Bob Stepno's Other Journalism Weblog
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2002-2009 blog page archive

Backgrounder: About_Weblogs


Bob's Weblog Backgrounder

About Weblogs
    Weblogs are, at their best, a new form of personal or communal journalism. The idea of a page of date-stamped chunks of information pointing to a variety of other sites is as old as the Web, but the names "weblog" or "blog" are more recent. So are powerful and easy-to-use blogging tools that can be used for many kinds of self-expression on the Web.
    (Starting around the turn of the millennium, I had students create date-stamped, linked website diaries of their print or online reading, doing it "the hard way" to  learn some HTML at the same time, or at least how to use Dreamweaver. A couple of semesters later, one student going through this ordeal said, "Why don't we just use Blogger?")
    Today's weblog tools don't require knowing HTML, although it's still a good idea. With most blog-creation programs, all the work can be done in a browser window, most of the coding is point-and-click, and posting to the weblog server is automated. For examples, see my Other Journalism blog done with Userland Radio; a test of Word Press; my Red Liner blog at Harvard, done with Manila, and my old demo of Blogger.
    Note: Weblogs (including mine) are often written in a hurry using software that does not check the writer's spelling or punctuation, which makes great editing practice for journalism students and professors alike.

     The term "weblog" (or "blog") is used for sites whose authors report regularly on issues that interest them (generally with links) or sites that interest them (usually with commentary). Some blogs are updated several times a day, some less often. Almost all use a "most recent item on top" reverse-chronological format, which is easy to do with blogging programs. Some blogs read like casual personal diaries, others emphasize political commentary, technical subjects, or creative writing. Many consist of short, telegraphic bursts. Many are "cobwebs" whose creators got too busy or lost interest after they landed that big deal.

    Personally, I'm most interested in blogs that keep an eye on the sometimes-sleepy "watchdogs" of professional journalism, and in blogs that support "community" by one definition or another.

    "Classic" weblog examples: Jim Romenesko's MediaNews and his Obscure Store, Rebecca Blood's Rebecca's Pocket, Dan Bricklin's Log (see a CNet article about him), Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom (and faq), Matt Drudge's Drudge Report and Dave Winer's various projects, particularly Scripting News, his history of weblogging, and his advice to journalists who might be interested in creating weblogs. Grappling with the variety of blogging experiences, Mike Gunderloy created Weblog Madness, sorting his hundreds of links about weblogging into 18 topics. (Historically, I think the basic Weblog format of links and comments goes back to Tim Berners-Lee's early Usenet postings and info pages about the Web, the launch of NCSA Mosaic and things like the weekly bulletins from the Internet Scout Report. Dave Winer and Jakob Nielsen both started writing "columns" online when the Web wasn't very old, and today their archives look a lot like weblogs. The 1999 launch of the easy-to-use tool Blogger, later bought by Google, helped give the form a name.)

    By 2002 more and more professional journalists discovered the Weblog form, joining the San Jose Mercury's Dan Gillmor, who got there early. Try Monitorblog at the Christian Science Monitor, D.C. Dennison at the Boston Globe, a whole crowd at the Poynter Instiutute doing E-Media Tidbits, more at the Guardian Unlimited, the OJR Spike Report and a group weblog by journalism students at USC. A UK journalism professionals' website,, has carried articles about the pros and cons of students and others "working for free" on websites, and about the role of the "citizen blogger" in political life, including the US, UK and countries where free speech is not the norm. "People will die because of weblogs," according to a speaker quoted in that July 2003 story. 

    Watch for civic issue-oriented blogs like Chris Lydon's BopNews "Blogging of the President" 2004 election campaign site, Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs site (and book by the same name), the DailySummit from Johannesburg, InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds at the University of Tennessee, Cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig at Stamford, and a whole mob of webloggers at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet & Society. Even political parties got involved in 2003, with weblog momentum from Howard Dean spreading to other Democrats and Republicans, launching plenty of "is it really a blog, or just PR?" debate, and perhaps echoing the partisan-press newspapers of the early 19th century.

