Midway through the first breakout session of BloggerCon III -- "podcasting" led by pied piper Adam Curry -- I realized that covering this "unconference" would be akin to trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.
Five days later I'm still trying to sort through the myriad ideas, the intense emotions and the amazing flow of information. I'll probably be at it five weeks from now and even five months from now.
It was my first visit to what has become an annual ritual for some bloggers, who flock to the Dave Winer production to ask questions, share knowledge and connect. It also was my debut as an everyday blogger, someone responsible for the care and feeding of a news blog. The result was a tilt in my blogging worldview. Instead of exploring issues as a journalist and a user, I was adding in the concerns of a blogger and the energy that comes with being part of creating something.
Along the way key questions started to emerge. How can bloggers be treated as a community or act collectively and retain individuality? Why do many journalists and bloggers persist in seeing the world through either-or eyes instead of complementing each other? How can the blogging community avoid being pigeonholed based on the highly publicized work of a few bloggers, particularly in the political arena? Can more journalists learn to see the differences between bloggers and the wide range of purposes for blogs?
For most of the bloggers gathered at Stanford Law School Nov. 6 and for untold others, blogging is a culture with all the trappings including evolving standards (even if some don't like the word), ethics, rituals and language. It is a community, or more precisely a cluster of communities threaded together. It was no surprise to me that a session on core values by Napsterization's Mary Hodder overflowed an 80-seat room.
But blogging is also a tool, and for some, only a tool. It is a way of sharing news and information, a form of writing and publishing. It is not a way of life nor is it life-altering. While some bloggers may perceive blogging as a commitment, for others it is a method.
The inability to distinguish between the two raises problems. Suggest blogs to some editors and the resistance is palpable. Mention blog-style features to "capital B" bloggers and you're likely to hear that isn't really a blog. Yet, posting blog-style during breaking news, for instance, can be valuable both to the media outlet and the user. Done right, staff blogs can create two-way conversations and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with readers between stories or columns. (That's assuming comment spam and trolls don't take over.)
The constant drumbeat of the notion that blogging and journalism are mutually exclusive -- that one can or will replace the other, that one is better than the other, that they don't require each other to exist -- damages all involved.
Journalism and blogging are not monolithic. They are not mutually exclusive and they can't be for either to survive. Not all bloggers want to be thought of as journalists, although, as I heard often at BloggerCon, many are using or want to make the most of public access to information and government. Scott Mace, for instance, envisions hyper-local bloggers in the Bay Area filling the gaps in the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of campaign finances. There are plenty of gaps in all kinds of coverage, leaving lots of room for solid niche reporting.
Meanwhile, some very good journalism is being committed both by professional journalists who blog and bloggers who choose to be citizen journalists. I define the former as someone who trained to be a journalist and/or someone who makes his or her living as a journalist. (Personally, I prefer to think that anyone who claims to be a journalist is also opting to adhere to generally accepted journalism ethics and standard journalistic practice. Otherwise, why call yourself a journalist? It's not like it's the most respected occupation these days.)
Determined not to fall in the "is blogging journalism" trap that so often swamps discussion about the two, Salon's Scott Rosenberg steered a very tough course during the session he led on journalism. For me, one of the "aha" moments came when someone from outside the United States (please let me know who you are if you're reading this) reminded us not to get stuck "using U.S. journalism as the gold standard." Another came when political blogger Chris Nolan suggested it's not about having access to the tools, it's about how you use them.
Blogger Claude Muncey's notes from the session include this advice:
What journalists can learn from bloggers:
-- you can blur the line between the personal and professional without corrupting the process;
-- you can learn to improvise in real time;
-- how to have a conversation with their readers;
-- to be humble - you don't know everything.
Bloggers can learn from journalists:
-- the value of leg work;
-- the nature of accountablility;
-- that editing is a good thing;
-- to be humble - you don't know everything.
A third "aha" came when I was reading comments about the session on various blogs. I sympathize with the blogger who developed a splitting headache after an exchange about objectivity -- and came across the following from Australian PR exec and blogger Trevor Cook: "The big league is in generating new content, not just criticizing existing 'content generators' (previously known as writers)."
Journalistic blogging doesn't have to be objective or impartial as long as the point of view is transparent and facts are presented unambiguously. Blogging journalists don't have to toss emotion around or share their personal lives to create blogs with meaning, although those limitations might pose a greater challenge.
But Cook is right -- bloggers who want to be journalists need to think bigger than merely criticizing what the so-called mainstream media does, doesn't do and should be doing.
Journalists who write about blogging need to remember that a single blog or a kind of blog doesn't represent all blogs, just as one journalist or media outlet doesn't represent all journalists.
And we all need to keep in mind that whether we are bloggers, journalists or both, our readers, viewers or users will judge the rest by what we do.