Sir Peter Stothard, the British newspaper editor, touched a nerve in September when he warned The Independent that blogging
… will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.
As much as anything else, it was his pedigree that attracted attention: Stothard edits the Times Literary Supplement and chairs the panel of judges that select the winner of the most prestigious English-language literary award, the Man Booker Prize. As the Independent piece circulated on the Web, he quickly came to represent something like the institution of traditional criticism.
It may have seemed natural, then, to infer an air of revanchism in his comments. Here was the old guard acknowledging the revolution enacted by a generation of young upstarts, but only to sneer at the changes as a threat to the more civilized state of affairs of which he was, of course, a prominent fixture.
One would think that we’re beyond all that now. The word weblog, of which blog is the diminutive, turns 15 years old this year. The practice we associate with the term is even older — though maybe not so old as Montaigne, as some have argued. In that decade and a half, blogs have gone from slapdash assemblages of links to something similar enough to blur the once discernible boundaries between digital and print, yet distinct enough to open excite theorists with the possibility of new cultural horizons. From the very beginning there were criticisms of the form, but blogging has steadily grown in sophistication and confidence.
One driver of that growth was the development of blogging tools that opened the practice to writers with little or no experience in coding for the Web. “I don’t worry about the perceived amateurism of blogs at all,” Matt Mullenweg told me when I asked about the contemporary state of blogging.
Mullenweg started blogging ten years ago, using a now defunct piece of software called b2. When development on b2 ended, he decided to build his own blogging suite. He and another developer, Mike Little, began building on the b2 codebase, and were soon joined by its original developer, Michel Valdrighi. The result was a free, open-source suite of online publishing tools called WordPress.
“Our vision was to democratize publishing,” Mullenweg told me, “and I’m very proud of the fact that WordPress played at least a small part in providing a platform to some of the more influential voices of this generation of media.”
It did more than that. Arguably, the bigger achievement of WordPress and suites like it was to blur the lines between blogging and the sort of publishing traditional media outlets were doing online. They did so not only by giving amateurs the tools they needed to publish before a large, international audience, but also by catering to the major players. Today, nearly a sixth of the highest trafficked sites on the Web run on a WordPress backend. It has counted The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN among its users.
Mullenweg explains that as “a delightful side-effect of our focus on authors and writers.” In part, he argues, the adoption of WordPress by major media outlets was pushed by the entrance of once-amateur bloggers into the ranks of professional writers. “People who grew up as bloggers were joining the mainstream corp of journalism, and demanding better tools,” he says. It’s little surprise, then, that as news organizations and magazines warmed to the idea of blogging, they obliged by adopting the tools that appealed to bloggers.
It’s there that Stothard’s prediction comes back into focus. Mullenweg praises “the amazing quality of work people are producing using WordPress,” and insists that “quality doesn’t depend on the masthead.” At the same time, he’s quick to point out the effect blogging has had on the publishing industry. Not the least of those changes are the acceleration of the online publishing cycle.
Another driver was competition. Mullenweg suggests that, “as blogging and micro-blogging sped up the news cycle, many traditional organizations were—and are—burdened with legacy content management systems where publishing time is measured in minutes instead of seconds.” Adopting the tools that bloggers were using to outflank them was a survival strategy, but it further tied traditional mainstream publishers to a new timetable. The flagship product of a newspaper like The New York Times used to be the “daily,” the sort of thing that we might now think of as a data dump. Now The Times publishes articles the moment they’re ready—sometimes earlier, depending on the urgency of the scoop and the editor’s tolerance for subsequent updates and corrections. The daily itself may not yet be an afterthought, but it’s constructed of pieces that might be accurately described as having been written for immediate dissemination online.
The temporal shift is even more stark at the magazines. Once upon a time, The Atlanticwas a monthly magazine. In 2001, it reduced that frequency to first eleven, then ten issues yearly. Yet its online counterpart publishes dozens of articles daily. The demands of meeting that schedule did not leave the purview of the magazine untouched. In 2009, the company launched a spin-off site, The Atlantic Wire. As a result, it’s not unusual to find articles about celebrity Halloween costumes, social media snafus, and reality television under the masthead first graced by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
These are, perhaps, growing pains. Blogging has been around long enough to demonstrate its potential, but with the technology that supports it still developing — there were no smartphones or tablets when Mullenweg posted his first blog entry — it may be another 15 years before the form settles down into something as fixed and predictable as the traditional newspaper column or magazine feature. In the meantime, it will no doubt continue to outgrow every new set of school clothes.
Part of what makes culture hawks like Stothard irritable are the ways in which those transitions seem to deform the topics covered by bloggers. It can hardly be denied that a media model that favors brief and quickly written updates over quarterly, monthly, weekly, even once-daily publication will produce, if not a different caliber of writing, then at least writing of a different kind. It must, if for no other reason than that it addresses itself to a different market, and pays for itself on the basis of clicks rather than bundles.
Yes, blogging has changed publishing, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Stothard is right — up to a point. What’s not so clear is whether that fact is, as he insists, a straightforward detriment to the culture. That’s a question that can only be answered in the fullness of time. For now, we can follow the trajectory suggested by the last 15 years.
The aim of this series is to draw a line so that the present is not so easily confused with the recent past. The articles to follow will explore the current state of the blog format. The hope is to arrive at a fuller understanding of what it means to publish in a world where the tools used by institutions that once relied on the printing press are the same as those used by hobbyists and upstarts.