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Blogs:

Are blogs bad? Or are they good? Well, are books bad, or are they good? How about newspapers? Conversations?

Some blogs are good, some are bad. A few provide very good reports of breaking specialty news (e.g., How Appealing). Some provide very good expert commentary on topics that few journalists know much about (e.g., Language Log). Some provide very good commentary by thoughtful people (e.g., Virginia Postrel's Dynamist), even outside relatively technical areas. Some provide high-quality selection services, pointing readers to interested sources they might otherwise have missed (e.g., InstaPundit and GeekPress). The overwhelming majority are of no interest to me or to most people — but that's true of books, too, and you don't see me ranting about how books are all tripe or all boring (even though most of them are).

Now different media do have systemic pluses and minuses; but those pluses and minuses are often overstated, and often too readily but incorrectly aggregated into an asserted net plus or minus. Consider something as simple as accuracy: Yes, newspapers sometimes offer some editorial checking of the author's work; blogs generally don't. But in practice, newspaper articles are almost never systematically fact-checked. (Some magazines fact-check, but to my knowledge nearly no newspapers do.) Occasionally an editor or someone else will catch an author's error, but pretty rarely. And on the other hand, many blogs are written by people who are much more expert in the field than the typical journalist; surely that contributes to accuracy.

Likewise, the typical newspaper article is much more carefully edited by the author himself than is the typical blog post. On the other hand, it's much easier to correct errors in a blog post after the fact, which lets bloggers work in feedback not just from their own editing or their editors' editing, but also from a large group of often highly knowledgeable readers.

So accuracy ends up turning less on the medium, and more on the particular characteristics of the institution and the author: Is the author really knowledgeable on the subject? Is the publisher (whether a blogger or a newspaper/magazine running a site where corrections are possible) willing to promptly put up corrections? Is the author trying hard to be objective?

True, if you asked me whether I'd put more trust in (1) a randomly selected article from a randomly selected newspaper or (2) a randomly selected post on the same topic from a randomly selected blog, I'd probably choose the newspaper. I imagine that the average newspaper writer has somewhat more training in accurate writing, and feels somewhat more pressure to be accurate, than the average blogger.

But I don't read either randomly selected blogs or randomly selected newspapers, and neither does anyone else. And if you ask me whom I'd trust more on coverage of sentencing law and policy, Sentencing Law and Policy or the New York Times, I'd surely choose the blog, since it's written by one of the nation's foremost experts on sentencing law and policy. More broadly, if you ask me whom I'd trust more on news analysis (not so much raw news, but news analysis) related to topics that I'm interested in, I'd probably say bloggers rather than newspapers: On those topics I care about, I'm familiar with who the best bloggers are, and on balance those best bloggers tend to be more expert (and more aware of the danger that if they err, they'll be promptly contradicted) than reporters at even the best newspapers.

And isn't that the way we deal with most media? We love books not because the average book is great, but because we've found the best authors (from our perspective), and their work is great. Likewise, judging blogs by the "average blogger" or even by "most bloggers" makes as much sense as condemning books as boring because 99% of all books will surely bore you.

John (mail):
Many MSM writers lump all blogs together. There are blogs involving original reporting, like the various guys embedded in Iraq, blogs that would go on any op-ed page (some stuff here, Posner-Becker, to take one of my favorites, and many, many others), blogs that aggregate news, special interest blogs, and on and on. As you note, some are good and some are not. But they cannot be dismissed.

Whether they become the dominant source of information for people remains to be seen, but they are headed that way.
12.22.2006 5:26pm
AustinCityLIghts:
Yes blogs as a medium have problems. Mr. Rago is not saying anything new. I agree that there are good and bad blogs, and that such judgement is often a matter of personal taste. Mr. Rago, I take it, believes that blogs should encourage deliberation and promote democratic exchange. Otherwise, he wouldn't be complaining about mob-like behaviour. But whoever said that was the purpose of blogs? Mr. Rago doesn't say. There's also the matter of blogs being predicable. Last time I checked lots of political journalism that's published on paper is as predictable. I'm thinking of the Nation or In These Times and the National Review. I don't see the relationship between the medium and predictability. It often depends on the bloggers.
12.22.2006 6:17pm
Justin (mail):
InstaPundit is useless and virtually unreadable if you do not agree with him, particularly on foreign policy issues. And that's coming from someone who reads the National Review's Corner and RedState, which at least has the decency to be funny.
12.22.2006 6:53pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
And chocolate is useless and virtually inedible if you do not like chocolate. GeekPress is useless and virtually inedible if you don't like interesting or amusing science- and technology-related stories.

