Razan Ghazzawi arrested in Syria

Prominent blogger Razan Ghazzawi is the latest victim of an increasingly desperate Syrian regime, detained on her way to a media conference in Jordan on Sunday. The US-born human rights activist was arrested at the border while on her way to attend a workshop in Amman for advocates of press freedoms in the Arab world. While the Assad administration have said nothing, a local committee of activists confirmed the arrest yesterday.

The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) said Ghazzawi was their media officer and attending the workshop for them. SCM condemned her arrest and the restrictions on civil society and freedom of expression in Syria. “SCM demands authorities stop abuse of systematic practice against bloggers, journalists, and Syrians citizens,” they said. “SCM demands to release the blogger Razan Ghazzawi immediately and unconditionally and to release all detainees in Syria and stresses on the need for Syrian authorities to respect their international commitments that have committed themselves to it through the ratification of the conventions and treaties international.” SCM said they held Syrian authorities responsible for any physical or psychological harm caused to her.Ghazzawi has been a high profile documenter of violations and arrests in Syria since the start of the uprising in March. Bravely she was one of the few in Syria to blog under her real name. Her most recent post on 1 December announced another Syrian blogger and activist Hussein Ghrer had been freed after 37 days in Adra prison. “Hussein is going to be home tonight, where he will be holding his wife tight, and never let go of his two precious sons again,” Ghazzawi wrote. “It’s all going to be alright, and it will all be over very soon.” The nightmare has begun for Ghazzawi herself.

The arrest sparked wide protests online. A Twitter campaign #freerazan has gone viral in the last 24 hours while own twitter feed @redrazan is being managed by friends. A Facebook page has also been set up since the arrest. A Moroccan blogging friend Hisham Almiraat said Razan was an indefatigable campaigner for human rights and freedom of expression. “She has been advocating for the rights of political prisoners and minorities in Syria and has always fought for the rights of the Palestinians,” Almiraat said. “Razan is the most driven, thoughtful and freedom loving person I have ever met.”

A message on Ghazzawi’s blog shows what she told friends before she set off for Jordan. If anything happens to me, she said, “know that the regime does not fear those imprisoned but those who do not forget them”. She knew was taken a great risk by travelling to the conference. The blog MidEast Youth is making much of her US citizenship in its calls for her freedom. While Ghazzawi admits she born in the US she never lived there. Her family lived for 10 years in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and are now back in Damascus. She graduated with a degree in English literature from Damascus University and did a further five years of study in Lebanon before returning home.

The administration shows no sign of bending to intense international pressure either to release her or end atrocities against protesters. Instead Syria held war manoeuvres over the weekend. State-run television said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.” The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops “ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security”. Assad and his regime intend to tough this out with the support of Russia and China and won’t mind the collateral damage to the likes of Ghazzawi in the process.

The slow lingering death of journalism

Not everyone seems impressed, but in my view Lindsay Tanner raised substantive points in his interview with Leigh Sales this week in the 7.30 Report. Tanner was arguing from his new book Sideshow where he says the media are largely to blame for the shoddy state of our polity. The argument was never fully teased out. The interviewer took the adversarial role of blaming the politicians for the problem and the issue of media behaviour was ignored.

Sales didn’t address the problems Tanner raised: “gotcha journalism”, the treatment of gaffes, the trivialisation of politics as a game, and the glorification of the aggrieved whenever reform is proposed. Instead she took the easy line, pushing back on the duty of the politician to rise above the shackles the media has imposed. As Kerryn Goldsworthy pointed out, it was a textbook example of the problem Tanner was describing.

Sales kept asking why politicians couldn’t rise above it, but never once explored the other half of the problem, or even acknowledge it existed. It is as if the commodification of news is a taboo topic, which is somewhat understandable. After all, what media will admit to its audience the inconvenient fact they are part of the problem they are analysing?

