Sunday, 9 August 2009

Are bloggers parasites?

A couple of months ago, David Simon- creator of the The Wire (the best show, ever, in case you didn't know) and former Baltimore Sun journalist- described bloggers as parasitical. The internet:
"leeches...reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin—namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host."
Now this view created a storm. The above quote, I have lifted from a New York Review of Books piece. I wasn't at the event. I didn't hear David Simon say it. I have just piggy-backed on another writer- namely Michael Massing. It is not clear that he was at the event. He may have lifted it from somewhere else. He may not have done. But the quote spreads virus like.

The thing is- and this will disappoint many bloggers- I have a great deal of sympathy with David Simon's perspective. Blogging does rely on the mainstream media. I haven't counted how many TV clips and articles I've linked to or embedded in 18 months of this blog but a lot. Does this blog add value? Well, it's my voice and my take; that's all I'll say. I'll leave the qualitative judgements to others. But a lot of blogs do add real value. Massing quotes a whole array of them.

Nonetheless, when you see the amount of newspapers in financial jeopardy which includes the very precious Observer, it does make you stop and think. Is there another way of capturing the chaotic, free-wheeling, but excitingly democratic spirit of the blogosphere but finding a way of that co-existing with a viable, diverse and high quality professional media environment (though some bloggers now are professionals....important qualification)?

In other words, can an antagonistic relationship become a symbiotic one?

This is rather down to the owners of newspapers. They are in the position that the music industry was in a few years ago. Aggregation sites and Google alerts/ news searches as well as blogs are taking the control of content away from the outlets themselves. Rupert Murdoch is responding by threatening to charge for web content. That basically reverses time to pre-internet days. I used to be an avid reader of the FT online until they started charging for content.

But hear me out. It's not that I object to paying for content- either as a blogger or as a reader. Far from it. I object to having to pay in dozens of different ways and then not having the freedom to share the content with others.

What is required is that newspaper proprietors get together and create a platform- like a news version of iTunes or Spotify- that can consolidate distribution and collect fees. For example, I wouldn't object to paying a subscription of £20 per month say, for the rights to link to any article in UK press. Equally, I am sure the majority of readers would not object to a monthly fee (probably slightly less than £20) for the same privilege. But once you have the GMG, News International, et al all doing different things it breaks down and the newspapers start to undermine demand for their content again. Far more people read a variety of newspaper content than ten years ago. And that is a good thing. Let's not undermine that.

The fact that the major news groups have not got together to make this work is playing Russian roulette with the future of the newspaper industry. If a revenue raising distribution platform is not found soon then newspapers will continue to struggle, the internet will grow in a different way but without the same quality, or we will start to reverse the internet revolution.

Bloggers like myself will still get our free content. But we'll quote it rather than link to it. We all lose.

So, listen to David Simon- he has a point- even if he does labour it as Eric Etheridge argued in the New York Times. But equally, newspapers are going to have to find a way of making this work beyond the free with advertising model that is failing. The only way it can work is if they get together somehow and make it happen with new ways of distributing paid-for content without stemming its flow. It would be fairly enforceable as most bloggers use either Blogger or WordPress who could make subscribing- if such links are used- a condition of service.

Blogging can be parasitical but with a bit of creativity it could make a major contribution to its host. And while we're at it, why is BBC content not available for embedding within blogs? What could possibly be lost by doing that? The US networks do it with ads. Perhaps that content could de distributed through the same platform as the papers.

There is a different way. It just requires initiative, open dialogue, and cooperation to make it happen. So it's a long shot.

Post script: Please follow Save the Observer on Twitter and BUY THE PAPER.

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