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.