(Note: I wrote this article for Sun.Star Cebu during the Cebu Press Freedom Week. I am reprinting it here to continue the community conversation on the topic. I will be reprinting later my notes for this story.)
Manuel L. Quezon III knew Sept. 5 would be historic. It was the day the House of Representatives would vote on a committee report dismissing three impeachment complaints filed against President Arroyo.
He was up at 6 a.m. that day, cramming as much work as he could in the morning to clear his afternoon schedule, in time to cover the House vote for his personal site at www.quezon.ph.
Quezon covered the House session live in his weblog, posting his first entry at 4:06 p.m. and ending only at 4:03 a.m. when he collapsed in exhaustion. He continued in the early afternoon of Sept. 6.
His coverage wasn’t your regular news report. It was a recap of the events written by a historian, opinion writer, speechwriter and one of the country’s top bloggers:
“1:58. Suspension going on. Very interesting huddles—Speaker making emphatic gestures…If I were opposition congressmen, I’d do one of two things: move to adjourn (non-debatable) or call the admin’s bluff and proclaim, ‘We lack the numbers, but you do. So kill it now. The rallies won’t stop. The trouble won’t stop.”
It was at that time, he later said in an e-mail interview, that he sent a text message to former social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman that people were getting irritated by delaying tactics of the opposition.
Quezon came to the conclusion based on text messages he got, comments in his blog and broadcast coverage of the proceedings. Soliman and former education secretary Florencio Abad later told Quezon they showed his text message to members of the opposition and they decided to stop opposing every single move.
Over at her site, lawyer Connie Veneracion was writing real-time commentaries on the proceedings. Veneracion, more known in the online world as The Sassy Lawyer, is the country’s top blogger, based on rankings in the blog search feature of Technorati.
During the Pinoy bloggers’ watch, it has become impossible to suppress politically controversial information.
The infamous “Hello, Garci” recordings, for example, were first made available online by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) blog.
More than journals
PCIJ was also the first to break the story on the existence of the three-hour recording of conversations between President Arroyo, among others, and a senior election official, online manager Alecks Pabico said in the Philippine Journalism Reports July issue.
With the demand for the recordings straining PCIJ’s US-based web server, other bloggers offered help by putting up alternate locations to download the file and setting up a way for it to be shared, using the more efficient peer-to-peer network.
The blog has come a long way from its inception as a personal online web journal.
A blog, according to author Rebecca Blood, “is a frequently updated website with posts arranged in reverse chronological order, so new entries are always on top.”
It is this reverse chronological format, Blood says, that differentiates a blog from a webpage. The format eschews the usual arrangement of news articles in a news website – hierarchical based on the news organization’s news valuation.
But what’s so revolutionary about blogging?
“The freedom of the press,” journalist AJ Liebling once said, “is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
But with weblogs, anyone can run a web publication at the cost of a rented Internet connection.
In the United States, bloggers were behind Rathergate, the scandal involving Dan Rather and CBS’ report on President Bush’s military service.
Bloggers proved that the report was based on forged documents — damaging the network’s and Rather’s reputations, as well as causing the dismissal of key executives.
This month, CBS launched Public Eye – a weblog where journalists who make decisions at the network will be “asked to explain and answer questions about those decisions in a public forum.”
Arianna Huffington, in a Wired News interview published on Sept. 15, describes blogs as “the greatest breakthrough in popular journalism since Tom Paine broke onto the scene.” Huffington started www.huffingtonpost.com, a blog that has as contributors people like Walter Cronkite, Nora Ephron, Deepak Chopra and John Cusack.
Blogs exploded into the mainstream when tools and services for their easy creation became widely available. The tools allow anyone to maintain a website even without knowing how to code web pages. The blog, Blood said, is the easiest publishing tool to use, that it has become the default choice for personal Web publishing.
Before its use became widespread, mainstream journalists used to dismiss blogging as a tool for amateurs. Now, many media outlets are putting out both staff-written and reader-written blogs.
