The Weblog is the Messenger

I wrote my Master thesis in 2003 in lieu of blogs contribution to give mediasphere status to the blogosphere’s modes of knowledge. I was especially interested in understanding how blogs were democratizing web publishing. Below, you can find the abstract, introduction and conclusion to my thesis, feel free to download and share the full or summarized version

Abstract
The weblog format is an added channel of communication in the production of news. This channel is characterized by Web specific content that applies the strength of the medium. This Master thesis explains how weblogs are re-defining text-based digital news in terms of content, links, and readability. For this purpose, the main offensive of the second Iraqi War from March 19 until April 9, 2003 was chosen. The recorded data is represented by one commercial online news site based in broadcasting, two based in the Web, two weblogs in news organizations, and four independent webloggers.

Keywords
Weblogs | Online news | Iraq War 2003 | U.S./U.K.-led invasion | Web publishing |
Quality of Web content | Delivery system | Comparative study | Readability | Sources

Introduction
Online news publications emerged after Vint Cerf created TCP/IP coupled with its mandatory switch and Tim Berners-Lee released the wysiwg browser. Mainstream news media outlets, primarily launched online versions with shovel ware, re-purposing print or broadcast content.

During the second U.S./U.K.-led invasion of Iraq, different forms of reporting and distribution became apparent. The weblog format was used as a medium by university professors or former soldiers to process and produce information about the war. During the main offensive of Iraq, the principal contribution of weblogs was to give mediasphere status to the blogosphere’s modes of knowledge (Matheson & Allen, 2003). Weblogs were placed on the mainstream media map as a delivery system of content.

These new forms were characterized by a personable writing tone and informality; a style CNN.com seldom pursues. Hence, weblogs give the impression of being authentic. And independent weblogs lack the editorial filter common in news organizations, feeding the impression of being authentic.

As a news source, the Internet was insignificant in terms of readership during the invasion (Lenhart J. & Horrigan, A., 2004). Even though weblogs offered content that mainstream media outlets refused to publish or the market was simply saturated with a certain type of story (Allbritton, 2003); the online content environment did offer a variety of points of views for Internet readers, only a few felt that going online gave them different points of view (Rainie, 2003).

This thesis compares weblogs to online news sites and describes the changes of these outlets less in readership, rather the content, nature of outbound links, and readability. Since the inception of free blogger tools, citizens can post content on the Web as simple as sending email; circumventing levels of censorship and editorializing common in online news organizations. And certain weblogs challenge potential story ideas for big media, serving as a testing ground for news worthy information, because journalists want to report the news, they don’t want to make it (Scott, 2004).

Roughly five years after the birth of this website format, 4.12 million weblogs are hosted in the United States. Only 9.9% of active blogs link to traditional news sites. Moreover, weblogs link to other sources than the 2,875 traditional news sites (Henning, 2003). This implies that Big Media is currently underrepresented in the blogosphere, where individual recommendations and frequency of in and outbound links can determine the level of readership.

Weblogs are a new communicative tool that can shape democratic deliberation or become a corporate possession. At the same time, weblogs face credibility trouble (Odag, Ö., & Schreier, M., 2004) coupled with low readership, information noise or user abandonment. Nevertheless, these relatively new information delivery platforms are defining new modes of Web specific content.

Conclusion
This finale is about summing up thesis goals and its key findings, its implications, limitations, and provide an outlook for the future. Even though the thesis provides a closer account of the truth, with regard to its three research questions, it also raises more questions than it answers, partly because information is outdated or some of the issues are continually evolving. Albeit, just as news organizations are coping with an increase of raw data being published and thereby face testing, packaging, and delivery challenges. Similarily, this thesis should be judged upon its accuracy of the data it collected, arranged, and analyzed.

Weblogs are a different online news medium than what we have seen before in news organizations and are re-defining text-based news content. First of all, it is safe to say that these dated sites are mostly commentary oriented digital trailblazers. They are shorter in length and require a lower level of reading comprehension than news sites. The readability results show that between the weblogs themselves, there are very few differences, albeit when compared to media sites the differences are statistically relevant.

This could imply that the weblogs examined can potentially reach a larger audience if targeted properly. On the other hand, they provide less human interaction content (HIC) and copy and paste content from other sites. Because these diary style Web pages are more opinionated, they adhere less to journalistic code of ethics or attempt to produce ‚objective‘ content. An interesting correlation discovery in the case study was that lower number of hyperlinks in the respective post results in higher HIC. This goes for both weblogs and online news sites.

Nevertheless, weblogs are shorter and if applied properly, provide more up-to-date content, closely approximating the Web’s strength for news dissemination. And because the link is one key element, weblogs optimize the Web’s linking capabilities with trackbacks, blogrolls, pings, and RSS feeds. Hence, the content of the post travels faster and creates new news that has yet to be understood.

