New media gains national attention in Greensboro
There’s something happening here.
A low cloud cover drifts across the sinking sun and the iron tables outside Panera Bread on Lawndale are gathered in a cluster. A few fat raindrops begin to fall and the group seated in the waffle-backed chairs rise and move en masse to the interior of the restaurant, where they take over an alcove by the window and resume discussing the business at hand.
‘“How many can a person have?’” asks a woman with traces of Long Island to her speech.’” I don’t know anybody who has more than two.’”
‘“It’s actually a server issue,’” Roch says, and the rest nod their heads sagely.
What’s happening here is an editorial meeting of the minds that shape Greensboro101.com, the city’s aggregator of citizen journalists, or maybe they’re grassroots journalists. Or you perhaps could call them open-source journalists. And then there are some of them who don’t want to be called journalists at all.
Around here they refer to themselves as bloggers.
‘Blog’ is internet shorthand for weblog, and one study says that 67 percent of the American population has no idea what I’m talking about (though Ed Cone says that this figure is a load of crap, but more on him later). And a weblog is hard to define, even among the people who maintain them.
A weblog is (usually) no more than a website that (usually) features the writing of a single author who (usually) posts, with some regularity, writings that are (usually) grounded in news, personal opinion and references to other bloggers, which can (usually) be immediately accessed at the click of a mouse through hyperlinks. But there are some blogs devoted to a single subject (like architecture or golf or poetry), some which have multiple posters, some who write under their own name and others who use handles. Some blogs use mainstream media (MSM in web-ese) as launching pads for their posts and others do their own reporting. Others don’t refer to the news at all but instead focus on the minutiae of their bloggers’ lives. And some are all of the above.
But one common denominator: always there is opportunity to comment on a particular post, creating threads that can sometimes run ten times as long as the initial item. This creates a model of feedback and discussion unprecedented in the history of the printed word (unless you count serialized graffiti discourse in public restrooms, which at one time was very big).
Another thing about blogging that should be of interest to the people of Greensboro: It’s taking over this town like kudzu.
It is difficult to gauge just how many blogs are in operation in the United States ‘— the Microsoft Network alone hosts about 4.5 million of them and conservative estimates put the total number at about 8 million. But these figures are dated; by tomorrow they’ll be obsolete because thousands more join the party every day.
Locally the barometer is equally hard to calibrate. Triadblogs.com, a nearly encyclopedic aggregator of the scene run by a blogger known as The Shu, lists nearly a hundred bloggers on its blogroll. Most of them toil in Greensboro. Greensboro101’s blogroll, along the left side of the page, stands today at 75. And many more blogs remain independent from aggregators.
Days before the meetup, Roch Smith Jr. sits at the bar in Sushi 101 on Tate Street. Roch himself is not a blogger but he counts himself among their numbers. He’s the man who corralled the bulk of the Greensboro blogging corps into a single aggregate site. He moderates the forums, culls feature articles from the blog postings, tallies the online surveys and basically gives the local bloggers a sense of community and a virtual hangout space.
‘“I’m an enabler,’” he says between mouthfuls of miso.
The Greensboro site is the flagship of a burgeoning fleet that has already spun off into Charlotte (Charlotte101.com) and Nashville (Nashville101.com). And plans are underway to expand into Syracuse, NY. But the Greensboro site, his first, could be called his million dollar baby ‘— if, that is, we’re not actually talking about real money. It is a generally accepted truth that there is currently no money in blogging except in the highest echelons. Even Ed Cone ‘— perhaps Greensboro’s most prominent blogger ‘— says he only made a grand on his blog last year.
‘“There are some deep, extremely philosophical reasons why I want this to succeed,’” Roch says, with a shaken confidence in the current MSM at the forefront of his concerns.
‘“There are some failures in the mainstream media when it comes to ferreting out the truth,’” he says. ‘“There seems to be a breakdown, not just because of blogs. It probably started with cable news.’”
