Bloggers can be choosers

In today’s Independent, the columnist Mary Dejevsky reveals herself as yet another print journalist who cannot understand that any newspaper postponing its reinvention from top to toe is begging to disappear down a crack of Tolkien’s Mount Doom. Icily, she mocks leading American papers like The Washington Post for losing money in early experiments in online publishing ten years ago – and seems to believe that they would have done better to ignore digital media altogether. Somehow, she has convinced herself of what was never true – that major newspapers are or were supported by readers’ subscriptions.

She could, like Elfrida Beetle, be suffering from a premature rusting of the synapses she uses to think about her profession.

But who, you ask, is this Elfrida?

I’ve been borrowing the name of one of my favourite fictional characters** for the editor in charge of the online edition of a well-known newspaper, in private woolgathering. Why? They happen to have the same set of initials. It was through an unhappy – but happily brief – encounter with this senior journalist in 2006 that I first realised quite how oblivious Old Print’s leaders were about the end of the Gutenberg era in publishing.

Their misplaced sense of superiority shows in more than the dirty eye most of these leaders cast over bloggers. Only a few – for instance, the people directing the online version of The San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com) – appreciate that nurturing a loyal community of bloggers could add up to owning both the crown jewels of and key to online publishing in the future. In replying to @ISA’s comment about the fight between The Guardian and The Observer at the weekend, I was thinking of a front page story in the Chronicle last May about how vital blogger-commenters have become to the survival of newspapers:

[C]omments keep readers on the Web sites longer and create engaged communities, which can turn into more money-making opportunities through increased advertising, said Steve Semelsberger, senior vice president and general manager of Pluck, the company that provides social-media tools to 250 newspapers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and The Chronicle.

He said comments can boost page views by 5 to 15 percent and can serve as a starting point for social-media interaction on a news site.

“Comments are both an offensive and defense move,” he said. “You have to do it to be a relevant conversational Web property, and you can also make money off it.”

SFGate averages almost 4 million page views a month for comments. Prior to turning on comments for news stories in the summer of 2007, there were only about 30,000 page views a month for comments, mostly on staff blogs.

Pluck supplies the software on which Elfrida Beetle’s site runs, but I’m inclined to doubt that she knows what this means. In 2006 – before my reincarnation as a blogger – I appealed to her to correct two mistakes in the digital version of a freelance article of mine published on her site – which had been edited for a publication linked to it. Unlike US papers, most British newspapers only allow staff writers to check the final versions of articles before they go to press, for errors introduced or missed in their editing. A freelance writer who has no friend or relation among the editors is typically denied any such chance.

This can make a poor bargain rather worse. A freelance writer might contribute a gem of a story from a location where a newspaper has no correspondents. Even then, the writer has in recent years had to be content with a fee too small to feed a family of gerbils for very long. These terms are accepted not just to get a particular story out to the world, but in the faute-de-mieux way a taxidermist looking for customers might be obliged to accept a display case in one spot rather than another — depending on the kind of stuffed animal involved.

One of the mistakes in my article was a grammatical error that crept in with a minor editorial trimming of the first paragraph. The other stemmed from the omission of a factual correction I had sent in. Neither was particularly dire. But it seemed to me that if writers weren’t allowed to check copy before it got into print, we should at least be permitted to correct the electronic version of a piece.

It was the reason Elfrida gave for refusing to allow this – without apology or any other softening words — that I found stunningly anachronistic:

We do not change archived articles, unless it is a [?] processed through the complaints procedure or under legal duress. We have to respect the sanctity of the print archive and therefore we will not be changing or removing the article unless directed to by the reader’s editor or the lawyers.
[ my emphasis ]

Remember that this happened only three years ago. As I pointed out to both Elfrida and her über-editor:

Computers make it easy to correct errors in articles in instants. Yet a freelance writer asking for corrections of mistakes introduced in subbing is told that this cannot be done because “we have to preserve
the sanctity of our print edition.” The policy could not be more ironic. Whereas the print version of a story is only good for wrapping fish the next day, the electronic version is posted permanently on the web,
accessible all over the world at no cost – and, as I’ve discovered to my dismay, impossible to eradicate. Such rigidity is particularly hard on freelance writers, since our pieces are frequently read on search engines by commissioning editors at other papers, and by book editors doing research on our work. We only have our work, without mpressive job titles, as measures of our worth.

