Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mayhill Fowler and the pitfalls on the road from unpaid blogger to paid journalist

The other day, Mayhill Fowler, the blogger who broke the "Bittergate" story announced that she was leaving the Huffington Post Fowler states in her intro: I want to be paid for my time and effort—or at a minimum, to get a little remuneration in return for the money I spend myself in order to do original reportage. I would not expect to be paid for punditry. But can a "blogger" go from rank punditry to reportage? Therein lies the rub...and it's not easy to overcome.

Fowler goes on to recount how she pitched stories to Huffington, only to have them rejected. Yet she continued to write/report for them for free. And when she was writing for OffTheBus, as a "citizen journalist," she never expected to get paid. She also never considered herself the kind of "who, what, when, where, why" type of journalist, but wants to get paid for political reporting (which, actually *is* a form of 5W journalism, whether you bury the lede or not.)

This seems to be the same dilemma of many a fine blogger finds his or herself in when they who would like to be taken seriously and be paid for their work. It's very easy for a journalist, or someone with a journalism or publishing background, to go from journalist to blogger. There are several celebrated "bloggers" who follow this pattern, including Josh Marshall and Ana Marie Cox. And I don't begrudge them their success, and obstacles they may have had to overcome. But having the the journalist(Marshall) or editorial (Cox) creds before they became maverick bloggers was probably an advantage that many of us among the "unwashed" don't have.

In the eyes of the folks who edit and publish, previous career creds mean something. They mean, perhaps, that the individual understands the process that creates journalism. That they even might understand standards of objectivity and the pursuit of truth.

But that doesn't mean that those of us who did not get a degree in journalism or go to work in publishing/media straight from college are incapable of understanding principles of objectivity and the pursuit of truth. In fact, there have been many debates regarding the abilities of news journalists to be objective in this current day and age.

Back before OfftheBus (the initiative that launched Fowler in '08) it was the hyperbole around the term "citizen journalist" that got a lot of bloggers motivated to delve into the fray and try to become something other than unpaid personal publishers. I've always hated the term "citizen journalist' and found it somewhat derogatory. It always seemed to mean that you, the "citizen journalist" was going for the guts (byline) and not the glory(pay.) In 2005 I ruminated on the term and found that it was best used to describe journalists who had left the newspaper or magazine industry to be private citizens yet still published from time to time--and that the term was not really descriptive of what citizens, at that time, were doing with blogs.

We have seen many changes since 2005, and there are some great "citizen journalists" out there who have created news sites for their local neighborhoods and are carrying forward with the ideas of "civic journalism." That is indeed one kind of citizen journalist.

And I doubt today that many would be willing to call the person who posts an anonymous snarky diary blog or a teen-ager posting to LiveJournal a "citizen journalist." As they once might have argued vociferously in the halls of academia....

So where does that leave Fowler in the journalist vs. citizen journalist fracas? Well, I have some trouble with many of the things she says in this regard. Fowler goes back and forth, wanting to get paid for reporting, but not wanting to consider herself a journalist. As if to consider herself one she is perhaps insulting a whole bunch of others who have "paid dues" literally to a union or in a figurative sense to some gods of journalism. As I learned after my own HufPo experience (where I wasn't paid but was edited), if one is going to have one's work go through an editorial process, and one is going to get paid for one's work, then one is, in some form, a journalist. Why deny it? One can certainly have respect for the "who, what, when, where, why" local or national reporter and still be a journalist in his or her own right....

This is something I had to get used to myself. It took, and continues to take, lots of good conversations with longtime journalists to remind me that, yes, I've built a reputation beyond blogger, and can indeed call myself, at least, an online journalist. Yes, I even have a professional membership in the Online News Association. All that took was getting the respected, paid bylines.

Deep down, though, I have to believe that my writing is worth being paid for, and that I must be paid in some form or another for my work. Whether it is livebloging/"livetweeting" a really great conference (where I get "paid" by having the registration fee waived) or getting a check for something I wrote, I will not write for free. There may be some rare circumstances where I might contribute for free, but the organization must have some merit and certainly must enhance my bottom line in some form. I will not submit posts of 500 words and be paid $10 because some guy somewhere wants to build a "great blog network." Are you kidding me? I'm not going to put in my time and my effort, even for a blog post, for a mere 10 bucks.

