Blogs Up, Hacks Down

The appearance of seven Democratic presidential contenders at the YearlyKos convention demonstrated that the Kossacks and fellow A-listers–along with what the Liberal Blog Advertising Network calls their 3 million daily readers–are now ensconced as political players

BY Jessica Clark

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Oh, what a difference a year makes. At the second annual YearlyKos conference in Chicago in early August, now-confident progressive bloggers played nice with journalists and political candidates, transcending the defensive attacks that marked last year’s seminal gathering in Vegas. The appearance of seven Democratic presidential contenders demonstrated that the Kossacks and fellow A-listers–along with what the Liberal Blog Advertising Network calls their 3 million daily readers–are now ensconced as political players. This represents a marked (hopefully permanent) shift from the Democratic Party shutout of progressive voices that plagued the early ’00s.

For media watchers, the novelty of the blogosphere has worn off. But this didn’t faze attendees, who gamely trekked through the cavernous McCormick Place, blogging, vlogging, texting and Twittering their way through sessions.

A few days later, at the Journalism That Matters conference in D.C., reporters and editors from what are now known as “legacy” newspapers seemed chastened, ready to admit that journalism is broken and the fix is far from clear. On a Wiki and in small group exercises, they produced a proposal for the “next newsroom.” Their prototype–a hodgepodge of moneymaking schemes and feel-good citizen engagement gimmicks–felt wan compared to the vigorous media experiments taking place across the country. While attendees were open to new ideas, they lacked the can-do spirit of the prog blogs, and instead bandied about weasel words like “hyperlocalism.”

The organizers of Journalism That Matters mean well, and they represent a current of reform within mainstream journalism. But what was lacking in D.C. was abundant in Chicago: a potent sense of shared mission and a gut-level understanding of how new technologies have already shattered the barriers between media-makers and citizens.

The bloggers and readers at the YearlyKos conference don’t all agree on politics or tactics–their approaches range from investigative journalism to rhetorical Molotov-throwing. They don’t always know if they’re practicing journalism–and don’t care. They do know that the public demands accountability and truth-telling from media and government alike.

In contrast, Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal is an insult that has compounded the near fatal injuries journalism has sustained. As one anonymous WSJ reporter told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a sickening realization to know that this really great iconic newspaper is no longer going to be independent, but is also going to be controlled by a man whose values are inimical to ours.” Indeed, the reporters who aren’t being laid off in droves at the behest of stockholders are finding that the meaning of their work has been sucked dry by the ever-expanding commercialization of the industry.

Yet the urge to connect to engaged thinkers through media of all kinds is alive and well. Everyday people, trained journalists, and everyone in between are using new technologies to tell stories, swap images, share information, interrogate powerbrokers and debate issues. Progressive media–too often stuck between the rock of the prog blogs’ partisanship and the hard place of print journalism’s financial woes–has benefited greatly from the amplification and sharing of stories that search tools and Web 2.0 enable.

Newspapers may have lost sight of why aggressive reporting and informed debate matter, but plenty of people see their importance and have jumped into the fray. And whatever these folks call themselves, there’s work to do: A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans are less able to answer basic questions about politics and foreign affairs than they were in 1989.

Journalism is dead! Long live journalism!

Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).

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