The Big O on Blogs

Jeff Alworth

Since its new redesign--which seems in part a response to the popularity of blogs--the Oregonian has run commentary about blogs by Regina Lawrence, a PSU professor of political science.  In today's issue, Lawrence discusses the function and use of blogs--and she completely misses the boat.  She argues that blogs are now dominated by a few main sites (she identifies Drudge and the Free Republic, neither of which are blogs) which dominate all discourse.  These dominant blogs are guilty of the same crime they accuse the mainstream media of committing--focusing too narrowly on a few stories--which further skews reality.  Finally, blogs, acting in reaction to the "failures" they identify in the MSM, are hopelessly partisan.

Lawrence, as a political scientist, may be measuring the effect of blogs on the political process.  Based on the success of the liberal blogs, candidates like Howard Dean and Paul Hackett have managed to mount surprising dark-horse campaigns, buoyed by support and dollars from a previously-disconnected base.  In this regard, her analysis of the effect of blogs may be accurate.  But as an analysis of blogs as emergent media, she misses the actual function of the blogosphere and patterns of consumption.  Worse, by addressing content at the expense of delivery, she misses blogs' most potent function.

Let's take function first.  Blogs don't exist, like mainstream outlets, as stand-alone media.  Blogs would surely wither and die if they didn't exist as a neural net.  Because bloggers don't have vast newsrooms, they depend on other bloggers to cover the entire newscape.  To argue that they all cover the same thing is willful blindness: Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East, almost never expresses an opinion on domestic political races, but is the blogosphere's go-to guy on Iraq.  Look at the top fifty leftist blogs, and you'll find just the opposite of what Lawrence describes: a sorting out of the best bloggers by subject area.  Kos, which she eventually does cite, is the go-to guy for political strategies, while Josh Marshall is the inside man on Washington scuttlebutt, and Brad DeLong and Max Sawicky (professors Ph.D.s both) cover economics. Other blogs cover the environment, law, labor, and media.

In terms of consumption, I'm wary of her reading of the numbers.  Blog readers do tend to select a few central players (she identifies aggregate stats to support this).  But then readers also add a few other sites that have more focused content or smaller readership.  BlueOregon is a perfect example (as was, alas, the now-defunct Communique).  No one that I know of has done an in-depth survey of blog readership, but the existence and traffic of blogs like this one demonstrate that while the bigs pull in the lion's share of readers, other blogs can find their own robust readership.

But the biggest mistake Lawrence makes is confusing blogs as just another content-delivery medium.  This is a mistake the MSM has made from the start, and they do it at their peril.  The reality is that blogs are the first organic, interactive medium.  They are focal points for ongoing conversations.  When I booted up BlueOregon this morning, I saw that Jack Roberts had joined the discussion on a post about an interview he'd done on another blog.  This kind of conversation has never existed before--and can't, within the confines of a daily print newspaper or TV broadcast. 

While the MSM is busy panicking about the fragmentation of media, bloggers are seizing on it.  Not everyone can join in a conversation about whether Jack Roberts should run for the Supreme Court--but as newspapers know, very few would even want to.  The O has recently shifted its local content away from politics precisely because there aren't enough readers interested in it.  The O has a daily circulation of 350,000 readers.  BlueOregon's is less than 1% of that figure--though at 2,000 hits, it's one of the "bigger" blogs.  We capitalize on the interest of the readers that the Oregonian can no longer well serve--exactly the reverse of the trend Lawrence sees. 

Blogs are a poor substitute for newspapers.  Few of them are hosted by professional journalists, and most of them depend on newspaper reportage to craft their posts.  (This post is an example.)  But blogs aren't trying to deliver the news.  They're trying to make sense of the news.  Had Lawrence pondered their efficacy on that score, she might have come away with a different conclusion.  I'd love to see the O continue to look at the effect blogs are having--but they must be critiques based on someone who actually understands the medium.

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    To be fair, however, Lawrence does get one thing exactly right, at the end:

    And that's the final similarity between blogs and the MSM: No matter which you use, it's best to read more than one.

    One of the bits that I'm astounded is continually missed is that what blogs are doing, in part (their sort of meta message, if you will) is that no matter what media you're using, no single item is The Story.

