Contrarian: A Barrel of Ink for All

Last month Parker Donham, who blogs at contrarian.ca, gave a talk at the Inverary Inn in Baddeck about his past in journalism and his transition to blogging. The event was the first in a series sponsored by the Cabot Trail Writers Festival.

Parker invited me along to provide “technical support” (a role I play on contrarian.ca). I took the opportunity to speechify on how blogs are the future of media democracy before giving a brief demonstration of how to start one.

Perhaps the best way to think about blogs – at least at first – is to compare them to the traditional media they most resemble: newspapers.

The vast distribution network of truck drivers, delivery people, newsstands, and etc., required to get the newspaper’s ink from the printing press onto your fingertips is being replaced with the Internet, a vast information distribution network that allows computers all over the world to connect to one another – and likewise writers to readers.

The printing press itself has been replaced with the Web (each in their own right revolutionary modes of production that, on the one hand, allowed for the proliferation of countless forms of printed material, everything from books and journals to pamphlets and Hallmark cards; and on the other, allowed for the profileration of… e-books, e-journals, e-pamphlets, e-cards, e-tcetara).

(For the sake of comprehensiveness, Guttenberg in our analogy is the US military, which invented Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet.)

But here’s where our analogy breaks down, because to publish a newspaper one needs the financial backing of an owner/publisher and a steady stream of advertising revenue to pay the salaries of editors, writers, copy-editors, fact-checkers (or not), and every person along the distribution network.

What do you need to publish a blog?

Two cents.

Parker left journalism a number of years ago and never looked back. But looking around he says he realized something (other than his own byline) was increasingly missing from his daily newspaper: curiosity. It seemed to him like fewer and fewer reporters were coming up with or chasing down stories, preferring instead to phone-in formulaic transcriptions of pseudo-events like press conferences and staged media events. (The Atlantic agrees, accusing newspaper copy of being “encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news.”)

Not that there aren’t a lot of well-fed goats getting fat on blogosphere tripe. But the Web makes it possible for a blogger to write only as much as, and as often as, he or she chooses.

If the Web is “game-changing,” blogs are part of the reason. First, the Web is massively de-centralizing in that a blogger can reach readers all over the world from anywhere in the world without the help of an expensive, elaborate courier network to distribute a physical product.

Second, it is massively de-comodotizing in that online publishing costs a blogger nothing (except time, which is not money no matter what they tell you). No overhead and no investment to recoup means a blogger can afford to make his or her blog available for free.

Suddenly, anyone with ample curiosity can compete with – and even take aim at – the big wigs who buy ink by the barrel.