If the demise of Liberal Conspiracy marks the end of the ‘amateur blogger’ then I’m the next Pope. I always have one piece of advice for my new students at Kingston University: start blogging.
The media landscape has clearly evolved since 2005, but blogging has only become more powerful and influential. When I launched Liberal Conspiracy in Nov 2007, I was unknown in Westminster; six years later this site was read at the top of the Labour party.
None of this happened because I was well-connected, had worked at a newspaper or had influential friends. It happened only because Liberal Conspiracy ran stories (thanks to tips from many readers) that got noticed. The national media cannot ignore us like they used to. For all its faults the new media landscape is far more meritocratic than old media or the political establishment.
But I had an edge – a good understanding of web programming and technology. Before blogging I used to run messageboards and online magazines that ran on code (HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL) I had written myself. For Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics I developed new designs and WordPress themes myself (with some help), and was able to make changes, experiment and evolve quicker than others who paid for customised designs. I was also very comfortable with, and more aggressive than most bloggers, in using social media to find and promote stories.
Unsurprisingly, my work at Kingston involves teaching digital journalism: teaching web programming and technologies to leverage journalism. There are far more qualified people at Kingston to teach journalism; my focus is is on how to use the internet to take that further. And I’m grateful to them for taking me on (I’ve given a few lectures on the topic at City University too).
Whether amateur (i.e. independent) multi-author publishing is dead wholly depends on how people approach it. Here’s my advice: don’t expect to start an opinion blog and get 100,000 readers a month. The market is over-saturated with opinions on the Guardian, New Statesman, HuffPo and IndyVoices (just on the left). Only the Guardian pays and yet the others have no problems attracting submissions because so many want to make a name for themselves.
Worse, most opinion blogging only talks to the already-converted and changes minds only at the margins. It may be cathartic for some but that’s not enough to attract a lot of visitors regularly.
‘News’ publishing on the other hand has a bright future and I suspect we will see much more of this. But I’d like people to think outside the box.
Firstly, popular ‘news’ doesn’t always have to mean exposing Traditional Britain, or leaking the Coalition Agreement, it can involve finding interesting stories from social media or putting together publicly available info. Our most popular posts this year have been a collection of Tweets (on British Gas and the EDL’s Tommy Robinson). Another example: How one Twitter troll went from abuse to apology in minutes. All these were stories Buzzfeed or HuffPo would (and did) do but we got there quicker and went viral first.
Secondly, the platform has become irrelevant. We need to move away from talking about blogging, and setting up a simple WordPress blog, to thinking about publishing. The traditional advantages of blogging (simple format, popularity through inter-linking, simple set-up) have become largely irrelevant as HuffPost and Buzzfeed have shown. Both developed their own content system, and meanwhile WordPress has become bloated and slow.
My model for Liberal Conspiracy was simple: use fun and interesting news to amass readers and followers; then get them to read policy material and get involved in campaigns.
There is now more opportunity than ever for someone to start another political news site, make it popular, and figure out a business model to earn a living from it. I stopped Liberal Conspiracy because the traditional blogging model has become defunct, not because online publishing is a waste of time and effort. A budding journalist or publisher has no excuse not to use this medium to make a name for themselves. I hope many more will do.