Indeed, bloggers have stormed the figurative media Bastille, critiquing existing news stories from a hundred thousand angles, fact-checking through Google from their home computers, even forging their own brand of coverage that is quickly gaining legitimacy. Matt Drudge at drudgereport.com is now required reading for everyone in the news business. Bloggers at the Power Line (powerlineblog.com) claim to have ‘brought down’ Dan Rather when in September they revealed as forgeries several documents pertaining to President Bush’s National Guard Service, memos upon which a CBS News investigation spearheaded by Rather was based. Bloggers now have a presence in the White House press corps; there are bloggers covering the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Elected officials keep them, as do MSM personalities. And while the argument over whether bloggers are journalists or not wages on, millions of souls across the nation are not so quietly forging this new method of gathering and disseminating news and opinion. And Greensboro is emerging as a leader in the whole phenomenon.
‘“Greensboro not only has a lot of bloggers,’” says Roch, ‘“it has a lot of good bloggers.’”
There’s something happening here.
Over at Triadblogs, The Shu uncovers new area bloggers practically every week. The core bloggers at Greensboro101 can be counted on to post several times a day. Even the MSM has hopped on board ‘— the News & Record currently publishes 16 staff blogs, says its editor John Robinson. One of them is his own, ‘“The Editor’s Log,’” a chronicle of some of the decisions he makes regarding the way his paper covers the news, as well as notes on the integration of mainstream and new media.
‘“I like the medium,’” Robinson says during a phone interview. ‘“It lets me respond to readers’…. It lets me post short. I can post three sentences and a couple of links and I don’t have to do a lot of background. It’s easy to do quick takes and it’s done in almost real time.’”
Credit Robinson with detecting the shifting winds ‘— you don’t get to sit in his chair by being a dumbass. This past winter he asked longtime N&R staffer Lex Alexander, himself a blogger, to come up with a way to integrate the Greensboro blogosphere into the paper’s coverage. The result was a report distributed internally and also posted on Alexander’s blog, The Lex Files (blog.news-record.com/lexblog) on Jan. 4. In it, Alexander unabashedly admits that the daily newspaper audience is dwindling at an alarming rate as more people get their news online. He acknowledges the contributions of bloggers both local and national to the overall news picture. And he outlines a new paradigm for the paper’s future based on an oft-repeated mantra in the blogging community: ‘“None of us is as smart as all of us.’”
‘“Journalism as traditionally practiced,’” he writes, ‘“has been a lecture, almost completely one-way, from journalists to readers. But it’s changing now to a conversation between and among journalists and readers, one that breaks down artificial barriers between us and readers and involves unprecedented levels of transparency in how we do our work.’”
He continues: ‘“It means giving up a privileged role we cherish: mediator of the news. More significantly, it means giving up a significant amount of control over our own product, which runs right up against our industry’s (rightly) cherished tradition of independence. But, I would argue, we have very little choice.’”
In an e-mail interview he writes, ‘“I should clarify: I don’t expect us to relinquish total control of the N&R and its websites as a journalism organization’…. I hope we will be much more open than we have been about inviting the public to help us set our news coverage agenda. We want to tell their stories. They want to tell their stories. We’re on the same team. And here’s the thing: JR [John Robinson] has said this is going to happen. Even the most change-resistant people in our newsroom basically trust JR not to lead them astray. So he’ll get the benefit of the doubt on this that a different editor might well not get. And I’m confident that the staff will see that faith rewarded.’”
Alexander, who not only blogs for the N&R but also has a personal weblog (lexalexander.net), now holds the post of ‘citizen-journalism coordinator’ for the newspaper. Their website, news-record.com, has links to all 16 of the blogs they currently produce (there are more on the way, Robinson says) as well as portals to local bloggers. They’ve blogged out their Letters to the Editor section, added podcasts (basically audio blogs) and video footage to their repertoire, and implemented plans to unleash cadres of these ‘citizen-journalists’ on single stories or issues and see what rises to the surface. Their efforts have gained national media attention, most notably from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Editor & Publisher.
Lex writes: ‘“Newspapers cannot afford to ignore blogs’…. Even a non-journalism blog written by a non-journalist can be crucial for a newspaper to be aware of.
‘“I define journalism as the act of gathering information, for the purpose of distributing it to the public for the benefit of that public,’” he continues. ‘“Some of us do this as our jobs, but I think anyone who does what I just described is functioning as a journalist, is committing journalism.’”
