These are the kinds of questions that have dominated much of the online discussion amid the media and tech worlds of late. Most recently, the “What is a blog?” debate was thrust back into the social chatter bubble when the New York Times said it would shut down or merge almost half of its blogs. The Times’ Managing Editor Ian Fisher told Poynter, “We’re going to continue to provide bloggy content with a more conversational tone,” suggesting that the casual, more opinionated voice of blogs would make its way to other parts of the site.
But that’s easier said than done, writes Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram:
As [Times staffer Derek] Willis pointed out during our Twitter conversation, blogs are — from a technical perspective at least — just one specific kind of publishing format, with posts that appear in reverse chronological order. But for me at least, this is a little like saying that a sonnet is just a specific way of ordering text, featuring iambic pentameter and an offset rhyming scheme. Obviously not every blog post is a poem, but there is something inherent in the practice of blogging (if it is done well) that makes it different from a story or news article.
So where’s the line between a “blog post” and everything else? Certainly there are no syllabic restrictions like with a sonnet. For his definition of what is bloggy and what is not, Ingram looks to blogging pioneer Dave Winer, who doubled-down on what he’s been saying for years: That a blog is the “unedited voice of a person.”
The lack of editing is central, because it’s one person who’s responsible for every word. When you click the Publish button you should feel butterflies, at least sometimes, because there’s no one to pass the buck to. If someone else wrote the headline, or did a copy edit, or even reviewed what you wrote and critiqued it before it went out, it’s still writing, but it is not a blog.
Look, Winer helped invent the form, so far be it from me to question him here (the guys who invented the GIF say it’s pronounced “JIF” but they are clearly wrong). But throughout the history of the English language, definitions have shifted based on usage all the time, and that’s certainly true of the word “blog.” Sometimes it’s used as a weapon, by entrenched media incumbents to disparage the work of new entrants (we’ve certainly been the victim of that). Other times, it’s used as a technical distinction — this is how the Times uses the term, to organize its stories throughout different parts of the site. And still others use the term to organize stories depending on editorial process. A story on NewYorker.com that is written over the course of a couple hours and read by one or two editors may reasonably be called a blog post. But a story on NewYorker.com that is also in the magazine, which has been read my multiple senior editors and fact-checkers, could less reasonably be called a blog post.
My problem with taking such a rigid approach to defining “blog,” however, is that it obscures the ways in which blog writing has impacted journalistic writing at large. Say a young journalist, raised on blogs, accustomed to writing with opinion and personality that comes out in every element of the story, even the rigorously reported elements, gets a piece like this published first in the New York Times dead tree edition, but also online. Could we call that a blog post?
Don’t get me wrong — writers have been doing what we now called “blog-style” reporting for years. David Foster Wallace’s reporting on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, where the writer was far more interested in the absurdity of “access journalism” than whatever issues the candidate was stumping that day, certainly had a huge impact on the style of blogging. Continuing down this road of examining “blogging” as an aesthetic, rather than a technical format (like the New York Times does) or more rigidly as a state of writing where an editor is absent (like Winer does), you could conceivably call Hunter S. Thompson a blogging pioneer.
But the big difference, culturally speaking, is that where this style of reporting was once reserved for a newspaper’s resident weirdo, the Internet has allowed it to become entrenched across practically every newsroom in the country. It represents a sort of merging between the opinion page and the front page. Traditionalists may gasp at this new form, but in a way it helps keep journalism outlets more accountable for backing up their opinions. No longer can the Wall Street Journal espouse climate denialism from the fact-less safety of the opinion pages. “It’s just an opinion piece” will no longer cut it. Conversely, when smart experts report the news, they are likely to have an opinion on this topic they’ve spent their whole career covering. And often by sharing that opinion, the writer is able to arrive at the truth of a matter more effectively. In other words, this merging of blogging and reporting is a good thing.
Look, I’m not here to tell anybody, let alone the people who pioneered the craft, how they should define “blog.” But I’m wary of using too rigid a distinction. It furthers an “us vs them” mentality that allows “non-bloggers” to artificially denigrate the reporting of “bloggers,” and “bloggers” to artificially denigrate “non-bloggers” for being stodgy old timers obsessed with access and a lack of innovation. It’s all just words, people. And if a writer can make those words factual, and ideally interesting, then who cares what they’re called?
[Image credit: Public domain]