Bob Stepno's Other Journalism Weblog
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Friday, April 30, 2004

We started a good discussion at Berkman last night about ways bloggers might give readers more clues about whether they are "doing journalism" or expressing opinions, or quoting someone else's blog, or perhaps writing outright fiction.

If someone is serious about reporting on events and issues, doing it in a separate weblog with a clear statement of purpose would keep things sorted out. Otherwise, having a category label like "Bob's Eyewitness Reports" might be worth a try.

I mentioned at the meeting that different kinds of postings could be flagged with a recognizable graphic and linked to an "about" page that explained the bloggers category system. However, besides flirting with way-too-cuteness, a framework like that might disappear if the blog also circulated as an RSS feed.

Just by reflex, shifting "writing style" is my preferred way of differentiating between kinds of content in this weblog. For example, I started the year playing journalist with a blog entry written in a newspaper style, even avoiding the first person with the awkward construction "this blogger." In contrast, an item about helping teach a class came out more like a personal letter. (Actually, some of my postings here start out as letters to one or more friends, then get pasted into the weblog. Sometimes the glue shows around the edges.)

I'll have to browse through some of my other blog entries to see if I've ever taken a more "editorial commentary" tone. If I have, I suspect the difference would be obvious. More often, I'm afraid my postings here read like a cross between lecture notes and the ramblings of a walking case study in information overload.

Some of the blogging tools folks at the Berkman meetings use handle the "who said what?" question visually, nicely setting off quoted or syndicated text, as in Shimon's frassle site or Jay's makeoutcity.

For the average blogger right now probably stops with the choice of one downloadable blogging tool or another. Radio Userland's news aggregator, which I use for this site, offers a simple mark-up: It picks up RSS-syndicated news items, puts the linked name of an original source in square brackets at the end of the quoted text, and tops it with a headline linked to the original news item. However, the structure gets confusing in longer blog entries that quote other blog entries that, in turn, may quote and link to another news or blog site.

Ideally, there would be both visual and "meta" information in the RSS itself to indicate such a cascade of fragmented syndicated quoting. I've been reading about the underlying issues since some of Ted Nelson's early writing about "transclusion" in Literary Machines almost 20 years ago. On the more practical level, I'm just starting to learn what goes on behind the scenes in my own RSS syndication feeds.

I'm certainly not ready to tackle the whole "semantic web" future-of-everything-online metadata topic. I haven't even had much luck coming up with a "category" system to sort out my own weblog postings, although Radio Userland does allow me to group items into categories, even identifying one item as belonging to more than one category, or presenting a category so that it looks like a separate weblog. (And, yes, my writing this mini-essay fits in that category. It began as a simple posting of the three aggregator items at the bottom of this page.)

Back to just writing clearly: Sometimes, to mention an "aggregator" item or emphasize a point in it, I copy the feed text, shift into the third person and talk about the original source, inserting quotation marks for verbatim parts. When I don't have time to add comments, I indent verbatim passages from the aggregator, but keep the Radio mark-up and links. I've also experimented with changing text or background colors, which only takes a mouse click, but that distinction would all be lost to readers using RSS aggregators. (In fact, changing weblog templates this week may have made some older posts hard to read as Web pages.)

Here are examples of both techniques. They are also items that might be of interest to online journalism bloggers -- I wonder whether the project mentioned in the first item could be used to study the phenomenon mentioned in the second. Hmm. The third (BBC) item reminds me of online sites that encourage readers to contribute personal messages, descriptions and pictures during disasters, including storms in North Carolina. As "unmediated" notes, the practice raises questions about fact-checking and decision-making, which an organization like the BBC should have the staff to handle.

Distributively studying the net to improve it: NETI@home.
A group of Georgia Institute of Technology computer scientists are launching a collaborative, distributed computing project to better understand information flows in the internet. NETI@home works on users' machines, tracking and assessing internet connection and traffic patterns. The project team vows to protect users' privacy when they run the downloadable software. [NITLE Tech News]

Will RSS Readers Clog the Web?. Sure, news aggregators are handy tools, making Web surfing a breeze. But the programs are greedy little buggers that swamp websites with unwanted traffic. Something has to change, and soon. By Ryan Singel. [Wired News]

Readers as Reporters at the BBC.
The blog called [unmediated] reports about BBC News asking its readers for help on a breaking news story. (Shots were being heard in Damascus.) Five reader comments and a much more detailed article were on the site when [unmediated] blogged about it: "It is not disclosed how many people have sent in comments and how much editing and fact checking was done by BBC News before publishing. However, this looks like a clever way to dress up your coverage even from far-away places and to involve your readers beyond letting them criticize the results of your brainwork."

12:31:47 PM    

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