New kid on the blog

02 November 2006

RUTH GLEDHILL, The Times’s religious-affairs correspondent, has a blog again.

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?

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