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What’s all the blog about?

- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

You know blogging has gone mainstream when air-conditioning contractors are doing it.

Blogs -- short for Web logs -- are online journals that, until recently, have been the domain primarily of amateur political pundits, conspiracy theorists and pseudo-experts on any number of topics.

But log onto the Web site of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America and you are directed to "ACCA Buzz," a blog that invites the trade group's members to weigh in on topics such as air-filter sales, new refrigeration technologies and whether the Minnesota Twins manipulate their stadium's ventilation system to prevent home runs by visiting teams.

"Our members may not be your typical bloggers, but this works for us," said Kevin W. Holland, the trade group's vice president of communications and membership.

The group is one of several businesses and organizations that are bypassing newspapers, magazines, billboards and other traditional media to take their message directly to consumers through blogs.

The Democratic National Committee boosted the prominence of blogging when it issued press credentials to more than three dozen bloggers -- primarily politically oriented writers -- at its convention in Boston last month.

The Republican Party has invited 10 to 20 bloggers to cover its quadrennial meeting, which convenes in New York in two weeks.

Until recently, the journalistic and political "blogosphere" comprised amateurs, although more established reporters, such as MSNBC host Chris Matthews, have jumped on the blogging bandwagon, as have the traditional news media companies.

Some news media analysts say blogging is a significant shift in the way people get their news and learn about new consumer products and services.

Others are more cautious.

"The traditional form of journalism is not going to be replaced by blogs. It is just a different form of communication, and we have to learn to recognize that difference," said Howard I. Finberg, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a St. Petersburg, Fla., journalism school.

Old as the Internet

No one knows how many blogs are online today. One estimate places the number at 1 million, although Mr. Finberg and others suggest that could be a conservative guess.

For all the talk about blogs in the press today, they are not new.

Some Internet historians cite the first Web site -- created in the early 1990s by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee -- as an example of a blog because it contained links to other sites and was updated regularly.

Matt Drudge's gossip site, introduced in the mid-1990s, is another example of an early blog. It set the tone for many politically oriented blogs by mixing opinion and commentary with links to stories published on newspaper and TV news Web sites.

Today, popular bloggers include Ana Marie Cox, an Arlington writer whose Wonkette.com blog skewers inside-the-Beltway politics, and journalist Andrew Sullivan, who dishes up commentary on the news of the day.

In addition to Mr. Matthews of MSNBC, other journalists from mainstream news organizations have joined renegades such as Ms. Cox and Mr. Sullivan in the blogosphere.

The Democratic convention included self-published bloggers such as Ms. Cox, as well as reporters from established news organizations, including ABC News, CNN, Minnesota Public Radio, the Miami Herald, the Associated Press, The Washington Post and The Washington Times.

Consumers are unlikely to abandon established newspapers, magazines and TV news programs for bloggers as long as the mainstream press delivers "quality journalism," according to Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., group that tracks technology trends.

"People want quality journalism, and that tends to exist in traditional institutions. That isn't to say bloggers don't do quality journalism, because some of them do," she said.

Bloggers have given traditional journalists a run for their money.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, made comments that some people deemed racist in late 2002, but the remarks received little attention in the mainstream press until bloggers began writing about it. Mr. Lott eventually resigned his leadership post in the Senate.

In May, Ms. Cox linked to an online diary kept by Jessica Cutler, a Capitol Hill staffer who -- under the name "Washingtonienne" -- said she had had affairs with several lawmakers, whom she did not name.

Miss Cutler soon became a darling of gossip pages in the D.C. area and New York and generated further publicity for Ms. Cox's Wonkette blog.

An appetizer, not a meal

Research on the number of people who read blogs is scarce, although the people who read them are probably those who treat them as a supplemental part of a news media diet.

One of the Web's most popular bloggers, Markos Moulitsas, author of the 2-year-old DailyKos.com, said he received about 150,000 visitors a day before the convention. That figure climbed to 200,000 during his week in Boston, and has even increased a little since, he said.