To get to this point, it has taken years of constant building, of making connections, of working on start-ups and for very low pay. It's been a lot of pushing and insisting and serendipitous interactions that have contributed to bringing me from mere blogger to paid online journalist. Not to mention the great people who've been part of the process in one way or another--as supporters, as folks who've given me a break, as just cheering section. Still, I have a very long way to go before I am able to support myself totally from what I make thur writing.

But, when I consider where many other folks might be in their quest to be more than just a "blogger," I consider myself lucky, even with all the struggles and the bill collectors and the big ole annoying tax bills and lousy part-time jobs, and lectures and webinars and workshops I have to do in while I continue get paid for my writing.

So, Mayhill Fowler can stand on principals, can be wishy-washy on whether or not she wants to be, or even is, a kind of journalist. As for me, whether I'm using a blogging platform or a Google Doc or whatever, I want to be paid for my work when I'm writing for someone else. I want to be considered an online journalist who knows how to blog. Because I do know the process of journalism, I can be objective, and I do pursue truth (now). Not to mention that I'm also a damned good writer. :)

Note: While Fowler was standing her ground with HufPo, another blogger who's not a journalist (that I know of), Mike Arrington, founder of TechCrunch sold the most important blog in Silicon Valley to AOL. From all that I've read, Mike worked his ass off to build TechCrunch into something important--and yes, a lot of negative things have been said about Mike and powerbrokering in Silicon Valley over the years. I know nothing of that stuff. All I know is that he built it himself, posted constantly to keep it going, and wasn't a jounalist to start out with. Sure like most bloggers, many would argue that he's still not a journalist. But what he's done is pretty admirable.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The death of RSS might be greatly exaggerated. Here's why....

bye, bye Bloglines
There was quite a bit of discussion this week about the viability of RSS once word got out that the Bloglines reader--once the most popular RSS reader (and most simple to use)--would be shutting down as of October 1. Bloglines isn't the first RSS reader to shut down, and there are still a whole lot of people who use RSS readers, even if the casual or less tech-savvy reader has stopped.

First, let's talk RSS readers. Years ago when I started talking about the power of blogs to small business owners, I suggested they start using an RSS reader to track news in their industry and other related bloggers. Back then, there weren't too many readers other than Bloglines, FeedDemon, and perhaps Pluck's reader (which a client told me about.) Pluck shut down its reader in January, 2007. At the time of the shutdown announcement, ReadWriteWeb's Richard McManus declared in headline "Consumer RSS Readers a Dead Market Now."

In that article, McManus gave three alternatives for consumers: Microsoft's Outlook integrated reader, MyYahoo's mail integrated reader, and the upcoming Google Reader (also integrated with Gmail, then the hot new email client on the block.)

The shift at that time was from desktop or separate web-based readers to readers included with email. Consumers could check their mail *and* check their news.

Novel concept, eh??

One of the reasons Bloglines probably lasted longer than Pluck's reader may be that it had fairly high adoption levels among bloggers, who weren't necessarily the most tech savvy folks even if many were "early adopters." Bloglines was suggested to me in 2005 by fellow blogger Jill Fallon. It became the go-to site where I could not just collect feeds but also bookmark and keep individual posts.

Remember, in 2005 many of us didn't use Delicious. It was, more than likely, not known outside of geekier circles. In fact, its founder didn't leave his day job until 2005, once the project received significant venture capital. became more popular after Yahoo! acquired it in December '05., in 2005 we have, which took the place of one of the tasks of an RSS reader.

Then, along came Google Reader in October, 2005. Gmail had just opened to the public in August of that year, but opening an account wasn't necessarily a consumer-friendly process. Google also got Gtalk going, hoping to lure people away from AOL Messenger and other chat clients.

Gtalk didn't necessarily take of bigtime--like a lot of Google products--but the Google Reader did. I would hazard a guess that it had something to do with a really nice user interface and features that made it easy to email articles to others, etc. Google could see the social networking writing on the wall, and that information wanted to be shared as much as it wanted to be (cost) free.

Which leads me back to Bloglines. In many of the posts I read on the demise of Bloglines, few if any have noted what type of RSS reader consumers might be using in its stead. The overall assumption is that consumers are now relying on links from friends on social networking sites.

But that begs the question: where are these authoritative friends getting their information? Are they going directly to websites from their browser's bookmarks? Or are they, perhaps, perusing headlines on custom homepages that may include an RSS aggregator? Could they also be picking headlines from email integrated RSS readers?

