Internet Authors aren't Newspaper Columnists

Mike Scantlebury

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The problem with the internet is that it changes so fast, and develops in so many different ways, that ordinary people have problems keeping up with it. Worse, they don't see new things as they are but instead, as reflections of things they are already familiar with. It's as though somebody caught sight of a zebra for the first time and said, ‘Oh look, a horse with black and white stripes’. Well, yes, that's almost true, but a zebra isn't a horse. It's a unique species. And what is developing on the web isn't old ideas with new stripes, either. They are new species too.

I heard a man on Radio 4 this morning and he was complaining that bloggers aren't as good as old-fashioned newspaper columnists. His argument rested around the fact that they weren't being paid! The underlying assumption he had - that he was revealing - was that if people who wrote blogs were any good as writers, then they would be able to get jobs on newspapers. Since they aren't - employed on newspapers - they must be inferior writers and shouldn't be read!

To me, this is an example of mixing up genres and failing to see how the internet has changed things. Sure, some bloggers aren't good writers and some blogs are boring and even incoherent. But some bloggers, on the other hand, are excellent writers and would be welcome in the offices of any publication, (if they chose to try their hand at the world of journalism). Any regular internet reader knows this. I don't have to argue the case. It's only the regular newspaper readers, the people who drop in on the internet occassionally, dip in and out, cruise around and don't really get a feel for it, who might believe that the bad blogs they find are typical. They aren't.

There's also the assumption that if people aren't paid, it's because they're no good at what they do. It's not like that. Most people write blogs because they have something to say, not because they have adopted the professional position of ‘journalist’ or ‘commentator’ or ‘columnist’. Only later, if they really are good at it, (and people notice and come to their site regularly), then they might decide to throw in a few Adsense ads or incorporate some other money-making venture at their address. But - the man on Radio 4 poured scorn on these attempts. He quoted the case of a blogger who, he asserted, was ‘50th in the world’ in terms of popularity. The man had only made $3,500 last year from his blog, (stated our radio pundit), Somehow, to him, this proved the man wasn't a good writer. Nonsense. It ‘proves’ he isn't a well-paid newspaper columnist, drawing a fee to produce a regular weekly column, but it says nothing about the standard of writing - merely that the rewards for writing articles on the internet are on a different level from out there in the ‘traditional’ writing world.

The problem really, it seems to me, is that the new world of interent authoring has created new ways of ‘being a writer’. Our commentator above probably longs for the days when he could attend polite dinner parties and people could discuss newspaper columns they'd read, from writers they admired. The great thing then, of course, was that if someone said, ‘Did you see what so-and-so said in The Observer this week', then there was a good chance that everyone might have seen it. (But not everyone sees the same articles on the web, they're too widespread. ) Even better, if you hadn't seen the article in question, you could still go home and dig out your copy, or borrow one from a friend, or even - heaven knows, new technology - go to the internet and download a copy from the newspaper's website. There would then be a feeling of shared culture, everyone reading the same things, giving their opionions on the same pieces they had read. It was comfortable.

But, just as changes in TV broadcasting have produced hundreds of channels and a huge divergence in viewing patterns, so the web has given great new opportunities for more writers to get online, more views to be expressed, and more debate to happen. It's just different. It needs new skills. For instance, you are in the process of reading this article in front of you. It might have cropped up on any number of web sites. You might have found it anywhere. But, if you want to find what else I've written, it's simple: you put the name ‘Mike Scantlebury’ into a search engine and track down other articles by me. You might then decide to print them out and save them in a folder.

People used to do that. The only difference then was that their ‘favourite’ columnist would have been found in the same place, at the same time. Say, a column in their favourite Sunday newspaper. Now, it's different. Now you may have to hunt around to find other stuff by the same author. But if you liked what the person said, you could still decide to save the clippings. Hey, what have you got? A folder full of bits of paper, (just like the example above). That hasn't changed.

What has changed is that there are more opinions getting an airing, more voices being heard. That's threatening for people who want to feel comfortable with a ‘spokesperson’ they feel comfortable with. The plethora of opportunities to be seen is confusing for anyone who likes to have a habit. So, if you are used to buying your regular Sunday newspaper because you like its style, its stance, its take on the news, how upsetting would it be to go in the shop one day and find that there were suddenly a thousand papers on sale, instead of the choice of six or eight that you were used to seeing? It would be very disturbing.

The answer, to our friend on the radio, is that he has decided to close his eyes to this new choice, and try to limit it somehow. Mainly by deriding the new writers, and attacking the range of choice offered by the internet. No need. That will happen anyway. Why do you think his example was the ‘50th most popular’ blog on the web? Because people don't read everything that's out there, regularly. People make choices, anyway. Readers liked what the ‘50th’ person had to say and kept coming back. That made the blog popular. Even better, suppose the writer then becomes famous, who knows, some newspaper might come along one day and offer them a position (or even, perhaps, syndicate their output in the paper). That would be great for our man on the radio. He would then be able to read the newspaper and discuss the articles inside with his friends at dinner parties, just as he has always done. In fact, he would be looking at an animal with black and white stripes, but no worries. He could still pretend it was a horse.

Mike Scantlebury is an Internet Author, selling his varied books at Lulu and making downloads available at his home site. He has also founded a Discussion Forum about the future inevitable triumph of internet publishing at where all contributions to the debate will be warmly welcomed.


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