    It's the single most critical point of literacy when it comes to blogs: No individual item is The Story, but rather just the latest discrete portion of an Ongoing Story. And what the fact about blogs reveals -- ir should, if anyone's paying attention -- is that the same is true for any single item you see on television, hear on the radio, or read in the newspaper.

    Blogs explode the myth that any news item is The Story.

    Parenthetically, the aper's front-page story on literacy in Portland-area schools secifically mentions the existence of blogs as one of the factors creating more complex literacy needs in current society.

    As an addendum, I share the frustration that Drudge keeps getting called a blogger. The word "blog" is not a synonym for "writing online." It's more properly construed in the same fashion one woudl construe "newspaper" -- think of it is, not all "writing on paper" can be called a "newspaper."

    Blogging is a formal construct. Drudge doesn't follow that construct.

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    Speaking of literacy, where the Hell was my copy editor on that comment?

  • Caelan MacTavish (unverified)

    Blogs are effective precisely because they are narrow-minded. Unlike traditional newsrooms, 24 hour news networks, and big media outlets, an individual blog can dedicate itself to an individual issue.

    This enables a blog to become a focal point for a discussion on one issue. There are blogs devoted to abortion, to Harriet Miers, to foreign wars, to state politics.

    By coming to to Blue Oregon, none of us have to wade through a media conglomerate's accumulation of news in order to find out what is happening in Oregon. Its all right here.

  • theanalyst (unverified)

    I have a big concern over the use of blogs and personal web sites to spread propanganda and misinformation, especially the right-wing variety.

    A classic example of this is the Schiavo case. As far as I can tell, the great right-wing outrage over this case was largely fueled by blogs. There was an incredible amount of misinformation surrounding this case, to the point that you had to do some work to find out the actual facts. Some of the misinformation even made it to the floor of the House of Representatives during the Schiavo debate.

    The story went like this: Michael Schiavo was an abusive husband whose wife was found unconscious on the floor, quite possibly as a result of being strangled by him. X-rays revealed numerous fractures that could only have come from him. Michael Schiavo did little help his wife recover. In fact, there was evidence that he actually tried to harm her while she was in the nursing home. Michael refused to permit any of the tests that could have aided in his wife's diagnosis. Her diagnosis, PVS, was widely disputed. The evidence was that she was not in a PVS; Terri was very responsive and could communicate with others at a minimum level. In order to steal Terri's portion of the insurance settlement Michael went to court to get her feeding tube disconnected. In the event of Terri's death, Michael stood to inherit a million dollars. Michael Schiavo was the only person to testify that his wife would not want to be kept alive, and the judge ignored the testimony of everyone on the other side of the case.

    This was the story. The only problem is that it was all false. And this was in addition to all the pseudoscience that was propagated about the case.

    Just now I did a Google search on "michael schiavo monster" and got 283,000 hits, the vast majority of them negative. The advantage of the internet is that you can publish false information, have it spread around the world within hours, and it will float around for years.

    Furthermore, many stories on the internet have a kind of timeless and contextless quality about them. For example, one of the stories that frequently circulates on the right-wing religious blogs concerns a grade school student who was supposedly disciplined for praying at lunch. This is used as evidence that Christians are discriminated against. Well, you do a little research and discover that this supposed incident happened 13 years ago! But it is reported as if it were a daily occurrence.

  • guest (unverified)

    seems we've uncovered a new species: the blog snob.

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    But blogs aren't trying to deliver the news. They're trying to make sense of the news.

    Well put.

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    Of course, it helps that Regina is a friend of mine, but I have to rise to her defense on other grounds. You say she misses the boat. Maybe-but I think your post is a bit wet as well. She misstates a few factual points but I think the overall commentary is on target.

    • Let's first zero in the howler. The point she makes is right but the data are terrbile. Using "" as a single "host" is a huge error. But it's easy to demonstrate dominance by a few blogs by going to some tracking site like
    • Lawrence's next point is that people economize on information and end up relying on a few primary sources, and that the blogosphere is likely to function the same way. This is dead on I think. Nothing has fundamentally changed about human psychology, after all, and if anything, managing the blogosphere tide is an ever larger challenge. She does not say that smaller blogs can't get robust readership; she just says that a) a small number of sites are likely to dominate and b) most people will rely on a small number of blogs. I see little to challenge this point.
    • She definitely does not say that all blogs cover the same thing. She says that most blogs have narrow coverage. The "world-according-to-blogs" is a very skewed place. Your own listing sustains her point.
    • The most interesting question that Lawrence implies but does not really say is that the few dominant blogs will "agenda set" the countless smaller blogs, very much like the NY Times, LA Times, WSJ, PBS, CNN, Fox News set the MSM agenda. In this respect, I wonder if b!x's claim is really right--we publicize the few times that blogs have shown us something beside the "one story" but forget the many times that they hype a non-story.
    • And yes, she should have done something on the interactivity and community building aspect. That, it seems to me, is a critical part of what blogs do differently.

