Remarks for a panel on weblogs and journalism at Revenge of the Blog, a conference organized by the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, Nov. 22, 2002
David F. Gallagher

I'm more of a reporter than a pundit, so I thought I would share three anecdotes, and then the pundits can tell us what they mean.

My first anecdote involves Slashdot, which as you may know is a huge collaborative weblog devoted to tech news. A year ago I wrote a story for the Times about car navigation systems like GM's OnStar and how these services were experimenting with sending ads and marketing messages to customers in their cars. This of course sounds like spam, but in the story I quoted two executives who said that for safety and other reasons, they had no intention of bombarding people with ads they had not agreed to receive.

When my story came out, a Slashdot editor decided it was worthy of discussion. He posted a link and summary on the site under the headline, "Onstar Navigation System to Deliver In-Car Spam."

Predictably this set off a frenzy of GM-bashing among Slashdot fans. Many of the more than 150 people who chimed in had clearly not read the story, either because they were unwilling to register with the Times' site in order to do so, or because they felt they had learned all they needed to know from Slashdot's headline. My favorite bit of feedback was from an Onstar employee, who said in part: "I can say with some degree of certainty without even reading this article that this is 99% BULLSHIT in its purest form... This article sucks!"

In the interest of truth and accuracy I complained to the Slashdot editor who posted the item, and we had an interesting exchange. He said he wrote the headline because he didn't believe the executives I had quoted when they said they were anti-spam. I suggested that he had some responsibility to his readers to reflect the actual contents of the articles to which he was linking. No, he said, Slashdot was about opinions, and he had expressed his opinion in the headline.

Well yes, Slashdot, like many weblogs, is about opinions, but for many people it is also a source of news, and as such it ought to at least be trying to get things right. As the political bloggers have shown, weblogs let non-journalists fact-check the media. This is a great thing. But weblogs can also foster a kind of shallow, headline-driven approach to news, one in which it's easy to learn just a little bit about a lot of things and consider oneself to be in the know. A lot of weblog posts are little more than spin on someone else's spin. This is why I don't understand a lot of the talk about weblogs being a major threat to journalism. At some point in this food chain, you need someone whose job it is to call GM and, ideally, tell you what they actually said.

My second anecdote has to do with a story I wrote for the Times last summer. It was about how political bloggers were achieving a certain level of celebrity, a development that annoyed some of the tech-oriented people who essentially invented weblogs. I interviewed several well-known bloggers for the story including Glenn Reynolds and Dave Winer.

As I was doing the actual writing of the story I discovered to my horror that my sources were blogging about my story-in-progress. Due to some unfortunate miscommunication they had come to believe that I was trying to whip up a war in cyberspace between tech bloggers and, well, warbloggers. Reynolds talked to Winer and posted this on his site: "We've both been interviewed by an Old Media organ that we suspect may, just may, have more of an agenda than just writing a story." The speculation about my agenda spilled over into other weblogs. Getting feedback on a story that I had yet to finish writing was one of the more surreal experiences of my journalism career.

I did my best to keep all of this from having an effect on the finished product. When the article finally came out, most of those involved seemed to think it was reasonably fair and balanced and perhaps not nearly as inflammatory as they were hoping it would be. The whole mess showed how the dynamics of journalism change when those who are being covered by the media have their own media outlets. There have already been many instances where bloggers have used their sites to clarify, elaborate upon or correct things that professional journalists have written about them. I have a feeling that this kind of thing might make journalists a little more careful. But I have a favor to ask of the bloggers. Please don't write about stories in progress. It's really nerve-wracking.

My last story doesn't have much to do with my job -- it's more about messing around with weblogs. I worked for a few months last year at an English-language newspaper in Milan. This was when a big chunk of Europe was gearing up for the switch to the euro currency. I was e-mailing with a friend in Greece about what a huge human interest story this was, given the amount of cultural baggage attached to all the old currencies that were about to vanish. So we decided to make an international weblog about it just for fun. My friend came up with a name for it: Eurotrash. I set up the site using the group weblog features in Blogger, and I put a note on my own site seeking volunteer correspondents from other countries in the euro zone.

Soon we had a total of nine contributors who over the next several weeks participated in the project with varying degrees of enthusiasm and English proficiency. A high school student in Finland wrote about people celebrating the new year while waiting in line at the ATM to get their hands on the new euro bills. Everyone complained about how there didn't seem to be enough of the new coins to go around. There were lots of links to stories in online news outlets too. But my favorite posts were the ones in which non-journalists were using the weblog to make their own news and inform each other. This is what some people like to call peer-to-peer journalism. I'm not sure this is a concept that would translate well to coverage of, say, the war on terror. But for a story like the euro switch that was all about the experiences of ordinary people, it worked just fine, and the stuff we put out was a lot more fun than what The Wall Street Journal did.

So it turns out that my last anecdote is essentially a tribute to amateur journalism, which kind of undercuts the point I was trying to make with my first story. As I said, I'm not much of a pundit.




In the question-and-answer period, a conference participant reported that he had just been having an ICQ conversation with the Slashdot editor I mentioned. If I remember correctly, he said the editor now agrees that his headline was wrong, but that it was really up to the Slashdot community to point out and correct the error. I wish I could get away with that.

Also, Glenn Reynolds pointed out that when my story was published he acknowledged that I was not a liar. He also said that at the time, Dave Winer had recently been burned by a reporter and so was extra-skittish.

Coverage of the conference and links to even more coverage of the conference are at LawMeme. -- David, 11.25.02