Certainly none of the media organisations that spent millions of dollars giddily covering Friday’s Royal Wedding would make any such admission. As Dan Rather pointed out, we should remember this next time a media company closes a bureau or is unable to cover a “foreign story with full force”. This week-long extravaganza saw hundreds of journalists stationed in Green Park seeking mind-numbing excreta on the edges of the wedding. The one snippet I caught of Channel 7’s Sunrise on Wednesday morning featured an in depth article on Kate Middleton’s stripper cousin or to use the parlance beloved of media pretending not to be prudish while being prurient, Middleton’s “saucy cousin”.

I don’t blame the journalists. Short of News of the World tactics and hacking the Royals’ phone service, they are not going to get an exclusive royal story outside the long lens. They’re hard working hacks who devote their talents to a Kevin Bacon game finding news in saucy strippers two irrelevant stages removed from another irrelevancy. The only newsworthy elements of the Royal Wedding are the fuss over the Bahraini ambassador, the snub to Blair and Brown, and the censoring of the Chaser’s attempt to satirise the wedding. Tanner’s Sideshow has moved into centre stage.

The problem is, as Robert McChesney puts it, media companies are a government sanctioned oligopoly, owned by a few highly profitable corporate entities. They guard their privilege through legislative influence and control of news coverage; they distort understanding of media issues. According to Eric Beecher it is a convergence of economic, technological and societal trends threatening “quality media” in an unprecedented way. He blames a media obsession with celebrity, fame, trivia and lifestyles as serious analysis cannot attract a broad constituency “without large dollops of celebrity gossip and soft lifestyle coverage.”

The Royal Wedding is easy news – controllable, glamorous and unthreatening. No journalist is taking chances like Mohammad Nabous or Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. These men died trying to communicate things people don’t want you to know. But as Lindsay Tanner points out, the companies they work for don’t want you to know either. The model is borked. Investigative and analytical journalism do not pay their way. With the ABC entrenched in the status quo, only the unpaid fifth estate is showing any interest in saving democracy. But without the power and kudos of the fourth, I don’t fancy their chances.

Grog rations

After reading Grog’s Gamut’s first posts since The Australian journalist James Massola revealed his name, I was struck by the personal detail which informed his arguments. While it was always there to some degree, Grog suddenly had more freedom to back up opinions with detailed events from his life. I tweeted last night “Reading @grogsgamut’s blog with added personal experiences makes me think @jamesmassola may have actually done us all a favour.”

Grog, who has also returned to twitter, replied promptly: “@derekbarry they were always there – you just didn’t know my name.”

Given the way his story was “always there” I was far from surprised the pseudonymous blogger was outed. Grog’s recent rise to prominence allied to the hints about his life in his work, made me sure his identity would be revealed. He also tempted fate by trusting Massola not to reveal something he told him months ago. Surely he knew the writing was on the wall when he appeared at Canberra Media140 in September as embedded blogger “Greg”.

I was overseas at the time so I missed that conference and I also missed the heat of the Twitter firestorm in “#groggate”. While it was good to see social media flex its muscles against the arrogance of older players, I thought it was amusing how enthusiastically they used the journalism cliché of “-gate”.

But I was still angry when I heard the Australian had outed him for no apparent reason. I foresaw the likely consequences – his employers would force him to cease blogging and Australia would lose a useful critical voice. Though I’d never heard of the name “Greg Jericho”, I’ve known about the blogger “Grog’s Gamut” for some time. His bio was of a Canberra public servant who admitted he looked nothing like his Ralph Fiennes icon. Yet this unknown part-timer was fast becoming one of the sharpest political writers in Australia. He excelled in daily coverage of the 2010 election coverage. His 31 July tour de force “bring the journalists home” article attacking poor journalistic practices caused an ABC review and put him in the wider news. But it the Murdoch empire was Grog’s real target and it was only a matter of time before they would launch a counterattack.

Grog said he told Massola his name ten months ago, but he wasn’t “unmasked” until 27 September. Massola’s article and that of his boss Geoff Elliot who defended him became notorious in the Twittersphere. While some criticism was over the top, neither journalist can have much complaint. They failed the basic test of newsworthiness, completely botching the justification for the outing, because there was none.

