Monday, March 29, 2004

An Excellent Example Of How The Blogosphere Works

Last week, I posted this bit on the synchronicity of two articles on "passion parties" appearing in two disparate alt-weeklies at the same time. Since I don't trust Blogger permalinks, and the post was short, here you are:
This week's Memphis Flyer cover story, about sex in the South, plays up "passion parties," the Tupperware and Mary Kay of the 21st century. While doing reading on another story below, I noticed that another alt-weekly, this one in Spokane, Washington, had a "passion parties" cover story as well! What a coincidence, huh? This is much more common than you think. If one newspaper gets an idea that plays out really well, it will always get picked up by other papers equally eager to retain or build circulation. I'm not gonna search for links, but there are national organisations for different kinds of newspapers and they all have sections which highlight just these kinds of successful story ideas.

It's also the basis for the blogosphere. When someone makes a great post, or uncovers something really interesting, then other bloggers instantly pick it up. Soon, it's all over the place. It becomes a "meme" in blogosphere terminology.

Just ask Instapundit's many readers.
Thanks to getting into the Commercial Appeal's Friday CA Eye column, I got a comment visit from the Flyer's own Editor, Bruce VanWyngarden:

Well, actually, yes. Our stories came out the same week but they were totally different in focus, tone, length, etc. I've never even seen the Spokane paper, nor am I aware of a website where alties "share" story ideas. Not to say, it doesn't happen that one paper borrows an idea from another. But it didn't happen in this case. Promise.
Let me first of all apologise for seeming to imply that there was a direct connection between the two. Sloppy writing on my part. I wear all the hats on this site, do it in my spare time, and crank it out, so I sometimes know what I mean but don't write what I mean.

The thought was that alt-weeklies, and also dailies, aren't like islands in the sea. They aren't cut off from what other papers like them do, going it alone and having to reinvent the wheel on a weekly basis. Sometimes they are part of a chain, and so the corporate structure makes it very easy for one paper to learn what others are doing, and to borrow story ideas; or to have the corporate folks "suggest" things to them. I believe the Nashville Scene is part of a small chain.

Almost all alt-weeklies belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a trade organisation. One quick tour around the website will show that they do indeed provide a lot of examples of what other alt-weeklies are doing. You can also go here and here to see all the other professional, trade, advocacy, regional and industry websites out there. The media industry is a rich environment full of information and networking. Some transfer is inevitable.

Now I most certainly take Mr. VanWyngarden at his word that they don't visit sites to discuss things like kids in a chat room, trading story ideas like Magic the Gathering cards. But neither are they disconnected from what their peers do. Is his own paper the only one you'll find if you stop by their offices? I suspect not. Do the Flyer's staff seek to stay informed and up-to-date? I'd bet so.

For example, I Googled "passion parties" to see what I'd find. Of course, I got hundreds of hits for people who put them on. Ick! But wading through page after page of results, I found almost a dozen stories in the past month or so at various alt-weeklies on passion parties! Some had their genesis in a Texas court case, but most were simply talking about the phenomenon.

In fact, neighboring alt-weekly, the Nashville Scene, had two stories (here from January and here from two weeks ago) on passion parties!

So, if I implied that Mr. VanWyngarden pulled the cigar from his mouth, stabbed a finger at some other alt-weekly he subscribed to and growled to a shivering intern, "Get me one of those stories. With pictures. Of dildoes." then I'm sorry. As he states, that wasn't true. But I was saying that papers are a business like any other and they do indeed pay attention to what works and what doesn't within the business and among competitors and peers. Sometimes it's explicit; sometimes it's a convergence of incident and similar philosophies and similar story needs.

But more importantly from my point of view, this is a shining example of how the blogosphere works successfully to correct mistakes. Mr. VanWyngarden caught my error and was provided the forum to explain it, right next to the post. I was forced to either correct the mistake, ignore him and lose credibility, or explain myself better. It was right there, right in public, easily readable by anyone reading the post. That's very different from newspapers, where such a process is conducted invisibly and the paper controls who knows what. Blogging is, as Bill Hobbs calls it, "collaborative, peer-reviewed journalism." It's the shining beauty of blogging and what makes it so powerful.

Take as an example, the Richard Clarke story of the past week. If all you read and watch are the big-media outlets, then you are behind the curve. In the part of the blogosphere concerned with reviewing and fact-checking those outlets, Clarke's story has already been examined, picked apart, studied and deconstructed very thoroughly. Clarked has already been exposed there as almost completely lacking in credibility and consistency. The big newspapers and the major networks haven't yet gotten to the kind of analysis that the bloggers did within days. They're still lumbering around the story and only now catching up to the kind of in-depth analysis already provided by blogging. Bloggers are simply farther ahead and further into the story.

Bloggers do the same thing to each other. If someone at one blog posts, others who read it will examine that post and respond on their own blogs. Others take up the posts and spread them, adding their own insight and analysis as it goes. Previous bloggers read the new stuff and recomment. Soon, dozens or hundreds of bloggers have chewed over the original story, working out the errors of fact and analysis and bias. It is revolutionising how people get their news and how they process it.

So, to go back to the origin. I'm sorry to Mr. VanWyngarden for creating a false picture because I got in a hurry and got sloppy. I hope my further comments have cleared the picture. And I'm glad he responded and gave me the chance. Once again, you the reader also have the chance to offer your own thoughts, insights, analysis, facts and arguments to my post via the comments.

Advantage: blogosphere!

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