Taking Stock of Two Years on the Web

Having written this curious column for something over two years now, I thought it time to take stock, to see what it has done, guess where it’s going, and wonder “Whither Internet journalism?” The column itself is of no great import in the grand scheme of things, being one man’s vaporings. The larger question ? can one start a web column without backing or a famous name, and actually get readers? ? may matter.

The answer, to my surprise and gratification, has been “yes.”

I started this curiosity with only the vaguest idea of what I was doing, knowing little of the Internet and nothing of running a web site, but very tired of the tightly controlled mainstream media. The Web looked as if it might be a way to circumvent the censorship, to write as I liked. So I got a book on HTML, learned how the Web worked, groped and fumbled, made every mistake I could think of, and ended up here. Where is here?

Let’s start with circulation, the first measure of all journalistic endeavor. It turns out that circulation on the Net is almost impossible to measure.

The column now has just short of 10,000 subscribers, and weekly gets between 10,000 and 35,000 “unique visitors,” which means, roughly, “readers.” (Usually much closer to 10,000).

Adding subscribers to people who read the thing on the website, call it about 20,000 weekly. Note that this is quality circulation: Since there is no reason to come to a columnist’s site except to read the column, those visitors are actually readers. By contrast, a columnist in a newspaper with 100,000 circulation may have only 5,000 readers. (According to Webtrends, my hit-counting program, the average time readers spend on the site runs from nine to fourteen minutes.)

That’s the reasonably countable part of circulation. There are other parts.

In print-and-ink journalism, newspapers make (inflated) guesses at how many people read each copy. If you get the Washington Times at your house, for example, your spouse probably reads it too. This is called “pass-along.” On the Web, pass-along is far more important, but also far less measurable.

I frequently get email from readers who say, “I sent this to everyone in my address book,” or to some subset thereof. How many is that? I don’t know. How many of those receiving actually read it, as distinct from just deleting it? I don’t know. How many of those getting it through pass-along passed it along again? I don’t know.

Then there are sites that regularly (with permission) repost the column: Jokeaday.com and Fathermag.com, for example. I not infrequently find it reposted here and there without permission, which usually means without my knowledge. All of this is circulation, but I have no idea how much.

In short, I don’t know how many people read the thing.

Next, there quickly arose questions of strategy. It became apparent that a choice had to be made: Control, or circulation? At first I thought I wanted to prevent other sites from reposting the column, so that readers would have to come to the site to find it. I wanted to maximize my count of documentable readers for reasons of clout and to attract advertisers.

Bad idea. I discovered that control is impossible on the Net. Copyright barely exists. Perfectly honest people post copyright columns to newsgroups, to their own sites, email them to uncounted people on lists. It’s the Wild West out there. I’m not sure it’s bad. If you decide to go for maximum dissemination, which I did, it’s good. So I just quit worrying about it. If the column showed up somewhere, then it showed up.

Next, how much influence does the column have? I don’t know. Very little, I suspect. As best I can tell, most people read columns because they agree with the author. The columnist doesn’t persuade. He concurs. His job is to express the reader’s views in stirring prose. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you can’t convince the already convinced.

What a Web column does seem to do, however, is to let people know that they are not alone. Columns are passed around as electronic samizdat, forbidden writings that say what the reader believes but can’t afford to have too openly on his screen at work. I get a lot of email saying, “That’s what I think, but I can’t say it.” People get columns from friends who got them from friends, and realize that there exist whole worlds of like-minded people. It’s lateral, two-way journalism, as distinct from the usual top-down one-way variety.

Now, how important is Web journalism? The question is difficult because in an odd but non-trivial sense, the Internet turns everyone into a journalist. I’m not being touchy-feely here. When a Marine just back from Afghanistan emails a friend about conditions there, and the email propagates across the Internet and is read by many thousands of people, that’s journalism. Often it is good journalism. Generally a Marine will be more honest, realistic, and knowledgeable than Dan Rather.

My impression is that the Net has become, or is about to become, the most influential media outlet in the country, short of television. Few people of any intelligence either trust or respect the media. The agendas are obvious, the bias unrelenting, the censorship palpable.

The net-savvy, usually smart and thoughtful, appear to pick their news in bits and pieces from papers around the globe, to read web columnists who are not restricted in what they can say, to subscribe to lists and newsgroups that are written by people who know much more about their subjects than do the usual media — and who are not controlled. All of this sloshes back and forth across the country in what amounts to a vast underground newspaper.

Of this the mainstream media appear to be largely unaware. The sprawling flow of the Internet has no CEO, no credentialed reporters, no stars. It just doesn’t register as competition. In their eyes web columnists certainly have no legitimacy. The big media use the net but do not (I think) understand to what extent, for millions of the sophisticated, the Net has become primary.

Finally, money. There isn’t any. I hoped when I started Fred On Everything that I would find a way to make a buck. The theory a few years back was that sites could carry ads or charge readers to subscribe. Nope. I don’t have the provable circulation to attract advertisers, and since I offend everyone, I’d eventually offend the advertisers. Charging would drive off I’d guess 95% of readers, if only because of the nuisance. So it’s a hobby.

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