Unless you are a dedicated Web surfer, you might never have heard the word "blog" if not for two watershed moments in the short life of Web logs, which came about in the late 1990s.
The first was the fall of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who in December 2002 was forced to resign his post as Senate Republican leader for comments he made praising colleague Strom Thurmond and, by implication, some of Thurmond's less progressive views on race. Bloggers helped the story reach the mainstream media - or MSM, in blogspeak.
Then there was Rathergate, when bloggers helped turn up the heat on CBS News anchor Dan Rather for an inaccurate report he did about President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. Rather took early retirement in March 2005.
Bloggers were high-fiving each other for their victories in these games of "gotcha," and with good reason. But after the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, bloggers have employed their skills and influence toward loftier ends, and the results are impressive.
Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia, defines a blog as "a Web-based publication consisting primarily of periodic articles - normally in reverse chronological order."
Another way to describe them to the uninitiated would be "Web sites with attitude." Some resemble online diaries, but blogs in their purest form involve a series of "posts," usually no more than a few paragraphs, in which the blog writer links to something else on the Internet, while providing commentary about it.
Some blogs are little more than links to interesting Net findings (see www.boingboing.net and www.metafilter.com). Some are soap boxes for editorialists who opine on the state of the world several times a day www.andrewsullivan.com and www.talkingpointsmemo.com are popular stops for political commentary).
Some bloggers have anointed themselves as media critics, which has caused, understandably, a bit of tension between blogs and the good old MSM. But coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath has shown there are ways to build bridges between 20th and 21st century media.
Kaye Trammell, a professor at Louisiana State University, lost her electricity after the storm, but was posting to her blog hurricaneupdate.blogspot.com) using a Blackberry wireless device. A New Orleans lawyer who evacuated to Houston, Ernest Svenson, blogs about the experience at www.ernietheattorney.net. Both are nice examples of what's called citizen's media.
Blogging became the only publishing option for the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper for the first few days after the storm. The paper's staff put out a Web-only edition at NOLA.com for three days, and the site recorded 200 million page views within a week and a half after Katrina struck. NOLA.com had already hosted a variety of blogs, including several by citizen writers.
NOLA.com editor Jim Donley told Editor & Publisher that there has been a "paradigm shift" over how the staffs of the blog and the Times-Picayune can work together.
Blogs, citizen journalists and mainstream publications have plenty to offer each other. Here's hoping those lessons aren't lost after Katrina becomes a distant memory.
Greg Connors' column about blogs will appear every other Monday in The Link, alternating with Karen Robinson's NewsPower column. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.