At the Aspen Institute's Conference on Journalism and Society in mid-July, a question was put to executives of major news organizations: Whom do you trust in online media today? Most answered with a list of the usual suspects: the Web sites of The New York Times, NPR, the Los Angeles Times.
Jeff Jarvis, a blogger and president of Advance Internet, gave a different answer: "I have learned to trust the voice and judgment of my fellow citizens."
That answer may have drawn snickers a few years ago. No longer. "I was heartened at the reaction," Jarvis says by e-mail. "Where I had seen dismissive skepticism of this blogging thing at similar gatherings in the past, here I found eager curiosity. And I was impressed with the desire, in varying degrees, by everyone in this group to enhance the transparency of our business, journalism," with the goal of building and rebuilding readers' trust.
Jarvis, who oversees such Advance.net sites as NJ.com, calls the rise of blogging and alternative news outlets "citizens' media." Others call it participatory media, open media or grassroots publishing.
By whatever name, many mainstream journalists still have trouble with the notion that a nobody with a Weblog can build up a more loyal audience than news brands that have been around for a century or more. "It's really quite fascinating how the media is treating the bloggers and blogging," the political blogger Atrios wrote on his blog, Eschaton, during the Democratic convention. "They spend a lot of time talking about how we don't have 'editors' or 'fact checkers' and how you just can't [trust] stuff you read in the Internet."
In a medium where anyone is a potential publisher, how can you tell which news sources to trust? Why do many readers find bloggers more believable than mainstream news organizations?
David Sifry has some findings that should give pause to professional journalists who often blithely trot out their trust trump card.
Sifry, who appeared on CNN during the Democratic convention, is CEO and founder of Technorati, a search engine in San Francisco that monitors the blogosphere. Technorati tracks some 3.2 million weblogs (more than 55 percent of which are active), with 15,000 new blogs coming online every day and bloggers making more than 275,000 posts a day.
Sifry's firm measures the influence of news publications and individual bloggers on thousands of topics on a moment-by-moment basis. Who commands the most attention and authority in cyberspace? Sites and blogs that garner the most inbound links, or pointers.
Technorati has just released an "attention index" (see graphic) that offers the first comparison between news sites' and bloggers' authority in the blogosphere. (The more people who link to you, the greater your authority.) To no one's surprise, at the very top of the list are the top-tier news sites: The New York Times, CNN, BBC News, and The Washington Post.
But then things start to get interesting.
No. 5 on the attention index is Slashdot.org, followed by Britain's The Guardian newspaper and another community news site, Plastic. This means bloggers are having conversations about items found on Slashdot slightly more often than they're discussing stories found on The Guardian's Web site.
As one scans farther down the attention index, Boing Boing and Instapundit come in just behind Salon and just ahead of Slate, Fox News, SFGate and Reuters. Matt Drudge (who's not a blogger but has a blogroll) comes in just ahead of MSNBC, USA Today and Boston.com. Drew Curtis's news portal Fark and the weblogs AndrewSullivan.com, Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo and Dave Winer's Scripting News come in ahead of the Los Angeles Times.
The blogs Eschaton, Daily Kos and WilWheaton.net round out the Top 40, while midsize online newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News and The Miami Herald don't make the list.
Other blog tracking services, like PubSub and Feedster, tell much the same story.
What's going on here?
"People trust The New York Times and Washington Post and link to them," Sifry says, "but there are a huge number of people who are going outside the bounds of traditional media to these new media forms to get their information and, more importantly, to participate in the discussions around news and topics."
He says we shouldn't be too surprised by the results, which reflect a shift in user behavior that has been taking place for some time. The idea of the Web as a place where we randomly surf for news or conduct task-oriented hunt-and-peck Web searches has given way to a new metaphor: the Web as virtual corner bar, where community and conversations reign.
"The Web is not chiefly about a library or a news stand," Sifry says. "You have to start thinking about the Web as this humongous event stream. The Web is a set of ongoing conversations that weave together into this new kind of omnipresent social fabric."
As push-button publishing becomes increasingly effortless -- allowing far more people to participate in the conversation -- how can readers tell which of these 3 million-plus blogs and other information providers deserve our attention?
