Monday, September 08, 2008

The state of the MSM blogosphere

For those who are not lucky enough to be going to the conferences, the 2008 Guide to Political Blogging can be downloaded from the Total Politics site. Here's the piece I wrote on the state of the MSM blogosphere and how, to some extent, the gamekeepers of the "dead tree press" are starting to beat the poachers at their own game.


A year ago, Iain Dale asked me to write a piece for the 2007 Guide entitled Journalist Bloggers: Gamekeepers Turned Poachers?. Broadly speaking, my conclusion was that, while blogging and journalism are clearly distinct disciplines, the dichotomy between the two was always something of a false opposition.

The evidence pointed less to a Manichean divide between “professional” hacks writing for major media organisations and “amateur” bloggers writing from their bedrooms, more to a growing and irresistible convergence.

If anything, that trend has accelerated over the past 12 months, as more and more “mainstream media” organisations have embraced blogging, with increasing degrees of success.

The question that Iain might have asked me to answer this year is: Are the Gamekeepers starting to beat the Poachers at their own game? To an extent, the answer to that has to be yes.

Last year, I identified two mainstream media political editors who, in my view, clearly “got” what blogging was all about and were using the medium as a “Politics Plus” channel to amplify their core political reporting. They were the Daily Mail’s Ben Brogan, and the BBC’s Nick Robinson.

At the time I wrote that, they were the exception rather than the rule, but since then, all of the major national newspapers have launched political blogs, and some of them, notably The Times’ Red Box and the Telegraph’s Three Line Whip, have quickly become required reading.

It still does not mean that all journalists are becoming bloggers and all bloggers are becoming journalists. It is more nuanced than that.

Instead, what we are now finding is that, just as within the political blogosphere there were bloggers who excelled at journalism, so too within the MSM there are political journalists who excel at blogging – though not necessarily always the ones of greatest renown.

James Forsyth of The Spectator is a case in point. He is not quite the force in print that his boss Fraser Nelson is, but online, on his home territory of the Speccie’s Coffee House group blog, he is invariably compelling reading.

Similarly, Sam Coates of The Times does not possess the story-getting skills of his political editor Phil Webster nor the elegant writing talents of his colleague Francis Elliot. But the success of Red Box is nevertheless very much down to his ability to write in a more gossipy, satirical style.

Over at Telegraph Towers, Rosa Prince is someone who has been much-mocked on account of the somewhat speculative nature of her stories – most recently the one about Alan Milburn being offered the Treasury in a David Miliband-led government.

But while this sort of thing is a little out of places in the news columns of a supposedly august broadsheet, it works very well on a blog, which appropriately enough was where the Guardian’s main blogger, Andrew Sparrow, chose to follow-up the Milburn story.

While the “MSM blogosphere” has been growing in size and stature, the independent blogosphere has appeared to stand relatively still. The only real newcomer of note in the past 12 months has been Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal’s attempt to corral the ‘sphere’s disparate liberal-left under a single banner.

Elsewhere Phil Hendren – Dizzy – has carved out a niche for himself as an astute commentator on the interplay between politics and technology, and has had a couple of pieces published in The Times, but few of the rest of us, if we are honest, have enhanced either our reputations or our traffic.

Thus it is that an elite has been perceptibly forming, comprising the so-called “Big Four” independent blogs – Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes, Conservative Home and Political Betting – and the leading MSM blogs - Coffee House, Red Box, Brogan, Robinson.

Already, this elite is becoming self-perpetuating. While the MSM blogs link to very few “independent” blogs outside the “Big Four,” they invariably link to eachother, despite the long-standing and deep-seated commercial rivalries between their parent organisations.

In a sense, it’s unsurprising that the new MSM blogs have stolen a march on the rest. They are better resourced, and because servicing the paper’s group blogs are now part of their authors’ roles, it follows that they have more time for blogging than those of us who are doing it as a hobby.

Furthermore, because they are based at Westminster, as part of large newspaper lobby teams and an even larger corps of political hacks continually swapping gossip and information, they are also more likely to be better informed.

But where in my view the MSM bloggers fall down is in their failure thus far to create the kind of online communities that the “Big Four” have specialised in. That “conversation” with readers, sometimes at an intensely personal level, is still, for me, the essence of what makes a blog different from a newspaper website.

Had James Forsyth or Ben Brogan, for all their journalistic nous, written a long blog post about their godmother’s funeral, the reaction among most of their readers would have been bemusement. When Iain Dale did it, it generated scores of responses.

The recent career of the former Daily Telegraph political diarist Jonathan Isaby provides as good a commentary as anything on the state of both the political blogosphere as a whole and the MSM blogosphere in particular.

Earlier this summer, Isaby quit the Telegraph to co-edit the Tory uber-blog Conservative Home, lamenting the decreasing amount of time available for newspaper journalists operating in this multimedia world to carry out original research and source exclusive stories.

In one sense, it illustrates the extent to which technological developments have altered the political reporter’s traditional role. In another, it is illustrative of a world in which leading bloggers like Iain Dale are writing columns for national newspapers and leading national political journalists like Isaby are editing blogs.

I always thought the day political blogging really entered the mainstream would be when one of the big four blogs managed to obtain a lobby pass. If they haven’t yet given one to the new co-editor of Con Home, I have a feeling they soon will do.

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Richard said...

Your interesting analysis is possibly distorted by your limited definition of "politics", and by a somewhat parochial vision.

While the likes of Dale are showing little if any recent growth, there is considerable growth elsewhere in the blogosphere in areas where the political chatterati do not visit.

Pre-eminent of this is Watts up with that, a sceptical site dealing with climate change, which is showing exponential growth.

Although this is a US site, the point about the blogosphere is that it is truly international and, as the comments demonstrate, issue-based sites attract healthy British audiences.

Further, despite the subject matter (or because of it), this is an intensely political site. Where your so-called political bloggers go wrong is that they confuse the discussion of politicians with politics, whereas the true nature of politics is the discussion of politics.

Time will tell but I sense that the "tee hee" polticial personality sites are on the wane and we will see readers moving away to more issue-based sites where they can be free of the cloying trivia in which the media sites (the corporate blogs, or "clogs") excel.

Richard said...

sorry ... that should read:

"...whereas the true nature of politics is the discussion of policies."