The term “online media” covers a multitude of different forms of expression, from the websites of established newspapers to “podcasts” and similar exotica. Over the last five years, however, the big story has undoubtedly been “blogs” or, more properly but less popularly, “weblogs”.
In 2000, the few hundred weblogs in existence were documented on rebecca's pocket, a device for techies to exchange notes about interesting links. When Anthony Hicks started counting Aussie blogs, it didn’t record three digit figures until 2001. By early 2005, the number and variety of blogs has become too large to permit a meaningful count (Technorati tracks more than eight million) and blogs, taken collectively, have become a significant contributor to public information and debate.
How significant are blogs? The immediate answer is: compared to what?
The traditional medium most directly comparable to blogs is the “little magazine”, represented in Australia by publications like Quadrant and Meanjin. Along with more direct online competitors using a magazine format, of which On Line Opinion is a notable example, blogs have already outpaced the little magazine sector.
Blogs can produce a substantially greater output of magazine-style material, without the long delays associated with print, and with the capacity for immediate reader comment and response from other bloggers with competing or complementary perspectives on the issue. Most of the leading US magazines have already adopted a blog-style format for their online editions, and those that do not follow suit in the near future are likely to wither and die.
In their more triumphalist moments, bloggers hope to eclipse the mainstream media - abbreviated in some circles as MSM. This abbreviation is most popular among disparaging right-wing bloggers in the US, where it typically implies the MSM are dominated by liberals. Much of the time, however, blogs rely on the MSM for the news on which they comment. Only occasionally do blogs break news stories
Still, in areas that don’t require fact gathering or that can rely on publicly available statistics, bloggers can and do compete effectively with established media. In my first-ever blog post, I commented on the fact that, whereas trade and current account deficits were big news in Australia, US papers buried them in the back pages. In the online edition of The New York Times, at least, this is no longer the case, and the latest US trade deficit ($58.3 billion in January) can be found here.
Despite this catch-up, it’s still true that anyone wanting coverage of economic issues in the US would do far better to read blogs than to follow either The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and no other mainstream media even come close. It isn’t even true, as it is in other cases, that bloggers need the established media to get the facts on which they can then comment. For example The New York Times story linked above is a rewrite of the Bureau of Economic Analysis press release, which you can get yourself by automatic e-mail if you want.
The competition is much tougher in Australia in this respect. Media coverage of economic issues is better, the number of economist-bloggers is smaller and quite a few of us play both sides of the street anyway. But there are a wide range of issues, from intellectual property to the complexities of the electoral system, where blogs provide a better source of information than either the mainstream media (which lacks the space to address such issues in detail) or established modes of academic publication (where the publication lags are too great to allow useful comment on current issues).
Perhaps the most direct point of competition is that between political blogs and the opinion columns of the quality dailies. Judgements may vary, but to my mind the commentary found in the best Australian blogs is at least as good as that provided by the opinion pages.
With the number of blogs doubling every six months or so, it would certainly be premature to suggest that blogs have “come of age”. When the process stabilises, the Australian blog sector (sometimes called “Ozplogistan”) will almost certainly look radically different to its current form. But blogs are already a significant part of the Australian public debate, and their influence will only grow.
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