When bloggers do journalism, however, the questions of quality and integrity become just as important for them as for people in the traditional press. When traditional journalists - and many others - ask if bloggers are journalists, this is what they're really asking: Can we rely on bloggers who do journalism to uphold the principles of journalism that matter so much?
Last Monday, in what by any standard was a landmark for new media, we got an emphatic affirmation about one blogger-journalist. Joshua Micah Marshall, founder of the Talking Points Memo blog (and several newer sister publications), won a 2007 George Polk Award. As the citation noted, Marshall and his team "led the news media coverage of the politically motivated dismissals of US attorneys across the country."
Journalists love to hand out awards to each other. It's difficult to have a career of any kind in the field without winning something. But a Polk Award is genuinely special, second only by most reckonings to the Pulitzer Prize. (Because his work doesn't run in newspapers, Marshall is not eligible for a Pulitzer, something that speaks to the stodginess of the most prestigious honor.)
It's vital to recognize several elements about the prosecutors story. First, consider how bloggers developed the story, as the Polk Award announcement observed: "Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall [with staff reporter-bloggers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood] connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush administration's bidding."
Those dots, we should recognize, were often, if not mostly, articles in traditional newspapers. Talking Points Memo, as Marshall would be first to acknowledge, was part of a journalistic ecosystem, not alone in its quest. As the story developed, the bloggers clearly led the journalism world - often far, far ahead of their traditional counterparts.
Second, as the story grew into the scandal that helped bring down an attorney general whose lies grew more and more brazen, the Talking Points Memo team drew on its audience's knowledge, not just their own. The Bush administration grudgingly released some relevant documents to Congress, but did so in huge batches and often on Friday evenings, which journalists and PR folks know to be the time newsmakers prefer to send out bad news.
Those "data dumps" were an opportunity, not a problem. The blog audience collectively pored through them and, more than once, surfaced nuggets that became important stories in their own right.
Marshall and his team deserve enormous credit for their work. But they, more than most journalists, realize that the kudos accrue to a larger community.
The Polk Award is a big step forward - for all of us.
Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.