    By the way, here is a more complete treatment which I think supports some of what Lawrence writes and challenges other parts. You'll like this, Jeff and b!x, because it talks a lot about the role of blogs in critiquing and extending MSM.

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    In this respect, I wonder if b!x's claim is really right--we publicize the few times that blogs have shown us something beside the "one story" but forget the many times that they hype a non-story.

    Of course, this is something of a misconstruction of what it is I argued, which was that what the blog form communicates (in a "medium is the message" sort of way) is that no single item -- be it a newspaper article, a radio segment, or a tv report -- represents The Story (by which I don't mean The Most Important Story Amongst All Available Stories, but instead The Full Story Regarding The Matter At Hand), but just the latest discrete portion of an Ongoing Story.

    The problem (and this is why I glanced off of the paper's story on literacy in the same edition) is that few media pundits are bothering to examine the literacy implications of blogs, or myths about traditional literacy (or perhaps simply myths about traditional reading habits) that the blog form explodes.

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    Please note that I'm saying, in part, that the implications of the form of the blog is a matter worth considering in and of itself, regardless of what any specific or particular blog is or is not doing with that form.

  • printguy (unverified)

    Small point: Circulation is different than readership. The O's readership is about 778,000 daily. (PDF)

  • printguy (unverified)

    Small point: Circulation is different than readership. The O's readership is about 778,000 daily. (PDF)

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    Nice post -- thanks. But in your list of 'go to' Blogs, you forgot to mention the fantastic blogger, Brad Friedman, who is the blogosphere's rock star for the election reform movement -- See theThe Brad Blog.

    <img src="">

    Please go there as well as the Oregon Voter Rights Coalition website for all the info you can stomach on the 2000, 2002 and 2004 stolen elections and how to stem the tide of corruption in our elections.

    Thanks, Ginny Ross

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    I'm not sure a point-by-point refutation is in our best interests here, because I was trying to make a substantively different point. Your comments are a nice defense of Lawrence's central arguments, but I think they, along with entire article, look past the nature of blogs. And that was the point I was trying to make. (You acknowledge this in your final bullet.)

    The site you link to offers the perfect argument. Far from following the blogs-are-just-replicating-consumption-patterns-of-MSM argument Lawrence makes, Hiler argues that blogs are the "new global coffeehouse"--drawing on the example of 18th-Century European coffeehouses. As with my argument, he calls the blogosphere "collaborative media" and "iterative journalism."

    So when Lawrence writes "But in all the excitement and hype, it's easy to overlook the fact that in some ways political blogs are not so different from or even separate from the MSM they often love to hate," I have to wonder if she's read many blogs or understands how they function. It seems to me that she's arguing that blogs are more like amateur media, functioning much the same as professional media. Yet it's not true: they're enormously different in mode and of course they're not separate from the MSM--they're fully steeped in it.

    One critical point that we're having a hard time determining is patterns of readership, so let me muster a bit of (clearly flawed) data to consider. You point out that Lawrence's data depends on measuring Blogspot--which she then compares against Drudge and Free Republic to come to the conclusion that "In this respect, these top blogs end up playing a role very similar to what The New York Times -- a favorite target of many bloggers -- does for the MSM."