Two examples are instructive. Salam Pax claimed to be blogging from Baghdad last year, but bloggers like Jason Kottke wondered if his dispatches were authentic. It was only when his entries began containing credible details and blogger Paul Boutin confirmed that his blog did indeed seem to originate from Iraq that he gained a steady readership. (Writer Peter Maas confirmed Salam Pax's authenticity months later.)
In May, when U.S. citizen Nick Berg was beheaded by Islamic extremists, web sites floated the theory that his death came at the hands of the CIA. Although some bloggers linked to the reports, the sites making such claims had an unproven track record and even less transparency, helping consign this nonsense to the Conspiracy Theories Hall of Curiosities.
"Readers are acting in all the standard ways that journalists do in deciding whether to trust someone they don't know," Sifry says. "First, is this person being accountable? Will they reveal who they are, what their name is, who their sources are?"
David Weinberger, the author of the book "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" who runs the Joho blog, cautions that the size of a blog's readership does not necessarily correspond with its value or veracity. He wrote on the eve of the Democratic convention that while most media focus attention on high-profile bloggers, they're missing out on the bulk of what the blogosphere has to offer.
"To the print and broadcast media, bloggers usually look like little, vanity-press versions of the mass media. That's because the media focus on the A-List. After all, the A-Listers are the ones who have succeeded in the mass media's terms: By definition the A-Listers have accumulated masses of readers. ... But, the focus on the A-List necessarily misses blogging as a social phenomenon, which I consider to be its most important aspect. Blogs are our persistent selves on the web; we are a big, sloppy community; readers form personal relationships with bloggers; many of us feel we are writing to and for our friends; we are honest about our partisanship; blogs are changing the line we draw between private and public; etc."
Mary Hodder, a product manager at Technorati and creator of the Napsterization blog, finds certain bloggers to be often more trustworthy and accurate in their reports than even major news publications.
That view appears to be widely shared. A survey of 10,000 blog readers earlier this year conducted by Blogads found that 61 percent of respondents found blogs to be "more honest" than other media outlets.
Hodder gives four reasons for trusting bloggers over general-assignment reporters:
- Niche expertise. Newspapers try to cover the whole world, while bloggers can be experts with a deep knowledge about a topic like open-source software or micro-biology.
- Transparency in motives. Bloggers are upfront about their biases and subjective approach, and they have greater freedom to speak from the heart and use a personal voice. Most journalists are constrained by an institutional objectivity. "I often read a reporter's story and wonder, what's their experience? Where are they coming from? What's the context? What do they really think?" Hodder says.
- Transparency in process. Bloggers link to documents, sources and supporting evidence to buttress their own authority. "The top-down press articles I see are written as if they're not connected to anything, as if they just came out of a vacuum," she says.
- Forthrightness about mistakes. When bloggers err, the credible ones publish a mea culpa and take responsibility, with the corrected information alongside their original posting. Not so with newspapers, whose front-page mistakes are corrected in an inside page, or broadcast news, where mistakes are almost never acknowledged.
Jarvis agrees. "We are witnessing the growth of a culture of transparency," he says. "Bloggers are more trusted, I think, because they are human and too often news organizations are not. Bloggers tell you who they are (usually) and what their backgrounds and biases are and their readers can judge them and engage with them on a personal level. News organizations are big and often monolithic and are reluctant to admit let alone share perspective or agendas."
The craft of journalism itself is undergoing a shift as we move toward a more pliable online model. "Bloggers see news as a conversation," he says. "It's not over when it's in print; it's not fishwrap. News improves and the facts and the truth come closer when the discussion begins: when bloggers 'fact-check your ass' (in the words of blogger Ken Layne); when readers become writers (in the words of Jay Rosen); when the audience asks the questions the reporters didn't ask or finds the facts they couldn't find or adds the perspective they couldn't think of."
What does Jarvis tell his peers in journalism about how to meet the coming wave of citizens media?
"I often tell news people that their first and most important reaction to the blogging phenomenon should not be to write blogs but to read them. We have had the printing press for centuries; now the people own the press and the broadcast tower and it is our turn to listen. It is our turn to engage in a conversation on an equal footing. We need to ask ourselves in the news business whether we see ourselves truly as members of our community or still above it."
Jarvis says his call for transparency should be appreciated by a news culture that demands transparency of government officials, politicians, business leaders and celebrities. "It is our turn to open the shades, to reveal our process and prejudice, to engage in the conversation, to join in the community -- to be transparent. Shouldn't we, of all people and professions, be the most transparent?"