Towards the end of December, just after the tsunami struck, I told a journalist friend of mine that I was planning to travel through coastal Tamil Nadu to report on the aftermath of the disaster. “Ah, excellent,” he said, “Which publication you going to write for?”
“I’m not going to write for any publication,” I replied. “I’m going to blog.” He looked at me incredulously.
“Blog” was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2004, but I bristle at how they have defined the term, and how most people still think of it: as “an online personal journal”. Blogs may have began, in the late 1990s, in that manner, but they have evolved into a powerful new form of journalism, that offers journalists the scope to do things that they cannot do in other media, and that draws discerning readers for just this reason.
I experienced this when I blogged on my journey through Tamil Nadu on my blog, India Uncut. [These posts are now archived at my sub-blog, India Uncut – The Tsunami Posts.] My normal quota of 800 pageviews a day – pretty good for a month-old blog – shot up to over 13,000 a day when I began reporting from the coast, and my 10 days of reporting from there got me over 100,000 pageviews, thus demonstrating the power of word-of-mouth on the internet. And the efficacy of this new form of journalism.
Here are some of the ways in which blogs stand out from other journalistic media:
One, a blogger has flexibility of space. In a magazine or a newspaper, a journalist is constrained by length – he can’t write too much and, in instances where he might want to share a vignette or a telling observation, he can’t write too little. On a blog, that isn’t an issue.
Two, a blog can contain multitudes. Whenever I write about something or someone, I can insert hyperlinks in my text that allow the reader to go deeper into whatever it is I’m talking about. For example, an obituary of MS Subbulakshmi in print allows you to read just what one writer has written, but an obituary on a blog can link the reader to pieces that expand upon different strands of her life. It can link you to audio clips of her singing, to pictures of her online, to profiles written on her, all without breaking the narrative flow of the text. As a reader, I feel empowered by that. A print journalist can tell you about a journey, but a blogger can take you on one.
Three, a blog has immediacy. When I reported on things that I saw in Tamil Nadu, I did not have to file a despatch to some editor somewhere with a time-lag of hours before it appeared. I could post it on my blog as soon as I finished writing it, from where other bloggers linked to it, and quoted from it, around the world, well before the next news cycle began. Even television reporters do not have such freedom – and video-blogs might well be the next wave.
Four, a blogger has the option to adopt a much more personal tone than a journalist can. Most print publications have a house style which journalists have to adhere to, but on a blog, he can express himself as he wishes, which, in turn, increases the degree of familiarity that readers feel towards him.
Five, blogs are often interactive. An article in print is a journalist talking to a reader. A post on a blog, on the other hand, can be the starting point of a discussion. Discussions on sites that have comments enabled, like AnarCapLib and The Examined Life, are often intelligent, informative and enlightening, with the readers adding enormous value to what the blogger has to say. Everybody learns, and grows, in the process.
I find it odd that so many of the news stories on blogs in 2004 focussed on a “Blogs v Big Media” storyline, which makes for an interesting peg, but is misleading. I don’t think that there is a conflict between blogs and any other journalistic medium. Just as TV did not kill print, blogging is no threat to either print or TV. On the contrary, it enhances both the breadth and depth of the coverage that journalism provides and, as one-day cricket did to Test cricket, it might introduce new skills and values to the older forms of journalism. That can only be good for the reader, and that is all that matters.