The story of blogging can be told as a love story. This is not, mind you, a prettified “meet-cute” between two flawed, self-made singles who discover that love isn’t about fairy-tale perfection but rather an only slightly more realistic pairing of lovable quirks, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meeting at one or another monuments to the entrepreneurial spirit. Imagine, instead, an indie film with a maudlin sense of humor, throwing the wreckage of two people, both harboring a vengeful crush on the same blithe spirit of an ex, into a spring-autumn affair as likely to end in double homicide as happily ever after.
The Jilting of the Gray Lady
If you subscribe to a particular view of newspaper history in the 21st century—namely, that expressed by writer and television producer David Simon in an interview with Guernica‘s Bill Moyers—by the 1990s, professional journalism had already set the conditions for its own demise. The major papers were rapidly selling out to entertainment conglomerates with little interest in maintaining a healthy Fourth Estate. Buy-outs meant the construction of single-vendor markets where there was precious little competition to drive up the quality of coverage. So-called lifestyle sections swelled, while reportage that might offend the moneyed interests languished.
Arguably, the press’ most important function is as the Fourth Estate—an interest distinct from the government that serves as a check on corruption and undemocratic agendas. In the environment of the late 20th century, that stopgap culture rapidly dwindled. Explaining the situation at his home paper, The Baltimore Sun, Simon told Moyers,
All that R&D money that was supposed to go into making newspapers more essential, more viable, more able to explain the complexities of the world went to shareholders in the Tribune Company. Or the L.A. Times Mirror Company before that. And ultimately, when the Internet did hit, they had an inferior product that was not essential enough that they could charge online for it.
The publishers and owners, sums up Simon, “had contempt for their own product,” but so long as they could continue to sell advertising space, there was no impetus to change. The wake-up call was coming, but by then it would be too late for many.
In part, it was the allure of 24-hour cable news networks that drew advertisers away. Television ads could be more dynamic than ads limited to the printed page, and as the 20th century wound to a close, more and more news consumers were relying on the instantaneous and often more vibrant coverage of CNN, FOX and MSNBC for their breaking news. At the same time, the advent of user-driven e-commerce sites like eBay and Craig’s List undermined another pillar of newsprint’s economic model, the classified ad.
One thing you can count on when dating a narcissist is that they’ll never see the break-up coming. When advertisers saw opportunities for potentially more effective advertising elsewhere, the newspaper industry went into shock. It had grown flabby and slow to adjust. Some companies managed to be more agile than others, but as a whole the industry was singularly bad at taking stock. Many made a scapegoat of the new format drawing so much attention, the blog.
It’s true that a few frontrunner blogs were drawing readers away from the papers, but as news sources, blogs were plagued with drawbacks. They tended to be unreliable, lacked the sort of direct, local competition for advertising that would force them toward balance and neutrality, and produced very little original reportage. Those weaknesses were opportunities for the established publications to reassert their strengths, but few did. Many cut the very journalists that maintained their capacity to serve the public interest, while retaining the diversionary lifestyle sections they believed would continue to serve as their bread and butter. When those out-of-touch strategies failed to pay-off, the quickest to fall were either scooped up by the conglomerates or left for the market to cull.
That made for dark times for journalists themselves. Many were forced out into other fields, writing copy for marketers and PR firms in order to feed their families. For the industry itself, though, the situation never seemed to get as dire as predicted. For more than a decade now, the most consistent story told in op-eds on both sides of the Web revolution has been that of the slow death of journalism. Yet fifteen years after Jorn Barger coined the word weblog, journalism continues to pull double duty on both the Web and in print. The golden child of the 20th century is down, but not yet out.
Svengali on the Web
The fact of the matter is that the first wave of blogs were never really in a position to overthrow the old establishment. The problem, again, was the fickleness of the advertising model. Even as it advertisers were making their condolences to the papers, they had begun playing Svengali to the Web’s Trilby.
In principle, there was a lot to be excited about when it came to advertising on the Web. The technology offered new ways of interacting with consumers—embedded audio and video, targeted adserve, pop-ups, pop-unders and expanding frames. As yet, there were no clear lines distinguishing abuse from business as usual. Because the new techniques of serving advertising were still relatively untested, and still had to compete with tried and true formats in print and television, making money often meant giving over control of a page to its advertising.
As a result, Web publishers who hoped to sustain themselves with advertising often ended up resembling pre-Giuliani Times Square. Garish, obtrusive ads obscured the page’s content, competing for the user’s attention. Many abused the lack of standards and the naivete of the increasing droves of new Web browsers to trick users into navigating down black holes of adult-themed ads and malware.
