Last month, Bob Costas hosted a discussion on the importance, impact, and merit of blogs. Alas, Costas went for sensationalism instead of a serious debate by matching up Buzz Bissinger (author of Friday Night Lights) and Will Leitch (founder of Deadspin).
So let's get this straight. Bissinger, who writes books and occasional features for Vanity Fair, defends traditional media. Leitch, who founded a web site that focuses on sleazier side of sports personalities, defends the internet blogs. That's supposed to be a serious discussion on the value of the internet?
Let's be serious. We could reverse the debate and bring in people from Politico.com to debate the editors of the National Enquirer. When one of the side of the debate is focuseds on the lurid, it simply is not a valid representative of a medium.
The Big Red Network boys weighed in on the debate with a point/ counterpoint series last month, with some good points. Actually...better points that Bob Costas' HBO show made, which might be yet more evidence that disproves Bissinger's claims (if you consider Costas' show a member of the mainstream media).
Let's cut to the chase. Are there some blogs that are cruel and focus on the negative? Definitely. But that's not a new phenomenon. Can you say "Weekly World News"? How about "Inside Edition" and "A Current Affair"? Whether it's tabloid newspapers or tabloid television or tabloid web sites, the only distinction is the medium used to deliver.
The internet is changing the way information is dispersed throughout our society. We're becoming a society of information "snackers", biting off little bits here and there of information from all over the world. Within hours of the end of a Husker football game, the statistics, images (even video), and commentary of the game are available world-wide. About fifteen years ago, Nebraska played Kansas State in Tokyo, and while the game was on the radio locally, highlights didn't make it onto TV for several days as video tape had to be flown from half-way across the world.
Does the internet change the dynamics? It changes the speed, and it lowers the cost of entry. Technology has made it easier to create content... and made it incredibly fast to distribute content. But does that make it inherently bad,as Bissinger states? Not at all.
To be sure, the lower cost of entry means that there is much more available in the blogosphere...and the increase in quantity doesn't equate to an increase in quality. Are there bad blogs out there to be sure? Definitely. Just like there are bad newspapers and bad broadcasters.
One distinction that needs to be made is the difference between news and commentary. Some blogs report news, to be sure...but most are commentary. It's important to know the difference, but it's not necessarily the fault of blogs that the lines have gotten confused. Rush Limbaugh spews out his right wing views five days a week as "America's Anchorman" (as he labels himself). Many Americans get their news from Jon Stewart during "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.
Most blogs, from my experience, are commentary. The format is similar to talk radio since blogs react to other blogs, and many provide feedback mechanisms. Some are more straight-news, but those are the exception.
One restriction keeping blogs out of the news-gathering realm is access. Most bloggers, except for the "mainstream media" blogs, simply don't have access to the newsmakers. Is that a big deal? The BRN staff is split; Steve Hanaway doesn't feel a need, while Darren Carlson does. I'm a little bit in the middle, because I see my role as being something different than the rest of the media.
Would I like to interview coaches and athletes? Probably. But I also recognize these individuals have more important things to do than to talk to the media, and expanding the size of the media by letting bloggers into the mix might make the situation unmanageable. With the low cost of entry, some people might start trivial blogs just to gain the access.
Another conflicting issue with gaining that access is simply time. For most of the Husker bloggers, this is a hobby. Speaking for myself, blogging doesn't even come close to paying the internet access or electricity bill, let alone food and clothes for my family. It simply isn't in the cards to spend hours each week at press conferences. (Although that might change if they ever draw my numbers in the lottery...)
The mainstream media is still going to be the leader in sports coverage, though they'll need to evolve. That's not the fault of blogs, everything is changing in our world. In today's 24x7 instantaneous news society, the inefficiency of the print medium is a huge liability. While I still subscribe to our local paper, I know many people who don't. But the fact remains that the print industry is still the primary news gathering mechanism in our world today. Google recognizes the need for newspapers to continue, and it will take partnerships between the internet world and the print world to endure. If not, then we might end up in a very dysfunctional media universe where news coverage is spotty at best.
Blogs will play a role in this new media universe, and in a democratic society, the more voices that we hear commenting on the news (be it politics, sports, or business), the better society will be. Maybe some of those voices will be noise, but eliminates the possibility of any voice monopolizing communication when so many are contributing to the discourse.