Massola’s first sentence, which should be the most important, revealed nothing new. “The anonymous blogger who prompted Mark Scott to redirect the ABC’s federal election coverage is a Canberra public servant,” he wrote. It served only as a false rationale for the name in the second sentence: “Greg Jericho, a public servant who spends his days working in the film section of the former Department of Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts.” Massola passed the blamed to twitter speculation for the reveal and attempted to justify it by saying Grog’s bias might impact the “impartial and professional” way the APS is run.

The unmasking did not sit well with the Twitterati (not least with Grog himself) who blasted Massola for his abuse of privilege, false emphasis, lack of principles and lack of care of the consequences of his actions. Massola had violated a social norm and his boss The Australian Media section editor Geoff Elliott was forced to defend him. Elliot succeeded only in making matters worse with his pompous tone. “If you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public’s right to know who you are,” he said. “It is the media’s duty to report it.”

Elliot never made it clear why the public had such a right nor why it was his job to inform the public about that right, particularly when that paper has a long history of pseudonymous publication. It is not difficult to see News Ltd’s political line at work destabilising a potentially dangerous enemy in a manner that was borderline unethical.

Fortunately the Australian Public Service proved Elliot and me both wrong. After a couple of weeks of silence, Grog was back online this week. He may not “deserve anonymity” Elliot summarily stripped him of but he certainly deserved to have a voice. His employers took into account he steers well clear of his own policy area. They took the sensible position no one of reasonable mind could confuse Grog’s views with those of his employers.

Reading the newest Grog/Greg musings show he remains fiercely partisan. His opinions haven’t changed but I detected a greater willingness to use life experiences as collateral because now he could do so without fear of consequence. Though Grog has denied this, it was this new explanatory power I sensed which made me think Massola had, quite unintentionally, done us a favour.

Gamut’s Gambit: Blogging the failures of journalism

An extraordinary thing happened in the reporting of this year’s Australian Federal election. A blogger’s shot across the bows of journalists hit its mark. The anonymous Canberran blog Grog’s Gamut drew blood with his post on Friday 30 July about media waste and mismanagement. Many others have written about the shallowness of media election coverage, but Grog struck the biggest chord when he said 95 percent of the journalists following Gillard and Abbott around the country were not doing their job properly and should come home. He backed up his comments with a personal story that rung deeply true.

Grog’s post was important reading. But in the past such criticism would have been buried in the wastelands of cyberspace. What made this different was the power of Twitter, where so many journalists keep their alter egos. Instead of killing blogging as many predicted, social media has instead “deepened it, [and] given it more clarity and heft”. Grog’s post has been re-tweeted 266 times with many influential people including ABC boss Mark Scott, Lateline host Leigh Sales, The Chaser’s Chas Liacciardello and The Australian’s media writer Amanda Meade chiming in. Grog caused journalists the most severe bout of introspection seen in this country since blogging took off in the early 2000s.As James Massola wrote in the Australian on the weekend, not all journalists (including his own dismissive headline writer) liked the criticism. Herald Sun political reporter Ben Packham took issue with some assertions in the piece, as did the Sun-Herald’s Jessica Wright. “Across Twitter a conversation bubbled and crackled as journalists and readers debated the merits of reportage from the campaign trail,” Massola wrote. “Such a public conversation about journalism was unimaginable five years ago.”

Three years ago in the last federal election campaign Massola’s bosses at The Australian penned the most infamous denunciation of bloggers this country has seen. The editorial of 12 July 2007 righteously thundered about the “the self appointed experts online…from the extreme Left, populated as many sites are by sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper.” The Australian was defending its interpretation of opinion polls under increasing attack by knowledgeable bloggers Possum’s Pollytics, The Poll Bludger, and Mumble.

