TERENCE SMITH: Four guys in a bar -- in this case, four bloggers in a bar -- talking over a beer in suburban Washington about their common obsession: Weblogging.
WEB LOGGER: I had 550 people yesterday.
WEB LOGGER: Wow.
BLOGGER: And so, it's been growing. So now, like a good day is 500, 600.
TERENCE SMITH: James Robertson:
JAMES ROBERTSON, Web Logger: Weblogging is much the same thing as keeping a diary. It's a way of putting up your thoughts on whatever is going through your life that day. Sometimes I'm ranting. Sometimes I'm just saying, "this was kind of neat."
TERENCE SMITH: Thomas Bascom:
THOMAS BASCOM, Web Log Software Designer: I look at blogging as a group of millions of people trying to share the message, writing passionately about, you know, what they're interested in, telling stories.
TERENCE SMITH: Weblogs, or blogs, are personal online journals, one of the fastest-growing phenomena on the Internet. There are currently an estimated 500,000 weblogs in the virtual universe popularly known as the blogosphere.
Bloggers were especially busy during the Iraq War, offering readers alternative views and information.
Some, like the group Weblog, the Command Post, were updated every few minutes. For months leading up to the war, readers followed day-to-day conditions in Baghdad courtesy of a blogger identified only as "Salam Pax."
His last post was March 24, the day power and phone service were disrupted in Baghdad.
Weblogs have been dismissed by some as little more than soapboxes for the self-absorbed, while others see them as a new interactive form of participatory journalism. What motivates bloggers?
JOAN CONNELL, Executive Producer, MSNBC.com: Narcissism, creativity, and a desire to connect with like-minded people.
TERENCE SMITH: Joan Connell selects and edits weblogs that she posts on the Web site MSNBC.com.
JOAN CONNELL: That is what journalism is all about, actually, in some ways.
And it's what creating communities are all about. And that's one of the great challenges to us as news gatherers and journalists: How do we discover information and share it in creative ways with people? Give them the information they need to make the choices in their lives as citizens.
TERENCE SMITH: Weblogs are public Web sites characterized by brief, time-stamped entries in reverse chronology, often laced with edge and attitude. They customarily include hypertext -- links to other sites favored by the author -- and some now include still photos, video, and audio.
BLOG AUDIO: Or sometimes I'll say sorry -- mostly sorry...
TERENCE SMITH: The subject matter is diverse as the Internet itself, from classic cars to sex to knitting.
But it is the opinion journalism weblogs, like instapundit.com and andrewsullivan.com, that can and have made a difference in the public policy arena.
SEN. TRENT LOTT (Dec. 5, 2002): I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.
TERENCE SMITH: When former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott famously dug his political grave at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, the mainstream media largely ignored his remarks.
JOSHUA MARSHALL, Freelance Journalist: It was sort of an open secret in a way that Trent Lott had this sort of, you know, somewhat unreconstructed views about the past of the American South. And everybody kind of knew that, and knew that it was something we all knew, but it's kind of old news, and we don't talk about it.
TERENCE SMITH: Joshua Marshall is a freelance writer and author of talkingpointsmemo.com, a popular weblog that he says averages 15,000 readers a day.
He and other bloggers fastened on to the Lott quote, and repeatedly posted it on their sites. Marshall dug into Lott's past, and found echoes of the senator's earlier comments.
JOSHUA MARSHALL: Blogs sort of kept it from dying for a critical period, until the rest of the media paid attention.
It was one of those things that kind of needed to be repeated and unpacked over time to really get a sense, and so, blogs, I think, were... had all the right characteristics to be able to do that.
TERENCE SMITH: News organizations subsequently began to cover the controversy, which mushroomed onto the front pages. Two weeks after the original blog entries, the Mississippi Republican bowed to pressure from his own party, and stepped down from his leadership position. Joan Connell of MSNBC.com:
JOAN CONNELL: And pretty soon this story gathered momentum enough in the blogosphere to shake the foundations of traditional journalism, and then the traditional news organizations jumped on board.
But this was something that was very grass-roots.
TERENCE SMITH: So they brought down a senate majority leader?
JOAN CONNELL: They had a hand in it.
TERENCE SMITH: Josh Marshall says he was astounded by the outcome.
JOSHUA MARSHALL: It's just that something had gone from being something on my site and other people's Web sites that was, you know, just a few people were paying attention to -- and over the course of a week or two, kept ratcheting up until it... you know, what's the senate majority leader, the third or fourth most powerful person in the country, is tossed out by their own party. So yeah, kind of awed just that it played out the way that it did.
TERENCE SMITH: Weblogs are free for the reading on the Internet, but some webloggers -- like Marshall and a handful of better-read bloggers -- pass what amounts to a virtual tin cup on their sites. Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic, staged a pledge week on his site that reportedly brought in tens of thousands of dollars.
And a freelancer, Christopher Allbritton, who used to work for the Associated Press, raised $10,000 from his readers to finance a reporting trip to Iraqi Kurdistan during the war.
TERENCE SMITH: But the question remains, is weblogging journalism? Joan Connell maintains that the weblogs on her site are.
JOAN CONNELL: One of the values that we place on our own weblogs is that we edit our webloggers. Out there in the blogosphere, often it goes from the mind of the blogger to the mind of the reader, and there's no backup.
And I would submit that that editing function really is the factor that makes it journalism. Are you making a mistake here? Do you really want to say that? Do you really want to use that word? Is that libelous?
All of those basic journalism questions that we always ask.
TERENCE SMITH: On the theory that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, MSNBC.com now has some of its own news correspondents writing weblogs.
But for the vast majority of bloggers, like these four who spend hours a week writing their weblogs, the motivation is personal expression. John Irons is an assistant professor of economics at Amherst College.
JOHN IRONS, Web Logger: When I first started writing, my goal was actually to get myself to write, to try to become a better writer.
I figured if I could do it on the Web, then no one would ever see it. But over the years, all of a sudden, people started coming to the Web site.
TERENCE SMITH: Scott Knowles markets Internet advertising by day, and writes about the industry on his weblog by night.
SCOTT KNOWLES, Web Logger: It's really what the web is all about, I think, is each person having their own voice, and really kind of a democratization of media. And I think that's really what turned me on.
TERENCE SMITH: Nowhere is the democratization more evident than in the growing number of weblog readers, estimated at about five million a day.
A case in point is Dick Riley, an attorney in a Washington law firm. He's been reading weblogs for a couple of years, and writes to Josh Marshall on a regular basis.
One note was in response to a blog Marshall wrote, meditating on the newly current term "homeland security."
JOSH MARSHALL: The phrase really does have a deep blood-and-soil tinge to it which is distinctly Germanic, more than a touch un-American, and a little creepy. I mean, we -- that is to say, Americans -- don't really use this word, not just liberals or cosmopolitan northeasterners, but really any of us.
DICK RILEY: I've wondered where that unpleasant word came from. When the bush administration came up with it right after 9/11, I honestly thought they chose "homeland security" because "home security" sounded like a burglar alarm company.
But you've conclusively demonstrated, I think, that the term developed among the missile defense community, and that's undoubtedly why it was on the minds of the Bush people.
TERENCE SMITH: Riley says he enjoys the fact that he can participate in political debate.
DICK RILEY, Web Log Reader: I like weblogs because you get sophisticated political commentary in bite-sized chunks. And together with that, you get the opportunity to correspond in real time with writers. I think the whole process is just terrific.
It's an absolute conversation between political and cultural commentators and their readers.
TERENCE SMITH: It's a conversation that seems destined to grow. A new weblog reportedly is created by a yet another commentator every 40 seconds.