Those practices were slow to die, and many continue even as Web publishing itself grows more sophisticated. The multimedia temptations of online advertising are simply too compelling to part with completely. Thus it remains all too easy to accidentally trigger an embedded video selling cars or promoting a blockbuster movie when your only goal is to, say, check the Times for details on an impeding natural disaster rushing toward your home. The less overt capabilities of internet advertising exert an allure even for those that don’t insinuate themselves between readers and the content that drew them to a site in the first place. Much of the promise of the new platform resided in the use of Web cookies to farm information about viewers into profiles that make it feasible to serve “targeted” ads. So far, results have been mixed, leading to the formation of a cottage industry in Big Data, which promises to realize the ideal ads of marketing dreams.
The general obtrusiveness of Web advertising has fostered an adversarial feeling among Web users. That, in turn, has fostered a market in software solutions, like AdBlock, that circumvent adserve platforms. The result are Web pages stripped of the advertising that ostensibly pays for those very pages.
On its surface, this looks like a technical solution to a technical problem. Plagued by abusive and obtrusive advertising, the consumer has fought back. This places a check on advertisers, forcing them to reign in their excesses. So long as the ultimate result is a state of equilibrium, all’s well that ends well. But either from disdain for the economics of publishing, confusion over the constraints of the system, or simply the momentum created by the technical solution, the adversarial relationship has grown into a veritable subculture. For some users on the Web, ad-blocking software is less a check on abuse than it is a tool of revolution. The question of how the Web will pay for vital, original content too often falls to the wayside.
Too often, these circumstances lead to exploitation. They drive down the price that employers are willing to pay for writing while encouraging bog-standard content. One side effect is the content farm, an economic model that leverages the low rates of cost-per-view (CPV) advertising by paying low margins for writing designed to attract search engine results. While content farms themselves are easy to single out for criticism, even more conscientious blogging venues often tend toward the economic logic that fuels the farms.
Trilby and the Comeback Kid
As the century turned, the traditional publishers began coming to terms with the idea that remaining viable meant cementing a Web presence. As noted in an earlier entry in the series, publishers recognized in the early blogging successes an established work force that could be brought in to smooth the transition. So began the romance between corporate publishers and the independent writers of the Web.
The arrangement struck between them marked a coming age for professional blogging. Backed by the financial resources of industry mainstays like the The Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Post, bloggers no longer needed to scramble to hold together their sites. In some cases, that gave writers the opportunity to hone their craft into something more closely resembling the standards of traditional journalism. Often as not, though, it meant a blurring between those standards and the activities more native to the Web. So long as the prevailing logic held that print and Web were in direct competition for the same readers, the style of the Web anchored to the tenuous economics that pay for online publishing began to influence the style of print journalism.
Moreover, it began to shape editorial policy. Paying for writing on the Web often meant an editorial calendar built on regular appeals to the trend-seeking masses of the Web. Insofar as it successfully drives traffic, the struggle to publish the most visible aggregation of the story du jour quickly usurps efforts to draw readers with original reporting. A publisher once lauded for the depth of its coverage and vitality of its original reporting gradually begins to sustain itself, if at all, by publishing a dozen updates a day, most built by providing enough context and commentary to someone else’s story that the reader will hopefully feel no need to click on theoriginal link. That, after all, might direct them to someone else’s site and someone else’s advertising.
All of which is to say that, between the moneyed traditional publishers, the crowd-savvy networkers of the blogging jet set, and the fickle suitors of the advertising world, there has arisen a palpably unhealthy love triangle. The publishers give the bloggers respectability and a measure of stability. The bloggers give publishers the traffic needed to profit from ads. Both rely on the advertisers who return their affection in exchange for the opportunity to better insinuate themselves between the audience and the content.
Our love story, then, is a dark comedy of manners, each point in the triangle studiously ignoring the dysfunction that allows the relationship to persist for the time being, even as it draws toward conflagration.
There are those who, like Browbeat‘s J. Bryan Lowder, are content with writing that bucks “the tyranny of ‘usefulness’” in favor of a personal preference told with sufficiently expressive viciousness, or for whom dressing up an aggregated link or YouTube video passes as a suitable replacement for journalism. It would be little surprise to find that their ranks are made up largely by those who cut their teeth on a blog, where a history of bootstrapping amateurism has made the thrill of seeing one’s own opinion broadcasted a reward unto itself.