If British journalists were allowed to see final, edited versions of stories – as freelance contributors to good US papers usually are – we could help harried sub-editors to spot mistakes and would share in the
responsibility for them.

Instead, we are powerless to do anything about errors before or after the fact.

To all these arguments I received the same answer: silence.

Since Elfrida and her superior were blind to the irrelevance of print archives in 2006, I’m hardly surprised that in 2009, they have yet to show any sign of giving bloggers the degree of respect that the Chronicle does – or for that matter, The New York Times, which now routinely quotes blogs and bloggers (for instance, in the wonderful conclusion of this column).

The writer-editor Scott Rosenberg has just published Say Everything, a crisp and carefully researched history of blogging — a medium he says is now ten years old. In 1995, he was a co-founder of Salon.com, one of the sharpest and most stylish e-zines of the era. A few days ago, he smilingly admitted that he was mistaken in predicting, in that year, that print publishing would be obsolete by 2000. I’m not sure he isn’t equally wrong in predicting that blogging in ten years will be much like blogging today – except for a widening of the split between Twitter-ish micro-blogging and more serious and thoughtful entries on long blogs. Ten years ahead — at today’s rate of change, and with multi-media mutations poised to take off in directions unknown, involving more new media than there have been at any one time — strikes me as too risky for any prediction at all

In a curious paradox I’m not sure he has noticed, Scott defines a blog as ‘a personal website where the newest information goes on top’ – but also says that blogging is ‘the new public sphere in society.’ On absolutely any subject, to understand ‘the substantive issues’ and the state of the debate, he says that you now have to start by surveying the blogs addressing it.

I am sure that he is right about that. Mary Dejevsky, holding fast to the idea of an old-fashioned newspaper as the only way to give readers facts worth reading, has found a curious new scapegoat, the BBC website, to blame for the suffering of British newspapers.

More remarkable is that neither the word ‘blog’ nor ‘blogger’ makes a single appearance in her argument. A funny way to treat the most important category of actor in her industry’s present and future, is all I can say. I predict that bloggers will choose to support those newspaper sites that treat them and their own blogs with the greatest respect, and that these are the only Old Media sites that will thrive.

** ‘She used to be called Alfred and then when she turned into a female she was going to be called Alfreda but Nanny said it wasn’t Alfreda but Elfrida and then she’d just swallowed a beetle and elle is French for she.’
‘I see,’ said Minnie, prepared to let it go at that.
‘She freed the beetle,’ explained Violet. ‘By swallowing it. She freed it from the miseries of life. Elle freed a beetle. Elfrida Beetle.’
‘Ah,’ said Minnie.

from The Shooting Party. Isabel Colegate. 1980.

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13 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian

13 responses to “Bloggers can be choosers

  1. ISA

    Wordy.

    The doda has hit the proverbial whirlymagig.

    Come over and see.

    http://xuitlacoche.blogspot.com/2009/08/guardian-kate-hardings-reactionary.html

    ISA

  2. ISA

    Your whirlymagig, their doda.

  3. Here’s the start of my reply on your site, @ISA … Slander and misogyny expressed under the cover of a pseudonym do not make pseudonyms evil.

    Anyone interested, please read the comments section after Phil’s blog entry about Kate Harding …. :

    Ah … thanks, Phil. As you imply, Kate Harding is a poor debater. […]

    She says at GU:

    “And the more we argue about online harassment from a strictly legalistic perspective, the more we ignore the fundamental issue: cowards who use a veil of anonymity, however flimsy and easily shredded, to launch attacks on their enemies, really ought to be silenced.”

    Yes, slander is bad. Misogyny is bad. But regular readers of the Guardian books blog for the last year or two all know about the blogger who set up a web site solely to attack a fellow-blogger who happens to be female. Day after day for nearly two weeks, he ripped into this woman’s prose style without acknowledging that English isn’t her first language and that she was never educated in Britain.