All three have been co-opted into the mainstream (the first two at Crikey, the third at The Australian). The mainstream has bigger issues to worry about than bloggers, plagued by falling circulations, declining ad revenues and the trivialisation of online news. Those journalists who follow politicians around the country are overworked and underpaid. In responses to Grog’s post (though neither acknowledged him) the ABC’s Annabel Crabb and News Ltd’s Sally Jackson defended the press pack. They said the problem was caused by secretive politicians, fast-moving campaigns, 16 hour days and the lack of time to absorb important decisions. Neither acknowledged any failings by the journalists.

Scott Rosenberg, writer of the best book yet on blogging (“Say Everything”), says journalists cannot handle criticism. He quotes recent US examples of reporters snapping and sneering when attacked. He points to a common complaint that journalists don’t like being held to the standards of accountability they expect from others. Rosenberg puts it down to the profession’s “pathological heritage of self-abnegation”. When something goes wrong with the system, they count on the system to protect them.

Bloggers have never been beholden to a bigger system and find it easier to accept complaint. They rely on crowdsourcing to make up for the lack of an editor. Rosenberg says this accepting attitude is now more common in younger journalists who have a different relationship to their own work and the public. Most journalists are also getting used to reading blogs or running blogs themselves, changing attitudes towards the medium and those who write in it. The “running, linked blog” was one of Guardian editor’s Alan Rusberger’s ideas for how journalism might reinvent itself as it faces up to uncertainties.

There are few Rusbergers in Australia. Most editors here are still wedded to old ways and remain a stumbling block to reform of media reporting. Grog’s post was not addressed at journalists. His first sentence read: “Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money?” Among many incisive comments (which is another wonderful thing about blogs) was one from an anonymous member of the travelling press gallery. “There is no time to eat, to find a bottle of water, to go to the toilet,” the commenter wrote. “Just a relentless demand for more and more copy, faster and faster.”

Writing in Crikey Margaret Simons said we had to have sympathy for the journalists on the campaign trail who rarely have time to think. What is lacking, she said, was editorial judgement. Simons said editors are not exercising independent judgement about what is worth reading and the stories (such as the weekend’s Latham debacle) descend into solipsistic nonsense. “For goodness sake, get the reporters off the bus!” Simons wrote. “Refuse to let your staff be treated with such contempt. Tell them they should not let it happen.” Simons suggested the people formerly known as the audience solve the problem. Taking her cue from Wikileaks, she asked “Could there be an election wiki, perhaps, giving the policy information the media is largely failing to provide?” Over to us.

Pew finds the young are deserting blogging for social media

A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life project has found blogging has dropped among teens and young adults while rising among older adults since 2006. The findings suggest as blogging has matured as a practice, so has its practitioners. The survey was conducted in a series of reports by the Pew Research Center to highlight the attitudes and behaviours of American adults ages 18 to 29. The report brought together recent findings about internet and social media use among young adults and situated it within comparable data for adolescents and adults older than 30. Pew surveyed 800 adolescents and 2,253 adults in 2009 to get their data.


The report found the Internet is a “central and indispensable element” of the lives of American teenagers and young adults. 93 percent of teens between 12 and 17 went online, a number stable for three years. Nearly two-thirds of teen internet users go online every day. Families with teenage children are also most like to have a broadband connection (76 percent and up 5 points since 2006). It will surprise no one that the older you get, the less likely you are to be connected to the net. 74 percent of adults use the internet. That number is skewed because younger adults (18-29) go online at a rate equal to that of teens (at 93 percent).81 percent of adults aged 30-49 are online while just 38 percent (but still rising) of those over 65 are hooked up.

Use of gadgets
is on the rise as the Internet moves away from the desktop and onto mobile and wireless platforms. Again the growth is skewed towards the young. In September 2009, Pew asked adults about gadgets: mobile phones, laptops and desktops, mp3 players, gaming devices and ebook readers. On average, adults owned just under three gadgets. Young adults of age 18-29 averaged nearly four gadgets while adults ages 30 to 64 average three gadgets. Adults 65 and older on average owned roughly 1.5 gadgets.

