RUTH GLEDHILL, The Times’s religious-affairs correspondent, has a
Perhaps, by the time you read this, it will not seem the most important news
of the week, and the front pages will be dominated by rioting in the General
Synod, the torching of bishops’ cars, and so on. None the less, it does matter,
because, unlike her last one, this is semi-official, and represents an attempt
by the newspaper to cultivate its readership.
Other papers have encouraged their specialists to do things online. Stephen
Bates, Ruth’s Guardian counterpart, for example, has taken on all
comers on the paper’s website. But, so far as I know, there is no British
precedent for giving a religion reporter a blog (a web log, an online diary)
and encouraging them to use it.
Let’s look at the advantages first. Obviously, the journalist in question
feels more loved and cherished. If you’re lucky with the commenters, you can
recapture some of the pleasure once available by propping up the bar with a
group of friends, marvelling at your collective wit and insight. If you’re
unlucky, you attract a load of raucous, half-mad lunatics, but that doesn’t
happen more than 90 per cent of the time.
This audience can also act as a test bed for stories that might not
otherwise make the paper. Any specialist knows that there are many stories that
the newsdesk doesn’t or won’t get, because they don’t make sense without a
great deal of background knowledge. Nevertheless, they are extremely
interesting and important to the people who know what is going on.
A great many journalistic vices arise from trying to make clear this
interest and importance to people who really couldn’t care how many deacons
there are in Wimbledon. Blogging such stories lets you write for a small,
informed audience, as well as the large ignorant one that reads The Times, or
even the small ignorant one that controls the newsdesk.
There is a great deal of barter in journalism: you get stories from the
people who know what is going on because you supply them with things they
didn’t know. So a blog can become another way to gratify people who will supply
you with stories for the main paper. It can carry longer and more detailed
versions of the facts than elsewhere, and can include references and footnotes
— always helpful.
SO WHY isn’t everyone doing this? There are some technical limitations. The
software used to produce newspapers, even online, does not automatically or
even easily produce blogs instead. There is a question of time. A successful
blog demands care, attention, and regular entries.
But the real problem is that blogging is, in some ways, opposed to all that
is best and most valuable in journalism. The very unmediated quality that can
make it so attractive is also a way to lose quality. Journalists love to
ventilate their opinions; and having opinions is where the prestige and most of
the money are in the business today. But it’s not their core professional
skill, which is to deal with facts, as best they can be established.
AT THIS POINT, you may, if you wish, laugh derisively, given the reluctance
of this column to have anything to do with such things as facts. (But no one
buys the Church Times for the press column.)
In any case, there is a fact this week: the Mail has partially
forgiven Dr Williams. At any rate, it ran a half-page story under the headline
"Archbishop attacks PC brigade’s ban on Christian symbols", which means, I
think, that he is back on the side of the angels, at least if they are perched
on top of Christmas trees.
WHAT IS MORE, newspapers are full of clues to tell people how seriously they
should take something. This may well be lacking on the web, especially when you
consider that this is an international medium. The Guardian has had some
memorable online disasters, such as the TV critic’s piece that ended: "Lee
Harvey Oswald, where are you when your country needs you?" Many Republicans
failed to see that this could be either funny or true (or both).
There are some signs already that the Gledhill blog has been infested with
American bloviators. On the other hand, she used it to ventilate something that
turned out to be a very good story indeed: a poem supposed to be in the voice
of Hitler, by a 14-year-old, which was reprinted as an example to follow for
schoolchildren in Birmingham.
This is a perfect example of the kind of thing that might not get into the
paper proper on the day you first try it, perhaps because there is too much
other stuff going on, but which can be nourished on the web until the newsdesk
hears it on the Today programme.
Besides, where else but through her blog will Times readers
learn that Ruth spent seven years in Kleinian analysis?