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by Jason Overman
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Sunday, November 02, 2003
As my Blogging career winds down I've been thinking about what it means in a larger context, and what I've gotten out of it. So I wrote an essay on the possibilities.
The Blogger as Journalist
The Blog Community grew quickly into prominence immediately after September 11th, and soon became a free-wheeling world of commentary and opinion. Its respectable enough that opinion-leaders and columnists have both started blogs and found them to be useful, and its intelligent enough that bloggers have been quoted in major newspapers. I was recently quoted in the LA Times for opinion on the recent Berkeley Admissions story. Unfortunately, opinion is where it the Blogosphere has stayed, in a symbiotic but ultimately dependent relationship with professional journalists. And this has been, I think, a hindrance to blogging. Blogging acts as a supplement at best-- pointing out errors, adding context, but always secondary to the CNN story being linked to.
Very few bloggers have made the crucial leap into being journalists in their own right. And yet whenever this approach has been tried, it has been enormously successful. The most obvious model is when journalists start a blog of their own. The Sacramento Bee's Daniel Weintraub was a force in the Recall campaign. Daniel Marshall is traveling to New Hampshire on reader donations. Another model has been first-hand accounts-- Where's Raed, or one of many technology-oriented blogs that post personal experiences. More ordinary political blogs dip into first-hand accounts as well, and these usually end up being more interesting then another dose of somewhat predictable commentary. Another close and important example are the guerilla journalists of the Indymedias.
But I can think of very few examples of bloggers-- ordinary, non-journalist bloggers-- breaking stories and posting original material. So I have been trying this on my own Blog, Calstuff. (calstuff.blogspot.com). Originally nothing more then a running commentary on the local newspaper, the Daily Cal, I've gotten the most satisfaction and hits from coming up with original stories. In a two year stint as a Blogger, I've counted 33 original stories, most small but a surprising number fairly large. And it's also possible that if what I've been trying is evaluated and improved upon, the next stage of Blogging as a step beyond traditional journalism is both practical and desirable.
I'm a Senior at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in Economics and intended Law Student. In my career here I spent two years working in the local student government, the ASUC. I also spent two years writing for the Berkeley Political Review, am the Creative Editor for the Heuristic Squelch, the humor magazine, and two semesters as a Columnist for the Daily Californian. I won four or five awards for that last one. I started blogging at Calstuff in January of 2002.
The most important story ever broken here was actually broken by an associate, Mike Mcfarlane. He was the first to post that Mayoral Candidate Tom Bates was caught trashing Daily Californians after they endorsed his opponent. The story later made the SF Chronicle and Oakland Tribune. The second most important story was the theft of an entire print run of the California Patriot, the Conservative paper, after they wrote a cover story critical of a local Latino group. This later made Conservative publications around the Country.
Yet while these were fun, the essence of successful news blogging has been local stories. Bluntly, it is not possible for a blogger to cover regional or national stories on a regular basis. Bloggers who try to cover these areas will always have ties to a powerful journalism organization or have important contacts in these areas. But on a local basis a blogger can have an impact. With some friends in high places and a camera, I can cover an internal rebellion at the Daily Cal. I can find out about swastikas scrawled in a campus building, or that the ASUC President was arrested for brawling with police.