While the desktop or laptop remains the dominant online method, newer ways of connecting are making headway. More than a quarter of teen mobile phone users use their cell phone to go online. A similar number of teens with a game console (PS3, Xbox or Wii) use it to go online. One in five owners of portable gaming devices use it for Internet access. White adults are less likely than African Americans and Hispanics to use the internet wirelessly. African Americans are the most active users of the mobile internet, and their use is growing at a faster pace than mobile internet use among whites or Hispanics.

Teens are avid users of social networks. Three quarters of online American teens ages 12 to 17 used an online social network website, a statistic that has been growing at 7 percent each year since 2006. Teenagers are also more likely to use it as they get older. While more than four in five online teens aged 14-17 use online social networks, just a bit more than half of online teens aged 12-13 say they use the sites. Pew says this may be due to age restrictions on social networking sites that request 12-year-olds refrain from registering or posting profiles, but do not actively prevent it. The other notable statistic is differences in gender are evening out ending the previous dominance of girls on social networks.

Use of social networks stays constant in the 18-29 age group but then drops off rapidly for those over 40. Adults are also more likely to have profiles on multiple sites. Among adult profile owners, Facebook is currently the social network of choice; 73 percent of adults now maintain a profile on Facebook, 48 percent are on MySpace and 14 percent use LinkedIn. Analysis by education and household income show support for Facebook and LinkedIn rises with both factors validating Danah Boyd’s research into the subject.

The news is not so good for Twitter. Pew’s September 2009 data suggest teens do not use the platform in large numbers. While one in five adult internet users ages 18 and older use Twitter or update their status online, teen data collected at a similar time shows only 8 percent of online American teens ages 12-17 use Twitter. Pew added a rider to say the question for teens was worded quite differently from the question for adults so the results are not strictly comparable. With adults there was a sliding scale of Twitter usage with age. 37 percent of online aged 18-24 use the platform compared to 4 percent of over 65s.

While all other web2.0 platforms were on the rise among the young, the striking exception was blogging. Teenage blogging has dropped from 28 percent to 14 percent of users in the last three years. The decline spreads to commenting on other blogs. 52 percent of social network-using teens report commenting on friends’ blogs, down from 76 percent commenting in 2006. Young adults show a similar decline. Blogging as a whole had not declined as there has been a corresponding increase in blogging among older adults. The hard work in blogging is increasingly an old person’s game.

Fatma Riahi on frontline of Tunisia’s war on bloggers and journalists

Blogger Fatma Arabicca has resumed blogging two months after authorities arrested her but the blog remains censored. Fatma joins another high profile Tunisian blogger journalist Sofiene Chourabi on the censorship list. Fatma’s original blog was deleted in November before she attracted the unwelcome notice of authorities but a new version (in Arabic) has been posting since 17 January.

Arabicca is the nom de blog of college theatre professor, Fatma Riahi. On 2 November, the 34-year-old Riahi was summoned to appear before a Tunis criminal court where she was questioned about her online activities. The authorities wanted to know whether Riahi was hiding behind the pen-name of Blog de Z, a Tunisian cartoonist blogger whose political satire enraged the government. They released her and summoned her again the next day. Three security officers escorted her home to Monastir 160 km from Tunis, to confiscate her PC and conduct a search for evidence. A day later, they took her passwords and accessed her Facebook account.

Riahi was detained for a week and denied permission to speak to her lawyer for longing than a few minutes. She was charged with criminal libel that potentially carries up to three years in prison. A Free Arabicca campaign blog was launched by fellow Tunisian bloggers in support for Fatma (though it hasn’t posted since mid November), and there is also a Facebook support page.

Riahi’s perceived offence didn’t need to be much to rile the sensitive Tunisian government. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s government is one of the most repressive in the world for Internet usage. Social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook are often blocked because of content criticising the president’s policies and the government also filters emails of human rights activists. The 2008 Reporters Without Borders freedom of the press index ranked Tunisia 143rd out of 173 countries. When the Journaliste Tunisien blog posted the index a day after it was issued, it was blocked by authorities.