Back at Panera, the short-lived storm has passed, as has the editorial board’s preliminary portion of the Greensboro101 blogger meetup.
The crowd gathers and swells. Billy Jones, the blogging poet, delves earnestly into conversation with David Beckwith, the administrator for Charlotte 101. Jude Nagurney took a 20-hour bus ride to get here from Syracuse, NY ‘— the home base of her blog iddybud.com. Roch says she bears the dubious distinction of being one of the first bloggers to get thrown out of a political convention ‘— the 2004 Democratic presidential shindig in Boston.
‘“I wasn’t technically booted,’” she says. ‘“I was credentialed, then just a few days later I was told there wasn’t enough room.’”
A guy in his thirties joins the group, with a modified shag haircut, faded jeans and a T-shirt that bears illustrated instructions on how to be a rock star.
‘“Is this the blogger meetup?’” he asks.
‘“Oh, he’s new,’” Roch says, and waves him into the group.
The new guy is Jeff Swanson, a guitar teacher who publishes from Greensboro at Jeffswanson.com, an outlet for his music, his photography and his musings. He’s been at it for about four months, a relative rookie among this crowd. Another woman at the meetup, who goes publicly only by JW, has recently finished her first publishing year at her site, called ‘“How do You Like Me Now’” (howdoyoulikeme.blogspot.com). She wrinkles her nose and calls it her ‘“blogiversary,’” even though Ed Cone says we should all give up making blog puns. JW says that her webspace is intended for entertainment.
‘“I’m not a ‘citizen journalist,”” she says. ‘“I’m satisfied to consider myself an entertainment blogger.’” She operates in anonymity in deference to her husband, she says, because she sometimes writes about sex and uses what she describes as ‘“foul language.’”
Another blogger here tonight, Lenslinger, aka Stewart Pittman (at lenslinger.blogspot.com, see Ten Best, page 4), makes his living as a journalist, specifically a news cameraman and editor for FOX8. His blog, he says, is not intended as journalism.
‘“I try to stay away from hot button issues,’” he says. ‘“I don’t want to get dooced.’”
‘Dooce’ is a verb, which in internet slang means getting fired for opinions, ideas or information on your blog.
Lenslinger prefers to write about the nature of his job and the often gory details that accompany it, rather than weigh in on the news stories themselves. His posts include tales of covering fires, hurricanes and dead bodies.
‘“I truly believe that TV news photographers have great stories to tell,’” he says. ‘“You work for six months, you’ve got 16 stories.’”
And then there’s Chewie, an anonymous Greensboro blogger who could arguably be considered a journalist. Chewie, whose site Chewie World Order can be found at chewokblogspot.com, posts innocuous items about her life but also offers media critiques and editorial positions on local and national news. She also does much of her own reporting, going to meetings and events with a notebook tucked under her arm and a pen behind her ear. She frequently videotapes meetings and transcribes the proceedings on her blog.
But Chewie posts anonymously, and in the world of traditional journalism this is kind of a no-no.
Chewie’s anonymity has been the subject of much discussion in the blogs the last month. It began when Allen Johnson, editorial page editor for the N&R and host of the blog Thinking Out Loud (blog.news-record.com/staff/outloud), quoted Chewie in one of his online posts about a bylined op-ed he ran in the print edition. The comment thread unearthed an inconsistency: the N&R has a policy about anonymous sources in its new stories as do many reputable newspapers in the United States ‘— they don’t run them, and generally with good reason. How can you hold someone accountable when you don’t know his or her name? The thread inspired nearly 60 comments, including viewpoints from Robinson, Johnson and Alexander from the paper, several of the Greensboro bloggers, and also Jerry Bledsoe, a former N&R columnist whose adversarial relationship with the newspaper is too complicated to go into here.
The upshot was that the newspaper’s blog site began requiring names and email addresses from comment posters. The move was quickly ridiculed on the comment thread in posts by George W. Bush, Art Vandelay, Michael Jackson and the Burger King Employee of the Month. Posters, you see, can enter whatever name they want in the online comment form.
