What's The Appeal Behind Blogs? And What Should It Be?

I was reading Jimmy's column last week and wanted to respond to it, but couldn't find the time until now. Even though Jim and I work together, we often have very different ideas about the online media landscape. I think this is one of those times.

There were a few sentences in Jim's latest column that made me think for a second and ask myself some important questions...

Advertisers will be able to gain authenticity by being in a "raw" environment, picking up the warm glow of "coolness" from the halo cast by the blog itself.

I asked myself about whether or not this is a durable and sustainable justification for wanting to advertise on blogs. And the truth is it simply can't be.

Blogs aren't going to be cutting edge forever. New things will come along and take the spotlight away from blogs. Besides, almost every advertiser that's tried to take advantage of the halo effect from something new and cool in interactive media has failed miserably, mostly by engaging in a ham-handed approach that has no respect or recognition for the things that made the new medium cool in the first place.

Which begs the question: What's are blogs doing that make them cutting edge and cool?

I have two major reasons why I'm pulling for blogs and why I think they'll be a great editorial environment for advertisers. Neither of them have to do with blogs' current status as "the next big thing."

First, I think blogs are part of a social movement. All social movements are driven by an unaddressed need, and in this case I think the need is for trusted, alternative sources for news and opinion. And I think that's partly due to the mainstream media consistently getting things wrong over the past few years.

It's no coincidence that some of the most popular blogs out there are either alternative news sources or political opinionmakers (or both). American citizens have a huge need in that regard. There's a big problem with traditional news and opinion sources right now. They're consistently getting the facts wrong.

Whether it's UPI claiming "official sources" found nukes in Iraq, the cable news channels calling states in the presidential election before a definitive winner emerges, or underreporting of major news stories like the UN Oil For Food scandal, Americans are coming to realize that traditional news outlets aren't as reliable as they used to be. On the opinion side, we're talking about biases and hidden agendas more now than we ever did before. Transparency is totally missing, and the American people are wondering who they can trust to get it right.

The credibility problem starts with a trend that has been transforming media for years now - the fragmentation of audiences. I was in college when the first Gulf War broke out. As my fraternity brothers and I sat glued to the TV and saw everything go down on CNN, I got the sense that I was sharing that moment with millions of other Americans who were longing to understand what was going on. The truth is that media simply isn't like this anymore. Those shared moments are few and far between. People have more choices open to them than they ever did before, even in the realm of cable news. As people scatter across channels, ratings drop, newspaper circulations start to die off and traditional outlets have to tell advertisers that they can't reach people in the numbers they once did.

This attrition makes the news media focus their attention on using their editorial product to keep their audience from migrating away. It puts added pressure on to be first with a story, rather than placing emphasis on getting things right. The result is a series of gaffes and avoidable mistakes that erodes confidence in what's being reported. Also, like other media outlets, the eroded advertising base makes it necessary for mainstream media outlets to do more with less - when audience numbers are down (and, hence, ad revenues are down), they have to do more with less. You can see how this causes more mistakes and inaccuracies.

Blogs are coming along to fill this void. Relatively speaking, they cost less to produce and require the expenditure of fewer resources. When you can't trust the mainstream media, maybe you can trust someone who spends their time gathering news and opinion from multiple channels, analyzing it and putting it out there quickly for consumption. Maybe you can trust somebody who's more like you than like Paula Zahn or Soledad O'Brien - someone who's not a beltway insider or member of the media elite.

I think blogs are filling a void for a lot of people, mostly the void of reliable information, whether that information comes in the form of news or opinion. As I've talked about here and in my column several times, blogging software enables the citizen-publisher. So now in an era of unreliable information, we're seeing the electronic rise of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the "Marketplace of Ideas" where the blogging community determines which ideas and facts stand up to the test of widespread scrutiny. And I love it - It's exactly what we need in a democratic society and I'm excited to see where it goes.

This is the first reason why I'm rooting for blogs. They're delivering what traditional media outlets can't. And the result is a trusting relationship between a blog and its readers. Where can you find a better ad environment for a client than someplace where there's a healthy, trusting relationship between publisher and audience?

The second big reason why I'm pulling for blogs is that blogs deliver on one of the original promise of community on the web. Most bloggers have a decidedly two-way relationship with readers. Ideas are formulated and published, readers submit comments or trackbacks, and the idea takes on a life of its own as it travels through the Marketplace of Ideas I described earlier. It keeps bloggers honest while it facilitates the sharing, cross-pollenation and crystallization of ideas. It's this facilitation of meaningful communication that's eroding the broadcast model and bringing about the democratization of news and opinion agendas that I find appealing. It's one of the reasons I got out of traditional advertising and dove into interactive media.

What we used to call "community sites" - Geocities, Tripod, Fortune City, Angelfire, etc. - were never truly community sites. They operated on the broadcast model and never engaged audiences for any significant length of time. There was very little interaction, and certainly very little sharing of ideas across sites. Blogs, on the other hand, are sharing ideas and adding weight to them, to the point that they influence major news media like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

This is where I think Jimmy got it wrong. I'm not sure he's fully aware of the need that blogs are fulfilling, and I don't think he's seeing how they function in the grand scheme of things. This isn't just another personal website fad. It's got legs because it's got a purpose.

One of the things I'm finding very interesting is the interaction between blogs and the established news media. Back at the IPDI conference in DC earlier this year, I was talking to Stirling Newberry about some of the information he had on how ideas bubbled up through the blogosphere and eventually attracted the attention of the mainstream media. I don't claim to have understood it all, but it did make me think about how influential this sector of interactive media can be. Since then, I've taken note of several stories and ideas that have developed in blog communities and have been picked up by reporters at major newspapers. If bloggers weren't fulfilling that Marketplace of Ideas need, we wouldn't see things like that.

So I think Jimmy needs to take a harder look at blogs and the purpose they serve. Maybe he'll change his mind about blogs as an advertising environment. Right now, he's about halfway through a three-week vacation he's spending in Peru. When he gets back and he has a clear head, maybe I'll offer to set him up with a website with Movable Type installed. Jimmy's like me in that he loves to write. I think he'd actually dig it and it would give him another outlet to write about the stuff that matters to him. We'll see...