    Blogs also were early supporters of RSS or "Really Simple Syndication," an alternative way to publish, subscribe to, and read blog contents. See my "What are RSS and that orange XML thing" essay and my notes on writing and illustrating blogs.

Here are some other stories about weblogs, at least for historical purposes:

  • Dennis Mahoney's writing tips for bloggers emphasize detail, storytelling and quality material -- even correct grammar and punctuation. He doesn't come right out and suggest taking  journalism courses, but I think that's a fine thing to do.
  • Hypertext software publisher Mark Bernstein reviews one of the first how-to-blog books.
  • Glenn Reynolds, the instapundit, reflected on the weblog form for the Guardian.
  • Jody Raynsford at the pro site asks, "Blogging: the new journalism?"
  • Andrew Grumet created this in-depth discussion of what weblogs are and can be.
  • Two more in-depth introductions to weblogs and content-sharing (syndication) from Diego Doval.
  • MIT's Henry Jenkins says "Bloggers are the minutemen of the digital revolution."
  • "Content and marketing" consultant Debbie Weil on the business potential of weblogs.
  • Egocentric diary-style blogs are easy to parody, in this case at the home of Get Your War On.
  • Some bloggers are making money at it, one way or another (NY Times 2004).
  • A Closer Look at Weblogs by Cindy Curling, a web committee member for the Law Librarian's Society of Washington, D.C. (October, 2001)
  • Wired magazine overview of Weblogs. (January, 2001)
  • A BBC feature from September, 2000.
  • A weblog from a May, 2000, Chris Lydon program about weblogs on The Connection, from WBUR/NPR, originally presented with more than 80 blog links. (After Chris left the show, they put his successor's picture on all the pages, including the Lydon archives.)   Also see Lydon's post-NPR column on from fall 2001, his new-for-2003 Harvard weblog, and his new-for-2005 combination blog, radio show and podcast,

    Webloggers are still defining weblogs and their relationship to journalism. Back in 2000, I asked students to decide for themselves whether Slate magazine's Today's News was a weblog. How about Moreover, which points toward news stories in hundreds of categories? Could a political party have a true weblog, or just a public-relations campaign site? Was the "latest news on top" format the main thing? Many bloggers would argue that key ingredients include a "personal" voice, not an anonymous "spokesman" or someone with a supervising editor; others would insist on links to varied opinions for a continuing conversation.

    A blog can be a simple Web page that you add to now and then using any HTML editor or Web-page-building program. However, there has been a growth industry in blogging tools, such as these reviewed by CNet in 2002.

    I encourage students to learn the basics of HTML so they can fine-tune and troubleshoot pages they make, whether they use the "save as HTML" option in a word processors, borrowed page designs, templates, or weblog tools. Most blogging software allows you to customize templates and incorporate your own HTML when creating your site, as in my and blogs. Newer tools take away some of the need for simple HTML markup by putting a formatting toolbar in the browser's weblog-editing window.

    Participatory sites: Going a step beyond the "comment" link offered by blog software, watch for collaborative sites that allow readers to contribute -- and to rate contributions by other writers. In theory the "best" or "most popular" news rises to the top at sites like, and ( is a source of staff and reader-contributed news about the open-source software movement, which includes the software pioneered by slashdot and used by newsforge and others.)

    Blogrolling: Blog-writing programs and blog-hosting services often list users' "most-recently updated" or  "most linked-to" sites, a feature that has inspired more general blog-referral sites, and "blogrolls" of kindred spirits posted in the margins of many blogs. Here are a few examples of site lists:

Pardon the mess...
This was a one-page year 2000 class handout.
Expanded and moved from college server to Radio weblog, December, 2002
Outdated links replaced and updates added off and on through 2003
Since then I've decided to let the page sit as a historical artifact;
 I still fix broken links when I notice them, but that's about it.
See Wikipedia for the latest communal attempts to capture a definition of blogging.
...Bob Stepno 2005

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Last update: 7/27/09; 3:57:19 AM.