Now that Nick Cohen has his own site, it’s worth asking what the difference between joggers and blournalists is. Johann Hari is another decent leftist, a Harry’s Place reader, and he only publishes his print journalism on his blog. For me, that’s not “getting it.” (I think that’s © Instapundit, but I don’t recall for certain.) Some smart blogger called his postings “velleities and lemmas”. Now if I knew what velleities were and I knew what lemmas were too I’d probably agree with that. It sounds good. And a lot of heavyweight journalism seems to be wielding a thesaurus at the right time.
Nick’s site looks like a blog, and it [insert 3rd person present participle verb here] like a blog and it [insert 3rd person present participle verb here] like a blog. But like Johann’s, it only covers his print pieces. Now if you write for money, why write for free? Andrew Sullivan does it, but I suspect that he’s found that a blog is a way of getting in touch with his audience (which is somewhat different from the readership of the publications he writes for), and a way of being the first contact for some eyewitness accounts. But what’s in it for Nick? Johann — to me — is an over-rated columnist (if that isn’t a tautology). I’ve never been sure if he’s a token rightist for the Independent or a token gay or if they just think he’s great. (I know Harry’s Place do; my taste may not be reliable.) Nick Cohen gets about more. There’s the Standard, the Observer, the Staggers, and perhaps FrontPage (I think that was Horowitz trying it on, however). Now, if columnists sell papers, and columnists can also been found free, and as they say gratis, not forgetting for nowt, on the interwebs, where does that leave Nick’s school fees? I think journalists having blogs is a very good thing. Just not like this.
What I think I’m leading to is that I think Nick is to be congratulated for having a site. (And getting WordPress to work half well. I never could.) But I think he’s cutting his own throat by publishing content freely when the Staggers charges. Copyright may protect his right to do that, but if I were a publisher, I’d refer to my freedom not to print his stuff. I just think he’s putting up the wrong stuff. If I were him (and it’s clever double-bluff time. … No, I’m not) I’d blog the first drafts. Get feedback. (Blog comments pick up factual errors.) Make the blog entries to the Observer column like Dorothy Wordsworth’s letters to William’s pomes. They say that with texts and phone calls, the art of letter-writing is dying. But if it weren’t for blogging, I’d write more letters. There are plenty of professional writers, poets, novelist, biographers, historians, philosophers honoured by the publication of a thumping volume of their laundry lists and billet-doux.
But if everyone does what Nick and Johann presently do, isn’t this going to kill their newspapers? Aren’t they union members? See, I don’t believe that blogs can take on journalism, but they can take on commentary. Because any idiot can do that. And blogs by professionals can rot sales to the point where papers cease to be influential. And then they close. That makes it seem like the mortgages and pensions and health care of printers, reporters, and lots of others are somehow in Nick’s hands.
Perhaps they are.
Update 16/10. First, thanks to Tom, the webmaster of NickCohen.net, for his positive comments. I meant to add an update earlier, disagreeing to some extent with what I wrote last night, but reading Tom stopped me. I have revised some of what I thought. Perhaps it’s a good thing that commentary becomes free, because then the unique selling point left to the “old media” (or the “main stream media”) is reportage. But, then, I also thought that Napster would kill phoney commercial music, killing off royalties and making only graft and live performance pay, and you can see how right that predicition was. And thinking about it, Nick only puts up columns which you can’t buy in the shops. That may be the sensible compromise. There’s always a premium for the new. (See the queues for the publication of a Harry Potter as a for instance.) This gets up the noses of us bloggers, but we’re wrong about this: journalism can’t be free. We need newspapers, that is real newspapers. They’re more than a way of avoiding eye contact on public transport, they also offer serendipitous discovery of stories in a way the structured search of the web avoids.
Finally, I seem to have excited some defences of Johann. I did say that my taste was unreliable. I think Nick is a better writer (although he could work on conscious humour, as dark sarcasm doesn’t go very far), and his books and the range of publications which he writes for bear me out. I’m prejudiced against the Indy which I used to read, because it just carries too much commentary. And I’m not convinced by Johann, though I’m aware that, generally, his heart is in the right place (I use this too often). I do have a prejudice against the under 30s. I’ll try to explain. I like Harold Pinter for example and he wrote some very good plays before he was 30. Eliot wrote the Wasteland, which I think is one of the most profound works of the last century, at 32. But those are, as it were, home games. Someone who writes every week in a paper should be used to playing away. She should have a very broad experience, preferably (IMO) either through intellect (as in university, I’m thinking of Conor Cruise O’Brien, a real heavyweight who wrote for the Observer) or as a reporter (I’d name Bill Deedes, no university, but seen the world). People like Johann were selected as columnists because they can write. I don’t want to read an account of an ascent of Everest by Andrew Motion. I want the account by the idiots who did it. Likewise I don’t care then Andy McNab’s prose may not butter many parsnips at the High Table. He’s been shot at and tortured. Beat those! If you’re going to comment on current events, you’re going to have to have seen a few. As I said, any idiot can write commentary. Perhaps (and this isn’t a hopeful perhaps) because everyone does do it, we get quality back. Of course, I also think that by the time you’re old and experienced enough to write commentary, you’re also a used-up backward-looking reactionary old fool. But then, life’s unfair.