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists reported an appeals court in Nabeul refused to release Tunisian journalist Zuhair Makhlouf despite his completion of a three-month prison term imposed in October. Makhlouf is a contributor to news Web site Assabil Online and the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif. He was sentenced in October for “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” The sentence ended on January 18 but Tunisian penal code provisions say a prisoner cannot be released before all appeals have been considered. The court designated February 3 as the date for Makhlouf’s initial appeals hearing.

The decision came days before an appeal hearing for Taoufik Ben Brik, a journalist sentenced to six months in prison. Last year Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticised the detention of Ben Brik and a violent attack on another journalist. In October 2009 Ben Brik was detained on a trumped-up charge of harassing a woman on the street. Reporters Without Borders said the arrest was an effort to muzzle him for his fierce criticism of President Ben Ali. Around the same time, independent journalist Slim Boukhdhir was attacked by a group of men hours after he gave an interview to the BBC. RSF said the behaviour was “befitting of a mafia regime.”

The regime is showing no signs of changing hostile attitude to journalists. Ben Ali has ruled Tunisia since a bloodless coup in 1987. In 2009 Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term with 89 percent of the vote in a rigged election. Although he promised to promote media diversity in 2004, the regime retains a tight control of news and information. According to the RSF, journalists and human rights activists are the target of bureaucratic harassment, police violence and constant surveillance by the intelligence services. The Internet is strictly controlled and foreign journalists are not allowed anywhere without the presence of government officials. RSF says Ben Ali is treated leniently by international organisation because he is “an ally of the west in its fight against terrorism.” No one seems to care about the terrorism he inflicts on his own subjects.

Blogging in the Noughties

The end of the year brings to a close an extraordinary decade for social media on the Internet. Google has turned itself into a verb, Youtube has become a video-sharing phenomenon, Facebook has transformed the way people talk to friends while Twitter is the premier destination for finding out what is happening in the world right now. All are crucial in democratising the Internet. Yet none of them have had the same effect on democracy itself as much as technology that predated the decade. That technology is blogging, which seems almost old hat as the Noughties draw to a close.

Yet blogging has not disappeared. It is a mature technology in rude health on an international scale. In 2006 the Pew Internet & American life project estimated 12 million adult Americans kept blogs and 57 million adult Americans read them. Five million blogs globally posted content in June 2008 in 66 countries across 20 languages. 59 percent of these are maintained by people who have been blogging for two years or more. Scott Rosenberg says the “blogosphere” is so large and anarchic, it does not exist in the singular. There were many blogospheres. “The one you saw depended on which little slice of the blog universe you were following.”

Blogs are interactive, contain posts of varying lengths in reverse chronological order, usually contain hyperlinks, allow comments, and have a blogroll of other blogs. But there is no single accepted definition of a blog. The academic Scott Wright said “It is generally accepted that a blog is a regularly updated website with information presented in reverse chronological order. But what do we understand by the term regular? I have recently updated a blog having failed to do so for several months. In the intervening period, was it a blog, a defunct blog, or a website?” Others have argued a blog must contain a blog-roll or links section, yet several highly active blogs do not have blog-rolls.

The technology advances of the later 1990s made mass communications possible in a way impossible in previous eras. In December 1997 Jorn Barger coined the term weblog on his site robotwisdom.com to define his site which he saw as both a log of, and on, the web. Barger’s site contained posts and hyperlinks but had no comments or other interaction. In early 1999 Internet analyst Peter Merholz announced he was pronouncing the word “we-blog” or “blog” for short liking the new name’s crudeness and dissonance. “I like that it [blog] is roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking”.

Information upchucking became easier with new blogging tools such as Google Blogger, WordPress and Movable Type in the early 2000s. No longer, as A.J. Liebling suggested, did the freedom of the press belong exclusively to those who own one. Blogs evolved from listings of websites people liked to becoming personal journals sharing thoughts and conversations.

