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A new site were every blog has its day

September 25, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

The first time I heard the term "blog" was in a wire-service story about how many teens were keeping personal journals that their friends could read over the Internet.

It seemed like a novelty then, a gossip session of sorts that didn't depend on having one's friends within earshot. Who else would care, I wondered, that Buffy had been chosen for the pep squad or had had her first driving lesson?

How wrong I was. The blog - short for "weblog" - has evolved to the point that the writers of such journals, known as bloggers, were actually able to influence the course of the last U.S. presidential election by sharing information that they felt wasn't readily available elsewhere.

More about that in a moment. Because the business of The Herald-Mail is to encourage the free flow of information, we are offering readers the ability to set up their own blogs for other readers to read, react to and comment on. If you visit www.hagerstownblogs.com, the rules and procedures are all explained, including how to post your own photos.

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From a purely selfish point of view, I welcome this development. Over the last 20 years I've had thousands of conversations with letter-writers who argued that their argument would be gutted if we insisted that it be trimmed to 250 or even 500 words.

With a blog, that's not an issue. If someone feels they need 5,000 words to make the case for the theory known as Intelligent Design, that's fine. Whether the blog's readers will get through it is another matter, but I'm betting bloggers learn, as journalists do, that getting to the point quickly is best.

Could bloggers really influence the course of local events? They already have had an influence on national events, as noted in the Spring 2005 issue of "The Masthead," the journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW).

NCEW devoted the entire issue to the subject. It included, among other things, a column by Scott W. Johnson, one of three authors of powerlineblog.com., who discussed how bloggers forced the mainstream media to look more closely at the claims of John Kerry's critics, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The same column also noted that it was bloggers who gathered evidence that CBS-TV's Dan Rather's evidence that George W. Bush had evaded his obligations to the Air National Guard were based on fake documents.

"We hope the event signifies that in the future the mainstream media will not be able to dictate the flow of information to the America people," Johnson wrote.

To the extent that bloggers make journalists more accountable for the accuracy of their work, I welcome them. And if bloggers alert us to an event that should be a news story in The Herald-Mail, I welcome that, too.

It is impossible for me to read every document issued by local government and the school system. If someone else is willing to do that so that the public can be informed on an important matter, I would be grateful, even if they get the first "break."

Newspapers should welcome bloggers, according to Phil Boas, deputy editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic.

Why? Because they are engaged readers, the kind every expert says newspapers need to survive. Satisfying them will be harder than it has been in the past because they are likely to be knowledgeable - and more willing to call newspapers on their mistakes.

"Journalism tomorrow, thanks to forces like the blogosphere, will grow more competitive. The best journalists will flourish. The mediocre will be exposed and washed out," Boas wrote.

But not all blogs will be be news-oriented. Someone who collects old postcards or model trains could share information about their hobby. Someone who studies the history of the Civil War could share his or her insights and renew arguments about what the different commanders did - or should have done - during the Battle of Antietam.

Will I write a blog? Probably, but it will take some adjustment because I am accustomed to an older style of writing and reporting. When I share my own thoughts or personal experiences in a column now, it's usually because someone whose comment I needed didn't call back in time and I had space to fill.

But years ago I did a column on gardening with the help of agents with the Maryland Extension Service and found I got a lot of reaction from readers. Gardening, at least that done without a paid staff, provides yields proportionate to the amount of effort you put into it.

How successful bloggers are in getting others to read their stuff will also depend on how much effort they expend. Hagerstownblogs.com can't guarantee success in that area, but it can provide an electronic version of the town square where others can read your stuff. In the coming weeks, I'll be checking out the new bloggers and offering tips on the ones I like best.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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