Talking blogs, reaching no particular conclusions

The seminar from the panelists' point of view.

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…

33 thoughts on “Talking blogs, reaching no particular conclusions

  1. Silence

    I still maintain that local news presses, left to their own devices and less leveraged (than McClatchy/Gannett/E.W. Scripps) could make money, even after the expense of reporting, editing, distribution, etc.

  2. bud

    For those of us who struggle to make ends meet “several thousand a month” sound like a pretty good gig.

  3. Steven Davis II

    Maybe if you put a Page 3 girl on your blog like Will does viewership will increase.

  4. `Kathryn Fenner

    Will has more traffic for the same reason that the National Enquirer sells more copies than the Philadelphia Inquirer: scandal sells, as does innuendo, even if it is often unfounded. In addition, he feeds the biases of many with his slanted take.

  5. Brad

    Well, as I said, Steven, I don’t think that’s why Will has the traffic that he does. That’s what I mean with the “cheesecake” observation. (I made the same observation in front of a college crowd when I was on a similar panel with Nancy Mace back in the fall, and learned to my great amusement that the kids didn’t know what “cheesecake photos” were.)

    Will has the traffic he does because he:
    — Does it full-time.
    — Posts many more times than I do (which is a function of the first point).
    — Makes a point of breaking news.
    — Has an aggressive, in-your-face style (which causes politicos to read him just to see if Will is “attacking” them on a given day).
    — Has as his partner Nancy, who has an SEO strategy that greatly increases the blog’s visibility on the web.

  6. Brad

    I wouldn’t say that. I’d just say that the lines he doesn’t cross aren’t in the same places as my lines. As I told the class, I’m more what Tom Wolfe mocked when he referred to the MSM (in the 50s and 60s) as “the Victorian Gent.”

    As for what Kathryn said: “feeds the biases of many with his slanted take…”

    Well, that’s what all blogs do. It’s certainly what Logan aspires to do. And I make NO pretense to be “objective” in my writing. I decided long ago that you can’t tell the truth while being “objective.” I shared with the class my unflattering notion of “objective” journalism. It means that when a source tells you the sky is black, you run and get another source to say that the sky is white, and you publish it, and congratulate yourself on having been so objective and holding back from telling the truth that YOU know, which is that the sky is blue.

    I’d rather tell people that the sky is blue.

    The only way that I am not “biased” in a conventional sense is that I carry water for neither right nor left. I just tell you what I think, not what a faction thinks.

  7. Reader

    I’d add “IS the government media for South Carolina and breaks news due to that coveted thing known as foreknowledge, which gives WF that crucial nugget of slant time, all for the benefit of that party calling itself R, but isn’t even D, and is actually rather N(azi).”

  8. Silence

    I like the fact that Will breaks stories, and it doesn’t matter to me that he’s unabashedly partisan. I know that he’s a family man now, and seems very devoted to his wife and children, but I can’t help shake the feeling that maybe he’s not a very nice guy?

    I guess that anyone can be the subject of allegations, and I don’t know if there were ever any charges against him for the incident with his ex-gf, or what their disposition was.

    The creepy allegations about sleeping with our then-future governor may or may not be true, they certainly didn’t hurt her in the polls, and may well have worked to rally support for her.

    I tend to believe the things he reports, as far as I know he’s never been successfully sued, or had to retract any of his allegations. I just can’t help feeling that he might be a slimeball? Is that fair?

  9. Patrick Cleary

    Interesting points from the discussion. Brad (for those of us who grew up in small towns), what is going to replace the community newspaper? I think of where I grew up, and The Messenger at least covered happenings and events. Seems like that disappears with blogs.

  10. `Kathryn Fenner

    and I believe all of us who comment here tell you what we think and not what a faction thinks except insofar as a faction may happen to coincide with our beliefs.

    I am not so sure that Mr. Folks doesn’t like to just stir the pot ofttimes much as Mr. Harpootlian does.

  11. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Silence–He slimes public officials, so the standard is absence of malice–a reckless disregard for the truth, and he often doesn’t actually allege something so much as imply it. Innuendo, not out-and-out defamation.

  12. Steven Davis II

    Maybe so Brad, but I guarantee it wouldn’t hurt your numbers. I bet those articles would get more views than say who’s running for city council.

  13. Brad

    Patrick, you may take some comfort from the fact that small-town papers haven’t been hit as hard as metropolitan dailies.

