The Business of Blogging
Now and then, I write about the journalism and communications
professions in this highly occasional column. The tempo of
change exceeds my capacity to keep up with the trends and turmoil.
Once in a while, I get lucky. This is one of those instances.
As the national presidential campaign started to acquire the
phrase “Mitt Romney’s inevitable nomination,” my
Media & Politics class turned its attention to local politics.
I know, Tip O’Neill famously said “all politics
I invited local reporters and bloggers to share their perspectives
with the class. One was Brad Warthen, reporter then editor
and now blogger. There are tens of millions of bloggers in
the digital universe. All seem to have opinions. A few, mercifully,
have influence. But the influence of the blogger or the informative
web site is rapidly increasing, particularly in the political
dimension. Politico.com, cnn.com, huffingtonpost.com and others
are must reading for the politically connected.
Here’s where I got lucky. Warthen neatly summed up the
class session and the challenges of blogging as a profession
on his own blog: bradwarthen.com.
Talking Blogs, reaching no particular conclusion
Late yesterday, I was one of three bloggers — the others
being Will Folks and Logan
Smith — who spoke to a seminar
journalism class taught by Charles Bierbauer at USC.
It went fine, although I can’t tell you with any certainty
that the students learned anything useful. They didn’t
learn, for instance, how blogging will lead to a business model
that will pay for real journalism in the future, because none
of us know the answer to that. It’s sort of the Northwest
Passage of our day — people keep looking for it, generally
in the wrong places.
The unanswerable question is, and has been for some time:
How, going forward, are media that report news and share commentary
going to pay the bills — most particularly, the salaries
and expenses of those who do the reporting, writing, editing
and presentation of the content? Mind you, I’m talking
about doing so on the state and local levels. One can still
make money reporting national and international news and commenting
on it, which is why we are inundated to the point of suffocation
with news and opinions about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
But it’s almost impossible for the average voter to be
fully informed about state and local government or issues,
and increasingly, too few even try. Which does not bode well
for the health of our federalist system.
Will blogs be part of the solution to creating an informed
electorate on levels below the national? I don’t know.
As I joked to one of the students who asked something related
to that, obviously The State didn’t think so, because
I was the only active blogger at the paper, and they canned
me. (Lest the students get the impression that I’m portraying
my former employers as Luddites, I quickly added the truth,
which is that I was canned for making too much money.)
Among the three of us, Will has made the most progress on
the making-it-a-business front. He repeated what Nancy Mace
told me months ago, which is that his blog brings in “several
thousand” a month. I, so far, am more in the several
thousand a year category. Logan is just starting out.
That points to the wide difference between the three of us.
Back when I was a newspaperman, you could assemble a panel
consisting of me and editors from other papers, and we would
have a lot in common. A general-circulation newspaper was a
definite thing, and working at one implied certain things that
were predictable. Assemble a panel of bloggers, and you’ve
got a group of people who are doing entirely different things,
and for different reasons. It’s as though you had put
together a panel consisting of one newspaper city editor, a
photo editor from a magazine, and a newsletter writer.
For instance, among the three of us:
• Logan started the Palmetto
Public Record because he thought the “progressive” outlook
was sort of thin on the ground in the SC blogosphere, and he probably has a point,
with Tim Kelly and Laurin Manning currently out of the game. He’s
trying to build it up from nothing, and learning as he goes.
• Will started his blog by accident. He wanted to leave a comment on another
blog that was criticizing him (he now says that the criticism was justified),
and he clicked on the wrong things, and got a page inviting him to start his
own blog. Which he did, and used it to push his Sanfordesque political views.
But he tried to do more than that, becoming a news source, and breaking stories
whenever he could (which, if you ask me, is why he has more traffic than I do — I
reject the idea that it’s because of the cheesecake pictures). He devotes
himself totally to the editorial content — which you
have to do to post as often as he does. His wife handles the
money, and Nancy Mace handles the technical side.
• The roots of my blogging are in the 1980s, when I was governmental affairs
editor of The State. I had about 10 reporters working for me in those days, and
I was always frustrated by something: Reporters would come into the newsroom
and share some interesting incident or exchange with sources that didn’t
really rise to the point of being news, and wouldn’t fit logically into
the news stories they were writing that day (even then, the finite nature of
available space was highly restrictive), but which added color and life and context
to my perception of what was happening out there in state government. I wanted
readers to have that same benefit, so I started a column made up of such tidbits,
which ran on Sunday and was called “Earsay.” (Something roughly like
that still exists in the paper, I think.) Later, when I was editorial page editor,
I was likewise frustrated by the fact that I had SO many things I wanted to say
about the day’s news that I had no room for on the editorial pages. So
I started the blog for all that other stuff — things I felt motivated to
say beyond what got into print, things that interested me and might interest
someone else, but probably not the vast majority of newspaper readers. That’s
still what my blog is. I don’t even pretend or try to “report the
news.” Having once commanded platoons of reporters, I know how impossible
it would be to presume to do that well alone, even if I didn’t
have a day job. So it remains a medium consisting of stuff
I want to comment on, period. And I still never manage to get
to all of that.
A couple of other quick points…
One of the students wanted to know when blogs would command
the respect that mainstream media still do. He said he covers
prep sports for The State, and when he arrives at an event
and tells people that, he gets respect and cooperation that
he wouldn’t get otherwise. I told him he had a long wait
on that; the blogosphere is still the Wild West and will take
some time to settle down and be respectable.
A corollary to that… Logan complained that he can’t get credentials
to get onto the Senate or House floor over at the State House. When someone noticed
me shaking my head I elaborated… I told Logan it doesn’t matter.
Nothing much happens in the chambers anyway. Debate is dead in this country;
the days of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay are long gone. To know what really
happened on a key vote, you’ll have to talk to people
outside afterward anyway. And all the members have cell phones
if you want to ask them to come out for a chat.
I’ll close with this postscript that I enjoyed, posted
by Logan Smith on Twitter:
Highlight of tonight’s Q&A: @BradWarthen talking about being a reporter
in 1980, @FITSNews turns to me and asks “were you born then?” (No)
The funny part is that 1980 was when I stopped being a reporter.
I was an editor from then on…