Everyone’s heard of Joe Bloggs. A few have heard about Salam Pax. So what do the two have in common?
They are both ordinary people, the grassroots, the citizenry. Joe Bloggs refers to the fictional everyday man and Salam Pax is a real, everyday Iraqi that captured the imagination of the world press during the Iraq war.
The Iraqi became famous for writing a blog. A blog you ask? Yes, a blog. It’s a phenomenon that has taken off in the last few years on the internet, causing a mini-boom in what is often termed “citizen journalism”. A blog or “weblog” is, on the face of it, nothing special. They are effectively personal websites or online diaries in which any ordinary person can record their thoughts, musings and daily activities.
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It’s a web page made up of mostly short, frequently updated posts that are arranged chronologically. Blogs can be political journals or personal diaries; they can focus on one narrow subject or range across a universe of topics. Blog posts are like instant messages to the web, similar to internet bulletin boards or forums, except only the author of the blog does the posting.
Quite a bit has been written about the blog phenomenon and how it is “revolutionising journalism” or “changing the face of the internet”. An article on respected journalism website Poynter Online even bills blogs as the “new journalism”. Really? While they have their place – an important and special place – I generally struggle, really struggle, to get too excited about them.
But one blog I did get excited about was the “Baghdad Blogger”, Salam Pax. The Guardian website followed the Iraqi’s blog closely during the war. The blog gave unprecedented, live and detailed insight on what it is like to be an ordinary person on the inside of the Iraq war. The Guardian described it as the “most gripping” account of the war, and eventually gave Salam Pax a fortnightly column.
It was the great irony of media coverage of the Iraq war: while CNN poured millions into their coverage, said the Guardian, it was the internet musings of a witty young Iraqi living in a two-storey house in a Baghdad suburb that scooped them to deliver the most compelling description of life during the war.
This can be the power of a blog, but how much rubbish and self-indulgent drivel does one have to wade through to find these gems? Who knows? This is the endless, infinite internet we’re dealing with.
The fundamental question asked by editors and journalists is: are blogs really journalism? No. They’re an important voice, but no – they’re not journalism.
Blogs are not subjected to the same checks and balances as a carefully crafted piece in a newspaper. A journalist has to (or should) ensure that a story is balanced, represents fair comment, and has been put through rigorous accuracy checks. But blogs simply aren’t put through the same procedures, so they are not journalism and should not be called such.
South African websites have yet to embrace the phenomenon in any major way. Out of the major five websites in South Africa, only one major player, M-Web, has noticeably introduced them – and it has been a recent introduction.
Chris Roper, M-Web’s portal manager, sees blogs as “counter-journalism”, providing everyone access to an audience, easily and quickly.
He points out that in South Africa they serve a valuable function because the public domain may be limited by economic constraints. In this country, he says, there are far more niche audiences than mass market publications can ever usefully serve.
He’s right. But when reading your next blog, just remember, it is unlikely to be a piece of “journalism” you’re reading.
Matthew Buckland is editor of the Mail & Guardian Online @ www.mg.co.za