Ezra suppressed a smirk. I use about 150 or 200 rss feeds and bookmarks, he explained. Ezra scans four newspapers online. He checks sites of research organizations such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He indulges his taste for gossipy pop culture with a few favorites such as defamer.com. Ezra surfs a few political blogs, too, but he particularly relies on expert sites that are not exactly blogs and not exactly journalism; rather they are a very important category often left out by old media critics who divide the world into amateur bloggers versus trained reporters. Many such sites are operated by academics or think-tank researchers who have developed a taste for a popular audience, mixing blog-style comment on breaking news with original analysis, and serious research.
This category of Web site doesn’t have a name, and it trivializes them to call them blogs. Let’s call them crogs, for Carefully-Researched Weblogs. For policy wonks like Ezra and me, some of the most interesting crogs are Dean Baker’s site on how the press covers economics; the crog on Middle East affairs by the University of Michigan professor Juan Cole; and a superb crog on health policy carried on Daily Kos and written by a physician and researcher calling himself Dr. Steve B (he has a sensitive position and won’t publish his real name). There are thousands of similarly high-quality crogs on just about every public issue, of great value to both journalists and ordinary readers. The sites are rich in hyperlinks, too, so a reader can move sideways into more detailed reports and primary sources.
Ezra also uses Google’s popular “alert” feature. Let’s say you are particularly interested in Iraq, health policy, Indian cuisine, and the nba. You can request Google News to send you a daily message offering links to the latest output of your favorite writers, bloggers, or specialty sites. Google News is a little cumbersome to use for this purpose—its inventors imagined readers ordering a relatively few favorite links. But what makes the Internet so dynamic is the ease with which innovators can learn from their publics and try things out. The New York Times will soon introduce a more sophisticated variant called MyTimes, aimed at the Web reader who, like Ezra, wants to pre-assemble an all-star Webpaper that no single newspaper can possibly duplicate. With MyTimes you can roll your own daily, beginning with, but not limited to, the admittedly high-quality content of the Times. And this kind of customized search technology will only get better.
Ezra wagered that his hour of Web culling gave him more and better news and analysis than my hour of newspaper reading. He guessed—correctly—that 90 percent of the three pounds of newsprint that I skim every day gets thrown away, unread. (Indeed, at The Boston Globe, surveys show that two of the top reasons nonrenewing newspaper readers give for their lapsed subscriptions are “not enough time” and “green guilt.” In an age of environmental consciousness and scarce time, people feel bad that so many pounds of newsprint go virginally into the trash.)
So I started playing my few trump cards. Even for casual readers, scanning a newspaper contributes to civic democracy through what sociologists call “incidental learning.” You pick up the paper for the sports or the crossword puzzle, and you find yourself reading about the school board election or the international diamond trade. What about incidental learning? I asked. Don’t newspapers do that better? Nope, Ezra replied. You’d be surprised how much interesting serendipity you pick up from skimming a lot of blogs. For instance, the Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong, who operates an excellent blog on economics topics, also peppers his blog with Star Trek trivia.
But, I persisted, you are hardly typical. As diligent self-improvers go, Ezra is to the average Web user as the nfl is to Oberlin football. Maybe, countered Ezra, but search technology is making it easier all the time for citizens to be their own aggregators. Isn’t that just what we want?
By now I was feeling very last century. And then Ezra, perhaps taking pity, handed me a trump. You have one thing right, he volunteered. The best material on the Internet consistently comes from Web sites run by print organizations.
So journalism reigns after all. But can this supremacy continue? Here we encounter a paradox on top of an irony. The paradox is that new forms of media, while challenging the very survival of newspapers, are quickly becoming their savior—both as a journalistic and a business proposition.