Here's a complete list of stories Calstuff has broken:
Theft of California Patriots (2.26.02)
University Frat Party Suspension (4.22.02)
Further delayal of Elections results (4.29.02)
Firing of 3 Resident Assistants for party in dorms. (9.19.02)
Makeup of Student Conduct Committee on Hernandez hearings (9.29.02)
Internal Daily Cal Rebellion (10.30.02)
BCR President forced to resign (11.02.02)
Berkeley Mayoral Candidate caught trashing papers (11.04.02)
Office of Student Life investigates Rally Committee Axe Parade (12.05.02)
Stabbing at Top Dog (2.19.03)
Internal struggle in the Student Advocate Office (2.20.03)
Wheeler occupied by Protestors (3.5.03)
Eric Schewe elected new Daily Cal EIC (4.12.03)
ASUC Elections thrown into turmoil by incorrect voting (4.14.03)
Code violations by the Berkeley Jewish Journal (4.17.03)
Student Advocate Candidate disqualified from running (5.4.03)
Daily Cal suffers thefts after story on football player's arrest. (5.7.03)
Regents vote to increase student fees (7.17.03)
Lawsuit filed against Regents over fee increases (7.24.03)
Injunction against student fee increases fails in court (8.13.03)
Cal student fails to get enough signatures for Gubernatorial run (8.14.03)
Student sent to hospital by gang violence on Frat Row (8.21.03)
Student Advocate Office collaborating in absence of actual Student Advocate (8.21.03)
Had the only existing copy of the ASUC Budget for 4 months (8.28.03)
OSL Greek Advisor to resign (9.5.03)
BCR / OSL arguments over reserving Sproul steps for 9.11 memorial (9.9.03)
Swastikas scrawled in Leconte Hall (9.9.03)
GSIs to strike (10.01.03)
ACLU filing lawsuit against BCR for propaganda restrictions (10.10.03)
ASUC President arrested for fighting with police (10.19.03)
Administration interviewing students with low SATs (10.20.03)
Daily Cal to stay in Eshleman Hall (10.27.03)
DAFKA being kicked out of Hillel (10.29.03)
Many of these are small, or being concurrently covered by the Daily Californian; it's no remarkable thing to show up at a protest with a camera and have it online thirty minutes later. Nor does this lead to a large readership: I have approximately 300 readers, although that number includes the Daily Cal's Editors and the Dean of Students. But there's the thrill from being the first with the news, and from not so rarely influencing what larger papers cover. There's also the thrill that comes from being close to the ground, from watching a large University grow and change, and having a basic understanding how everything works.
News Blogging pays off career-wise, too. I got a job as a Columnist largely because the Daily Cal knew about my blogging work. I went on to spend a year as a Columnist, while never giving up Calstuff. And when a student wanted someone to break a story recently, they came to me.
There's even the small possibility of shaping the media's perception of Berkeley nationwide. When the LA Times came to Berkeley they interviewed me for the 'student reaction' to their story about the admission of applicants with low SAT scores. Any student could tell them that no one here really cared-- and that their image of Berkeley as a hotbed of Admissions activism is six years out of date. And I could tell them that.
More effectively, and the Cal Patriot does this frequently, any student with a website can gain instant access to the nationwide media with the right story. The Cal Patriot, a Conservative magazine, got their start by leveraging the nationwide Conservative media's interest in portraying Berkeley as a hotbed of intolerance. A perfect example came when the local Student Senate fought against having red, white and blue ribbons at a memorial for September 11th. The Patriot ran the story on their website, where it was picked up by Fox News and the Drudge Report. An embarrassed Administration stepped in, and patriotic ribbons were everywhere.
The tools for this are mostly psychological. Most importantly, they require at least a measure of neutrality -- or barring that, a dedication to certain neutral ideals. No one will give me hints if they think I'll twist them for my own gain-- or leak their name out of spite. Not to imply that I'm very good at neutrality, as I'm not, but it's something that is required to be more then a mouthpiece for one ideology. Also helpful are a good digital camera and an absolute willingness to make corrections if warranted. If you post rumor on occasion, it's good to indicate it as such and work to confirm it.
In any case, the idea here is that Calstuff is a rough prototype for a more polished and effective form of local news blogging. The goal would be a step forward into a rough network of local bloggers, adding news coverage to more traditional blogging activities. Perhaps forging relationships with the local news as a source near to the ground, with an excellent sense of what's going on. Putting up more first-hand accounts of events. If blogging is to move beyond its subsidiary relationship with journalism, this is the logical next step.