What I call "high-quality selection services, pointing readers to interested sources they might otherwise have missed" are generally useful to readers who share the selector's attitudes and interests. If you're reading a blog that provides original commentary, you might value it even if you disagree with its perspective -- you might find the blogger to be witty, expert, or at least the source of a consistently valuable perspective on what the other half thinks. But when someone provides a selection service, he is necessarily linking to a wide range of sources, with wide ranges of expertise and writing styles. Glenn can't wow you with his humor, because the bulk of the material he provides isn't original commentary, but links to others and excerpts from their work; and he doesn't select those others because they're funny.

So as a result, if you tend to think that the sources to which InstaPundit points are generally interesting -- which is closely related to your likely agreement with them -- you'll find InstaPundit useful. If you tend to dislike those sources, you'll find InstaPundit useless. But that's the beauty of blogs: They don't have to be useful to everyone, and if they're useful to 100,000 visitors per day (as InstaPundit seems to be), they've created something valuable.
12.22.2006 7:43pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
Looking at Insty's most recent 10 posts, there are a grand total of 136 words written by him. If you find it notably difficult to read 14 words per blog post, I humbly suggest that his supposed "unreadability" is entirely in the... err.. mind of the beholder.
12.22.2006 10:48pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Whenever I hear someone talking about blogs and their value, I am struck by the ignorance of the speaker. Do we hear anyone talking about broadcast words and their value? How about spoken words and their value? Maybe you have seen a recent essay on printed words and their value?

A blog is in the same category as a blank notebook available at the book store. It's just a medium in which the author can record anything he chooses. I doubt the WSJ would be devoting column inches to an article about the value of paper.

If these folks ran a library, they would probably categorize everything under the headings paper, parchment, and papyrus.

Rago's column is much more interesting if one substitutes the word "competition" for the word "blogs."
12.22.2006 11:33pm
Eli Rabett (www):
MSM splels betert
12.23.2006 12:33am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Blogs are bad. Books are good. Newspapers are bad, though they used to be good. Conversation is good.

Or were those questions meant to be rhetorical?
12.23.2006 6:08am
PokerGuy:
I think one of your fundamental points is key. Most MSM "writers" are trained as journalists, which these days does not say too much of positive value about their critical intellectual skills. Many bloggers are legitimate experts in the topic area about which they write, and bloggers (on the right, anyway) also tend to be much more open about their personal biases. One only has to be selective about blogs in order to enjoy a much higher level of useful, valid information.
12.23.2006 7:26am
NickM (mail) (www):
Blogs are good. Books and newspapers are bad.

Sincerely,

The Trees
12.23.2006 9:18am
pete (mail) (www):
I think part of the issue is that when most people think of Newspapers they think New York Times or whatever the big city newspaper is where they live, which are for the most part accurate. But there are a lot of really bad newspapers out there like your local alternative weeklies and some of the self published ones that you find near the kiosks at universities. Also do we count things like the National Enquirer as newspapers? They are printed on paper, published weekly by major publishers, and contain news written by professional journalists.

I have learned to trust both the local regular news paper and the local alt-weekly paper less after being in my current job. The joke around the office is that "if it is in the Express News it must be true". There have been multiple articles contained mistakes from several local newspapers that could have been cleared up with a simple five minute phone call to our PR person before the story was written. None of these were life threatening mistakes or done with malice, but they caused us problems after people read them and assumed they were true.
12.23.2006 10:38am
Seth Finkelstein (mail) (www):
Sigh. Of course one can ask a trivial question, or give a trivial answer. A specialist is always going to give better coverage than a generalist, in any format.

But isn't it more interesting to ask a non-trivial question? (or does that answer itself?).

The question: "In the entire universe of blogs, can we find a specialist?", is what I mean by trivial. Of course we can.

But how about: FOR A GIVEN LEVEL OF READERSHIP, is the average "blog" "better" than the average "MSM" (all defined some meaningful way - CAN these in fact be given good definitions, given the overlap at certain levels?)