By comparison, CNN.com reports receiving about 23 million visitors during an average month, or roughly 800,000 daily visitors.

None of the bloggers who covered the Democratic convention broke any hard news, but neither did the seasoned reporters from the traditional press, who complained that the conventions have become too scripted and stage-managed.

Some of the amateur bloggers seemed to be awed by the notion that they were the first of their kind at a major convention.

Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, published an interview with Rod O'Connor, the convention's chief executive, on his blog. The conversation included Mr. Rosen's opinions on Mr. O'Connor's answers.

Some bloggers resisted the rules that govern traditional press.

The Associated Press reported that MyDD.com posted an advance text of Al Gore's speech, breaking the tradition of keeping an embargo on convention speeches until they are delivered.

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Blogging Inc.

Corporate America also has gotten in on the blogging act.

Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have given their employees permission to start blogs. The employees are generally given free rein to discuss their business, as long as they don't give away trade secrets.

Technology companies, specifically, like blogging because they think it appeals to customers who have grown weary of traditional marketing methods. Also, because many blogs are updated several times a day, customers keep coming back to check for new information.

Some companies have started corporate-run blogs.

Nike Inc. recently hired Gawker Media, a publisher of several popular blogs, to create a blog for its new "Art of Speed" advertising campaign.

The blog will promote a Nike-sponsored series of short films and will be similar to the film series BMW introduced in 2001.

With blogging, companies no longer have to rely on the press alone to publicize new products and services, Ms. Li said.

"If the press release is the only way to communicate with your customers, you're probably in trouble," she said.

Do's and don'ts

Many businesses are reluctant to blog because they fear its reputation for drawing renegades and hipsters, according to Debbie Weil, a consultant in the District who helps companies market their products and services online and identify commercial applications for blogging.

"A lot of them think, 'This is supposed to be cool. Gosh, I'm not cool.' Well, it doesn't have to be cool," she said, citing the ACCA blog as an example.

"All you need to do is be useful, and useful can be as simple as linking to another Web site. You don't have to write an opus," Ms. Weil said.

Her blog -- Debbieweil.com -- includes links to articles on blogging, as well as personal asides.

For example, Ms. Weil posted five messages Aug. 5 -- four involving blogging and one that paid tribute to French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died the day before.

Employers should be careful when turning their employees loose in cyberspace.

"Blogging is just ripe for trouble," said Rose Kenyon, a Raleigh, N.C., lawyer who specializes in employment matters.

Before a business gives workers permission to blog in the workplace, management should lay out clear guidelines and expectations, Ms. Kenyon said.

For example, Microsoft discourages its employee bloggers from talking about upcoming products before they are introduced, but it allows them to criticize company management.

A Canadian law firm fired an employee in 2002 after he criticized his bosses on his blog.

"You probably don't want to make fun of someone in your workplace, or in essence harass them. There are all sorts of ways it can be misused," Ms. Kenyon said.

Blogging professionals

Topher Matthews, a lawyer in the District, said he began blogging about a year ago, primarily because he wanted to see whether he could handle the technology.

Now, he's hooked.

Mr. Matthews logs onto his site, timesnewroman.org, every day, weighing in on matters such as his career as an amateur musician and his work.

He does not blog from his office and said he is careful not to divulge any sensitive personal or professional information in his blog.

"It's been like an online diary. Obviously you filter. You're not going to put everything out there," Mr. Matthews said.

Phil Smith, a Bethesda space analyst, uses his blog to discuss his career, as well as his future political aspirations. Mr. Smith plans to seek office one day -- he hasn't decided which office or where -- and is using the blog to spell out his platform.

One section lists his positions on everything from "abortion rights" to "veterans."

Mr. Smith introduced his blog in March, after studying a "Web Sites for Dummies" book that was given to him as a gift. "I just couldn't resist the temptation to share my thoughts," he said.

The Fairfax resident said he did not get his boss's permission before blogging, but he doubts his employer, Futron Corp., has any problem with it.

"I'm an American. I did the blog without really thinking about it," he said.