    But I think she's wrong. Let's have a look at some of the numbers. If you look at the list of the top blogs' traffic, you see that a few blogs do indeed get the lion's share of traffic (I'm including just actual blogs in this list and only political blogs--and leaving out Kos's meta site):

    3) Eschaton 162351 visits/day 5) 130018 visits/day 6) Crooks and Liars 116057 visits/day 9) lgf: new world odor 88882 visits/day 12) Michelle Malkin 77670 visits/day 14) Power Line 75444 visits/day 16) Wonkette, Politics for People with Dirty Minds 69521 visits/day 17) The Washington Monthly 66917 visits/day 18) - Daily Dish 59174 visits/day 21) The Smirking Chimp 49809 visits/day

    Yet the tail on the bottom end is still pretty fat. If you carry it out further, you have something on the order of two dozen sites that get over 10,000 hits a day, and another many dozen that get 5,000 or more. In fact, if you add up the blogs that get over 10,000 hits that aren't in the top ten, you have over half the readership of the top ten. So I don't see good evidence that a few sites are setting the discussion--particularly when you bring into account the broad range of opinion these sites offer collectively--which is how I think they're being consumed.

    Again, I don't mean to trash Lawrence. I think a lot of people fail to grasp the new medium (or does the blogosphere constitute "media?"). I also grant that her view from the point of view of political influence may be more on-point. But I continue to think she missed blogs' larger influence by failing to understand how they function or are consumed.

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    Printguy--thanks for the clarification.

    Ginny--I didn't mean--by ANY means--for that paltry list to look like a full accounting of good blogs. Each person's selection is individual, and if you wish to see my faves, check out the blogroll at Low on the Hog.

  • Kari Chisholm (unverified)

    Jeff et al... Minor tech note: Let's not ever use the word "hits" to describe website or blog traffic. It's a discredited term that screams of inaccuracies.

    (Technically, a hit is "every single file request" - loading this page once generated over a half-dozen hits.)

    Speak of page views or unique visitors. I prefer page views as more accurate, but I know most of the rest of the world prefers unique visitors (which is mostly inaccurate, but most everyone is inaccurate in the same way.)

    To see BlueOregon stats, just visit our sitemeter (helpfully located in the lower left corner of every page). At present, we're averaging over 20,000 page views a week - and some 2,000 unique visitors a day.

    Oh, and we're on track to have our first 100,000 page view month. Whoo hoo!

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    I didn't mean--by ANY means--for that paltry list to look like a full accounting of good blogs.

    Jeff --- I know....I just think that Brad shoulda been in the short list :-). I fear that ER is just THE most important thing we should all be working on so maybe my focus is a bit narrow right now? Typical Blogger!

    At present, we're averaging over 20,000 page views a week - and some 2,000 unique visitors a day.

    Kari--Thanks for pointing out the correct framing and congrats on your much deserved bounty of readers. Blue O must be one of the biggest hits in the NW blogosphere.

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    Kari, sorry about the sloppy language; substitute "unique visitors" for "hits" in the above comment--that's what the Blogosphere Ecosystem measures. (As to whether page views or unique viewers is more accurate...I'm afraid that's a debate you and I will have until the cows come home. The key thing is to compare apples to apples.)

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    Jeff, thanks for posting this item.

    She doesn't get it. I know no 'short course' of bullet points that could get it across to her. Maybe just some of her own medicine is the prescription: Kiss a new blog every day. Keep expanding her blog horizons. More is better. You don't know what you got until you move on.

    As I see it, students of Library Science get the most performance out of the internet. At least she didn't fly off on a tangent about it being wall-to-wall porn. (At the other end, she didn't mention and maybe hasn't realized the international sophistication of it. Most pundits (journalists?) talking about 'journalism' or 'politics' or 'credibility,' speak with a provincial presumption that 'American' is the only kind there is -- meaning the only kind they know.) When we see 'national' statistics such as total Households-Using-Internet or percentage of people with internet, we need to be mindful of traffic data that has been showing over half of 'it all' is porn 'visit' comings and goings, even as much as eighty percent. And eighty percent of the remaining twenty percent it seems, from what I read about and see others do, is Google driving. My phrase for web work by tossing a search phrase in google and seeing where it takes you. So the scope of politics -- or news politicking -- on the web, and only some of that in blogs, is some sliver of a few percent of everything.

    Of course, those five percent or whatever, are probably the same people in the group of only ten percent of Americans who read a daily newspaper. So from a paper's point of view, it is half their subscribers they see and hear are agitated.

    I don't know what advice could put the Press, or journalism, back in business. I do know that what the paper did this time looks like bad advice: Two years late behind blogs being a swelling phenomenon, asking a college professor (who probably has impeccable academic and probitive credentials, but zilch blog experiences or contacts), to write a single short op-ed column on Blog Politics, and expect it to do -- that's bad advice.

