Is there an echo in here?

This has been said before, but it bears repeating: Chris Pirillo — the guy behind Gnomedex — has a post with some good advice in it about how to keep your blog from becoming part of the blogosphere echo chamber, where everyone writes about the same things and then dozens of blogs pile up on Techmeme like tractor-trailers jack-knifing on the I-95. This is a problem my friend Rob Hyndman has written about recently, and so has Jeremy Zawodny.

Chris’s advice is well worth reading, including “Don’t live inside your news aggregator” and “Stop whining (or worrying) about what list you’re on (or not on)” — of course, his list also includes “create, don’t regurgitate” and “say something original at least once a day,” but for the purposes of this post I’m going to ignore those. The core of his advice is to try and lift your head above the fray and think of something new, and to link to someone other than the usual suspects.

I’ve been trying to follow this latter suggestion ever since my friend Kent Newsome mentioned his “second opinion” idea, in which he tries to link to a lesser-known blogger whenever possible. Now, whenever I’m looking at Techmeme or Tailrank or Popurls, I try to look for names I don’t recognize and scan their posts to see if they have anything of value to add (which they often do). I still look at the usual suspects, but I do my best to at least read and potentially link to bloggers I haven’t read before — although Kent warns that this can go too far sometimes.

Jeneane Sessum has some similar advice she calls “global bloggers link out day,” and Duncan Riley has his own thoughts on the subject of how to keep your blog from getting stale.

The blogosphere is not a thing

Kudos to my M-list buddy Kent Newsome for posting pretty much what I intended to write (if I had been around a computer at the time) after I read Stephen Baker’s recent piece at BusinessWeek’s Blogspotting. Baker’s post came in response to a comment by Steven Streight — aka Vaspers the Grate — on a previous Blogspotting post. In complaining about the number of blogs filled with drivel, Streight said that “as the blogosphere fills up with more and more worthless blogs, the overall quality and reliability of the blogosphere as a whole declines.”

In his post, Baker notes — correctly — that “the blogosphere by itself has no credibility. Individual bloggers build their own credibility.” The fact that there are thousands of inane, asinine, flaccid or insipid blogs out there doesn’t diminish the quality of those that are good. If anything, it enhances the good blogs by making them seem even more rare. And Kent makes the same point: “Saying that the blogosphere is losing credibility is like saying the spoken or written word is losing credibility. It’s not the medium that matters – it’s the person at the other end of it.”

For what it’s worth, Vaspers clarifies his argument here.

Should newspapers have a pay wall?

A recent post by Tim Porter about the New York Times’ for-pay service (known as Times Select) really struck a nerve, and while I commented on Tim’s post — and got a response back from him — I thought the issue deserved a post here as well, since it is a topic close to my heart as a newspaper journalist. Tim’s post was a response to this post by Mark Glaser of the PBS blog MediaShift, in which Mark wrote an open letter (based on Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1987 about the Berlin Wall) to Arthur Sulzberger of the NYT urging him to “Tear down this (Times Select) wall!”

As Mark pointed out in his post, walling up all the Times columnists such as Maureen Dowd separates them from the blogosphere, which in turn isolates the newspaper from the conversation that blogs and columnists should rightly be part of — and were part of, until the wall went up. Tim, however, argues in his post that this view is “wrong-headed” and says that the Times is doing exactly the right thing. As he puts it:

“The print business model cannot sustain journalism as we know it, so we must find new ways to pay for it. Charging for full access to the newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal does, is one option. Selling subscriptions to pure online journalism products like Salon or TheStreet.com is another. Putting a price on the head of your most popular columnists, like the Time does, is yet another.”

Tim also points out that Times Select makes money, although the $9-million figure he uses is likely overstated (as he acknowledged in his response to my comment, and to Mark’s). He also notes that you can find columns by Maureen and other NYT columnists if you look around on the Internet — although I would argue that this is a little like telling people to download songs from pirate music sites instead of using iTunes. The newspaper that I work for pursues blogs and other sites that run the full version of columns and news stories for copyright violations.

As I said in my comment to Tim, there’s no question that a pay wall like Times Select can make money for a high-quality newspaper like the Times. The important question is, is it the right way to make money over the longer term? Or does it sacrifice the long-term value of having those columnists be part of the online conversation — getting links and commentary and traffic and all those other things the Web is so good at — in return for a short-term revenue boost?

I would argue the latter. And I’m not sure the sacrifice is going to be worth it. I think — and Mark seems to agree — that newspapers could probably make a whole lot more money by encouraging links and traffic and all those other community-based things, and monetizing those through advertising and other means. Could we be wrong? Sure we could. And maybe the Berlin Wall was a good thing too. But in the end, it came down, and we were all a lot better off.

Update:

Came across a post by Jeff Jarvis about a presentation made by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, who had some comments about pay walls:

“On the Guardian we ignored all those who told us that we should be charging people to access our content online because we believed there was a greater prize to be won – both in influence and reach – if we built the best digital version of the paper we possibly could.”

Phil thinks the blogosphere has peaked

One of the things I mentioned in my “items that might grow up to be blog posts” post from last night was an entry by Phil Sim of Squash about how the tech blogosphere has “peaked.” Phil, who is a bit of a curmudgeon at times – not that there’s anything wrong with that – says he’s noticed that tech.memeorandum.com is boring now, everyone is writing about the same old crap, the site’s Alexa traffic is down, and so on. The capper for Phil is that Gabe has branched out into baseball with a sports-themed version of memeo.

Gabe and Paul Montgomery of Tinfinger.com raise a number of points in the comments to Phil’s post, including the fact that Alexa’s rankings aren’t the best guide when it comes to traffic, and also that more “memetrackers” have entered the field, including Megite.com and TailRank.com. But Phil’s point seems to be larger than just that. As my friend Rob Hyndman says here, Phil seems more concerned about the idea that this slump might be part of a cyclical decline in the blogosphere, with many bloggers coming up to their two-year anniversary (in fact, plenty of them are coming up to their fourth, but who’s counting).

Phil says he found in journalism that two years was the longest you could write about something without getting bored and stale. I’d like to run that idea by someone like Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal, who’s been writing about tech for substantially longer than that and still seems pretty interested, but let’s leave that for a moment. I’ve also been writing about technology and business off and on for more than a decade now, and I don’t find it any more boring, or have any less interest in it – if anything, I find I have more interest now as a result of things like Web 2.o.

Apart from the Alexa data problem, I think Phil is confusing a normal human phenomenon with a cyclical downturn in the tech blogosphere. It’s possible that some bloggers who have been doing it for years may be feeling burnt out, and others may feel that it’s time to move on to other things – and others may be working on their own Web 2.0 projects, the way Rob and Mark and I have been working on mesh (as I pointed out to my friend Kent Newsome when he wondered whether I was losing interest in blogging).

Blogging is writing, and it’s a conversation too – and both of those things have a natural ebb and flow to them. Writing is hard (at least good writing is) and some days are better than others. And some conversations are better than others. Phil himself has wondered in the past whether it isn’t too much for one person to do consistently. I told him then that I thought maybe he was getting too caught up in the traffic thing and needed to refocus. Why are we blogging? That’s the most important thing. If it’s for traffic or attention, then that will inevitably wane – if it is from passion or desire for conversation, then I think that can endure a lot longer. Everyone has to choose.