Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2004
Every four years, by journalistic if not political tradition, the presidential election must be accompanied by a “revolution.” So what transformed politics this time around? The rise of the Web log, or blog.
– “The revolution will be posted,” New York Times, Nov. 2, 2004
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
– “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka
By Owen Youngman
Gregor Samsa was transformed 67 years too soon. On the Internet, you see, no one knows if your blog is coming from a giant bug.
In the 10 years since I first published a home page on the World Wide Web, the Internet audience and author count both have grown beyond the capacity of accurate measurement. That is perhaps even more true of the authors’ estimation of their influence, as the New York Times article referenced above – a compilation of Web loggers’ view of their importance – makes clear.
I do not dispute that these blogs and their authors are serving an increasingly meaningful role in the exchange of ideas and dissemination of opinion today. I read blogs, I think about blogs, I shake my head in wonderment at the bloggers’ seeming indefatigability. But, more to the point, I shake my head in disappointment at how, in taking advantage of the Web’s freedom to post a perspective, many of them fail even to aspire to the pursuit of perspicacity.
That is, they publish because they hear “something” from “someone” who is “reliable.” Sorry, not good enough.
Tuesday, the subject was exit polls, and to many posters, each micro-tidbit seemed to be worthy of attention. Down went the stock market; up went the bloggers’ opinion of their superiority over the cautious “legacy media.” As you may have heard by now, the reports of President Bush’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
The first important lesson of Internet news publishing that I learned came on Oct. 25, 1995, the day the Tribune first published breaking news on the Web. Seven students were killed in a horrific train-bus crash in Fox River Grove, and we saw an opportunity to serve the still tiny Web-enabled audience with reliable updated news, photos and graphics, knowing that facts would be emerging throughout the day.
Dozens of Tribune reporters worked the story, and before long they began phoning quotes to the city desk. The eyewitness accounts were compelling. Several people told our reporters, and the news radio stations, that they had seen a car blocking the bus’ path, keeping it from getting out of the way of the onrushing commuter train. A push of a button would have put their words on the Internet.
We didn’t push the button. We weren’t censoring our sources or ourselves; at the end of the day (actually, in this case, in the middle of the day), we decided that just because the medium made it possible to publish dramatic eyewitness quotes in real time, those quotes didn’t meet the standard for accuracy to which we aspire in every medium at any time. And, as it turned out, those quotes were wrong: The car did not exist. Neither did the bloggers’ Kerry mandate.
Henry Clay famously said, “I would rather be right than be president.” I do not pretend to know if Tuesday’s candidates agree. I do prefer to think that Americans are better served when publishers great and small would rather be right than seem prescient. Let us hope the information industry’s next transformation is more about the public interest and less about the publicity.
Owen Youngman, a Chicago Tribune Co. vice president, was the newspaper’s first director of interactive media. He has been observing, and often participating in, online news for more than 20 years.
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