1. A blog is born: We did not so much break the BBC rules when setting up the blog but shimmied through them like Tana Umaga. Having been assigned to cover the protests around Gleneagles I decided to do a "proof of concept" blog and show it to the editor. He liked it, our web editor got it signed off and that was it. Apparently the BBC bosses had just had a big awayday where they decided to stop being clipboard merchants and prioritise innovation, so no-one felt like nixing it. And yet there was nothing that said it should be allowed. As one person put it: "this is outside the BBC universe" - and I thought: that puts it rather well...
...The core concept was the fuzzy relationship between my writing, the programme and the BBC brand. I would write personalised analysis, using the same self-control as on Newsnight; my producer or the web editor would run an eye over anything that controversial, and keep an eye on balance. The programme would promote it as "my" blog but part of Newsnight. It worked in part because what we do on Newsnight is not dissimilar: we are current affairs reporters, part of the BBC ethos, but our stuff really swings when we put something of our personalities into it.
2. The technicalities: I decided to use Typepad because I had played around on it before: the BBC is developing its own blog software platform but I was not inclined to use it: whether it worked or not, and how many forms I would have had to fill in were secondary. I firmly believe the network effect works best when you use the technology everyone else is using: that’s why I switched from Mac to PC in the late 90s. Typepad was a dream to set up, a little formulaic to run but the real eye-opener was moblogging: the ability to post from my Sony Ericsson P910i allowed me to file on the move: words, pictures and in theory video and audio though I never used the latter.
3. What is a blog? People keep asking me this and I reply: it’s the wrong question - its like asking "what is a modem". The modem allows the internet: the network is the phenomenon, not the node. The real point is what a blog allows: which is personal internet diaries optimised to create and utilise the network effect. My idea of the blog changed rapidly as soon as people started trackbacking, and once I had discovered Technorati which is a kind of Google for blogs.
4. The journalism: I started out fairly conservatively but quickly realised from reading other bloggers in the same sphere that the key was to dive into the conversation with some essay style journalism and humour and where possible real news. What happened was that the blog coincided with a) the start of intensive coverage and contact ringing on the G8 issue, so there was lots to report; b) my wife was away and I was on TV a lot, meaning lots of opportunities for 3am blogging (we finish work at 11.30pm and not even doctor Peroni can calm you down immediately after a 14-hour shift). Finally, when I got to Edinburgh on Friday 1 July, the character of the journalism changed again and became a lot more newsy, combined with one piece of essay-style analysis: I originally planned a couple more of these but ran out of time to do them. The issue here is I remembered I could write. There is no incentive to write anything long or crafted when you are a TV journalist: you "write to pictures"- stroking the images with just enough words to produce an interplay between text, subtext and structure. You ruthlessly structure. But as to pure words and imagery, that skill can atrophy. I'm currently writing a book - but there the art is to go beyond mere journalism. So I can honestly say the blog has been a joy to write even though only a few thousand people have read it, compared to 1.2 million who watch Newsnight. Some of the most appreciative comments were about the writing. Of course BBC journalists are banned from writing anything but trivia in the press (apart from authorised versions of our own reports). I actually agree with this, but you do pay a price.
5. Impact on broadcasting: I would not say it had an adverse effect on my broadcasting but I did start taking editorial decisions on the blog that were to a different set of rules and decision cycles than on the programme. The best example was getting briefed on the Nigerian debt deal early. As I’ve said elsewhere, scoops like that usually go wasted on Newsnight it all generally filters out by the time the programme is on air. I fired off a quick posting to the blog that was basically what my source had told me. Another example is the posting from within the containment at Canning Street Edinburgh on 4 July. Later in the day I would package this in a VT for Newsnight but the postings at the time were the necessarily partial and immediate viewpoint of what was happening to me. Overall, there was more violence on the day, and by different people, than I personally saw in Canning Street and if you did not later step back and read the wires and look at the other rushes you could come away with a one-sided picture of the day. Maybe the blog's picture was incomplete versus the news: but it was mroe immediate and personal. Another thing is, the blog encouraged me to take more risks in general: I did a seminar with the African journalists and ranged freely over the subjects of the UK media’s take on Africa, and the subtle censorship that African governments practise (under Chatham House rules). Then I commandeered Machrine Birungi, one of the African journalists, and took her round with me for a day. This created its own reality, as the African bloggers then achieved critical mass nearly everywhere, and Machrine got an interview with Baaba Maal. I would like to think the blog helped this process along. After I had interviewed the Clown Army on the A9 on 6 July I let them interview me on their own camera: first question "What is your favourite animal?" I posted little comments on other people’s blogs mainly to see what the reaction was. If I were to commit to blogging regularly alongside the broadcasting it would work but I would want to carefully watch the impact. I also think being a nightly current affairs instead of straight News journo helped. It would be well nigh impossible for one of my counterparts on tight bulletin deadlines, let along top-of-the-hour rolling news, to blog in a meaningful way – but, hey, maybe somebody will prove me wrong.