    For me, scooping my news out of the internet takes almost no notice of whether or not a 'union journalist' sourced it. And if I do take notice of the source, it is usually in the negative -- the list of sites and writers I boycott or avoid. Particularly lately, in seeing the NY Times imprimatur on anything political, gets it blackballed. I know it is a venerable institution. They should have had as much respect for themselves as readers had for them, before they gave it all over to CIA and America Superpatriot UberGlobalPower propaganda. No thanks, I'm trying to quit.

    The Craft of Intelligence, CIA Director Allen Dulles's 1965 book on what spies and spying is good for, (hint: it has nothing to do with you or me having better life, liberty, or happiness), as he helped design CIA's mission, boasts -- boasts ! -- at the time the Agency had over 500 'controlled' editors and publishers in place (1965 !) to print whatever side news they were fed and spike whatever emergent news they were forbidden. In the 25th largest market, The O must have rated its own on-duty agent 'controlling' the public mind's perceptions, (which is what it has everything to do with, and ALL that spies and spying has to do with), like some Clark Kent walking around the building, (the verbatim Dulles quote is "editors and publishers"), but instead of stopping crime when he strips out of his business suit, he's wearing a black mask, SS armband, and starts breaking the law. So if Vietnam war protests contradicted the CIA propaganda, then protest news would not be reported. If Goldschmidt could be blackmailed (politically coerced) by knowing his secrets, then The O's 'Clark Kent' kept that secret for that purpose. Or look at what the San Jose Mercury did to destroy its own Pulitzer-quality investigative reporter, Gary Webb, when he documented the CIA as the source inventor of crack cocaine and the biggest importer of it. (Compare with the meth flood now -- who first thinks up the laboratory formulas and the gee-whiz drugstore chemistry to make these scourges, some Mexican fieldhand experimenting at night in his kitchen?)

    Or, where CIA-slave journalism instead of Free Press has gotten the newspaper industry today, is bloody-handed in the bloodbath of thousands and thousands of souls killed for a liar's war. And they can't say they 'didn't know' it has all been a put-up job, right from Day One in Florida, 2000.

    I mean, I reject the premise of the op-ed column, a priori. That newspapers could report on blog trends and developments. Ha. That's sorta like an 18-wheeler running over a Honda, and then expecting the Honda driver to report what happened. Again, to emphasize, the massive extent of the internet: The Whole World Is Watching. (That's what the Vietnam war protesters used to chant at Congress and kangaroo Courts.)

    I meant not to get carried away and write long on this topic; but is so presses my button.

    The plan was to recommend my favorite sites and style. Buzz Flash, Common Dreams, Alternet, and so many more, but starting with these, pick out stories that suit some interest and then. track. back. to the source. Don't simply read the story, click that mouse and take a look at where it came from. Day by day you discover new sources and sites and blogs. Same style-thing with the Oregon Blog Roll here on Blue Oregon -- I click over to read some item, find a blog I never saw, and start scoping it out. I like to look at a blog's List of Favorite Blogs, and pick a new one, and go there, and see what 'Favorites' inform it, and pick one, and go there. Watching in general which blogs appear in a lot of 'Favorites' lists, gathers a good sense of where the 'core' action is. For example, Brad Blog is gaining adherents, so I checked it out. That's how I found Rogue Pundit, and I like it. There are absolutely too many to name. Meet a new friend every day.

    And the other item I planned for this comment was four easy pieces from Editor & Publisher, (I got there from BuzzFlash today), which seemed to make points related to the topic op-ed column in this thread.

    Bill's Author Says Some Bloggers Would be Protected by Shield Law "...who would qualify as a journalist under the Free Flow of Information Act ..." "...publishers to rally their readers around the Free Flow of Information Act. 'I believe we have an historic opportunity to close this hole in the First Amendment.'" [Excuse me, "hole in the First Amendment" ???]

    Shield Law Sponsor: Bloggers 'Probably Not' Considered Journos [ hmmmm ... ]

    E&P Online Shatters Traffic Records Again "E&P Online shattered its previous monthly traffic marks again in September in both unique visitors and page views. Just two months after crossing the 1 million monthly unique users barrier for the first time, ..."