Chewie maintains that handles, or pseudonyms, are a part of the internet culture.
‘“That’s not a new thing with blogs,’” she says at the meetup. ‘“It goes back to the beginning of the internet.’”
And though she posts anonymously, she asserts that she’s earned a reputation in the blogosphere as Chewie.
‘“If I used my real name,’” she says, ‘“people would be like: ‘Who’s she?””
And that’s just one of the ways the old forms of media don’t neatly mesh with the new, or to be more accurate, how the new doesn’t conform to the old. The paradigm of print journalism translates fairly cleanly into the blogosphere, but oftentimes the blogging method doesn’t adhere to the more rigid standards of attribution, the stringent fact-checking and safeguards against defamation employed by the daily newspaper.
But that doesn’t mean bloggers aren’t journalists.
For the final word, we turn to Ed Cone, the one man in Greensboro eminently qualified to lead the discourse. Ed is a practicing journalist. He also keeps a blog.
‘“If you’re talking about blogs in Greensboro,’” Chewie says at the meetup, ‘“the first guy you’ve got to mention is Ed Cone.’”
‘“He’s very supportive,’” Robinson says. ‘“He encourages others to do it, including me.’”
‘“Ed Cone was blogging about the possibility of Dell Computers’ coming to the Triad long before the N&R was paying sustained attention,’” Alexander writes in his report.
At the bar in Sushi 101, Roch says, ‘“You’ve got to give a lot of credit for all this to that guy in the corner.’” And of course, sitting in the dimly-lit corner is Ed Cone.
The Greensboro bloggers often quote him and link to his pages. They discuss amongst themselves the things he’s said to them and analyze his intentions. They draw inspiration from him. They look up to him and admire him in a way that’s akin to the way people of a certain generation felt about JFK. They call him ‘“Blog Father’”. He’s their hero. And if you want to know if the Greensboro bloggers are journalists, then he’s the person to ask.
In a third-floor one-room office in downtown Greensboro there’s not much happening on this pleasant afternoon. Ed Cone sits on the short sofa with his brown poodle Luna and kicks his black Chuck Taylors on the coffee table while light streams in through a large window broken up into small panes. A Grateful Dead poster hangs low by the door and on the other side of the room a couple of desks hug the wall armed with a full battalion of technological hoo-hahs: computer monitors, a printer, a scanner, power packs charging in holsters and a tangle of electrical cords that trail down to the squeaky floorboards. He’s been at it all day and it’s time for a break.
‘“I have a job, unbelieved by all of Greensboro,’” he says.
Cone is a journalist and has been for nearly 20 years in a career that started with Forbes magazine, brought him to Paris where he and his wife worked as freelancers, and eventually found him here in Greensboro, his hometown. He now works off-site for Ziff Davis Media, described on the company’s website as ‘“ a leading integrated media company serving the technology, videogame and consumer lifestyle markets, and one of the largest technology magazine publishers in the United States as measured by revenue.’” They put out PC Magazine and Electronic Gaming Monthly, among other print and electronic titles. He also pens a weekly op-ed piece for the Sunday edition of the N&R.
But Cone is also a blogger who came to the form after interviewing Dave Winer, a pioneer in the field, for Wired in 2001. His site, Edcone.com, where he blogs about everything under the sun, gets thousands of hits from all over the nation and his fame in the milieu has garnered him spots on MSNBC, ‘“Brad & Britt in the Morning’” on 101.1 FM and ‘“The State of Things’” on NPR. He accepts public speaking engagements and goes to conferences. And if you Google him, you’ll pull 60,000 hits.
‘“I’ve been a professional journalist for 20 years and a blogger for three,’” he says. ‘“That’s gonna happen.’”
In his role as a journalist who blogs, Cone gets a view of the entire picture. And from where he sits, the question is moot.
‘“What’s journalism?’” he asks. ‘“Is someone who writes a weekly gardening column a journalist? When I write a newspaper column about my dog, it’s published in the daily. Is it journalism? Look, a blog is a generic publishing tool, like the pad in your hand, and a good blog like any other type of good publishing is well written, well thought out and well liked.’”
Ed Cone has weighed in.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.