6. The outcome: In the end I think the blog raised Newsnight’s profile where it needed to raise it - among the NGOs, protesters and the media pack covering them, in order to get a conversation going instead of that one-way discourse called broadcasting. One group of protesters told me that, having been ignored for days, they got a call from the New York Times within two hours of my posting about them. When I turned up to the media tent of the Stirling Eco-space, about as welcoming to the BBC as the press office of Radovan Karadzic, the press officer said to me:
"Oh, we’ve seen your blog. We were looking at it the other day. It’s good because it’s accurate and describes the different groups correctly, and it’s fair to us."
They could almost have been reading out of the BBC manual on what our ordinary journalism is designed to achieve. I’m still pondering on why it took a blog to elicit that response, and not a broadcast report. We underpunched promoting the blog rowing back from promoting the "newsnig8t.com" URL for corporate reasons. And while most of the links in came from the BBC website, it was a struggle to get it prominently advertised there, in part because of the fuzzy relationship to the BBC itself. So fair enough. I was getting a lot of referrals from about ten blogs who were engaged in either a discourse with mine, or had become fascinated by it. The original aim was to get the various parts of the debate around globalisation to engage with each other: this happened very rarely, as when Alex Singleton’s contribution was savaged by left wing bloggers, or when the IMF wonks’ paper on Aid caused a controversy, and a debate broke out about the technical flaws in their analysis, on blogs linked to this one.
7. Where next? The BBC is having a discussion about what it should do about blogs. This takes place in the wider context of the breakup of the broadcasting model. People are reporting stories for themselves using blogs and mobile phones (with the 7/7 bomb, not the G8, being seen as a tipping point). The Guardian’s foray into blogs has been impressive but seems to me the wrong track: trying to weld a corporate identity onto the content and capture it within a corporate system on their own platforms. A blog is the free and individual writing of a single person, or group of people, untrammelled by rules or a given "mission statement"; the blogosphere is a series of communities of blogs, where what is of value comes to prominence because of self-selection and word of mouth rather than promotion: in other words, because enough people believe it helps them get to the truth. Blogs are acting like the ibis on the shoulder of the buffalo to mainstream journalism right now. I do not predict the demise of the broadcasting model but I can’t see a linear progression for it either. How it interacts with blogging, and mobile content, is not the interaction between two technologies but between two kinds of content. The challenge for broadcasters is not to produce faux blogs; ditto the challenge for journalists. It is to respond to the content need, indeed the content gap, demonstrated by the existence of blogs. The problem is: maybe it can't respond fully. The added hitch is: it is going to be more difficult for public service broadcasters to engage in this because we are hidebound by extra rules on impartiality as well as fairness and accuracy. It seems to me that the world right now, for good or ill, is craving partiality...or at least honesty about one’s stance. The popularity of Fox News is testimony to that: Fox and blogging are part of the same phenomenon and it is not totally welcome to traditional journalists in the UK. But that is not a reason to stop experimenting with blogging. The whole reason I was keen to do this was to emulate some of the people I worked with during the time large corporations were embracing dot.com. There would be policy papers, theology, huge diagrammatic expositions but nobody was actually doing it. The people who made it through the dot.com transition were the people who adopted the JFDI principle, where the JDI principle stands for just do it: even if you fail you will accumulate intellectual and moral capital.
8. Summary: Blogging is changing and challenging journalism. It changed and challenged mine even though I was doing the blogging. It is a way to focus the collective intelligence of the audience onto the facts and arguments. Moblogging from a single device that can do words, pictures, audio and video gives us a taste of the future: when the device can produce broadcast quality video the only limitation will be bandwidth. Everybody will have their own TV station. I can hear that line from The Incredibles - "when everyone is special nobody will be". But it does not necessarily follow, since blogging, like Google, is a way of voting for excellence and even, frighteningly, voting for truth.
Together, the network effect of many blogs, plus the transparency and impact of content produced on mobile devices, could change the way we think of broadcast content. But it will not do so in a straight line from technology to content: TV gives you Coronation Street and 40 years later Big Brother, but not before giving you a man in a bow tie reading heavily censored news in a risible accent. Likewise blogging has so far given us pernickety right wingers in the USA, pernickety left wingers in the UK, and a lot of trivia. There is no reason why someone should not emerge who is the Alfred Harmsworth of blogging, and change the rules of news altogether. How they would do it, I do not know. But I have a hunch it will be about content, the audience, the zeitgeist, all the things the inventor of tabloids understood, not just the size of the printing press.
On that note, the blog takes a break. It will be left up here in perpetuity to be pored over by academics. Indeed I will hold a competition for a spoof doctoral media studies paper on this blog, published in 2020. Send entries in to the email address: 500 word summaries only. Soon the BBC will get its head round what to do about blogging. I hope this has helped. Now I've done blogging maybe I will now do a Wiki. And I will be back - although on what rules of engagement I cannot tell.
Regards to all...