    Now here’s the important point for the Kate Hardings of this world: HE DID ALL THAT UNDER HIS REAL NAME, NOT A PSEUDONYM. ………….continues on @ISA/Phil‘s own site

  4. This is what we’ll get from the thoughtless confusion of slander with the right to pseudonyms and anonymity — by people like Kate Harding and her editors at The Guardian. From yesterday’s NYT:

    Russian Blogger’s Claims About Plant Accident Lead to Libel Charge

    MOSCOW — Since an accident at a Siberian hydroelectric plant on Monday trapped dozens of workers in a flooded chamber, relatives of the missing workers have become increasingly angry over the government’s rescue effort.

    A Russian blogger has taken up their cause, raising questions about the government’s response — a campaign that ended Thursday when local authorities charged him with libel of the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant’s owners.

    The blogger, Mikhail Afanasyev, who is the editor in chief of the online publication New Focus, claimed on his blog that the number of missing workers far exceeded those in official reports. ***

    [ continues here ]

    *** N.B. Yet another instance of bloggers, not conventional journalists, not merely collecting and disseminating vital information but risking their lives to do so. . . This doesn’t mean that old-fashioned, trained reporters don’t have a role to play. It just shows how pointless and silly it is to pretend that blogger-journalists can’t be just as good, and better. See Indie journalists über alles in this entry.

  5. Chuckle time. . . even if you don’t consider censorship a laughing matter.

    Who can think the editors of the Guardian courageous after this? I tested the all-new Cif – that we’re now being asked to think of as a ‘co-op movement – community self-government. More direct-democratic and anarchist, than socialist really’.That’s from Matt Seaton, who I think is the Cif editor. . . Well, Matt might not run the mods, but my test comment was put into ‘pre-moderation’ on Saturday morning at 10.30 am BST. It hasn’t been seen since.

    Remember the point I’ve been making about the importance of newspapers linking to the sites of bloggers who have helped to build their community of commenters? … A pipe dream, apparently – as far as the Guardian is concerned.

    On a subject surely of vital interest to self-proclaimed freedom fighters like the Gruan’s, you’d think they’d permit links to two posts on this site supporting a black writer’s lament that nearly all the fiction about young black men has them sliding relentlessly downwards; that there is little or no interest in stories about the educated, responsible, intellectual and upwardly mobile among them.

    I was too sleepy to remember to save a copy of the final version of my attempted post – but this is virtually what it said.

    [Attempted — unsuccessfully — to post this on the Guardian’s books blog at 10.33 am BST on 22 August 2009]

    Aaron Akinyemi wrote:

    ===
    Black Shoes offers a welcome relief from much of the “ghetto lit” being rung through cash registers across the UK and occupying increasing shelf space to the detriment of more serious works. […] allowing readers to become complacent with lazy, destructive stereotypes and offering an altogether bleak outlook for black literature. […] many men simply don’t see their nuanced stories being told in print – least of all black men who happen to be educated/middle class/upwardly mobile.

    ===

    An excellent piece, Aaron Akinyemi. I don’t post here any more, but your subject is critical, and there are some rather stunning parallels between the points you make and a heated argument on two threads on my own site near the start of the year. (see links below)

    Never mind that your focus is on fiction, and my that posts were about the real life of Barack Obama, as set down in his autobiography. A commenter on my blog doggedly insisted that Obama couldn’t possibly be the serious and reflective man he portrayed himself as — that it was inconceivable that he didn’t have a secret yearning to be ‘ghetto fabulous’.

    I found that incomprehensible — and still do, … not least because Obama’s life so spectacularly smashes lazy, stereotypical thinking about his ‘otherness’.

    I don’t, however, believe that good fiction is ever written to order (do you?). I expect that the stories you want to see will emerge naturally … there will be serious literary equivalents of the irresistible cartoon-ish hero Will Smith plays in Men in Black.

    Will Barack Obama bring back heroism? https://acacciatura.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/will-barack-obama-bring-back-heroism/

    A bit more on heroes: Barack Obama’s odyssey, part 2
    https://acacciatura.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/a-bit-more-on-heroes-barack-obama%E2%80%99s-odyssey-part-2/

    …My conclusion from the comment’s failure to appear on the Guardian books blog? … Well, I won’t be handing the editors there any medals for courage – or fairness. . . . Why do Gruan editors only visit their commenters’ sites to drag them back to their own site, as when they seem in danger of losing a large number of bloggers (ie., click-and-advertisement-generators) together, as in the rebel movement initiated by @MontanaWildhack a few months ago — ?

