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When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he freed the publishers. But when the World Wide Web was pioneered by Tim Berners-Lee, it was said that the readers were now freed. The age of the internet has given unprecedented power to the reader by creating one of the most democratic and accessible forms of publishing yet – the blog.
The internet — and more specifically blogging on the internet — means that ordinary readers more than ever before are themselves turning into publishers and journalists.
Worldwide, blogs are beginning to demand big readerships and some even derive revenue by selling their own advertising space like traditional publishers do. Some individual blogs in the US are a big deal, attracting millions of readers. In fact some of the bigger blogs in the US rake in bigger readership than all of South Africa’s biggest websites combined.
The blog phenomenon is catching the eye of traditional publishers – the newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and “traditional” online publishers — because it appears that the publishing game appears to be no longer their exclusive domain.
A blog is a form of personal website that makes web authoring easy, quick and cheap, meaning that any man, women and his blog can publish their writings and articles. On a blog, journal entries are generally posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse chronological order.
Rhodes University New Media studies head, Vincent Maher, says blogs are a communication revolution allowing people to converse across national and cultural boundaries — and become part of a new global public sphere that wasn’t available to readers otherwise.
“Blogging is a lot of fun and many people have started doing it. It’s practically part of the social fabric of the web now. The excitement is largely due to the way it gives ordinary people cheap and easy-to-use communication tools for potentially mass audiences without the supervision of an editor,” says Maher.
In an interview with AFP, the editor of a major website remarked that blogging was “the revenge of the amateurs”. The vast majority of blogging may be an amateur pursuit, but it was estimated by US web consultants Perseus that by the end of 2005 there will be 53-million blogs on the net. In 1999 there were just 23 blogs.
Forms of blogging have been around informally since the start of the world wide web – but the blogging format and philosophy has only recently been formalised and popularised, causing the current hype.
Blogging has essentially lowered the cost of entry meaning that almost anyone with an internet connection and computer can publish. This is nothing new to users of internet forums, but blogging seems to carry a higher credibility because, unlike forum postings, users have more ownership over their content in blogs.
The blog craze has even been on the radar of traditional media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, who noted in a widely-read speech last year that traditional media were missing a trick and needed to jump in on this publishing revolution.
Said Murdoch at a gathering of editors in the US: “What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it… They want news that speaks to them personally, that affects their lives.”
“So unless we awaken to these changes, which are quite different to those of 5 or 6 years ago, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans. But, properly done, they are an opportunity to actually improve our journalism and expand our reach.”
Many bloggers see themselves as “citizen journalists”, leading to debates about whether blogging is journalism or not. Journalists have been critical, saying that often rigorous checks and balances that apply to their craft don’t apply in the blogosphere.
“Citizen journalism happens when ordinary people write about extraordinary events. Normally it comes in the form of eye-witness accounts or insider information that sometimes becomes newsworthy,” says Maher.
Maher doesn’t quite see blogging as “threat” to traditional media, but says it is another form of public expression in another sphere that complements journalism.
“Citizen Journalism is still too disorganised to threaten the traditional media, but the citizen philosophy stands to hurt traditional publishers in areas like classified, property and employment advertising,” he predicts.
All around the world, bloggers have been making an impact. They were first on the scene during the Tsunami crisis, beating journalists from the broadcast networks, newspapers and online newspapers. During the early stage of the crisis, traditional media largely relied on bloggers for information and reportage.
During the US elections, bloggers received accreditation alongside journalists to cover the presidential elections. Bloggers were also involved in the “early retirement” of CBS anchor Dan Rather after exposing flaws in his report about George Bush’s military record.
Also in the US, a blogger applied to the courts to protect the identity of one of his sources – a special privilege usually afforded only to journalists. He lost the first round of his case.
In South Africa, blogging has been slow, but appears to be gaining some momentum. There are several blogs that are publishing in South African cyberspace, although they have yet to make any major impact on mainstream media like in the US.
The Mail & Guardian Online’s free blogging service, “Blogmark” (www.blogmark.co.za) has so far signed up more than 1 300 individual blogs, which now constitute as much as 6% of the website’s total readership in just over a year.
Maher says blogging could make a big impact in African countries like Zimbabwe where press freedom is under threat. Even though the net is still a small and elitist medium in Africa, blogs can be mobilised as a tool of struggle, to get grassroots opinions and views out there — in same way Iraqi bloggers hit the headlines and offered alternative views on the war.