Slugger: the Times scribbled out?

How’s that for spin? One of Britain’s most acute cultural observers Mark Lawson dips a toe into the world of blogs and gives us his initial impressions. In the process, he pays Slugger the far from back handed compliment of mentioning us as one of the new titles in the ‘virtual newsagents’ that is the blogosphere.

Update More comment here, here, and here.Lawson is right that political blogging in Britain and Ireland is male dominated – though there are notable exceptions: Adriana and Jackie D on Samizdata and Natalie Solent (none of them in least bit leftist). Blogging in general, as Caoimhe Burke pointed out on the Big Bite has some excellent female bloggers, who have perhaps a less direct and combative approach.

That said, the meat in his sandwich is the back end of his article:

At its best, blogging has an immediacy and inter-activity that the conventional written media can never achieve. But blogs are most useful as a samizdat form: famously the Baghdad Blogger smuggled out thoughts which no other style of journalism could have caught. On that model, though, the Campaign ’05 blogs we really want would come from Euan Blair or a candidate dissenting from the official party line.

This samizat quality is what gives some blogs their draw. Indeed, the Guardian was so impressed with the quality of Pax’s observational writing that he became an occasional columnist with the paper. Whilst Pax is a good example of one particularly potent way in which blogs can leap frog conventional media and engage worldwide audiences, he does not encapsulate the only way in which blogs can perform such miracles.

But, Lawson complains:

…what we’re mainly getting from bloggers is media commentary or, even worse, media commentary on media commentary.

Argh – post modernism gone mad! Lawson has a point. Much of Slugger’s output, for instance, is media dependent. But blogs are powerful, not so much for the added value (or otherwise) of the commentary (a matter of content), but because the form allows certain freedoms not available to the mainstream journalist.

These include:

– disaggregating conventional news flows. That is the ability to act as a magazine editor, and pull quality content from an infinite number of sources into a single coherent frame.

– the ability to interact with an audience. This allows readers to counter writer bias, and pitch in their own ideas. Reader tips often produce new news stories and even the odd scoop.

– bloggers find each other through linking each other. This acts, in some ways at least, in the way the Fleet Street bars once did, turning over stories, sifting the nuance: often being able to refocus attention on important facts when the news agenda apparently has moved on.

– As Suw Charman pointed out recently: journalists read bloggers. As such they have potential for influencing, if not setting news agendas. Note too that blog readerships are dominated not simply by affluent ABs, but by other significant opinion formers: politicians, academics and broadcasters.

Afterwards, Lawson is clearly reassured that the checks and balances of big journalism remain intact:

Quite unexpectedly for a journalist, I came out of the experience with a fresh respect for editing and mediation. Not all intervention is censorship. At its worst, blogworld most resembles a radio phone-in for leftwing men but without a Victoria Derbyshire or Brian Hayes to interrupt the callers who lose the thread and start to free-associate.

By mediation I presume he’s referring to the sifting process that goes towards building an authoritative and reliable narrative, alongside the polish the sub editor brings to what is often very rough copy. Blogging is indeed rough edged in comparison. But that is also part of what makes it compelling to its readership.

Some years ago, I met a particularly disgruntled academic, who complained bitterly that his publisher had stopped taking an interest in any of his work around about 1987/8. He had just completed his magnum opus, a comprehensive work that had been twenty-five years in the making. It was, his publisher complained, ‘too heavy’. “Readers today need something more frothy and engaging”, he told him.

It’s this same frothiness that the best blogs (be they political or otherwise) are seeking to capture. No matter how serious minded the intention behind the blog, the Internet forces the writer into shortened, informal style. A good blogger too, knows their audience is smart. In not attempting to capture the fullness of a story in one bite, he also understands the gaps in the narrative may be filled by readers, with better on the ground knowledge than him/her.

At it’s best, blogging is journalism for the net. I’ve had a few opportunities to demonstrate what can happen when a blogger gets out and way from his desk and out into the real world. Primarily with the Daily Summit and Slugger’s coverage of the 2003 Assembly elections.

Our average daily readership currently stands at about 3200 visitors a day, and often peaks around the 5000 mark. That’s equivalent to what some commercial radio stations pull in. And it’s growing month on month. How long can it be before bloggers (and Slugger in particular) enters, rather than competes with, the mainstream?

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