To really know what's going on with RSS readers, some smart analysts would have to do a bit of market research.  Otherwise, what's being said in the press is a lot of conjecture about the health of RSS. Now, . assuming that RSS is dead because Bloglines is shutting down and, supposedly, "people" get their news from their social network neglects the places where RSS readers reside. Further, it neglects how and why people other than "people" are using RSS readers. In the work I do for the Telefonica Developers Blog, and for work I've done for the WeMedia conferences, for Placeblogger, for, and for others, I'd say that I'd be up a creek without an RSS reader.  And, since so many other businesses, including most media businesses (and, yes, that includes p.r. firms) generate RSS feeds for at least part of their sites,  it may be safe to say that for many professionals in media, marketing, public relations, and many related (and perhaps even un-related) industries, RSS readers are still quite important for accessing the most information in a concise and timely manner.

Further:  the post that had so many bloggers, tech journalists and the like freaking out about the imminent death of RSS as a whole started with this post from Doug Leeds on the blog.  The fact that has been lagging as a search engine for years, and that Bloglines was purchased by Ask in '05 rather than Google, Yahoo! or even Microsoft (which developed their own RSS readers) says more about Bloglines and than it says about RSS readers as a whole.  Think about it.....

Monday, September 13, 2010

From 2005 and Present Again.....On Reviving the Constant Observer

Back in May, I decided to take some time away from blogging to work on other projects. It was a good idea at the time. I had a backlog of writing projects to complete, a workshop series to teach, and a webinar to put together. It was asking way too much to divide my time between the preparation for those three things and blog with some consistency--not to mention manage the day to day tasks involved in running one's own singleton household (quite the responsibility, actually.)

Now, the writing projects are complete, the workshop is finished, and while I'm working on a few more webinars and blogging daily at the Telefonica Developer's Blog, I find that I can indeed pick up blogging again--here at the Constant Observer and at other blogs (which I will mention at the end of this post.)

In fact, the significance of blogging in my life has changed somewhat. In 2005, when I started this blog, its purpose was to shift my focus from personal essay blogging to observation and analysis. That process took several months to figure out--you can see that in some of the posts from that time. That same year, I tapped into the tech, marketing and journalism conference circuit. I went to the very first women bloggers conference, BlogHer, which is now a thriving franchise. I tapped into the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. I met many wonderful people whose names some of you would know, and others you would only know if you were a certain kind of insider....

What ended up happening was that I met some of the most interesting people--folks who are shaping what is becoming of the Internet and of new media, technology, mobile tech, the newspaper industry, the magazine industry, marketing, and the thing that became "social media" (a term almost nauseating in its ubiquity nowadays--and not consistent in its meaning.)

All influenced me in some way or another, and many helped me along the road to figuring out what it is I want to do in this vast media/technology space. Did I want to start a hyperlocal news blog? Did I want to write marketing copy for blogger outreach? Did I want to develop something cool and new, or did I want to help something cool and new become the Next Big Thing?

In some sense, I've figured out part of what I'm going to be when I grow up. I like writing--even when I struggle with writer's block. I like ferreting out the truth (some call that being a journalist). I like making money when I write about the truths that I've found, even when people aren't comfortable with those truths--and indeed many aren't. And even though I've developed a reputation and a portfolio, the publishing landscape has changed, and blogging is important for freelancers, copywrighters, editors--pretty much anybody looking to have work featured anywhere. It's a rare place that looks down on blogging these days (well, maybe some newspapers--but even that's changing.)

So, I'll be blogging here again--as well as the occasional post at Cinema Omnibus--my Postserous blog on cult cinema/grindhouse/etc, as well as a to-be-created fashion blog. These two blogs represent personal personal passions that are fun to write about (and may, I hope, lead to other gigs.) The content here, on this blog, will be more focused: more tech blogging, more research, more interviews, more mobile industry (because it's an exciting space.) Less on "social media"--because everybody and their siblings seem to be writing about it while, simultaneously, saying very little. So I won't bother wasting any further hot air unless connected to larger issues beyond "why your business needs to use social media for marketing purposes."

And there you have it. I hope to be doing a little liveblogging tomorrow, depending on whether or not I can do a 5 a.m. wake-up call. If not, I will be blogging on some tech issue, I'm sure.

As the old blank billboards used to say "Watch This Space...."