New Year. ‘Bout Like the Old Year

Among journalists, the New Year’s column is a reflex, like belching, and provides an opportunity to wallow in gratuitous sagacity. It also provides a way of filling space during a slow news season. It’s a minor vice, and probably a better way to spend time than playing in traffic. Patience.

Thoughts on the internet-column racket:

This column has now run for 175 weeks. I find myself wondering why I write it, and where it fits into the journalistic universe, if it does. What is the place of internet columns in the scheme of things? Do they amount to anything beyond self-indulgence? Does anyone care? Does anyone read them?

I don’t know. I don’t know how many there are, or where, or what their circulations might be. There is (I think) no central entity to track them. Outfits like the National Society of Newspaper Columnists largely ignore them.

This column has some 10,000 subscribers, a number which has changed hardly at all in a long time. When I check WebTrends, the number of weekly visitors to the site is usually somewhere around 15,000, though it fluctuates greatly depending on the column. In one sense these are solid numbers: People who subscribe or visit the site actually read it. By contrast, a column in the business pages of a paper with 600,000 circulation does not remotely have 600,000 readers. Most people don’t read the business pages, or may not care for the columnist.

And of course on the net pass-along is a huge, but immeasurable, component of circulation. People forward, and forward forwards, and some read the forwards, and some delete them unread. So I don’t know. I think it’s fair to say that actual readership of FOE is at least as great as it would be in a large metropolitan newspaper. Which is interesting.

It is interesting partly because it is circulation completely off the radar screen of mainstream print journalism. A column in any newspaper of reasonable size is noticed in the trade and taken seriously. For example, I write a technology column for the Washington (DC) Times. I get a steady stream of press releases by email from tech companies wanting to be written about, and any PR department in the country will return my calls. The Times, circulation roughly 100,000, is published on newsprint, and is therefore real.

A web column is not. Although FOE has a documentably higher circ in terms of actual readers than does my tech column in the paper edition of the Times, and perhaps than of the Internet version too, I have never gotten a press release addressed to the web column. With one exception (because I knew the editor), it has never been reprinted in a newspaper.

By contrast, radio has given it fairly heavy play. The column has been read, sometimes repeatedly, by serious talk-radio people: Ron Smith at WBAL in Baltimore, Barry Farber out west, Neal Boortz in Atlanta, Gordon Liddy. I get email from readers saying that they just heard it on local stations in Montgomery, Alabama, or Fort Myers, Florida. Why? One reason is that talk-show hosts need something to talk about. Another is that they are far less grindingly politically correct and frightened than newspapers.

It is curious, is it not? Newspapers themselves collectively prevent discussion of the political matters they purportedly exist to discuss. And they do it with an iron hand.

Of mild interest is that a fair number of syndicated columnists read FOE. I know because they email me saying, “I wish I could say that, but you know how it is.” Yep. Sure do.

Why write it at all? More and more I wonder. The column began as a spasm of annoyance against the strictly controlled world of newspapers. I had been a columnist of sorts for most of my working life and could feel the screws tightening. Some time before, I had been ejected from the pages of Army/Navy/Air Force Times for not being adequately progressive. I was sick of it, and wondered whether I could make a go of it on the net, then very new.

And I have geek genes. The net was fascinating and learning the ropes looked interesting.

I also had some hope that it might be possible, as part of the aggregate voice of the net, to make a difference. Not much hope: I’d been in the racket too long. But as I watched the precipitous collapse of culture, the decline of the schools, the growing blight descending over the media, the death of civility, and now the sudden shadow of our police state, I thought, quixotically as it turns out, that denouncing the culprits might help. It didn’t. The forces of decay are too powerful. Oh well.

The crucial fact about web journalism is that there is no money in it. This inhibits the influx of independent talent.

Running a web site, and writing a substantial column every week, is work, lots of work. Ask anyone who has done it. Once in a long while you can go on vacation (“Fred is suffering from terminal brain cancer and will be out for a week.”). The deadline is always with you, like a nagging incurable hernia.

Effort spent on a web column is effort not spent in making a living. A piece of similar length in a magazine brings in roughly $400. Worse, as a columnist of my acquaintance once said, “We only have so much bullshit in us.” I can come up with one decent political rant a week, in addition to meeting other calls of the keyboard. I can’t easily come up with two.

Nor can most writers. Further, most people who can write already do, for a living. The upshot is that people who could write a good column on the web aren’t going to.

The other night I rode horseback under a full moon along the shore of Lake Chapala to a friend’s restaurant, off toward Jocotopec. The night was cool, the air still. To the north the mountains rose dark against the stars. A couple of Mexican girls of maybe twelve chattered in front of me, riding as if they had been born on horses.

I found myself thinking, what the hell do I care about the northern demise? The end of a civilization is above my pay grade. Things are as they are because people want them that way, or don’t care enough to change them. Who am I to squeak and gibber? It wasn’t charitable, but I could see David’s in the distance, and he has really good steaks.

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