  6. ISA

    I’ve got to read with care so I get this right Wordy. So now they are censoring intelligence. Why don’t you have a word with Sarah Crown. Perhaps it’s just a biased moderator flipping a switch.

    Let’s see what response you get.

    sarah.crown@guardian.co.uk

  7. Censoring a legitimate point, I hope … censoring a useful contribution to a very important debate, I hope … I’ll let people decide for themselves whether that’s intelligent.

    No, @ISA, I’m not wasting my time emailing Sarah. Read the post to which these comments are appended and you’ll see that — as the Americans put it — eds and mods tend to ‘circle the wagons’ to protect each other’s decisions, good or bad. . .

    And in my experience of two years, now, with that newspaper, we have _no_ rights when they conflict with its agenda.

    The editors there are only ever nice to bloggers to raise their click count.** There is no substance behind the charm. _None_. … Those who don’t want to be manipulated as passive, click-generating monkeys will stay away.

    [ ** see the main post — above — for some eye-opening statistics showing what clicks mean to newspapers’ sites, today. ]

  8. @ISA/Phil, censorship by The Guardian is getting curiouser and curiouser… Here’s what I’ve just been obliged to attempt to post on the books blog. … Of course my new comment — a polite protest — has also been held up for moderation.

    So a substantive contribution to a discussion on a critical topic is only allowed to appear when the thread is, for all practical purposes, stone cold dead? … And this on the site of a _liberal_ newspaper in a western democracy?

    … er, ….. Dear Guardian Mods,

    In finally letting part of the comment submitted here at 10.33 am BST on the 23rd through your filter, three days late, you have somehow added words I never wrote.

    Would you please remove the remark addressed to @nuges at the bottom of my post — since I never said any such thing?

    Also, why have you removed the links I put in the comment to lead Aaron Akinyemi (and anyone else) to the discussion on my acacciatura site of Will Barack Obama bring back heroism? and A bit more on heroism: Barack Obama’s odyssey, part 2 — ?

    I see commenters linking to their blogs all over CiF. Is this a new policy? … And I hope it’s in order to ask why my comment was held up for so long — with extra text tacked on, written by someone else?

  9. postscript to that last comment: is this the message The Guardian wants to send repressive regimes all over the world — ‘Do as I say, not as I do?’

  10. … copy of a comment made by me on @ISA/Phil‘s Xuitlacoche site a few minutes ago:

    wordnerd7 said…

    It’s getting more surreal by the minute — just like 1984 and other dark imaginings of totalitarianism. . . Now the blogger called @nuges, to whom I did not address any remark at all, has replied to something I never said. … Such larks, Phil! … For anyone interested in baffling censorship _by_ leading newspapers, please look up the comments section of this article on The Guardian’s books blog:

    ‘Where is the good popular fiction for black men?’

    Surely this is a first, even in the annals of The Madness of the Guardian Mods? … Not just deleting posts or portions of them (as they did to mine) … but INSERTING thoughts a blogger never had (as they did to mine). . . Imagine what contemporary equivalents of the Stasi could do with the flexibility of digital media … [shudders]

    19:27

  11. … Ah, … now The Guardian has sunk to inventing from whole cloth. First it publishes a mangled version of a post I actually submitted on its books blog — adding to it words I never wrote.

    This morning (9.56 am) it has posted an entire comment written by its moderators (?) attributed to ‘wordnerd’ — as if the omission of the number I use at end of my screen name will make it any less likely that regular readers will imagine that I was its author.

    Well, that really is desperately funny, … 🙂 ! … and the only possible conclusion from this sick joke is that my series of articles on censorship by The Guardian — including … Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool? … has got deep under the skin of someone seriously thin-skinned _and_ arrogant high up in that organisation.

    Hilarious!. . . But careful how you go. … You’re treading on thin ice by mixing actual words of mine — from that first (failed) post reproduced here and on @ISA’s site — with your inventions attributed to ‘wordnerd’.

    ..

  12. I’m guessing that completists might want to read this explanation of some of the background to Bloggers can be choosers on Xuitlacoche:

    To everyone else … if applicable: Happy Bank Holiday weekend!

  13. Pingback: Is blogging together being like Iceland? « acciaccature

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