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20 April 2009

Blogs fill a role, but what role?


Did right-wing bloggers cost Helen Clark the last election? Or was their "trite" and "trivial" content of little consequence at all?

In an excellent overview, former Whitireia journalism student Sandra Dickson, quotes commentators who believe the fall of Winston Peters was largely driven by debate in the blogosphere. And without Winston and NZ First, Helen Clark had little or no chance of winning an historic fourth term.

Canterbury University mass communications lecturer Donald Matheson says the internet and blogging in particular have challenged the "authoritative voice" of journalism by "watching the watchdog".

Political bloggers in New Zealand do see themselves as watching the watchdog on issues such as electoral finance reform, copyright law and, last year, the monitoring of Winston Peters and New Zealand First.

One of the country's leading political columnists Matthew Hooton - who entered the blogosphere himself last election - points to the fact that Peters had spent much time over many years drinking with senior journalists and says this tended to protect him from scrutiny.

New Zealand's most popular blogger, David Farrar, of Kiwiblog, agrees right-wing blogs in particular created a "sense of crisis around Winston", and says bloggers can be motivated to dig deeper, while journalists are under time constraints.

Farrar is the McDonald's of the New Zealand blogosphere, with daily readership of around 10,000, roughly the equivalent of the sales of newspapers in Wanganui, Rotorua or Gisborne. He says two-way communication is one of the reasons blogs work.

"One of the big dynamics that is changing, if you have something you think is newsworthy, are you more likely to look up in the White Pages the phone number for the Dominion Post, ask to speak to the reporters' desk and then take random luck over which reporter you'll get?

"Or do you just click on the link on your favourite blog and say ‘hey, you may be interested in this?' I think a lot of the so-called sources out there are very much turning to blogs as a way to get their information out."

The New Zealand blogosphere doesn't have the public audience to threaten mainstream media, with about 50,000 readers visiting political blogs each week, according to Tim Selwyn of Tumeke.

Selwyn ranks political blogs by popularity each month, and says at these numbers blogging is "an elite form of influence, not a mass form, despite its latent capacity".

Hooten says technological changes mean blogging is open to all these days, so the blogosphere complements other democratic processes.

Political blog expert Dr Matheson doesn't agree. He says the blogosphere is not reinvigorating democracy in some radical, exciting way - because successful bloggers are not your average citizen.

"You can't really talk about an elite in New Zealand the way you can in the United States, but people who are already on the inside of the Wellington world or the political world tend to be the ones who are the major bloggers. So you get David Farrar or Russell Brown."

The political blogosphere is also criticised for being a boy's club, which led Julie Fairey, with other women bloggers, to set up explicitly feminist The Hand Mirror in March 2008. Massey University communications lecturer Dr Kane Hopkins sees The Hand Mirror as an important voice in the blogosphere, balancing out the male domination.

Dr Hopkins wrote his PhD on the 2005 election, analysing whether the blogosphere had created a "virtual town hall". He did not find an expansion of public discussion.

"The majority of comments that were made were made by a handful of people. Over half the comments that were made were by people who only made one comment. That's not really a conversation."

But the secondary impacts were harder to unravel.

"In terms of the decision-makers, the politicians, we know there are a lot of bureaucrats either in Parliament or Treasury who do read blogs, especially Public Address and Kiwiblog. What effect that has on them is difficult to measure."

Matthew Hooton agrees it is who is reading that makes blogs important.

"I think all those blogs were very carefully monitored by the Prime Minister's office, also by the opposition, and by the press gallery. It would have influenced their behaviour."

Source: Abstracted from an article by Sandra Dickson

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