Year of the blog

Media | 'Open-source journalism' changes te face of reporting and forces once-buried stories onto the national stage

It's Nov. 3, one day post-election, and talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt is ebullient with the GOP's victory. Broadcasting from a Southern California studio tucked into a mall behind an Asian noodle joint, the center-right conservative skips easily from topic to topic: the Bush victory, the Democrats' spectacular implosion, Osama bin Laden, the judicial nomination process. Simultaneously, Mr. Hewitt interviews guests, Googles, scans articles online, trades cues with his producer, chats with studio visitors, keeps one eye on CNN, and sips Diet Coke.

Through it all, he also blogs.

With 43,500 visitors per day, his blog, www.HughHewitt.com, has become for many a must-read stop in the new-media universe. An attorney, law professor, and evangelical Christian, Mr. Hewitt once worked as Richard Nixon's ghostwriter and served several posts in the Reagan administration. Now, he embodies the synergy between the key media developments of the '90s and the '00s: talk radio and blogging.

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The radio show drives listeners to the blog. The blog raises subjects and provides information that lifts the level of talk-show discourse far above the mere trading of uninformed opinions.

Blogs are revolutionizing journalism, politics, and American culture, but many people still don't know what they are. The word blog is a contraction for "web log," which was originally just a listing, or "log," of websites that an internet surfer has visited. Some of the earliest websites back in the early '90s were merely lists and links to other sites that visitors or someone interested in a particular topic might find interesting. Soon, though, bloggers began accompanying the lists with their comments-and then the comments began to take center stage.

Though the Drudge Report, started by Matt Drudge in 1994, has become one of the most popular and influential websites on the internet, it still follows the most primitive format of the early blogs, consisting largely of links to other sources. But Mr. Drudge also breaks stories of his own, and when he began doing so in the late '90s-most spectacularly by reporting President Clinton's dalliance with a White House intern-stories previously hidden or ignored by mainstream media no longer were.

Today's blogs are typically websites operated by an individual or a group with frequent postings throughout the day. Though some blogs are essentially personal notebooks or diaries open for the world to see, the more influential blogs post commentary and opinion with clickable links to information about the topic being discussed. New entries pile up on top of older entries, so visitors to the site have to scroll down to read what has been posted earlier.

But perhaps the most important feature of blogs is that they are interactive. That is, readers can post comments, responding to what the blogger says with discussion and information of their own. It was not the Powerline bloggers but a reader who first showed in September why Dan Rather's documents about President Bush's National Guard service were probably bogus. Soon, with the blogs linked together as they are, thousands of amateur detectives were on the case. Experts on typewriters and computer fonts posted their comments, exact duplicates of the memos were generated on personal computers, and soon the case for forgery was made.

The CBS executive who sniffed that a blogger in his pajamas was not to be compared to a professional news organization with its fact-checking resources was missing the point. Bloggers do not work in isolation. What the technology makes possible is the marshaling of thousands of fact-checkers. Blogs have created a whole new atmosphere of information, which has become linked together, harder to hide, and available to everyone with a computer.

Mr. Hewitt calls this "open-source journalism," in which an elite journalism establishment no longer has the monopoly on news and analysis, readers can collaborate with writers, and a free market of ideas and information can emerge.

In his new book Blog, due out in January, Mr. Hewitt traces the short but ground-shaking history of the blogosphere. He identifies four key stories that marked the clout of blogs over the mainstream media.

In 2002, Sen. James Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) marked his retirement with a 100th birthday party. Among the dignitaries and colleagues scheduled to speak was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. During his remarks, the Mississippi Republican said, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."

The South Carolina senator had run for president as a "Dixiecrat," a Democratic party wing with the platform: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, and our churches." The mainstream reporters in attendance seemed content to let the remark fade into history.


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