The Old Porridge Trick

According to technology writer Tellef Øgrim, boring old consultant-farts have turned blog evangelists, advising editors to find new employment – because the “editor-infected public sphere is on its way to the crematorium” (Dagens Næringsliv July 23, not online). But wait a minute, “someone should tell those men in suits that this is old porridge”, Øgrim continues. I don’t know Øgrim’s consultants – I haven’t seen them – but I recognize his trick. Claiming that a new, popular phenomenon is old porridge, or whatever the English phrase would be, positions the writer as the detached analyst with a cool view of the mainstream. Øgrim’s point is that many of the predictions of the influence on blogs on the media have been made ever since the Web emerged. But more interestingly, he claims that essentially the same fears/hopes on behalf of the future of editors and traditional media were an important part of the debate when the Norwegian state radio monopoly was dissolved in the early 1980s (the TV monopoly held for a few more years). Øgrim’s porridge tastes just as stale, though. It’s correct that the introduction of new media technologies usually is accompanied by a lot of big words, but why shouldn’t it? Instead of stirring the new into the old porridge, why not pick what is really new? Surely the huge news that a diverse community of bloggers have produced and discussed for a few years now, is that MT, Blogger and all the others have made some of those very optimistic early Web/Internet claims possible (but not all!), and that the activities of ever more people communicating, commenting and reporting are producing fresh, new, surprising and innovative results. Daily, hourly.

Tanni Haas is on to something of the same in an article published in “Journalism Studies” (sub. req). Haas argues that “weblogs do not represent a radical departure from more established media of communication”. Blogs, says Haas:

  • Reproduce rather than challenge the discourse of mainstream news media.
  • Imitate the journalistic norms and practices of mainstream news organizations
  • Produce a system of elite blogs setting the agenda for the myriads of small fish

Haas cites several studies showing that the topics discussed in weblogs follow the “narrow range of topics featured in mainstream news media”, instead of using the newfound freedom to challenge those topics. And furthermore, “rather than juxtaposing the news reporting and commentary of an ideologically diverse range of sources, weblog writers juxtapose the accounts of a narrow range of elite mainstream news organizations”. This is seen by Haas as proof that optimistic hopes of the democratizing potential of blogging are exaggerated. But one could also turn it around: Are bloggers actually unconsciously and as a macro network effect re-creating a fragmented public sphere from “below”?

Both Haas and Øgrim are using a kind of binary structure of hype and reality surrounding blogs, but again, the most revealing analysis of blogs and the media tends to be produced by those scrutinizing the details instead of trying to paint the big picture. I think that’s because it’s too early for big pictures. The pictures are being sketched in real time, and we don’t have the luxury of that Olympic viewpoint anymore (not accidentally, that was a typical chief editor and state broadcaster monopolists’ prerogative!). Haas’ closing sentence seems to acknowledge this: “Thus, instead of uncritically assuming that so-called “new” media of communication like weblogs represent a radical departure from and challenge to more established (or “old”) communication media, whether for good or for bad, I would urge scholars to carefully attend to both continuity and change as a means of assessing the relationship between them”.