Monday, November 30, 2009

Newspapers and blogs

Nobody hates blogs more than journalists. Blogs drive the less digitally-savvy journos and media industry guys crazy (and not just because we are helping to put them out of work). They gripe about bloggers having no accountability, no transparency. There is no tough editor peering over the blogger's shoulder and demanding they back up the claim they make in the second paragraph, no sub dutifully fact-checking their copy, no time-honoured professional code of conduct preventing them from writing good things about their mates or slating the work of people they don't like.

And what exactly are the blogger's credentials? This is what really rankles: Bloggers haven't been carefully selected for their role as critic or commentator by a respected news organisation, required to demonstrate writing prowess and reporting nous. They haven't stubbornly worked their way up the ladder in profession that, while incredibly competitive and often grueling, pays poorly. In short, they've jumped the queue. They're not professionals, they're bloody amateurs. And people are listening to them!

I've been both a newspaper journalist and a blogger, and have been thinking a lot lately about the overlapping ground between these roles, and the antagonism and competition that exists between the two camps in what is shaping up to be the golden age of citizen journalism. Down south, the arrival of theblogpaper has attracted attention. Closer to home, I'm meeting up with some folks tonight to discuss an aggregator project for Manchester bloggers that I suspect will share some of the aims of theblogpaper.

It's early days and I'm not sure what will come of it, but it's encouraging that people are interested. I've been beating the "we need an aggregator" drum since the original Manchester Aggregator, a one-man volunteer operation, died a few years back (and in case you've never met an aggregator before, it's a website that pulls in the posts of multiple bloggers via feeds and publishes them in one place).

But first: theblogpaper.

The all-lowercase name evokes the recently departed thelondonpaper and gives notice of the venture's designs on the freesheet market, but on this front theblogpaper is guilty of putting out mixed messages. They say "we aim to combine two different yet equally important types of media: internet and print." Yet they "promote contents to print" by voting; the top rated stories get published in a London paper edition. What's with the inferiority complex? These days, putting online content into print is more of a demotion than a promotion (and I say this as someone who will let you take away my morning newspaper when you tear it out of my cold, dead hands).

If you're interested there's some more background info on theblogpaper here. I'm not sure if it will succeed or not. The main problem is content: I think there is some truth to the assessment this t5m blogger makes of it (though as a competitor his views should possibly be taken with a few grains of salt). And there are some things I don't understand about their model. Why do they require contributors to submit articles rather than automatically pulling registered bloggers' posts from their sites aggregator-style?

Having to submit articles places more of a burden on participating bloggers, and the site already asks a lot of their community as they need people to vote on what articles to "promote". I understand the model's allure as it is both democratic and time saving. The readers are the selectors, so you don't need editors. But it's a big gamble - I think any new venture that leans too heavily on user participation via voting and liking is on shaky ground unless they have a gargantuan publicity budget.

I see they are selling advertising. Not sure if this will work. It didn't for theblogpaper's predecessor The Printed Blog. In the US big-name blogs command hefty rates. Over here, the only blogs I've seen ads on are the newspaper blogs and the blogs of Gawker's UK copycat Shiny Media, and they certainly haven't found a model that's immune to the problems of the print sector. I like the model where blogs with an established following band together and sell ad space a la The Deck, but I'm not sure local advertisers would go for it, or whether the amount of traffic UK local blogs get (at best, a couple hundred hits a day, I'm guessing) would make this a viable idea, even with the ad display replicated over several blogs.

I wish theblogpaper well and will be delighted if it succeeds; it's still in beta phase and hopefully whatever doesn't work will be dealt with soon. But whether it's this project or not, I think it's only a matter of time before something blog-sourced makes a go of it in the UK. Newspapers are in free fall. There is a content vacuum, and bloggers stand ready to fill it. In some cases, you could say they are already filling it.

Take Manchester as an example. The content of our daily newspaper, such as it is (sigh) has dwindled in terms of both quality and quantity; they've shrunk pages and offloaded experienced (and incidentally, better-paid) journalists in favor of unpaid and exploited rookie journos. No print mag has gotten very far off the ground since Citylife folded; Time Out looked at coming in and decided it wouldn't be profitable enough, I'm guessing. So on the print side, we've got a handful of well-intentioned zines, one or two property circulars masquerading as "lifestyle magazines", and the fresh-faced new culture and listings magazine that seems to arrive with a bang every six months or so and disappear with a whimper a few months later. I wish one would stick but they keep not sticking.

Online, things are buzzier. Manchester's cultural institutions have gone into the content business themselves, setting up their own web magazine (and making a damn fine job of it, says this admittedly very biased contributor) and turning to bloggers to review their exhibitions and plays. In this city, at least, bloggers really are the new press. Manchester Confidential's recent decision to start charging for content in the new year prompted an interesting debate (also here) with some asking "why would people pay for content they can get for free elsewhere?"

