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The Rise of Blog Nation

The Rise of Blog Nation

The growth of blogs in popular culture is becoming more widely accepted in the media industry, but journalism programs aren’t rushing to toss out their old curriculums just yet

By Lydia Lum  

For journalism students at the University of California-Berkeley, blogging is just one more responsibility to juggle during the course of the day.

Students already hustling to meet reporting deadlines are also scrambling to post their daily blog entry, which doesn’t leave much time to groom sources outside the newsroom.

Their conflict is the result of some educators adding blogging into journalism and communications courses. By requiring students to produce the online journals alongside traditional news and feature stories, educators have found new opportunities to illustrate challenges facing professional reporters and editors.

“They’re learning about life at small newspapers,” says Paul Grabowicz, director of UC Berkeley’s new media program. “If they’re cranking out two or three stories a day, plus a blog, they don’t have much time to get out of the newsroom to go reporting. So they have to figure out how, and when, to do it.”

The rise and popularity of blogs — short for “Web logs” — are by no means causing journalism educators to overhaul their teachings. In fact,

blogging’s influence varies from one university program to the next, just like it varies among different publications in the country. Despite their rising popularity, blogs still have only a fraction of the impact on the curriculum that convergence does. Convergence is the cross-training of students to specialize in one medium such as broadcast or print, while learning basic skills in other media (see Black Issues, July 15, 2004).

Yet blogs are becoming a widely accepted form of media in the eyes of the popular culture. In a historic move, some bloggers were issued media credentials to cover the 2004 national Democratic and Republican conventions. Whereas bloggers initially were people who had no voice in the established media, their writings are gaining more respect and increasingly driving news coverage. More and more newspapers and magazines are adding blogs to their Web sites. In some cases, the bloggers are community residents with expertise in topics as broad as information technology or as narrow as a neighborhood’s nightlife offerings. In other cases, the bloggers are staff reporters who cover beats such as politics, sports and entertainment. Their cyberspace journals supplement the traditional hard-copy coverage. A blog’s first-person online format creates a continuous forum by letting readers respond to the writer’s entries with comments, questions and criticisms. The entries themselves also tend to be much shorter and less formally structured than news stories. 

At North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, students worried about the job market in traditional media have wanted to learn blogging how-to’s in order to boost their career prospects, says Dr. Teresa Styles, chairwoman of the journalism and mass communication department. The department is planning an October conference called “Converge: Creativity and Diversity on the Web,” in response to growing interest in blogs and online journalism. Greensboro’s daily newspaper, the News-Record, has drawn national media attention for launching so many blogs on its Web site that some journalists outside the state have nicknamed the city “Blogsboro.” News-Record management has marketed the move as an attempt to create an online “town square,” while executives of other papers around the country closely watch the experiment and consider similar changes themselves. All of those papers, including the News-Record, are trying to boost flagging readership and subscription numbers.

“Historically, faculty steer away from trends they think are too fly-by-night,” Styles says. “But that’s changing, with the Greensboro paper becoming an epicenter for blogging, and bloggers reporting from Iraq and the White House. Blogs are the big elephant in the room, and it’s time to look at them in a scholarly way.” 

Meanwhile, she and other educators are exposing their students to blogs as communication outlets. They place greater importance on honing strong skills in basic reporting, writing and editing, yet consider blogs a legitimate form of journalism.

At Howard University, staff members of The Hilltop student newspaper are considering whether to add a blog. The five-day-a-week paper is read online by students at home and alumni around the world. Among other things, students are debating what blog topics might prove most popular. Sports? Politics? Or something else? Such discussions give students a taste of situations they might tackle as professional journalists and news executives, says Yanick Rice Lamb, faculty adviser of The Hilltop. 

At the University of Missouri, where approximately one in five students are trying to enroll in its nationally renowned journalism school, Dr. Clyde Bentley has used blogging to demonstrate the writing life to his students, encouraging them to pursue other majors if they’re not as interested in writing as they once thought. As faculty adviser to a group of 20 pre-journalism freshmen living in the same residence hall, Bentley assigned them to produce a weekly blog about dorm life. It was a low-cost way for them to publish, while adhering to deadlines and specific topics. As time went on, Bentley’s bloggers were required to give their parents the Web site’s address. That led the students to more carefully consider the blog’s content before posting entries, he says. At the journalism school, where Bentley is an associate professor, blogging could eventually evolve into a niche course, he says.  

Students at some journalism schools, like UC Berkeley, which is graduate-level only, go deep into the blogosphere. Grabowicz and other faculty introduced the first blog-related course there in 2002. They have since added blogging to as many of their well-established reporting courses as possible.

“It forces students to try to understand differences between writing a first-person account and a linear, third-person narrative news story with an impartial voice. They ask themselves if they can write in first person and still be credible to readers,” Grabowicz says.

Berkeley students also launched a collaborative news blog examining media and technological growth in China, where politics, socioeconomics and culture can hinder such growth. So far, the blog has let students explore news ethics and standards, as well as industry issues like credibility and motive, Grabowicz says.

At Xavier University of Louisiana, however, blogs are more often discussed, rather than produced, in upper-division classes like media law, criticism and ethics, says Dr. Larry Strout, mass communication program director. Students learn the bloggers’ watchdog role in government, business and media, such as in the “Memogate” scandal involving CBS News’ Dan Rather. Last year, Rather quoted documents critical of President Bush’s military service that, upon subsequent scrutiny, couldn’t be authenticated. “Students were aware of the scandal,” Strout says. “But it was important that they realize how CBS got caught. Without bloggers calling the documents’ authenticity into question, the scandal might have taken much longer to break — if at all.”

Even in Greensboro, where the number of blogs published by the local News-Record is fast rivaling its traditional print coverage, some educators purposely limit their discussion of blogs to discourage students from using them as primary information sources.

“They see the Web and want to get everything from there,” says Dr. Lona Cobb, interim chairwoman of Bennett College’s mass communications department. “I don’t want them relying only on electronic media. They should use blogs as sources to find factual news articles.”

The concern of Cobb and others results from the fact that so many blogs are opinion-based. The authors, especially if they are not writing for a magazine or newspaper, are not obligated to fact-check or confirm statistics. Therefore, students sometimes have difficulty distinguishing high-quality blogs from others.

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., who has taught at Hampton University twice as a visiting professional, recalls a student who repeatedly cited online sources in her assignments, despite Pitts calling those particular sources unofficial and unreliable.

“I had a hard time getting her to understand that it was unclear whether the sources had a track record of getting information right. But she kept coming back with the same sources because she figured that if it was online, then it must be true.”      

Still, the immediacy of and universal access to the Internet has clearly given students valuable life lessons. At the New York Times Student Journalism Institute in New Orleans this year, 30 students from historically Black colleges were reporting stories and shooting photos when they encountered trouble getting access to the New Orleans mayor’s office. A mayoral spokeswoman told the students their requests for interviews were a “low priority,” says Derick Hackett, who taught at the institute. Some of the students had experience with school administrators stonewalling them, but not elected officials, says Hackett, who is also student media director at Southern University and A&M College-Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, the Times and Boston Globe staff members working at the institute insisted the spokeswoman take the students seriously.

Word of the conflict spread through media circles. At least one non-Times columnist publicized the conflict online, which caused working journalists to make phone calls of support to the students and calls to the mayor’s office to complain. “This gave students ideas of how to handle themselves professionally without getting angry or profane,” Hackett says.

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