Let's start with social networking terminology. Because groups who read blogs can be fairly insular, I'll give you a fast primer on what we call "milblogs."
A milblog is a military blog. Since techies like to play fast and loose with words, the prefix "mil" gets attached to a number of nouns like supporter, spouse, family, blog, blogger and even a verb, blogging. Out there is probably a milcat and a mildog. Fortunately, they do not type. (We do not have any association with the word mildew.) This evolution of language isn't unusual: five years ago, twitter was something young girls did when they giggled, and a tweet was a sound made by birds. But now, Twitter is what grown men do on their PDA's, and we have words such as tweet, tweetdeck, and tweetstream.
Milblogs are written by active duty soldiers, veterans, spouses, parents, and other supporters. They are diverse in opinion and tone, and cover various aspects of the military life. They offer an invaluable glimpse into the lives of soldiers, and also give us boots-on-the-ground reporting from the front line. Independent online journalists like Michael Yon embed themselves with the troops just as filmmakers do. Often their funds are raised by selling personal possessions or asking for donations. They bring us an intimate picture of the war.
These blogs are invaluable for many reasons. The first is that with the closure of news bureaus, there is a paucity of coverage in the mainstream press. Hence, milblogs become a source for news. Milblogs also allow families to stay in touch, and with soldiers writing their experiences to an unlimited worldwide audience, milblogging shows the humanity of the troops. This helps chisel away at many of the stereotypes affixed to Vietnam Veterans who were derided upon their arrival home. We can push past images like those shown to the American public in a Michael Moore movie, images like a bunch of teens driving around in a tank with heavy metal music blaring.
With milblogs, we see the heart and soul of the men and women who serve, we read their thoughts, we see the range of opinions amongst them. Milblogs can even influence opinion, as many are read daily by the brass (the top officials in the military), politicians (those people you vote into office), and even the papers (the things you used to read). They fill in what the mainstream media for a variety of reasons either misses or skips.
Last week, writers of milblogs convened for a special milblogging series of panels at BlogWorld Expo in Las Vegas. The milbloggers joined the mommy bloggers, causebloggers (social causes), medbloggers (medical), real estate bloggers, and techies to discuss social networking and new technologies. They even met Blogcritics' Eric Olsen and Technorati's Richard Jalinchandra.
The expo brought out some other big hitters as well, like Don Lemon of CNN. Along with Hugh Hewitt of TownHall, Jay Rosen of the NYU Journalism Program, and Joanna Drake Earl from Current TV, he kicked off the "Keynote Panel (The Death and Rebirth of Journalism)."
The "death" of journalism and its "rebirth" are actually dramatic misnomers. Journalism –despite the layoffs of scores of talented writers and editors – has never died. Rather, newspapers are on the wane, but as Steve Greenhut, (a journalist now with Freedom Politics) pointed out one night at a cigar-choked party, "There will always be a need for journalists." Journalism has changed, but the papers — reliant on an old way of doing business and reporting, just aren't able to keep up.
What's changed is the way the mainstream media gets its news, how the public takes in news, and what's deemed newsworthy. There's also tight competition with bloggers, who are competing not only with the mainstream media but with each other. Today, news tips fall from the information cloud – from Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, email submissions, videos, and phone calls.
As CNN's Don Lemon pointed out, there remains the inherent risk of jumping on a tip without verifying its accuracy and truth. "If I get it wrong, it's my neck on the line," he said, perhaps in reference to such big hitters as Dan Rather, who saw his career vanish at CBS. Fact checking has always been a big job, and tips are pouring in faster than ever. Confidence in reporting the news is not the same as competence and ensuring all the facts are correct.
That being said, one of the downfalls of the mainstream media is that they can't be everywhere. Therefore, they are dependent on cultivating online sources. However, the mainstream media seems to stumble when asked to accept individuals or groups who haven't been through the traditional journalism training or climbed the ladder rung by rung at a newspaper, television station, or magazine.
As traditional news bureaus continue to close, newsblogs, some written by laid-off newspaper writers, have filled in on local, national and international issues. Nowhere is the need for them more important than in news about Iraq and Afghanistan, where the mainstream media does not offer enough.
When asked if any of the panelists could name a credible independent online source, Hugh Hewitt mentioned Michael Yon, the independent journalist currently in Afghanistan. Hewitt has always been a supporter of military blogs and he was the only one to name a military blogger. But it wasn't lost on many in the audience, which included the US Army Europe, the Online and Social Networking Division of Army Public Affairs, and many milbloggers, that missing on this traditional journalism panel was an innovative source of news – the milblogger.
So it fell to this long-time writer and Army wife to wait patiently in line during the Q&A portion, listening to three rants, before getting to ask the august panel a question. In fact mine was the only query. The first three had expounded their point of view and engaged in verbal wrangling with members of the panel. It was pointless, and even the audience started to boo. (Note to such participants: lead with the question first. Your point of view is irrelevant in a packed session. No one will hire or talk to you because you rant well.)
Finally, it was my turn. I asked the panel the only question of the session: would they put a milblogger up on the stage with these same people next year? I explained to them that were it not for milblogs, I'd have no understanding of what was going on in Afghanistan.
The answer? Rick Calvert, the founder of BlogWorld Expo, stepped out of the shadows with a single-word reply.
"Yes," he said, to much applause.
Next year a milblogger will be on the keynote panel, hitting hard with the likes of Lemon, Hewitt, Earl, and Rosen. Calvert has a wide spectrum of competent and engaging milbloggers to choose from.
The result of asking a simple question?
That afternoon, Hewitt interviewed milbloggers on his radio show, including Greyhawk, who runs what is acknowledged as one of the oldest milblogs (since 2003).
The author of The Mudville Gazette came on to talk about his and other milblogs and what they cover. Toby Nunn, Project Development Director of Soldier's Angels,spoke about the work that organization does to help wounded warriors and their families. Chuck Ziegenfuss told Hewitt's audience about Project Valour IT, which purchases voice-activated computers for soldiers with extremity wounds or paralysis.
Matt Burden of the popular Blackfive blog, which covers a range of topics including military strategy, also went on the show. So did Major Cosentino of the Online and Social Networking Division of Army Public Affairs; he spoke about this new division, started in January 2009, and its efforts to help families stay in touch, and to reach the American public.
Near closing time, CNN's Don Lemon came into the Army lounge (the only booth with a full spread of food and beverages) and said he had just heard about milblogs. He wanted a story! Fortunately, Major Chuck Ziegenfuss was there to deftly, congenially, and professionally handle all questions that Lemon could pitch. They talked for a few minutes about Project Valour IT.
The rise and importance of milblogs was made clear that day. Milbloggerss are part news sources, part diarists, and part historical documentarians; in addition they serve as a community network, which will continue to grow. As the mainstream media struggles with competition from without and budget issues from within, milblogs and other news blogs have already started to fill their void. In passing, Technorati CEO Richard Jalichandra suggested that perhaps his site needed to start its own milblogging channel. Will they? With their recent expansion into content by acquiring Blogcritics, there is no doubt that they could.
1. Hugh Hewitt with CJ Grisham and Chuck Ziegenfuss.
2. Chuck Ziegenfuss talking about Project Valour IT
3. Chuck Ziegenfuss interviewed by Don Lemon of CNN about Project Valour IT.