How fast are bloggers? According to researchers at Cornell University, it typically took bloggers two and a half hours during the 2008 US presidential campaign to pick up on stories that were broken by the mainstream media.

That conclusion was reached by using computers to analyze 1.6m websites between August and October 2008. All told, these websites published around 90m blog posts and articles.

The findings are detailed in ‘Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle‘ (PDF), which is billed as “one of the largest analyses of on-line news in terms of data scale“.

The study provides an interesting perspective about the state of the blogosphere. According to the researchers:

As information mostly propagates from news to blogs, we also found that in only 3.5% of the cases stories first appear dominantly in the blogosphere and subsequently percolate into the mainstream media.

Although some blogs, such as Hot Air and Talking Points Memo, were consistently faster than their blogging counterparts, on the whole, it’s clear that the blogosphere is still primarily a venue for discussing the news, not breaking it.

Of course, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Right now, bloggers largely lack the resources necessary to carry out the type of journalism conducted by the mainstream media. But what they do have plenty of: opinion and insight. Yes, while the blogosphere is filled with its fair share of junk, I think it’s safe to say that the popularity of blogs is due in large part to the passionate opinions and interesting insights that are often lacking in the mainstream media. So while the blogosphere isn’t likely to take the lead in breaking the news, it does have a very important role to play in spreading it and adding on to it.

The caveat when it comes to this study: Twitter.

Sreenath Sreenivasan of the Columbia Journalism School hinted at the impact Twitter’s growth since the 2008 election would have on today’s news cycle:

Even from last fall to today, the dynamics of the news cycle are very different,
because of Twitter.

I’m sure in the near future we’ll see some research looking at Twitter’s role in the news cycle.

Photo credit: millicent_bystander via Flickr.