Blogs have changed our politics and our world. Their hyperlinking structure created nonlinear activity and an almost instantaneous feedback loop. Hotlinks are the key to the success of the blogs. Stephen Coleman called blogs the listening posts of modern democracy. According to David Perlmutter, blogging allowed people to bypass big media and create mass communications messages without formal training, reaching large audiences, inviting others to co-author knowledge and affecting public opinion, political affairs and government policymaking.

The word blog first appeared in a mainstream publication on 11 October 1999. The New Statesman described it as a “web page, something like a public commonplace book, which is added to each day…if there is any log they resemble, it is the captain’s log on a voyage of discovery”.

A couple of months later the word appeared in a newspaper in Ottawa Citizen article about pop singer Sarah McLachlan. Television took another six months to cotton on and it was a typical TV down-take. CNNdotCom’s show of 8 July 2000 introduced its nerdword of the day thus: “Today’s training in technobabble: “blog”. No it’s not the way feel in the morning after drinking too much tequila the night before. And no its not one of the creatures found in Dr Seuss’s zoo”.

Blogs were escaping the zoo and entering the mainstream. They were an ideal outlet to express the trauma of 9/11. At a 2002 Harvard conference on Internet communication Professor Jay Rosen of New York University identified “a new kind of public, where every reader can be a writer and people do not so much consume the news as they ‘use’ it in active search for what’s going on sometimes in collaboration with each other, or in support of the pros.” This was the germ of Rosen’s later oft-quoted idea of the “people formerly known as the audience”.

Not everyone was convinced the former audience was up to the job. Washington Post editors Len Downie and Robert Kaiser’s critique of journalism decried the degeneration of political reporting and investigative journalism and said blogs were no help. “There is little [in blogs] of what journalists would call reporting (our study this year found 5%)” they wrote.

While the majority ran the gamut from purely personal journals to opinions that could not make it into big media, the five percent doing reporting started to make inroads. The power of American bloggers was shown in the Trent Lott and Dan Rather cases. Lott was a congressional ally of George W. Bush but the president had to denounce him after the blogs ran hard on his Strom Thurmond 100th birthday speech. In “Rathergate” the blogs forced CBS to apologise for the fact it could not prove its documents were authentic and Rather retired.

In the UK, blogger Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) is a one-man wrecking ball with a string of British political scalps. Salam Pax’s online diary captured the frightening reality of invasion in Baghdad during the Iraqi war and disputed official accounts of the conduct of the 2003 war. Korean OhMyNews’s motto is “every citizen is a reporter while online citizen journalism outfit Malaysiakini has evolved into Malaysia’s premier news site.

In Australia there have been no blog “gotcha” moments yet but they are proving successful if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Mainstream media have been busy copying the blogs, while damning them – including The Australian’s 2007 castigation of “sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper”. By 2009 News Ltd had started The Punch, while Fairfax reheated the National Times masthead and the ABC has begun The Drum. The Drum’s editor Jonathan Green was hired from Crikey where he started up an influential network of bloggers to complement its journalism.

Asking whether blogging is journalism is like asking whether TV is journalism: it depends on what’s on. The two practices co-exist – often under the same name. Nevertheless the transformation from journalist to blogger isn’t always smooth. The Guardian’s groundbreaking Comment is Free website struggles to deal with the hoi polloi. As contributor and political journalist Jackie Ashley puts it, “there will always be those who know much more about a subject than a columnist. And equally there will be those who think they know much more. I’m delighted to hear from both: just so long as you make proper arguments and don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.”

The ease of anonymous publishing in an online environment has turned it into an easy space to diagnose stupidity. Rumours, hoaxes and cheating games risk descending the public sphere into chaos and anarchy. But as Henry Jenkins notes this is not an inevitable outcome, “As the digital revolution enters a new phase, one based on diminished expectations and dwindling corporate investment,” he says, “grassroots intermediaries may have a moment to redefine the public perception of new media and to expand their influence”. That moment has arrived.