Despite webloggers innovative use, they still listen to NPR in the car, watch CNN on television or copy and paste from Reuters – then post it on their respective blogs. Furthermore, Big Media remains the main source of information. And because quality journalism is costly and requires at least some degree of HIC, the independent weblogs examined, an exception is Allbritton (who links to Big Media though), process and link to  Big Media coupled with attachments of their commentary.

This conclusion would contradict the finding by Perseus that weblogs rarely link to traditional news sites. An explanation for this could be that the sample in this thesis is not a quantitative representation, rather focuses on the four groups of the study.

These five-year old Web formats are far from a revolution in news, at least for now, but they are evolving and most news organizations have been slow to change. In some sense, they are competing with news organizations who have to re-define their purpose and provide better transparency. One can argue that they are the fifth estate, providing checks and balances on the fourth estate, a meta media.

Newer professional business models will compete for Web readers and point out inaccuracies; at the same time offer their own account of the truth. For those new news organizations striving for longevity; accuracy, accountability, and exclusive content are pillars to success. Building on both thick and thin trust will determine the seriousness of its social fabric. If these Web posters can build on thick trust beyond the digital realm and leverage thin trust at the same time, then traditional news organizations will adapt to citizen publisher news cycles. What does this imply for the future of news or weblogs?

More voices, more noise, more political representations challenging the status quo. Those voices with purpose and legitimacy are ones that will last. For purpose to develop, weblogs with news content affecting the common record need business models that free time for quality inscription intended towards bigger audiences. As a result, the journalism profession will be more inclusive to anyone with purpose, content talent, and transparency ambitions, especially in light of the Iraq War, which was based on false justifications.

Furthermore, citizens engaged in commentary debate online during the time period of this study were trying to make sense of U.S. press cheers. Even the few weblogs who reported on location in Iraq, were outnumbered by CNN and other Big Media players who controlled the main bulk of content flows outside of Iraq. Notwithstanding the few weblog readers during the main offensive. News consumers still receive and continue to consume their news via television, which remains the key source.

Moreover, weblogs need to break away from the current format and produce more HIC in newly defined news cycles. This will be partly possible via increasing professionalization  and newer business models. And whether weblogs can strive for objectivity, a key pillar of success for news agencies, remains to be seen. Albeit, this unplanned news competition that evolved during the U.S.-led invasion is changing production and questioning the source authority of major media players; we will see new sources rise in the near future.

Further studies examining the source power of bloggers in mainstream media is worth investigating, both in ideas and exclusive stories. As any new innovation threatens the equilibrium of the existing organization, as did the telegraph, which was the fastest growing technology to date (McLuhan, 1964, pg 273), each innovation is not only commercially disrupting, but socially and psychologically corrupting (McLuhan, 1964, pg 272).

Moreover, weblogs can change the social fabric and provide people with some sense of control in news cycles and reduce the space of distance, as long as these are coupled with new physical contexts that relate to our common life. And we will see these Web spaces move from chaos to temporary re-organization, because one of the great truths of journalism history is that when older news media are threatened by newer ones, an intense debate over the nature of news ensues, followed by an era of entrenchment and change (Mindich, 1998, pg 2).

The content of any medium is always another medium (McLuhan, 1964, pg 8). In this case, the weblog is the content of the messenger and when the media becomes the messenger (Castells, 2000, pg 390), when concerned and engaged citizens regain control in dissemination, then weblogs can unleash a responsible collective purpose.

References
Albritton, C. (2003). Blogging From Iraq. Nieman Reports (Fall 2003), 82-85.

Castells, M. (2000). The Rise of the Network Society (Second ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Henning, J. (2003). The Blogging Iceberg – Of 4.12 Million Hosted Weblogs, Most Little Seen, Quickly Abandoned: Perseus.

Lenhart, J., & Horrigan, A. (2004). Content Creation Online: Pew Internet & American Life. Washington D.C.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. London: Routledge.

Mindich, D. T. Z. (1998). Just the Facts – How „objectivity“ came to define American journalism. New York: New York University Press.

Mortensen, T., & Walker, J. (2002, April 8). Blogging Thoughts. Paper presented at the Researching ITs in Context, Oslo.

Odag, Ö., & Schreier, M. (2004). The third Iraq War: On the credibility of media reports. Paper presented at German Online Research, Duisburg.

Rainie, L., Fox, S. & Fallows D. (2003). The Internet and the Iraq War. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Washington D.C. Retrieved March 20, 2004 from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Iraq_War_Report.pdf

Scott, E. (2004). Big Media Meets the Bloggers: Coverage of Trent Lott’s Remarks at Strom Thurmond’s Birthday. Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Retrieved April 22, 2004 from http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/Research_Publications/Case_Studies/1731_0.pdf

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  1. Thank you for the essential report. Exactly where else could anyone get that form of data in such a comprehensive way of writing? I have a presentation incoming week, and I’m around the lookout for such information.

  2. You might want to check out the book „We’ve Got Blog“ in the context of the birth of blogs and connect with Christopher Allbritton if you want to get a perspective from a journalist collecting money from his readers to report independently from Iraq.