Pew report finds complicated media landscape

When the Pew Internet & American Life Project released its most recent report last Monday, entitled Buzz, Blogs and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004, the response from a majority of bloggers was that it was a pointless e

When the Pew Internet & American Life Project released its most recent report last Monday, entitled Buzz, Blogs and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004, the response from a majority of bloggers was that it was a pointless e

Among the findings in the report were that blogs' influence on the 2004 election was "circumstantial;" that blogs needed the participation of the mainstream media to reach critical mass for particular threads of information; and that bloggers were picking up on citizen chatter as fodder for their work.

Bloggers did not express surprise when they found out that they had not toppled mainstream media.

"We have today the stunning news that - are you ready for it? - blogs haven't displaced media. What, they needed a study to figure that out?" wrote Andy Lark, former VP of global communications and marketing at Sun Microsystems, on his blog.

Greg Sterling, managing editor of the Kelsey Group, wrote on blog Search Engine Journal, "So blogs aren't such a big deal after all - right? Not so fast. That facile conclusion ignores the fact that blogs have been around as a 'mainstream' phenomenon for less than two years."

"Understanding how buzz is emerging around particular issues and brands, in a massively complex landscape, is going to become a major part of the communications professional's responsibility," says Jonathan Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics, who worked with Pew on the study. "The days of simple buzz generating are over."

Carson says the goal of the project was to determine how effective blogs were in driving buzz on their own.

"The huge focus in the past few months has been figuring out what the role of bloggers is," Carson says. "There are theories that they have incredible power to create buzz, so we went in to test that at the moment in time [the election] where bloggers clearly played a significant role."

Pew and BuzzMetrics analyzed how information traveled back and forth between a variety of media sources from September 27 to October 31, 2004. The study included political blogs, politically-focused messages boards, campaign pressrooms, and mainstream media outlets.

The report found that blogs influenced mainstream media stories, but could not sustain critical buzz levels - where the nation was debating a particular topic - without the mainstream media's involvement in the developing story. But it did not find a recurring pattern where blogs drove an overall discussion in all of the aforementioned channels.

Carson said that the purpose of the study was not to discount blogs. He believes that the medium will continue to evolve, where certain bloggers will adopt mainstream media policies, while others will act like activists with an increasing power.

"But we do not expect bloggers to be a 'fifth estate'" Carson said. "It's an important channel, but one that [needs to] act in conjunction with other channels."

Most of the report focused on the one instance where bloggers did affect national discourse -- developments in the 60 Minutes "Rathergate" memo scandal. The report found that this event was an exception to the rule of bloggers' ability to maintain buzz, due to the mainstream media's eventual involvement in the story and the availability of the memos in question to examine.

"With Rathergate, we found that bloggers are good at providing a forum of open-source journalism to take place - a channel for which that situation could develop over the course of a couple of weeks," Carson says.

The PR professionals that spoke to PRWeek about the report all say there is a large portion of the population that still gets its information from the print newspaper or evening news. But they add that more people are flocking online and blogs will be part of that newsgathering experience.

"It confirmed the fact that blogs are an important source for news, but the reports of the death of the mainstream media are premature and exaggerated," says Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon Communications. "But the report shows that [blogs] are a source. If you think about it, blogs are basically a column, albeit with certain technological enhancements."

Leslie Dach, Edelman vice chairman, feels the study chased the wrong questions, and that blogs should not be held accountable for their own buzz.

Dach says that while a report like this "might have taken a little bloom off a rose that was too large for life," it's critical to not discount blogs. He expects that blogs to play a large role in the next election, as more people tune in online to get their news.

"There's no doubt that more people look to the web as the place they go for more information," Dach says. "Campaign or public affairs officials needs to have their eyes clearly on this medium."

In comparison to five years ago during the 2000 election, when blogs were virtually unknown, there was a dramatic increase in the importance of online communications in 2004.

"And [blogs] held their own against media that have been around much longer," Dach says.

Lark tells PRWeek that he was unimpressed by the report and that it wasn't worthwhile to compare blogs with the mainstream media.

"The reporting on it is an either/or mentality [between blogs and mainstream media] that doesn't exist," Lark says.

Since he feels that comparison is not apt, he cautions those who might scapegoat blogs for any woes that the mainstream media are experiencing. He says that blogs had ascended coincidentally, not correlatively with the media's trouble.

"Trust has been at an all-time low and the media has done such a bad job of reporting," Lark says, mentioning the Newsweek retraction. "It's only convenient that blogs are trending upwards, so blaming blogs for the media challenges is more of an excuse than anything else."

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