Commissioning weblog journalism
Wednesday, October 16th, 2002
Glenn Reyonlds suggests that Traditional Media’s “news analysis” centurians will be overrun by hordes of barbarian pundits slinging their views for free. But, he adds, reporting news “is still mostly the province of professional journalism, and that’s less likely to change.”
I’m more pessimistic for traditional media’s news gathering functions and, surprise, more optimistic for news entrepreneurs. OK, so I thought this six years ago too. But times are changing fast.
First, thin media’s competitive advantages — low overheads, deep commitment to the beat and personal rapport with readers — are finally being unleashed by fissioning weblog networks. The distribution dam has broken; news can flood anywhere gravity takes it.
Third, squeezed media margins mean that large swathes of news demand increasingly go unserved. Think of the dozen or more tech publications that have disappeared in the last six months; this isn’t because technology is less important today or people are less transfixed by the subject matter … it’s just that their ad revenue wasn’t big enough to support big staffs and printing and distribution.
All this invites, no instead let’s say demands, news entrepreneurs. What is to be done? Obviously, I’m betting news entrepreneurs can make money selling ads, since that is the market we support with Blogads. Sure it will take a while for people to develop the lingo and metrics to fire weblog advertisers’ imaginations. But the convergence of high-audience commitment and low overheads make Blogad ignition inevitable.
Other pieces may be needed to complete the ecosystem. For example, the Blogging Network postulates that audiences will subscribe to access weblog content. But padlocking content seems to toss grit into networking, thin media’s essential engine for propagation.
There may be another way to fund news entrepreneurs without killing the free-for-all, though. Matt Welch pushed forward a great idea today, and I’ll try to nudge it further. He suggests that bloggers solicit funding for specific projects. “If you actually put a set price on something that would guarantee to produce sweet & relevant content for readers, well, wouldn’t that be interesting?”
If you’ve ever wondered why writers at the New Yorker or the Atlantic or the New York Times can churn out amazing reporting, analysis and prose, it’s partly because they get paid darn well for doing it and don’t have to worry about much else. What’s the going rate? Must be $2 or $3 a word for mags and a little less for newspapers. You can do a lot of fine thinking for that price.
Yes, just as editors commission articles, groups of bloggers might commission freelance thinkers to spend a few days or a month focused on a project… without having to sweat bills or rent. Let’s raise $4750 to send Matt to Baghdad or Tehran for two weeks, paying him half up front and half when he delivers five 2000-word articles on specified subjects. Send Andrew Sullivan to North Korea to blog from another evil axis angle. Or pay Ken Layne $200 for attending some school board meetings in LA and turning in a 1000-word ramble. Commission David Gallagher to dig out the daily user tally for major news sites. Or buy Tony Pierce a plane ticket to Washington for a photo-essay on the sniper(s). Or pay Amy Langfield $375 to badger some congressmen about the health insurance options for the self-employed and report on what she hears. Send to interview Bill O’Reilly’s first girl-friend. Pay [url=http://80211b.weblogger.com/]Glenn Fleishman $750 to write the definitive layman’s guide to WiFi. Pay Bill Quick $1000 to report on a few nights in a San Francisco homeless shelter. Pay Emmaneulle Richard to ask French expats why they love LA. Pay Olivier Travers to spend two days in Paris interviewing his compatriots about the coming war on Iraq. Let Megan McArdle pop the housing bubble (or its myth) once and for all. Put Eric Olsen on the road with the Stones or Dylan.
Of course, the second component of great journalism is outstanding editing. Editors assign gently, question persistently, cut confidently, clarify murky prose and disentangle biases. But perhaps the instant feedback from readers and peers can compensate for the editorless blog’s weaknesses. We’ll see.
(10/17/02: I’ve come across some fun anti-blogonomics posts this morning. For example a) “No money in blogging. Yes, I’m biased. I like to point to articles that support my opinions.” b) “Sponsorship of content inevitably ends in tears, because it requires the content producer to be incorruptible.” c) “I don’t think I would mind a grant to fund my blogging, provided it wasn’t dictated to me what I could and couldn’t write. I might even be willing to accept sponsorship from , say, the Audobon Society, since I already write about birds and the AS isn’t really selling anything.” I wonder: why the religiously fervent belief that writers can’t profit online? Don’t miss this fine spoof of some anti-blogonomics rhetoric: “There is absolutely no way that I would violate the trust of my readers by blogging for money. My readers know that I’ll always be honest with them, and would never sell out for filthy lucre. (By the way, while we’re on the subject of readers, I would like to recommend to you the ultimate in RSS feeds — the Userland RSS feed. It dices, it slices, it purée, why it can even clean Windows.”)