Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Montana is on board

Or: Why blogging is cooler than being a "real" journalist

On March 31, sleeping alone and starting out early hit a milestone: It has officially received visitors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Montana was the last to jump on board, with a visitor from Bozeman apparently completely accidentally landing on my blog for just under one second before having his or her mind blown so completely that his or her Internet Explorer program most likely shut down unexpectedly.

I do spend a decent amount of time publicizing my blog. Most commonly, this involves reading blogs of like-minded bloggers, commenting on their writing, and asking them to visit my site. I also hound my friends and family, basically browbeating them into reading what I write. Why do I bother? Why do I care?

The simplest answer I can provide here is a quote from Clay Shirky: "Everyone is a media outlet."

In my early 20's, I spent a solid two years as a newspaper reporter, moving between three different local weekly papers. (Just to give you a sense of how long ago this was, only one of the three papers had a companion website, but the only material included on this site was a set of phone numbers to reach various staff members. This, by the way, was less than ten years ago.)

My stories were about zoning board decisions, school board meetings, and sporting events. Even if I had been skilled enough to make them interesting, I still wouldn't have captured many readers. In fact, I imagine I had fewer readers as a print reporter than I do as a blogger. This was so even though the material I wrote as a reporter was intended to link directly to the interests of its readers. This was so even though we actually delivered the news to our readers, instead of needing to draw readers to the news.

One difference between newspapers and blogs, of course, is the distance between the presenting of news and the consumption of it. In the newspaper business, the division of labor is pretty clear: A small handful of crack reporters uncover and present the material; the rest of the populace consumes it. If they want to join in on the conversation, they need (and are encouraged) to write a letter to the editor for possible publication in a future edition.

It's relatively burdensome to write a letter to the editor, all things considered, and this was even more true back when I was a reporter than it is now. Let's say you read an article that sparks something in you, such that you think: I have something to say about this. Then you have to turn on your computer or open your laptop and type the damned thing out. It needs to be short and succinct, well written, well organized and lacking any noticeable errors. Then you have to print it out (assuming your printer works and has enough ink left in its cartridge), put it in an envelope, find a stamp, and drop the letter in the mailbox. If the editor finds the letter interesting enough to print, you may see it printed up to two weeks later. Granted, this level of difficulty isn't on par with, say, building the world's largest toothpick mosaic, but still.

Compare this to the types of comments I received to my most heavily visited post to date, "Gearing up for Operation Feel Your Boobies." The founder of Feel Your Boobies, Leigh Hurst, posted a link to my post on the group's Facebook page, at which point the pro-boobies contingent began to weigh in. A few sample comments:

"Would you feel better if the name was Touch Your Titties?"

"I have boobies and I feel them at least once a month! Thank you Leigh!"

"I have to say I didn't think of a sexual connotation at all when I read this name. And I'm not post-feminist; I'm 52 and grew up in the Germaine Greer/Betty Friedan era. The purpose of the group is to get women to think about breast exams. We've heard "do a monthly breast self-exam" for so long we don't think about it anymore. This cute name catches our attention enough to remind us that we haven't done one. I do think the author is reaching for a topic here; Victoria's Secret window displays? Objectifying, fetishizing. Feel Your Boobies? Cute, harmless, purposeful."

What seems to engage people about reading and commenting on blogs is that they can, if they want to, write a thoughtful, well structured and well supported argument. If they don't want to do that, they can sling a one-liner up and have the gratification of seeing it instantly broadcast to other readers.

And now we're back to why I care about expanding my readership base: Because unlike the experience of being a newspaper reporter, my experience of blogging is one of jumping in to a conversation. The goal of print journalism is to break the story. In general, the goal of blogging is to comment on the breaking news. When I speak here on sleeping alone, I'm generally picking up on an idea or news item presented in an online paper or another blog; ideally, my ideas will get picked up by another blogger, and so on, and so on.

News passes to me and through me; as it does, I try to shade it in with a thoughtful comment or two and I do my best to pass it on. Blogging at its best is the exact opposite of that game "Telephone": Each person whispering the story to someone else clarifies, expands upon, and contributes to the story being told.


philipallmen said...

You make some good points. But I bet that most people haven't put as much thought into the differences between reporters and bloggers. The two, I think need each other to thrive, but most don't realize that.

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