Friday, March 11, 2005

The bloggers are on the march

Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times today, seems to be worried by bloggers. Under his keyboard, “the desk shakes”, he says, recording that he attended a seminar in Washington this week on the future of opinion journalism, where the talk was dominated by bloggers.

They were everywhere, says Jenkins, permanently online to each other through 3G handsets. "The dedicated blogger updates his site two or three times day, as if no gossip must go unpassed and no abuse go unanswered. It is manic."

Dubbed "the democracy of the air", Jenkins concedes that the blogosphere has taken the press temporarily by storm, although he puts in some special pleading for his own craft. The "dead trees" edition of The Times is bought by some 700,000 people while five times as many visit the Times Online worldwide, he tells us.

But readers are declining. Jenkins cites an academic observer, Philip Meyer, who has calculated that at the present rate of fall the last newspaper will be read in April 2040. Nevertheless, he dismisses most blogs as a "scream of opinion" but admits they do give conventional journalism a problem. We have to prove, he says, is to prove that such qualities as newsgathering and reliability are worth more than the "scream of opinion".

He observes how often blogs refer to items witnessed on television or read in The New York Times. Someone, he says, must gather this stuff, check it, source it, write and edit it.

These are not professional trivia, he claims, but the essence of open debate. The mainstream media have to make money or the blog's professional resource will die. With newspaper sales declining and news bureaux shutting down across the world, the outlook is not good. It was never more true that opinion is free, facts are expensive.

With that, he says, British papers need not worry - as yet. Altough he is worried. "The ground did shake under me," he says. "Earlier threats to the press came from new conduits of news and information. Today's goes to the heart of my trade. It peddles opinion. I can pretend to occupy a higher plane. I can try pleading factual accuracy, consistency, uncorruptibility and a quote or two from Shakespeare. But in truth I too am a blogger, snatching at some item of passing news to argue a case and persuade. And I charge for it. The blogger does it for nothing. I am on my mettle as never before."

So says the great sage, but despite his claim to moral superiority, he is one of that band that indeed does little if anything more than the average blogger – he is a peddler of opinion. And while he might be one of the "great and the good", his influence is waning.

At the moment, The Times boasts 700,000 readers. A quick count of the top 50 "European" (but mainly British) blogs, however, gives an average daily readership of over 35,000. But that sample, published on Europundit is skewed by reporting only those blogs which use "sitemeter" to record their hits. Some major sites do not and, taking those into account, it would not be unreasonable to double the figure to 70,000.

That is ten percent of the Times audience and, with many of the blogs being less than a new old, representing a phenomenon which is new to Britain, readership can only grow. To judge from trends on our own blog – where we expect to see our hits doubled by June – collectively, we are looking at an audience in the millions within a few years.

That much you can given credit to the EU commission, for recognising the trend and launching the Wallström effort, but the fact remains that the blog – by its very nature – is a forum for the alternative point of view. It is too anarchic to be disciplined by the corporatists. Thus, Mr Jenkins, the bloggers are indeed on the march. And you are history.

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