key turning point in the way they practice blogging was the moment they felt the gaze of the public eye. Realizing that people are paying attention … has led these bloggers to adopt a more careful, dispassionate approach and tone.”
One blogger is quoted as saying this “has led to less opinionating and more reporting and thoughtful analysis:”
“I was more creative when I started, now I’m more deliberate … I started trying to be more professional … Once I got to 100 readers I started to get more organized and started to take more responsibility for what I posted. Then I started to restrict what I put up there … I’ve ducked a couple of issues recently … because I wanted to be better informed. I didn’t want to be wrong … so I just avoided the topic.”
“I’ve written about a candidate and said simply that the candidate has been in office too long and should go. I know more, and there are rumours I could check out … but I chose just to say that about being there too long.”
A key line here compares how, just as the restricted space and time of mainstream media shape their output, so does the lack of restrictions shape the output of blogs: “Whereas constraints necessitate routines, so does a lack of limits … bloggers have developed routine practices that narrow down possibilities.”
There is, however, some dubious logic in the chapter. One passage, for example, states that bloggers, “like journalists … do not meet or converse with most of their readers directly.”
Well, yes, not “most”. But I would certainly argue that bloggers converse with more of their readers directly. Significantly more.
From this they suggest bloggers “may” construct audiences to suit production needs rather than vice versa, as journalists do, but provide no support for this (my own research on blogging journalists suggests the opposite is the case).
There’s a rather curious line which manages to compare bloggers linking to their peer group as “not unlike the ‘beat’ routine in journalism, which ensures a steady, predictable stream of stories.” This substantially misunderstands the networked nature of the internet when compared to the physical restrictions of ‘beats’ and stringers.
Then there’s the line that says “Each blog has loyal followers who post comments and send emails, and bloggers tend to write to these individuals, much as journalists write for each other.”
What? How does that comparison work?
These points aside, it’s a fascinating chapter that’s well worth reading. We need more research like this. We also need to understand, however, that focusing on successful bloggers often risks missing the wood for the trees: blogs are different purely because there are lots of unsuccessful ones – something the old media economics never allowed to happen.