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Of Splogs, Blogs, Aggregators and "News"   (October 21, 2005)

Alas, spamming has moved with a vengence to the blogosphere, earning the ugly moniker splog. The most interesting features of blogs--their openness to reader comments, and the transparency of those "threads" (strings of comments on a single topic)--are precisely what is being exploited by splogging, which posts spam messages as reader comments. The other innovative trait of blogs--their ease of use--is also being exploited, as sploggers fabricate fake blogs by the millions in order to push some product or service.

This of course makes the job of the new Yahoo and Google "blog search" services much more difficult, as there is so much chaff (splog) spontaneously appearing amidst the wheat. (It's also why I rely on plain old email for reader comments.)

Another noteworthy innovation gaining steam is aggregators: websites or toolbars which allow the user to collect or aggregate a variety of news sources--including blogs like this one--into one customized window using the RSS (Rich Site Summary) XML-based (Extensible Markup Language) technology.

Awfully nifty, but is there any software which can sort "news" from slapped-together opinion or plain propaganda? No. That's what you pay an editor for. In other words, you can aggregate all the garbage "news" you want and you still have garbage.

This ties in with the apparent belief of the under-30-crowd that "news" is free, or should be free. The only problem is: gathering data, analyzing it, interviewing sources, fact-checking and editing are not free. As a free-lance journalist, I can tell you that the standards of major print media (newspapers and magazines) are very high. It takes a minimum of a solid week to assemble a thorough story, and much longer if it's an investigative piece which explores information that someone in power wants to keep hidden from public view.

For an example of my own non-investigative work, check this story on wine-country water-use issues that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine.

So what is offered for "free" on major newspaper sites isn't free--it's just the print media's desperate attempt to not lose readers to the Web. On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal has hundreds of thousands of online subscribers (such as myself) because the quality of their reporting is well worth the $79 a year. Two people attending just about any major-market sports event in the country blow more than that for 1) a crappy game 2) a crappy seat 3) a crappy overpriced beer 4) a hideous commute amidst an ugly crowd.

So if a single lousy game costs more than a year of quality news, then why should news be free? As the saying goes, you get what you pay for, "news" included.

There is an even more insidious consequence of "free news" slapped together off wire services and opinion-blogs passing as "news": the loss of actual investigative reporting. "Free news" necessarily takes officials at their word, because there's no infrastructure and money to pay for a skeptical analysis. So the degradation of actual news to "free news" threatens not just the old media but truth itself. If I am in a position of authority and power, either governmental or private, I am absolutely thrilled with "free news" because that means no one has any time to go digging around my hedge fund or my "official" business of influence-peddling and subversion of the public interest.

The loss of real news--real reporting, real editing, real skepticism--would be catastrophic to the Republic. This is why the vast majority of links I post here refer you to legitimate print sources (which I happen to subscribe to): the S.F. Chronicle (of course), the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, BusinessWeek, Scientific American, Foreign Affairs and the New Republic, to name a few. I also post academic resources, as they must withstand the critique of peer review. This is standard journalism: the sources are transparent and reputable. That's the foundation of news.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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