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War bloggers get reality check

/ Source: The Associated Press

Last week’s daring midnight rescue of 19-year-old American soldier Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital has become one of the few feel-good stories of the war for Western media outlets. For George Paine, a technology consultant-turned-amateur war correspondent, it was a headache.

BEFORE THE DRAMATIC rescue of the injured young woman, Paine wrote a short update for his Web site mistakenly reporting that Lynch was among the soldiers presumed dead.

Paine, part of a growing community of online diarists called “bloggers,” awoke the next morning to irate e-mails from readers and fellow bloggers.

“I was exhausted. I didn’t make clear Jessica was only MIA,” the New York-based war watcher said afterwards.

In the annals of journalism, Paine’s mistake had minimal impact. The responses led him to quickly correct the error and move on.

More and more readers are discovering, and the scores of similar sites as they look for a fresh and unfiltered perspective on current events as well as a forum for debate.

Blogs — Net speak for Web logs — are a brand of grassroots journalism that has really taken off since war began in Iraq last month with amateurs and professional journalists alike joining the movement.

But it hasn’t been a cakewalk for bloggers.

So far, bloggers have experienced many of the same headaches as big media — long work days, mounting costs, the occasional enraged reader, hack attacks — plus a few new twists that underscore the complexity of blogging the news.

CNN cameraman Kevin Sites, on assignment in Iraq, was asked by his employer to cease updating his blog site for the time being to avoid potential reporting conflicts. BBC producer Stuart Hughes’ blog, went quiet for four days last week while he recuperated from a land mine injury in Northern Iraq.

Most blogs, however, come from ordinary Netizens voicing their opinion, from the safety of their home or office, about a war thousands of miles away. Their exploits can be found by typing in “warblogs” on index sites such as Daypop.

The explosion in popularity is due to the viral nature of blogging. Bloggers promote the best and brightest writing samples of fellow bloggers by adding links to their works on their own Web sites.

This fraternal connection explains how sometimes a rather obscure blog site can suddenly attract a global audience and become a small force in influencing public opinion.

Traffic to has exploded, growing from dozens of readers last summer to an average of 60,000 per day and nearly 120,000 on March 20, the first full day of the war — an increase that made access to the site spotty at the outset.

Paine is not the only blogger to incur traffic bottlenecks. Most blog sites are ill-equipped to handle lots of readers.

Laura Poyneer, a 29-year-old American paralegal student, sent out a plea for help from her Arab-themed Web blog site when traffic increased thirty-fold in the first days of the war.

Within 24 hours, readers kicked in more than $100 to cover bandwidth costs. “Not a lot, but enough to cover my increased expenses, at least for the moment,” Poyneer said via email.

IRATE READERS, HACK ATTACKS Bloggers often make visceral statements about the war that established media wouldn’t touch.

Paine wrote one article in the first days of the war that provoked the ire of some readers. It said not everyone saw American and British troops as liberators, a view at odds with the portrayal by some American TV reporters of the U.S.-led coalition.

How did readers respond?

Some tried to knock his site offline by flooding it with countless data requests designed to bog down his computer. Although the response was intercepted by his Internet Service Provider, the site was still difficult to reach for some time.

American journalist Christopher Albritton, believed to be the first Web-funded — with money raised from readers — correspondent to report from the Iraqi war zone, encountered an entirely different problem.

While Albritton was en route to the Turkey-Iraq border to get closer to the action, one of his readers took it upon himself to fill the temporary void by posting a New Yorker article on Albritton’s site.

“Whoever is posting some other journalist’s work in the comments section, just stop. This ’blog, Back to Iraq, is a forum for the works of Chris Allbritton,” read a notice on his Web page, posted by a friend who was minding the site while Albritton was incommunicado.

The story was taken down. But it illustrates some of the unique technical and social challenges faced by the scores of correspondents blogging from the front.

Reached via email, Albritton, a former reporter for the Associated Press and the New York Daily News, was philosophical about the future of this form of journalism.

“It’s a marketplace of ideas, and those who are awarded credibility by their readers will prosper,” he said.

So far, the marketplace is paying off for Albritton. He said he’s raised more than $11,000 from readers, enough to fund his trip to Iraq, from where he has been filing daily stories.

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