Friday, August 10, 2007

Driving the news

Blue Oregon's Jeff Alworth had an op-ed piece in yesterday's Oregonian about the increasing clout of bloggers vis-à-vis traditional journalism.

A lot of it is cast in "the farmer and the cowman should be friends" tone that never seems to move things forward as much as you'd hope, but he soon gets to the heart of the matter: centralization of control.
The central criticism of blogs concerns their power. Critics argue that, like single-issue PACs, blogs use a well-organized minority to dictate terms to politicians, adding to the polarization that plagues American politics. That's nonsense. Blogs by their very nature are a democratic medium. No one controls the content of the posts or comments. And there are a dozen or more influential Oregon blogs, all with their own writers, readers and commenters. Bloggers don't coordinate among themselves or often even know one another. If blogs exercise power, it's the power of regular citizens talking about issues that matter to them. That's no perversion of the political process -- it's a contribution to a healthy process. […]

The consolidation of power in the media, highlighted last week by Rupert Murdoch's purchase of The Wall Street Journal, underscores a troubling propensity in the Fourth Estate. Blogs, on the other hand, have been on the front lines in challenging sloppy, inaccurate or non-existent reporting. Because bloggers don't have limited column space or advertisers to please, they can doggedly -- some might say obsessively -- follow news stories they think are being overlooked.


It's partly about the simple opportunity for expression, and it's partly about the only recently discovered ability to mobilize surprisingly large amounts of small-dollar clean money for candidates and causes. What's probably more important in the long run is the growing ability of bloggers to drive underreported stories into the mainstream news media.

We don't have to look much farther than Loaded Orygun, where they've been having a pretty good week, for a case in point.

LO seemed like a voice in the wilderness for quite a while on the story of Smith's involvement in Dick Cheney's 2002 intervention in a Klamath Basin water-use issue that led to tens of thousands of dead salmon, a crippling of the salmon fishing industry whose effects continue to be felt today, possible Hatch Act violations, and more. Several Oregon blogs pushed the story, but LO pushed it hardest and loudest.

It drew a lot of attention within the blogosphere when the story was picked up by Orcinus, and front-paged at Daily Kos.

But the big news is that story is finally gaining ground outside the rarified atmosphere of blog writers and blog readers:

Last week the Eugene Register-Guard editorial board questioned Smith vigorously about the story, and Smith's answer--"I am not here to make any apologies"--made several heads snap upright, including downstream at the Oregonian (hardly a hotbed of Smith criticism), where the story was picked up.

Those eight words will come back to haunt Smith before 2008 is over. And the thread runs back to the Oregon blogs who got on the story early and kept hammering. Would the Oregonian be giving much attention to a 4-year-old story that casts their boy in a dodgy light if there wasn't some concern that the train was going to leave the station without them?

Despite the generally self-correcting nature of the blogosphere, its natural advantage over professional journalism as it's currently practiced in America, the mainstream media have the resources, the audience, and the presumption of authority.

Driving underreported or inconvenient stories onto the mainstream agenda remains an important source of blog influence.

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