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Using Blogs to Hack the Media

One of the many things I love about Jim Moore is his ability to think big. Reacting to my paper “Making Room for the Third World in the Second Superpower”, he suggests that we strive not just for equitable representation of the developing world:

“Perhaps the third-world could be overrepresented–intentionally and to good effect–in the second superpower. How might we do this?”

Jim goes on to give some “starter ideas” about how we’d do this. His suggestion to encourage developing world inclusion in social networking software doesn’t do a ton for me, simply because I’ve never really understood the value of Orkut et al. But his other suggestions – building Skoop servers that users in developing nations can use to blog via email, and working to improve inclusion of developing world news in online news sources seem right on target to me.

This last idea – figuring out how to increase attention to news from the developing world – is the one I’m most passionate about. My guess is that Jim’s suggested the key to unlocking this problem – if we found a way to over-represent the developing world in the blogosphere, we’d likely change its portrayal in offline media as well.

Blogs serve as consumer preference data for offline journalism. It’s hard for newspapers and TV news shows to know specifically what their readers are interested in. Publishers have access to gross data – circulation figures – and some fine data – letters to the editor – but generally don’t know whether their readers would like to hear more or less about a particular story. Decreasing sales don’t tell you if your readers aren’t interested in news about local politics, or whether your coverage of local politics is so bad that your readers are going elsewhere for coverage. As a publisher, it’s easy to make the wrong, but cost-effective, choice – cut local political coverage with the assumption that your readers aren’t interested in it.

Blogs let us tell offline media what we want. When blog readers made it clear we wanted to know more about Trent Lott’s racist comments, mainstream media picked up the ball and dug deeper into the story. What would happen if we started sending an unambiguous message that we wanted to hear lots more about Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America? What sort of effort would it take to choose an important issue – say the Sudanese government’s involvement in Darfur – and get enough momentum in the blogosphere that CNN was forced to bring a camera crew to the region?

In other words, can we use blogs to hack mainstream media?