The journalism vs. blogging issue, according to New York University professor Jay Rosen, is over.
“The question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers are journalists.
They apparently are, sometimes. We have to ask different questions now because events have moved the story forward,” Rosen said in a paper he wrote for a blogging conference in Harvard University early this year.
Veneracion said bloggers can be considered journalists if you define journalists by the nature of the work and not limit it to affiliation with the news industry.
Lawyer Edwin Lacierda (lacierda.blogspot.com) says that while mainstream media define what is newsworthy, the reactions of bloggers on news articles “ultimately define what newsworthy is.”
“I’d say, a journalist is a journalist is a journalist – so a journalist who blogs is merely embarking on a new medium; for those who weren’t trained in journalism, can a blogger be a journalist? Certainly – if the blogger consciously embarks on journalism,” Quezon said.
Most bloggers who write about the news see themselves as opinion writers. Veneracion is one of them. The quality of her writing and her online following led to her recruitment as Manila Standard Today print columnist — a rare transition these days when movements go the other way around.
Quezon sees blogging as “a new, more direct, and more spontaneous venue for publishing the things I tend to publish anyway. The difference is that there is no editorial control in blogging, except one’s own definitions of what is suitable content.”
But in terms of producing original news content, technology blogs are ahead. Many good consumer technology articles are found in blogs.
Edwin Soriano (technobiography.blogspot.com) provides good coverage of the mobile communications industry in his blog. Soriano says “mainstream media tend to focus on news, on what’s new. We only have a handful of articles that come up with more in-depth reviews of products or services…(Media) cannot dive into too much detail that alienates a large part of their readership.”
Still, Soriano sees himself more as an opinion writer who comments on the news.
Abraham Olandres (www.yugatech.com) also writes his opinion on news items. Olandres, however, says he at times writes news and posts updates “so that more people can be made aware of it faster.”
Olandres is an Internet entrepreneur and has started a technology community blog at www.pinoytechblog.com. His contributors are among the top technology bloggers in the country.
“I noticed that local tech publications do not focus on the more relevant news and issues. They mostly cater to enterprises and businesses, which the ordinary Filipino reader does not have interests in,” he said in an e-mail.
Blogging has allowed people who previously did not have access to media to write about the things they are interested in and share these with online readers.
This signals a huge shift in the balance of power in the world, “from the content providers to the content consumers,” said Associated Press chief executive officer Tom Curley, during the Online News Association conference late last year.
“Professional journalism is no longer sovereign over territory it once easily controlled,” says Curley. “Mainstream media’s influence in the public discourse is no longer singular.
“When 90 percent of the op-ed style writing was done in actual op-ed pages, editorial page editors had sovereignty over that region of public dialogue. With blogging and the online space generally, that rule is gone. Opinion in reaction to the news can come from anywhere, and the bloggers are frequently better at it than the sleepy op-ed page ever was,” he said.
Quezon agrees with Curley “in that distrust in institutions is so profound, that the more hard-hitting personal and personalistic style of the blog appeals to readers, rather than the careful, safe and homogenized style of many editorials in many papers.”
Veneracion says “the ineffectiveness of many editorial pages also has a lot to do with stale styles of writing and the (wrong) choice of people writing opinions.”
In the Philippines, Quezon said, “print media retains its authority as the arbiter of what is newsworthy and deserving of comment. Radio and TV take off from the print media and widen the discussion. In truth, with circulations of 100,000 or so for the best-circulated newspapers, print media is miniscule in comparison to radio and TV. Even with a pass-on rate, a 100,000 circulation paper means half a million readers, while radio and TV shows count their audiences in the millions.”
And yet, Quezon said, broadcast media lack what print has — “the ability to endure and serve as a record, as well as a venue for interpretation and reflection.”
“Blogs can at the very least already equal print media in terms of statistics (PCIJ’s unique hits have been impressive) and their ability to influence media people, the professional political class and then the public, may be indirect but will be felt,” Quezon said.