Even putting it so will strike some as out of touch, but the point is not that there should be no place for clever aggregation or a smartly scored bon mot. The point, rather, is that we should be careful not to prefer them to exclusion of the useful. While none of us might do so on our own, that’s just what we do in droves when we feed the economic logic of the system.
Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends
Publishers of the old school, recently tasked with smuggling journalism onto the Web, must be less sanguine about that prospect. When we ask how they approach publishing on the Web, it may be fair to answer, as David Simon does, with “contempt for their own product.” But, some will object, their hands are tied by the economics of their situation. The question that arises, then, is this: How do we change those economics so as to make the Web conducive to the sort of writing we need, and not just the sort of writing that sways the crowd?
Now, as it happens, is a propitious time to be asking that question. The nature of the Web is shifting, driven by changes in technology and the demographics of how we use and access the Web. Publishers and innovators who are willing to track those changes carefully, and who feel a vested interest in improving the situation of writing on the Web, can help shape the platforms that drive the Web publishing of the next decade and beyond. With diligence, it may be possible to come out better off than we were in the heyday of the newspaper conglomerates.
In particular, the growth of tablet and mobile computing threatens to shake up the love triangle. Mobile operating systems, built for stability and efficiency, are introducing ecosystems that look strikingly closed relative to the more flexible and customizable operating systems of desktops and laptops. The simple fact of the matter is that, as the home computing market grew, fewer computer users needed the broad range of features and options offered by traditional computers. In the hands of users who needed little more than to check email, connect to the Web, stock their MP3 players and use a smattering of home office programs, that complexity was more often than not a liability. It invited confusion and left them open to bugs and malware.
It is, in fact, impossible to fully separate those qualities from the aspect that tech mavens find most concerning about the new platforms. Proprietary marketplaces, like Apple’s App Store, allow the OS vendors to create and maintain the sort of computing environment that we’ve long dreamed as the future of computing, without the sharper learning curve and fewer of the anxieties that attended the PC for most of its history. As constraining as the tinkerers of the old school may find them, the success of mobile is due in no small part to the average user’s feeling of confidence and security made possible by the closed gardens they offer.
That’s significant for the future of Web publishing, first of all, in its potential to break the dominance of the traditional Web browser. Tablets and smartphones have their versions of the major browsers, of course, but they’ve also seen a boom market in the sort of proprietary Web apps that have long been the exception on the major operating systems, rather than the rule. Publishers are looking anew at the sort of stand-alone platforms that it once abandoned with prototypes like The Washington Post‘s news distribution program, PostCard. The gradual realization that nearly any firewall or restriction could be circumvented so long as they were accessed through third-party browsers once forced those publishers to reconcile themselves to the free content model. Now, because application management tends to be much tighter on mobile platforms, they can take another stab at paid content models, and with less concern that users will simply access the content by an unpaid backdoor.
Another, perhaps more ambiguous factor is the growth of social media. Even a passing familiarity with Web marketing ideology is enough to impress a person with the importance Web publishers and designers place on social media as a platform for driving traffic, but there’s another side to the coin. Whereas blogs once felt like the substance of the Web, social media platforms have restructured the way most users interact on the Web. Fewer people feel it necessary to assert their presence on the Web with a publicly available and diligently maintained blog. Though not without its own complications and concerns, most are content to focus on posting pictures, updates and endorsements on a commercially maintained site like Facebook rather than worry with the more technical challenges associated with even the most streamlined blogging suites.
That has meant the erosion of a middle ground once recognized as standing at the border of blogging proper. A catch-all blog like Barger’s Robot Wisdom, ultimately constrained only by the subjective, personal interests of its owner, no longer seems like a natural outlet to most. The logic of sites like OpenDiary and Livejournal, while not quite obsolete, have largely given way to the ease and minimal interaction of Tumblr and Twitter. Without that middle ground, the gulf between those who see Web publishing as a vocation rather than a social outlet continues to widen. The latter group has largely embraced micro-publishing as the premiere outlet for more casual interactions. In as much as blogging continues to have any meaning at all, it has nearly lost all contact with its Usenet roots.
It is out of these elements that Web publishers will build the economic model that will pay for the next generation of writing. Learning from the form taken by contemporary publishing and fostering the sort of writing we need will mean not only acknowledging those elements, but also looking for the opportunities they provide. Foremost among them will be the opportunity to break the triangle—by making publishers less subject to an exploitative advertising model, or by allowing writers more leeway to write in the public interest, even when the individual article may not pay for itself in terms of SEO or social engagement. Keeping a steady eye on our own dysfunction, it may even be possible to steer the industry toward economic relationships that feel less like tainted love. For the time being, that may be growth enough.