Will The Blogs Kill Old Media?

A year ago, Glenn Reynolds hardly qualified as plankton on the punditry food chain. The 41-year-old law professor at the University of Tennessee would pen the occasional op-ed for the L.A. Times, but his name was unfamiliar to even the most fanatical news junkie. All that began to change on Aug. 5 of last year, when Reynolds acquired the software to create a "Weblog," or "blog." A blog is an easily updated Web site that works as an online daybook, consisting of links to interesting items on the Web, spur-of-the-moment observations and real-time reports on whatever captures the blogger's attention. Reynolds's original goal was to post witty observations on news events, but after September 11, he began providing links to fascinating articles and accounts of the crisis, and soon his site, called InstaPundit, drew thousands of readers--and kept growing. He now gets more than 70,000 page views a day (he figures this means 23,000 real people). Working at his two-year-old $400 computer, he posts dozens of items and links a day, and answers hundreds of e-mails. PR flacks call him to cadge coverage. And he's living a pundit's dream by being frequently cited--not just by fellow bloggers, but by media bigfeet. He's blogged his way into the game.

Some say the game itself has changed. InstaPundit is a pivotal site in what is known as the Blogosphere, a burgeoning samizdat of self-starters who attempt to provide in the aggregate an alternate media universe. The putative advantage is that this one is run not by editors paid by corporate giants, but unbespoken outsiders--impassioned lefties and righties, fine-print-reading wonks, indignant cranks and salt-'o-the-earth eyewitnesses to the "real" life that the self-absorbed media often miss. Hard-core bloggers, with a giddy fever not heard of since the Internet bubble popped, are even predicting that the Blogosphere is on a trajectory to eclipse the death-star-like dome of Big Media. One blog avatar, Dave Winer (who probably would be saying this even if he didn't run a company that sold blogging software), has formally wagered that by 2007, more readers will get news from blogs than from The New York Times. Taking him up on the bet is Martin Nisenholtz, head of the Times's digital operations.

My guess is that Nisenholtz wins. Blogs are a terrific addition to the media universe. But they pose no threat to the established order.

Consider recent high-tech history. When the Web first emerged, we heard similar predictions that Big Media were sitting ducks for upstart competitors with cool Web sites. Didn't happen. The Web made it easier to publish, but couldn't drive readers to your door. The majority of news-surfers visit only the top few sites.

Granted, Weblogs are so easy to use that even a journalist can run a site--40,000 bloggers are up and running. But once you've created your blog and filled it with links to news accounts of the Pim Fortuyn assassination, snarky criticisms of Bill O'Reilly and witty rants about airport security, how do you get visitors? Judging from the top blogs, the answer seems to be working hard, filling a niche, winning a reputation for accuracy, developing sources and writing felicitously. This sounds a lot like the formula to succeed as a journalist inside the Big Media leviathan. With the difference that traditional journalists uh, get paid.

What makes blogs attractive--their immediacy, their personality and, these days, their hipness--just about ensures that Old Media, instead of being toppled by them, will successfully co-opt them. You might argue that it's happened already. Some of the most popular blogs are those created not by disaffected outlaws, but by slumming professionals who apparently think that writing for big-time journals and bloviating on 24-hour cable is insufficient exposure for their views. So you have the likes of New York Times Magazine contributor Andrew Sullivan blogging on the church, sexuality and his recent adoption of a beagle. Sometimes a journalist's blog is not independent, but part of his or her employer's Web site--call it a job blog. I love tech writer Dan Gillmor's site, but would his boss, Knight Ridder, host it if the company really believed that blogs were stilettos in the ribs of Old Media?

Already we're seeing some of the more popular practitioners sell out entirely to the Big Guys. Last week pioneer journo-blogger Mickey Kaus rocked the Blogosphere by announcing that Microsoft-owned Slate had snapped up his one-man shop Kausfiles lock, stock and software. My old NEWSWEEK colleague Kaus had hinted as much to me a few days before the announcement but wouldn't give the details. "Sorry," he told me, "but I promised the exclusive to InstaPundit." And why not? InstaPundit's Reynolds is an insider now.