The Indianapolis Star

Tales from the Blogosphere

Personal online sites allow writers to post
their views for the world to see.

By Abe Aamidor

November 16, 2004  

Before running off to work each morning at her Downtown law office, Lawren Mills stops at her home computer, logs on to the Internet, and fills out her "blog" for the day.

"Sometimes I'll post my best beauty tips for the month," said Mills, 26. "Sometimes I'll just say, 'Happy birthday, Mom.' "

Welcome to the blogosphere, an audacious new world filled with messages on everything from national politics to sports fan sites to, well, birthday greetings for Mom.

Blogs is short for Web logs, or online journals and commentaries. Spokesmen at technology companies that host blogging Web sites say between 3 million and 5 million Americans regularly blog.

The medium is gaining so much popularity that the School of Journalism at IUPUI will offer a course on blogging next fall that will be worth three credits.

Remember when you were in elementary school, and you passed a note to your friends? Now, think about passing a note on the World Wide Web, for everyone to see.

The key difference between blogging and other online forums, such as bulletin boards, is that you own your own blog. It is not controlled by some third-party administrator. You control content.

Graphically, blogs are more visually appealing than most online bulletin boards, too. Free or cheap blogging software is easily downloaded from the Internet, and includes templates to make your home page look professionally designed.

Mills (http://lawrenkmills .mu.nu) often posts commentary about fashion, shopping and celebrity news. People who share her tastes will read them and sometimes post their own comments. Like most bloggers, Mills also provides links to similarly minded blogs and Web sites.

Josh Claybourn has slightly grander ambitions for his blog (www.joshclaybourn.com). The 23-year-old law student spends 30 minutes to an hour daily writing about politics, religious values and more.

"If I could get 700 real people to sit in an auditorium and listen to me every day, I'd do it," said Claybourn, a second-year student at Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis.

Yet he can get hundreds of visitors to his blog daily, he says.

There are thousands of people like Claybourn who think their opinions on the news of the day are as good as any you'll hear on talk radio or the Sunday morning TV news programs. Observers call Claybourn's kind of blogging "cooperative journalism," or sometimes "participatory journalism."

Some bloggers have found a very large audience indeed. Markos Moulitsas' blog (www. dailykos.com) became famous when Moulitsas was allowed to travel with Howard Dean's presidential campaign earlier this year. Moulitsas, a 33-year-old U.S. Army veteran who was born in Chicago and raised in El Salvador, also reported on the 2004 presidential election for Britain's online Guardian Unlimited.

The Daily Kos (rhymes with "rose") also attracts enough advertising revenue to support his efforts full time, says Moulitsas. He says he has more than 1 million visitors to his site monthly.

"When I started my blog (in 2002), there was no such thing as a successful blogger," said Moulitsas. "We were a bunch of nobodies."

Like many bloggers, Claybourn and Moulitsas are overtly political and partisan. Claybourn is conservative; Moulitsas, based in California, is a liberal.

Bloggers also have broken major news stories, including:

• Evidence suggesting that memos used by CBS-TV's Dan Rather to impugn President Bush's National Guard service were forgeries.

• News that Republicans were backing Ralph Nader's bid for the presidency in the hope that he'd take votes away from Democrat John Kerry.

• Early reports that U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had lauded former segregationist Strom Thurmond at a 2002 birthday bash for Thurmond.

The "Rathergate" story often is credited to www.powerline blog.com, but it's not clear which blogs were first to break the other stories; for better or worse, information moves fast in the blogosphere, say veteran bloggers.

However, the notion of cooperative journalism comes into play as multiple blogs are able to confirm or reinforce a story.

James W. Brown, executive associate dean of the School of Journalism at IUPUI, is a recent convert to the medium.

"There are bloggers who are physicians, lawyers, economists, who put a lot of effort into analyzing whatever is in the news," said Brown. "(Blogging) is another source of information for people."

Rumors fly

The main criticism of blogging, however, is that there's no editing function in this medium. Blogs can easily degenerate into little more than rumor mills, or sites where one vents, but does not inform.

Not so fast, say blogging advocates. Bloggers now watch other bloggers and can correct factual errors instantly, either by posting better information on their own sites or simply by posting a comment at the offender's site.

Conscientious bloggers can also make additions to an ongoing story as fresh information becomes available. The most scrupulous bloggers dutifully post links to their source data in an effort to back up whatever claims they're making.

"Bloggers point to the Dan Rather fiasco. He had a whole lot of editors, and look what happened to him," said Claybourn.

While it is the political bloggers who have gotten the most attention recently, industry experts say most bloggers are just posting a journal or diary online intended to be read only by a small circle of friends or family. Typically, they're updating people on what's happening in their lives.

Josette Torres (www.girl inblack.com) has been blogging since 2000.

"I actually stopped blogging for a year and a half," said Torres, 32, an information technology employee at Purdue University. "It wasn't fun anymore. That was about the time that a lot of war bloggers came online. There was a lot of anger, and people were flaming other sites."

Now, Torres uses available software to post photos on her blog directly from her camera phone, including scenes from campus life in West Lafayette.

"That made (blogging) fun again," she said.

Yet it is the blogging community's perceived threat to traditional news media that continues to be hotly debated. For now, traditional media outlets such as hometown newspapers and local TV stations are considered safe because individual bloggers simply don't have the resources to compete with such saturation coverage, says Chris Feola, executive vice president of askSam Systems, a Florida-based information-management company.

"When smaller papers use 70 percent wire (stories), well, bloggers may be able to compete with that," said Feola.

In the giddiness over blogging's seeming success, bloggers need to remember that micropublishing is still publishing, and that libel issues do apply, observers say.

"It's just the same for bloggers as anyone else," said Jon Dilts a media law expert at the IU School of Journalism.

Nor are blogs immune from censorship. IU alumnus and blogger Paul Musgrave (www .paulmusgrave.com/blog), currently studying political science in Dublin, says he could blog from almost anywhere in the world during recent travels, but not in China.

"The government there was blocking access to all blogs hosted on the two largest services, Blogspot.Com and Type Pad.Com," said Musgrave via e-mail. "Blogs represent openness, both political and personal, and Communists aren't really into freedom."

Firing offense

There are also free-speech issues at home. Ellen Simonetti, a flight attendant, recently was fired by Delta Air Lines because of posts on her personal blog (http://queenofsky.journal space.com).

Simonetti posted saucy diary entries about working for an anonymous airline, but one photo inadvertently identified her employer.

"One of the problems is that free speech applies only to the government," said Nancy Whitmore, assistant professor of journalism at Butler University. "Government can't abridge free speech, but employers can."

Some observers predict that personal blogs will be as common as personal e-mail addresses one day.

Whether many people will really want to read all those blogs is another matter, of course.

Call Star reporter Abe Aamidor at (317) 444-6472.