    Coulter Admits She's 'Not a Big Fan of the First Amendment' "...columnist also called the Iraq War 'a magnificent success,' ..." [In truth, it is not even a "war" until Congress declares it to be war, and everything done in the illicit name of war, such as selling newspapers and sacrificing citizen soldiers' blood and lives, oh, those lying deceits the mainstream media did not think was important for readers to understand.]

    The more you see corporate news, the less you know what's going on. I predict that what is going to happen in what is going on, is that the CIA, (I use this as a euphemism for global powerbrokers playing chess with millions of people's lives -- the American contingent is the insider operators around George Hitler Worker Bush), is going to double-cross the mainstream media which had been an enabling ally. Because all along the way, since the CIA was created (1947) it has double-crossed its partners. Saddam was a CIA asset, they double-crossed him. Osama was a CIA asset, they double-crossed him to have a fall guy. Lee Harvey Oswald was a CIA asset, they double-crossed and framed him.

    Here's the documentation of G.H.W.B., and the history of how we did not defeat totalitarianism in Germany, we captured it and brought it back, and Hitler Worker Busch lived his life embracing its practice as his privilege for being elite over you and me.

    Here's the documentation of CIA double-crossing America, and America's interests such as democracy, and Americans. CIA is short for 'military-industrial complex.'

  • paul (unverified)


    you're right that the fat tail is important and interesting, but i think we disagree on lawrence's main point--that individuals will self-select a few set of blogs just like they do in the MSM, and the bloggers claims to overcome some (not all) of the problems with the MSM are overblown.

  • paul (unverified)


    if we know anything from 50 years of studying individal media consumption habits, it's that individuals will economize. you say that people will follow links and touch a "blog a day," but there is no evidence that they actually do (actually what limited information we have about internet browsing is that they do not).

    generalizing from yourself is bad social science.

  • Max Sawicky (unverified)

    Thanks for the mention. I have a Ph.D. in economics, but I am not a professor. I'm a staff economist at the Economic Policy Institute, at

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    Paul, I may no longer be understanding your point, then. Of course no one person will consume dozens of blogs a day (except for bloggers themselves, perhaps), but the selection of blogs that each person reads will cover a broad spectrum. That's different from the argument that everyone will just read Kos, who will replace the NY Times as the voice of authority. I don't buy that blogs will have that kind of monolithic authority.

    As to this comment: "and the bloggers claims to overcome some (not all) of the problems with the MSM are overblown," I don't believe bloggers claim that. Maybe some do. As a blogger, the claim I'd make is that the blogosphere provides context and comment to current events and does so in a collaborative, rather than didactic, mode. I'd argue that the MSM and blogosphere are complimentary and that both will improve the other.

    Max, sorry, I knew that. I've made a correction in the main post.

  • Regina (unverified)

    Thanks to Jeff, Paul, and others for a good discussion.

    I agree that my column yesterday did not talk about some of the most important things blogs uniquely do, such as foster interaction. That seems obvious. I'm trying to see angles on blogging and blog use that bloggers themselves seem not to recognize as readily.

    Paul has already done a nice job of defending the point that many people may not be as expansive and ecumenical in their blog use as we think or would like them to be. I would just add for the record that the Oregonian editors cut out a paragraph in which I talked about a study from the last campaign season, showing that Internet users were well aware of opposing views from across the political aisle--evidence that suggests the more idealized view of blog use may hold true, at least during a campaign. But as some of you have pointed out, it's tough to do systematic research on blog use to find out to what degree that is true.

    As for my "howler" about calling Drugde etc. "blogs," that was based on part on reports like the one at The term is indeed being used loosely; I should have clarified.

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    Kudos to Ms. Lawrence for coming by to offer clarifications and responses! I think that's another thing (sorry) that you might have missed about blogs--they have begun to have the effect of bringing mainstream newsmakers and reporters together with news consumers in a real exchange. There must be a dozen or more Representatives, Senators, and candidates for Congress posting at DailyKos, some with the stomach to actually hang around and answer comments. And as we see here, the members of the MSM have also begun to hear their names called in the ether and respond publicly. If one wants to compare this to the role of ombudspeople or the LTE that is sometimes answered with "Reporter X replies" responses, I suppose that comparison can be made--but I'd find it seriously wanting.

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