He might be the subject of the first high-profile political story in the UK to be driven by bloggers but John Prescott is pleading ignorance. In an interview last week the Deputy Prime Minister said: “I think it’s called the internet or blogs or something. I’ve only just got used to letters. I haven’t got into all this new technology.”
In fact Prescott had his very own “Battlebus” blog during the last election. Unfortunately for politicians like him, many others also have blogs and they are raising questions not just for the likes of Prescott but also for traditional media companies.
The latest blogger to gain widespread attention is Guido Fawkes, the nom de plume of Paul Staines. His revelations and allegations about the extra-curricular activities of Prescott has led the news agenda for much of the past week.
In recent years, a steady stream of bloggers have briefly come to prominence before slipping quietly back into the background. The more notable include Matt Drudge, author of the Drudge Report, which has broken a string of exclusives starting with the affair of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. In the UK, Salam Pax, also known as the Baghdad Blogger, rose to fame during the last Iraq war.
Such writers represent both a threat and an opportunity to the mainstream press, and the reaction from the traditional media companies has reflected this.
On the one hand, bloggers are criticised for running unsubstantiated rumours, on the other, the press and broadcast media has flattered the bloggers by picking up their stories and has even aped them by starting their own blogs.
“The FT’s blogs have the same standard as our print and online content,” says a spokeswoman for the Financial Times. “That’s not true of all the blogs out there.”
A challenge to traditional media
This attitude has caused some resentment within the blogging community. “Bloggers lack the perceived credibility of a newspaper,” says Tim Ireland, an online marketing consultant and political blogger. “I’ve seen a lot of factual reports dismissed as blog noise.”
Essentially a blog is nothing more than a regularly updated Web page filled with opinions. According to statistics from research firm BMRB, over 1 million people in the UK have published a blog and 7.3 million have looked at one – about a quarter of the internet population. Very few sites get more than a thousand views a day, although Staines claims his Guido Fawkes blog gets more than 100,000 unique visitors a month.
“The days of media conglomerates making the news in a top-down Fordist fashion are over,” he wrote in a recent blog entry. “Boutique news sources will proliferate. The news is no longer what Paxman says it is. The news is whatever is disseminated to a wide audience.”
Developing the channel
Of the mainstream media, The Guardian has shown most commitment to the online channel and has a blog site, Comment is Free, for its journalists. Other newspapers are following its lead. The Telegraph hosts blogs from 20 of its columnists, ranging across the arts, fashion and the thoughts of its foreign correspondents.
The FT has just one regular blogger – UK companies editor Charles Pretzlik, but it runs others around major events and news stories, such as the annual World Economic Forum conference in Davos. “FT.com is becoming increasingly important to us,” says the paper’s spokeswoman. “Blogs are becoming part of the norm.”
The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times have also been moving their mainstream news online, promising to publish stories first on the Web. But while the internet might be a good medium for breaking news and reacting to events, it is not so good for longer, more thoughtful pieces.
Despite insisting they are converts to online media, the attachment of many media organisations to traditional print journalism lives on. The Guardian may have an online audience of over 12 million, but its latest effort to expand its reach came in the form of a monthly print magazine, which will be distributed in Europe, North America and Australia (MW last week).