    There’s a weird thing in the business having to do with scale. If you have a national readership, you can make money, because you have such a big audience to sell advertisers. Also, small weeklies that have always had small staffs, and which will publish pretty much everything readers give them, have weathered recent years fairly well.

    But it’s papers the size of The State, and the Greenville News, and the Charlotte Observer that have gotten killed. If you try to maintain the professional staff to cover politics on the state level, or in a good-sized city, it’s become almost impossible to generate enough revenue to pay for that.

    Near as I can tell, the Free Times does pretty well with its niche. Ditto with small-town papers. But the mid-sized papers are getting killed…

  14. Tavis Micklash

    “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.”

    This is the reason I’m attempting to blog. I felt bad about the direction the country was going on all levels. I heard Bill O’Reilly railing on the how the younger crowd has almost no interest in our country.I realized I was part of the problem and not the solution.

    In a perfect world I’d run a website that promotes a fiscally conservative agenda and local activism efforts. I just don’t think anyone would pay attention. So I thought I’d use the website to promote local businesses with giving them positive press. That drives in some traffic and hopefully they look at the other stories on my website.

    It benefits me as well since I’m learning way more about my new home of Columbia than I ever knew before. Teachers get just as much as the students in the learning process.

    I also get alot of reading other local blogs. Ive been around for 10 minutes basically and am learning alot from other bloggers.

    Good post and good discussion Brad

  15. `Kathryn Fenner

    It’s become impossible to generate the kinds of returns and service the debt imposed on papers like The State. If you started from scratch, with a clean balance sheet, and didn’t demand much profit–just to break even, The State could make money. Indeed, I’m told it does, or at least did back when it was more of a newspaper than a newsletter.

  16. Phillip

    I’m in Charlotte all the time and so see the Observer a lot, and while I’m sure that it has taken big hits since its glory days, it still resembles an actual city paper much more than the State, which really (and I say with all due respect to those still trying to do a good job there under impossible circumstances) should just shut down, now, immediately, it has become such an embarrassment, including and especially its web version. The Observer still seems to have sort of decent coverage of local issues, and heck they even still have more than one arts writer there (which is more than some larger metropolitan areas can say). They may not be winning any more Pulitzers these days, but it’s still a reasonable version of a daily paper.

  17. Karen McLeod

    It interests me that the “Free Times” is free, yet manages to break local stories first (say, about Mr. Greene) even though they get no revenue from sales. Meanwhile,”The State”, which I cancelled, insists on throwing a bunch of garba-er,uh advertisements in my yard once a week anyway, and doesn’t seem to be able to report anything but sports news and stuff that comes off the AP wire. Is the state paying that much to its delivery people? How is the “Free Times” managing all this? Ok, it’s a weekly, but still, it has more information once a week than “The State” offers in a whole week. It doesn’t print the AP wire, but my computer provides that, and I don’t need it twice.

  18. Karen McLeod

    I should have said “sales of its paper” since clearly it has plenty of advertisement.

  19. bud

    If you try to maintain the professional staff to cover politics on the state level, or in a good-sized city, it’s become almost impossible to generate enough revenue to pay for that.

    Bogus nonsense. Corey Jenkins just won journalist of the year at the Free Times. Seems like The State has at least 10 times the resources as the Free Times.

  20. Silence

    @ Kathryn – That’s exactly what I said in the first comment. Maybe not quite as eloquently.

  21. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Karen–Don’t cancel your script. John Monk, Adam Beam, Noelle Phillips, Tim Dominick, Gina Smith, Cindi Scoppe, inter alia, do great, necessary work and need paychecks….

  22. Brad

    Karen, as far as the Free Times being free is concerned — that has little bearing on whether it’s able to make a go of its business.

    There’s been a debate among mainstream, general-circulation dailies about going to free distribution. Charging for the paper pays but a small proportion of the costs of publication. Some papers have tried the experiment, but most have held back — partly because with things so tight, every little bit helps. But there’s also the psychological thing — papers that have charged for circulation don’t like to admit that their product is no longer worth paying for.

  23. Silence

    When I worked for EW Scripps I was told that the advertising revenue paid for the paper, and that the subscriptions were pretty much small potatoes.

  24. Silence

    We used to subscribe to the State on Sundays, but I dropped it over:
    1) Their unwavering support for the MHA and their bashing of the MHA’s opponents.
    2) They wanted to force us to take Saturday as well.
    Screw that I said. I was just getting it for the coupons. The content I can read online for free.

  25. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – Those are the people which made me decide to cancel my subscription.

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