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Minding Our Business



March 2012

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. Who can?

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 is local.”

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.,, 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:

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…

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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