It's good that bloggers are getting more attention here. And I think a group endeavour that would unite the best of our content in one place would be good for everyone: readers, writers, cultural and civic institutions. But Manchester bloggers will have to step up our game if we want to be taken seriously (though some couldn't give a rat's ass about being taken seriously, and more power to them). We aren't professionals, but I think maybe we ought to hold ourselves to more professional standards. What does this mean? Well, for starters...
  • If you get press tickets, actually write about the thing
  • Be transparent: if you get free meals, free drinks or free gear say so in your post
  • Be independent and dispassionate, don't allow freebies to influence what you write
  • Get permission to use copyrighted photos instead of thieving them fecklessly
  • Attribute. Use links to other blogs/sites generously; credit where credit's due.
  • Be respectful of readers who disagree; publish and respond to critical comments
  • Be as accurate as you can. Sloppy mistakes erode your credibility
  • Correct mistakes quickly and prominently
  • And fer chrissakes, spell check your posts.
Hmm... I have a feeling I may come to regret posting this list. All nitpicking comments taking issue with my grammar, spelling, photo crediting, accuracy or legitimate parentage gratefully received ;) Anyway, I'll keep you lot posted on the MCR aggregator project. If anyone wants to be more actively involved, please get in touch.

Blog picture via Tubuans and Dukduks.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'My log has something to tell you'

Twin Peaks. The drama. The flannel. The unearthly blend of mawkish and surreal that could only come from the dark, dark mind of one David Lynch. And, of course, the pie.

I'm not sure exactly how watching the weekly adventures of The Bookhouse Boys, Agent Dale Cooper, the Log Lady and the rest of the gang as an adolescent warped my mind, but I think it was in a good way. Nobody's ever figured out how the TV execs agreed to let Lynch loose on prime time, but thank god they did. The first season is some of the best TV ever. The second season... well, really, it's kind of a mess but still miles more interesting and original than 99 percent of the crap on television.

If you've always secretly longed to don Laura Palmer's prom dress, you're in luck: Islington Mill in Salford will be turned into the town of Twin Peaks for one night only on Sunday Dec 13. Come in character. There will be a Miss Twin Peaks 2009 pageant, live music, performances and djs. £11 (advance only here, limited capacity) gets you in with a slice of cherry pie.

I'm also going t'mill tonight to catch the amazing Mayming and World Sanguine Report. Some really great gigs coming up there.

Club Brenda, the big hearted club night renowned for its eclectic playlist, is the subject of a limited edition book. Strange Trees. The book is getting a proper DJ-assisted launch Dec 1 at Urbis 7:30-10 (free entry). The book "moves through the history of Club Brenda, using a series of classic narratives to form a dark urban fairytale, alongside a series of commissioned photography and artwork" from the likes of Rachel Goodyear and David Hoyle, who will also be selling art on the night. Enjoy your Urbis while you can, kids.

And closer to home (well, for me and those of us who live in the farthest reaches of North Manchester, much further for everyone else) Horse & Bamboo's Deep Time Cabaret comes to the Boo in Waterfoot on Saturday, 28 November. Looks like fun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Just wanted to say that I'm doing some long-overdue maintenance of the creaky old blogroll at the moment. Wow, is that thing dirty. I've rolled up my sleeves and added a long list of new literary blogs today, but that's really just the start. There are scores of new blogs to add and a few nasty defunct blogs to de-link.

Phew. This could take a while.

Anyway, if you want me to add your new (or old) blog, now's a good time to tell me.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

November in Manchester: Literary News

Well howdy. It's been a while, no? Now that the Literature Festival dust has settled, I'm here with a lot of long-overdue literary news things.

November in Manchester, an ambitious "social media love story" undertaken by Tom Mason, an SEO copywriter whose first love is creative writing, is now live. I spoke with Tom about it at Social Media Cafe and he told me how it works: he's written a story which is going to be published via characters' first-person tweets and blog posts (here are blogs for main characters James and Persephone.)

Readers can take part by sending in pics and films representing the characters and/or scenes they experience during November in Manchester (photo above is from their Flickr Group.) It's not really a collectively written story, more a collectively illustrated one that employs social media in its delivery. Interesting idea.

A wave to those intrepid Manchester writers furiously sprinting through National Novel Writing Month. Good luck, guys! In case anyone is just finding out about this excellent endeavour and doesn't want to wait another year to take part the folks who run it also do short story and script-centred projects throughout the year, so sign up to their list to find out about those.

Some news on the publications front:

Author, dreamblogger and literary Mancunian of note Nicholas Royle has started up independent publisher Nightjar Press, which got things rolling last month with chapbooks from Manchester writer Tom Fletcher (who writes a blog at Fell House) and Michael Marshall Smith.

Knives, Forks and Spoons press is now publishing poetry and organising readings, their next one features Simon Rennie, Alec Newman and John G. Hall and is at Central Library on Nov 26 at 6:30. The press was begun by Richard Barrett earlier this year and is being continued by Alec Newman. They live on Facebook here.

Lit zines The Shrieking Violet and Belle Vue (write up of it at The Mithering Times) both have fresh editions out, as does new-to-me zine Geeek and web journal The Manchester Review (now on twitter at @mancreview).

A new writing group is setting up shop at Nexus Art Cafe. Called Bad Language, it's being organised by Dan Carpenter. The first meeting was Nov 3 but as I didn't get around to posting about it til now, get in touch via Bad Language's twitter account or contact me and I'll pass on Dan's email.

And if anyone missed it, Manchester's butt-kicking literary scene gets a glowing write-up in the Guardian Books Blog by Jerome de Groot. Interesting debate in the comments on whether Manchester is tiresome about blowing its own horn. Maybe I see the original writer's point. Honestly, we've got a lot to brag about. I would say that, though. Mancs are known for being gobby, and Americans, well - we're not generally considered backward in coming forward.

What do you think? Should Manchester stop grandstanding? Answers on a postcard TO THE GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD, EVER please.