Thursday, April 05, 2007

Blogs and the MSM

[posted by Callimachus]

Reader noted a few posts down how odd it was that in some professions people will pay to watch you work. In journalism we used to laugh about that: Imagine if we worked like baseball players do, with people peering in the windows, watching, commenting, critiquing every interview, every sentence structure, while it was happening.

That's getting to be less of an absurd notion.

Something interesting is going on around me, but I have to write around it like a minefield to avoid violating my employers' proscription against blogging. As it is, I can only do this site because I think I've found a loophole in the written policy, the details of which aren't important here. To actually mention my employer, or to link to the newspaper's Web site, would clearly be a violation.

So I'll tell you what I can. In case you haven't pieced it together, I work for a daily newspaper in a small American city. Circulation is around 50,000. It is not part of a chain. It has a Web site, but the site is very lame. The owners and editors don't really like or understand the Internet. The reporters, who mostly are under 40, do like it and are pretty savvy at it.

The Internet has changed reporting, and not just in terms of fact-gathering. In the 1980s, when I was a reporter, even though tens of thousands of people saw your words every day, you didn't feel watched when you worked. Now you do. Not only do people comment on stories on the newspaper's Web site, there are independent community sites that shadow the local media, often critically.

Reporters religiously read these sites, and the comments on their articles on the newspaper's site. Who wouldn't? We're all junkies to eavesdrop on what people are saying about us.

In one case, for instance, several newspaper reporters have been subpoenaed in a grand jury investigation having to do with reporters having access to what was meant to be privileged material relating to police investigations. It's a fascinating case with serious First Amendment consequences, but I can't touch that one at all.

However, a local gadfly's Web site has been all over the reporters, by name, probing their home lives, voting records, family histories. The sort of things reporters often do to subjects of their stories. It's remarkable to me how poorly the editors here handle this, and how bitterly they complain about the intrusion on their privacy.


Recently, we learned the local congressman, a true blue social conservative GOP type, did something that President Bush has criticized Democratic Congresscritters for doing. It is a fairly minor matter in terms of our local coverage. We wrote a piece, made note of the fact, and published it.

It got noticed. Not locally, where it drew no more reaction than any other political report. But it got linked by the A-list left-side bloggers, who dragged it into the "Bush is a hypocrite and a liar" machinery.

And that, in turn, was quickly noticed here. Huge volumes of traffic from outside the area came to one story on the local Web site. The reporter who wrote it realized what that was, and what it meant.

As a consequence, the story was not a one-off. It got legs, as they say. There was a follow-up. And there will be more.

It's not a case of the reporter being a BDS case. In this case, the reporter is a guy I trust to be straight and fair. He's probably a moderate Democrat, which actually makes him a right-winger in the political geography of an American newsroom.

I might say the people involved in producing the stories felt flattered by the attention. Or that the editors sensed the traffic flow as something they wanted to continue. But I haven't really been spying on them and I don't want to overstate the case.

Yet there's no doubt that the attention from A-list Democratic/anti-war bloggers has changed the way the story is being played. It is not a particularly interesting or important story, in the grand scheme of things, except as a passage in the "Bush is a hypocrite and a liar" narrative. But to some people that is the essential narrative of our century. And they have been able, without intending it, to steer a medium-grade American newspaper toward that point of view.

However it came about, and whatever you think about Bush, certain blogs are influencing, and to an extent directing, MSM news coverage.

This, to me, is a new thing.

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