IN THE 1960s, when I did my journalistic training, one of the reporter's basic tools was the telephone directory. When something happened in Green Beans, Lincolnshire (or wherever) you got out the phone book and rang the local Post Office. Or any number you could find in that area.
We were searching for that most precious commodity: the eyewitness. It was a frantic, often frustrating scramble for information.
You were always hoping to hit a seam of gold, like this: "I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carleton Hotel in New Orleans... a very old building on Canal Street. Things were obviously bad yesterday, but they are much worse today. Over-night the water arrived... Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods. We are worried about a cholera epidemic.
"Looting is now rampant... the people are armed and dangerous. We hear gunshots frequently. Most of Canal Street is occupied by armed looters who have a low threshold for discharging their weapons."
But this eye witness of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was not brought to the public attention by a questing journalist. Instead, the account appeared first on a "blog", or weblog - the new source of first-hand reporting on most big news stories.
Blogs are a sort of vanity publishing. The low cost of internet publishing has enabled hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people to make their own web sites.
There are so many bloggers that they provide a virtual network of amateur reporters right across the developed world. So when a big story happens, they are always on the spot - a ready-made army of eye-witnesses.
Professional reporters know the first place to look for instant detail on major events is the internet, specifically the vast informal network of bloggers.
Yet much of the content of blogs is about as interesting as the conversations you overhear on the top deck of a bus. There are also frequent attempts to create spoof blogs to fool the mainstream media.
But there is an important benefit that outweighs all of these dangers. In the very early days of the internet, one of the buzz-words was "dis-intermediation". It meant the internet would put the people directly in touch with events and power, so information no longer had to go through the filters of the media and other big business. For a long time that remained in the realms of the theoretical, as one after another bold new media project fell apart. The bursting of the internet bubble in 2000 left the old, successful, real-world businesses still standing and still mightily influential. But slowly the revolution in communications brought about by a world network of computers is changing how we get our information, and blogs are one of the symptoms of that change.
At their best, they provide an authentic new source of first-hand information. They break stories. They challenge professional reporters to get it right. They keep the media honest. They increase the flow of information. In that context, it doesn't matter that most of them are rubbish.
Bob Eggington is former editor-in-chief and creator of news.bbc.co.uk
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
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