Maybe the answer is both are pretty bad, and it's lice and fleas ...
12.23.2006 2:06pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
As Eugene has noted, its rather pointless to talk of the 'average' blog.

For a given level of readership? My, how we attempt to control the answer by framing the question. Pehaps for the vaunted average, the people who spend all of 30 minutes per week listening to issues and not really caring if many details are accurate or even reported at all, the spoonfeeding of 'average' MSM reporting is the perfect solution. And the groupthink therein helps the media customer not have to worry his pretty little head over which competing set of facts to believe, as he only gets one.

But don't assume that just because historically people haven't rioted in the streets when a virtually monolitic MSM gave them those few carefully selected crumbs which the MSM editors deemed important, that people need to or even want to settle for that status quo once they realize that there are better options. The only hard part is removing the 'amateur' stigma. The MSM's words try to enflame this stigma even as their own arrogance-driven actions give news consumers... those who pay attention, that is... no reason to value the 'official' news any more than their preferred blog.

After all, you can change blogs if you find them lying. But Dan Rather just goes from one segment of a network to another, and there's not much to choose between the other networks. Not even Fox, since it gets its news from the same poisoned well, and doesn't do as good a job as blogs as taking some jihadi stringer's AP report with a grain of salt.

But this is all a long way of saying that Eugene has already smacked down the 'average blog' argument. That you pretend not to have noticed tells me that this point has struck a soft spot... the inability of the MSM to use specialists effectively without being captured by their agenda - and without those specialists, they are more incompetant than the 'average' citizen on everything except looking really good in front of a camera.
12.23.2006 6:38pm
Seth Finkelstein (mail) (www):
Let's put it this way: For myself, I'm not interested in vigorous pummelling of a strawman. Some people think doing so makes them tough and strong. But how tough and strong can you really be that way?

If there is a such a thing as "the MSM", then there is such a thing as "blogs". Either both exist, or neither exist. And if they exist, they should be defined in a manner which makes comparisons reasonable. One frequently-seen two-step is to say that small-audience specialist publications count as "blogs", but not as "MSM". That is an unreasonable way of assuming a conclusion.
12.23.2006 9:03pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
Oh, excellent comeback. Lumping, for example, ABC/CBS/CNN is exactly equal to lumping together billions of blogs. Same level of generalization.

WRONG!

In fact, the 'MSM' term is already skewed in FAVOR of the mainstream media, not that you have bothered to take notice. Notice the word 'mainstream'. What does that tell you? It tells you, for example, that criticizing ABC news for the misdeeds of the Inquirer(Enquiring minds want to know!) is not permissable. There is no term that similarly protects "mainstream" bloggers. In fact, sometimes bloggers get criticised for what their commenters say! Does that happen to the New York times?

So don't pretend that both types of generalization are equal.
12.23.2006 10:45pm
Paul Allen:

I think one of your fundamental points is key. Most MSM "writers" are trained as journalists, which these days does not say too much of positive value about their critical intellectual skills. Many bloggers are legitimate experts in the topic area about which they write, and bloggers (on the right, anyway) also tend to be much more open about their personal biases. One only has to be selective about blogs in order to enjoy a much higher level of useful, valid information.


Exactly as I see it. Blogs strike at the heart of what's dated about studying journalism. You need a few classes on the subject, otherwise its much more valuable to have knowledge about those particular subjects on which you will write about.
12.25.2006 6:42pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I, for one, think that blogs are good. Not all of them, or probably most of them, but blogs in general.

One of the things that they have been able to do is to scrutinize MSM outlets like the NYT, CBS, etc. And it turns out that what has been sold to us for a long time as objective journalism is nothing of the sort. We have seen them caught with their pants down, and their politics hanging out, time and time again. Not on the editorial pages, where politics is expected, but in the selection and presentation of the "news".

The emperor has no clothes, and is attacking anyone pointing this out. Thus, an article from 40,000 feet looking at all the trees in the forest, intentionally missing the profound effect that blogs have had, and continue to have, on us and on our national discourse. Of course, many despair of blogs - the MSM no longer has a monopoly on the truth, however they chose to define it. This is especially troubling to those who take it upon themselves to explain reality to the great unwashed.

But in the end, all the articles confidently explaining to us how blogs are bad are moot. Blogs exist. They aren't going way. And the MSM is not going to reclaim their monopoly on reporting the truth (as they see it).
12.26.2006 3:41am