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Friday, May 30, 2008

Battle: Blog vs. Column

I have written my share of opinion articles, but for some years already have been suspicious about their effect. This week I wrote an article about political courage (in Estonian) and it was published in Estonian weekly Eesti Ekspress. Although I like Eesti Ekspress and we had very good cooperation, the experience led me to compare the efficiency of column against blog. I mean, are we already beyond the point where you need to write columns in mainstream media?

Disclaimer: some arguments here apply to smaller countries like Estonia, where media is smaller and occasionally less professional, but hopefully some arguments work elsewhere as well.

1. Limits to size, layout (1:0)
Although online media has less problems with it, newspapers are still controlled by their layout. So it means that you can not write very long stories (nor very short ones). The worst thing can happen if you are not able to keep the exact size limit, then your story may be decapitated or castrated according to someone's decision who has to meet the deadline for editing a dozen stories.

I admit that strict size limits are sometimes good for discipline and staying within this limit can be the real measure of good writer, but in my opinion, these limits can do a lot of harm to your personal message. I always stick to the size limit +/- 10 characters to avoid excessive editing.

2. The audience (2:0)
The other reason of the size limit is not layout but the need to find a common denominator for the newspaper audience. Since audiences vary for a large newspaper, not everyone is ready to read your message. Although there may be 10 000 people around, who would like to, this is not working out in that particular newspaper, because only 500 of these people read that newspaper and for the rest of the readers your longer story is not interesting.

It is much more efficient to go for these 10 000 people through blogs or sometimes through specialized media. You can say that the 10 000 may not find you, but this is less and less true. They actually find you quite fast. At least if your blog is any good.

3. Photo (3:0)
And oh, with blog you can choose your own photo...With newspapers and their archives you can end up with a) picture of another guy, b) picture with a major ugly tie from 1996 (happened to me last time), c) fluffy haired picture (happened to me this time).

4. Need to be identified by a single title (4:0)
Newspapers want to be very precise about who you are. You can not have many roles. This can be incredibly limiting. For example, I can choose between being a "communications consultant", "CEO" (until the end of May), "jobless" (from June), "chairman of the supervisory board of PRAXIS", "member of the board of EMSL", "PhD student at Tallinn University", etc. Every one of these roles frames you well. I hate the "communications consultant" most, since it does not say absolutely anything to the most of the audience. At the same time, when you do not have any title, some people will think that you work for the newspaper.

With your own profile in your blog, you will never have to make choices like that. Of course, if they wanted to, online media could be more flexible here.

5. The text is frozen (5:0)

In this fast moving world, you may make mistakes. With blogs you can always correct them, your text is living and changing and it is ok to show that you are evolving together with it. With mainstream media, there is little you can do after your text is published.

6. Experimenting (6:0)

It depends pretty much on your editor, but you can not experiment much with texts in mainstream media. They are getting more open to new ways of visualization, but this does not get even close to the choice of forms and creative tools that you have in a blog.

7. Timing (7:0)

Oh no, this is a big problem. When I see something I want to write about it, I rush to the computer and start typing. Then I force myself to wait and let the story settle, but I would like to publish it immediately. And I believe that immediacy gives more relevance to stories. So, with blogs I try to sleep over the text and post it the very next morning. With mainstream media, it can take anything from 1 day to 1 month to get published depending on the nature of media.

8. Need to sell (8:0)

Newspapers want to sell. So, if you have a good story, they may want to create some witty slogans for it and hang it out on streets. It creates a lot of expectations and often false ones since what sells, is not always right. I admit, sometimes you can get more readers like that, but with blogs you do not need the "selling", you just write as good as you can.

9. Flaming (9:0)

Estonia is one of these countries (besides Bulgaria, Russia and some others) where mainstream media does not moderate at all (or does it very little) when it comes to online comments. It is regarded as "freedom of speech" but actually it is more or less like an ongoing cyber war between anonymous trashers and the authors, sources, subjects of stories. Sexism, racism and personal insults flow freely over online content and the best the most newspapers do is to follow "notice and take down policy" which means that you need to read the comments yourself and take care of reporting if something is wrong.

Some poor authors have received 1000-s of extremely insulting comments from anonymous people out there. It effectively kills the will of people to write at mainstream media and I have often found myself doing damage control with more than one female CEO of a company who after been virtually raped, is asking a very much justified question "why do they do this to me?". Naturally they would not be extremely happy to write again as they would not like to go to a real-life park where they can be anonymously attacked.

I myself have been lucky and have escaped the flaming, but it is painful to see it happening to the others. I believe that the age of unmoderated and anonymous violence will end in these newspapers where they still practice it. With your blog, you can avoid anonymous and unmoderated comments at will.

10. Coaching (9:1)

If you happen to find a good and strict editor in mainstream media, if this person has some time to share his/her experience with you, give you feedback and work with you in order to make the story better, then it is definitely a point for mainstream media. Of course, you get lot of feedback to your blogs as well.

11. Unwired audience (9:2)

There are still people around who are not connected to internet. The only way to reach them with your opinion is through mainstream print media.

I believe that many of these points can be improved for mainstream media, but not all. In some ways the institutionalized media with its costs and limitations is getting just too clumsy. But there will always be the need for good writers and good information. So, I think that for good writers the future is bright.


Anonymous said...

INteresting point of view, I think that the blog is better because it is always going to be published, I mean it is going to be more easier to find it on the web, instead of trying to look for the newspaper that published the column.

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spoonbeams said...

Found your post while researching mine on Bittman's Twinkies. I don't agree with you on many points but am happy to share a topic with you. Perhaps after I've given mine more time and energy I'll change my view.