There has been a spate of articles in recent months about the impact of blogging. I wrote a short article for October’s Writing Magazine, tackling the subject from the point of view of the aspiring writer. It was fun to try and condense all I have learnt into just a thousand words. I guess seasoned bloggers will find very little here that they don’t already know, but I hope it provided some thinking points for those who have yet to venture online.
Call it blogging or ‘citizen journalism,’ online self-publishing is becoming an unavoidable part of human discourse. High-profile bloggers are invited to comment on radio programmes, while broadsheet newspapers run a daily round-up of the ‘blogosphere’. Top American blogs (such as Instapundit and Boing-Boing) receive thousands of hits every day. Every political campaign has an associated blog, and MPs are using the medium to re-engage with their constituents. In March, the Guardian inaugurated www.CommentIsFree.com, a ‘super-blog’ with contributions from the paper’s regular columnists.
Clearly, blogs are something that writers must engage with. The Internet is changing the nature of writing – especially journalistic writing. Aspiring and established journalists should seek to understand the implications of this 21st Century medium… even if they have no intention of writing anything online themselves.
Zero-cost publishing has economic implications, and techno-phobic writers may find the journalistic market moves away from them. There may be more demand for writing, but a larger global market for writers could reduce the fees paid. The instant nature of online publishing also has implications. If the public come to expect instant news, then deadlines might be shortened, and word limits reduced to cater for the new, bite-sized media. Paradoxically, an alternative to even shorter word-limits could be their abolition. Composing for the screen and not the page, writers have the freedom to add extra words to their copy if they wish. In blogging we see a resurgence of the form of ‘The Essay’, as writers around the world play with ideas, published almost for free.
Online publishing has many other positive aspects, however. The Internet is a fantastic resource for research, made richer by the many specialist bloggers who present an insider’s view of particular professions. Blogs can also offer eyewitness accounts from inaccessible areas, as the ‘Baghdad Blogger’ demonstrated during the Iraq War. Furthermore, bloggers are obsessive fact-checkers. Online space is infinite, and can be filled with detailed analysis of assertions that would otherwise have gone un-remarked. This potent force also keeps plagiarism in check too, a great benefit to honest writers everywhere.
Those established journalists who blog, have found that the time spent is certainly worth the sacrifice. Sunny Hundal ran the organisation Asians In the Media for three years, before launching www.PickledPolitics.com. He says that discussions he has on the blog sharpen his writing: “Starting a blog has made me aware of a whole world of commentary and news that I was missing out on. Blogging conversations can be very brutal, and you must have thought-out ideas before engaging in debates, otherwise you can be quickly dismissed.”
Seven months after initiating his blog, Sunny was asked to contribute to Comment Is Free. Another blogging recruit was Justin McKeating, who posts daily at Chicken Yoghurt. Justin believes his website has earned him writing work elsewhere: “I’m hopeless at networking and pitching, but I was lucky that some of the rare people who are in a position to offer work have visited Chicken Yoghurt. They liked what I was doing, and gave me a call.” Can a blog be a stepladder to a career in journalism? “For me blogging is purely an end in itself,” says Justin. “The offshoots that have come along because of Chicken Yoghurt have been purely incidental… I don’t think a person could set out as a blogger, with the expressed intention of making a career out of it.”
Tim Worstall, editor of the anthology 2005: Blogged, agrees. “I’m not sure that it is possible to make a living from blogging,” wrote Worstall, in his Second Anniversary blog post. “But”, he continued, “it is entirely possible to make a living out of having blogged.” Worstall sees blogging as an alternative to apprenticeships and unpaid internships, a route to paid writing.
So blogging may not earn money in itself, but it can certainly be a gateway to mainstream journalism. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that the very fact of blogging may be beginning to redefine what ‘mainstream’ actually means, and whether it is something to be desired.
Writers of both fiction and non-fiction constantly have to justify the relevance of their work. Pitches are judged by what will entice new consumers, while retaining the interest of the existing readership. Like any other product in our consumer-driven economy, we ask of writing: “Does it have mass appeal?” Pandering to the lowest common denominator in the ‘mainstream’ can be a debilitating process for the writer. Apt literary references are cut, and controversial paragraphs are neutered, for fear of causing offence.
However, the global nature of the Internet means that success may be possible without these sacrifices. “If you are one in a million,” says Marc Smith of Microsoft, “there are 768 of you on the Internet and you can talk to each other online.” Through online publishing, an idiosyncratic writer can find viable target audiences, without diluting their work.
Attaining this niche-fame – a kind of cult following, perhaps – becomes increasingly attractive to the serious writer. As the digital artist Momus said: “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” We live in an era where mainstream celebrity seems entirely unrelated to talent. Finding a small, dedicated audience online may be a better measure of success, than C-list recognition in the mainstream.
Using the global reach of the Internet through blogging can therefore be a liberating experience. Millions of people around the world are experimenting with the new medium. The downside to this freedom is that not everyone expresses themselves in an appropriate or interesting manner. The British journalist and blogger Oliver Kamm sparked a mini-controversy in March when he declared: “Most blogs have nothing to say.” The retort of course, was that most people have nothing to say either! Blogging is a tool for writing, and the immediacy of the medium does not excuse the blogger from providing interesting content. If you know what you want to write, and you can write it well, then blogs can deliver a new, eager readership.