In Cebu, the Sun.Star Network Exchange (Sunnex) recently launched blogs to cover certain issues or events: Citizen Watch to cover the issues hounding the Arroyo presidency and Economic Forum to cover the recent Sun.Star Economic Forum. Its still-to-be launched Blog Chronicles will cover the blogging community.
In the US, many media organizations have been using blogs to improve their news coverage, increase newsroom transparency to readers and maintain the trust and loyalty of their communities.
MSNBC, for example, has made blogging an integral part of its operations. Rick Kaplan of MSNBC said in a blogging conference early this year that station news anchors were asked to maintain blogs and that they regularly put bloggers on air.
Kaplan said they found direct correlation between a show’s audience growth and the amount of attention people in that show give to their blogs.
Robert Cauthorn, however, says mainstream media misunderstand blogging when it simply turns out weblogs of staff journalists.
“The majority of the time, media blogs deliver more staff voices that are already published and broadcast ad nauseum.
Occasionally, you might hear from, say, a copy editor or section editor or librarian who otherwise does not make it into print or on the air. And yes, that can have marginal appeal. But it scarcely registers in the big picture because media company blogs adhere to the old top-down, we-talk-you-listen-punk publishing model,” Cauthorn says in the Rebuilding Media blog at Corante.com.
Cauthorn, a Digital Pioneer Award and considered to have delivered the first profitable newspaper website, says “the notion that a media company should populate its blogs with staff writers comes directly from the Academy of Stupid Old Ideas.”
“The DNA of blogging is a complicated matter that touches on being outside voices and taking personal control of the media. But at minimum, the DNA of blogging has to do with distributing the conversation. Contrary to that, the DNA of mainstream media — to date — is all about dominating the conversation,” he said.
A larger debate
Quezon thinks newspapers should stay away from blogging.
“The role of a newspaper is to have an online version of itself, since the traditional paper newspaper will be gone within our lifetime. But as for editors, writers, columnists, etc., blogging should be left outside the institutional domain of the newspaper if they represent or work for one. This shields both the paper and the writer,” he said.
Quezon added, however, “that blogging has actually elevated once more, written journalism above all other kinds, at a time when TV journalism was set to conquer all. What has happened is that professional journalists no longer have a monopoly on delivering the news and interpreting it; bloggers have amplified and widened the field for debate and interpretation.”
Nieman fellow Tom Regan says that among the lessons in Michael Lewis’ “The Future Just Happened” is that “creativity almost always happens at the edges of society, not in the center, and the one thing the Internet does more than anything else is to allow small groups or individuals to undermine elites.”
Regan says weblogs now present a threat to traditional media. “This threat — to the gatekeeper role that big news organizations have played — represents a more immediate challenge than the large-scale introduction of the Internet did during the mid-1990,” he wrote in a 2003 Nieman Reports issue.
And there lies the fundamental difference between blogging and mainstream media. New York University professor Clay Shirky defines the difference this way: “The order of things in broadcast is ‘filter, then publish.’ The order in communities is ‘publish, then filter.'”
Another development in Internet marketing helps bloggers get a chance at making their sites financially viable — the emergence of network and referral advertisements. Google’s Adsense program allows blog publishers to earn from network ads displayed in their sites.
Blogger Darren Rowse caused a stir when he recently announced his Adsense earnings. Rowse, who runs a network of blogs on niche topics, earned $15,849.60 from Google Adsense in August.
While there are those who say the influence of Pinoy bloggers will be tempered by the low Internet penetration in the country, Veneracion says this is with the “presumption that what are published in blogs are not discussed beyond the sector that has Internet access.”
“We do not know this for sure. While blog readers are limited to those with Internet access, each one of these readers has family, neighbors, colleagues, friends and acquaintances, and we do not really know whether they discuss with these people what they read in blogs,” she says.
Quezon says he is “skeptical about just how low the Internet penetration rate is. In comparison to what? TV? Radio? Maybe.
But as for print, and blogging is primarily the latest form of print media, it is the salvation of print media. Its reach and impact can only increase,” he said.