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msnbc.com

Omar Javaid describes himself as a “pretty prolific” Internet reader who used to fire off hundreds of e-mails each week with news tidbits that might interest staff and customers of his consulting firm. Then about six months ago he began a sort of online diary known as a Weblog and began posting his thoughts and findings there instead.

The experiment has been so successful that Javaid says he plans to expand it until virtually everyone at his 60-person company, Mobilocity, has a Weblog. Javaid’s brief experience has convinced him that far from an exercise in self-indulgence, Weblogs actually can be used to increase worker efficiency.

Javaid is hardly alone. Increasingly professionals in many fields are adopting a technology that until recently was considered to be largely the province of insomniac teen diarists and technology geeks.

Journalists use weblogs to build and maintain an audience. Lawyers use them to discuss cases in the news. Educators use them to encourage class participation and offer resources to students.

“There is huge potential here,” said John Robb, president of Userland Software, a small California-based company that sells software now being used by about 10,000 “bloggers.” Robb believes the quirky, highly opinionated, personal sites that still dominate the blogging community will be an important part of his company’s market well into the future. But he sees a growing market in what he calls knowledge logs — searchable databases that can be used within a corporate environment to exchange ideas, revise documents, trade snippets of computer code and even manage projects.

“Most people’s in-boxes are pretty overwhelmed,” Robb said. “This is a tool that allows people to provide information that is quickly disseminated and is a big improvement over current ways of spreading information.”

Evan Williams, CEO of Pyra Labs, which operates blogger.com and other sites used by about 100,000 active bloggers, agrees that the concept is gaining legitimacy as more serious and professional Weblogs emerge.

“I think we’ll see more and more acceptance that the Weblog format is just a Web site and anyone can use it — it makes sense for any type of content,” he said.

VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

The blogging model got a big vote of confidence last week when the online division of The New York Times announced an agreement to make its news headlines easily available to Webloggers with UserLand’s software.

“Weblogs are an increasingly popular form of self-publishing within a highly influential community, and are therefore an important distribution channel for our high-quality content,” said Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of New York Times Digital. The deal allows Radio users to subscribe to any sections of the Times that interest them and post links of interest with a single click.

There was a certain amount of irony to the announcement. Weblog advocates frequently have touted their movement as leading a new wave of grass-roots journalism, an antidote to what journalist and blogger Paul Andrews describes as “the relentless assault of spin, marketing, prevarication and outright lying that passes for mass media today.”

UserLand CEO Dave Winer even made a friendly bet with Nisenholtz that within five years Weblogs will rank higher than the New York Times’ Web site as a source for the top news stories of the day.

“We’re returning to what I call amateur journalism, people writing for the public for the love of writing, without any expectation of financial compensation,” Winer said in a Web posting explaining his bet. Nisenholtz responded that Weblogs really represent nothing new. “The New York Times has been publishing individual points of view on the Op-Ed page for 100 years,” he says.

Of course, Nisenholtz ignores the point that Web publishing levels the playing field by giving amateurs the means to production they lacked even 10 years ago. In any case, Times company spokeswoman Christine Mohan says the UserLand deal, for an initial one-year term, represents a small “but very complementary” distribution channel for the news giant.

“People who create Weblogs are usually very informed,” she said. “Their personal names are on their Weblog pages, and they are held to very high community standards.”

The aspect of community building is one mentioned frequently by blogging enthusiasts and helps differentiate blogs, with their heavy use of cross-linking, from other personal Web pages.

NEW FORM OF JOURNALISM

Dan Gillmor, technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, says he has been inundated with e-mail since launching a Weblog in 1999, sparking online discussions that have helped change his approach to journalism.

“My readers know more than I do, and that’s a liberating notion, not a scary one,” he says. “Every journalist ought to realize it’s true. No matter what you cover, your readers know more collectively than you do. If we can capture that, we all come out ahead.”

If you think of traditional journalism as a lecture, Gillmor said, Weblogs include elements of a seminar and conversation. “The division that has existed between the journalist and the audience is blurring, and that’s a good thing,” he says.

Ernest Svenson, a New Orleans lawyer who writes a blog under the nom de Net “Ernie the Attorney,” predicts that in the near future many Weblogs will emerge as authoritative sources in their fields of expertise.

“The mainstream media is not going away,” he said. “They can cover a lot of things nobody else can. But I think there is a symbiotic relationship there. Some blog sites are the cream and are going to rise to the top.”

In the meantime, Svenson said his brief experience as a blogger already has brought him into contact with a small group of fellow lawyer-bloggers. “We all link back to one another, and I have already contacted three or four people and gotten to know them pretty well,” he said. “It’s possible that somewhere down the road they would decide to refer business. But the main thing is, we develop a web of trust. That’s sort of how this community works.”

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