Remember hard copy? Your kids might not. This week it emerged that newspaper sales are plummeting in Britain, with only 33% of the population now claiming to be regular readers of analogue news. As more and more of us cherry-pick our media online, drawing little distinction between the mainstream press and the popular blogosphere, industry insiders are beginning to panic, predicting the violent death of quality commentary and investigative journalism at the multiferous hands of the internet.
On several baffling occasions in recent months, I have found myself at snooty media events where hosts introduce me and my colleagues as gingerly as ‘bloggers’, rather as if we were the grinning emissaries of a rogue state, ambassadors from a territory of violent cultural change which the authorities might soon see fit to brutally suppress but which, for now, must be appeased with canapés and party invitations. Cosy members of the established commentariat eye bloggers suspiciously, as if beneath our funny clothes and unruly hair we might actually be strapped with information bombs ready to explode their cultural paradigms and destroy their livelihoods.
This sort of prejudice is deeply anodyne. Bloggers aren't out to take away the jobs of highly-paid columnists: we're more ambitious than that. We're out for a complete revolution in the way media and politics are done. Whilst the media establishment guards its borders with paranoid rigour, snobbishly distinguishing between 'bloggers' and 'journalists', people from the internet have already infiltrated the mainstream. Many influential writers now work across both camps, such as author, blogger and digital activist Cory Doctorow, who observed that the blogosphere need not threaten paid comment journalism:
“Commercially speaking, newspapers can make enough money from advertising to pay reasonable rates for opinion,” said Doctorow. “I know of at least one that does, and that's my site, BoingBoing, which reaches millions of readers every month. By operating efficiently, we can more than match the fees paid by the New York Times, for example, which always pays peanuts for op-eds because the glory of being published in the NYT is meant to be its own reward.
"After you take away the adverts, the personals, the filler and the pieces hacked together from press releases, the average paper contains about fifteen column inches of decent investigative journalism and commentary,” said Doctorow. “And the internet is more than capable of financing fifteen column inches a day.”
What the blogosphere threatens is not the survival of comment journalism itself: it threatens the monopoly of the media elite, holding the self-important fourth estate to a higher standard than bourgeois columnists and editors find comfortable. We are, in effect, a fifth estate, scrutinising the mainstream media and challenging its assumptions.
Last month, when Danny Dyer appeared to advise a reader of Zoo magazine to cut his girlfriend's face, the feminist arm of the fifth estate responded angrily, prompted a retraction and apology from Zoo and successfully organised a donation drive to raised more money for women’s refuge charities than the discredited Dyer’s violently misogynist film Pimp made in its first week of release. That’s the type of power that scares the wits out of the dinosaurs in analogue media.
Every day, the British blogosphere becomes less amateurish and more relevant. This weekend the popular forum Liberal Conspiracy will host Blog Nation, an event bringing together bloggers, journalists and politicians on the left to determine how the internet can build progressive campaigns to fight public sector cuts. “We have a strong community that can do activism and provide niche information that escapes mainstream newspapers,” said Liberal Conspiracy editor Sunny Hundal. “We want to use the net to get the left to think more about strategy and action - and get people to work together, better!”
Doctorow is right to suggest that we are living through what Marx and Engels might term a “permanent technological revolution”. This weekend, in an incisive essay in The Guardian, John Naughton observed that being a consumer of media and journalism during the radical transformation of today's communications environment is a little
"like being a resident of St Petersburg in 1917, in the months before Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally seized power. It's clear that momentous events are afoot; there are all kinds of conflicting rumours and theories, but nobody knows how things will pan out. Since we don't have the benefit of hindsight, we don't really know where it's taking us.”
One thing, however, is certain: journalism is changing forever. The notion of political commentary as a few-to-many exercise, produced by highly-paid elites and policed by big business, has been shattered beyond repair. The internet is a many-to-many medium, and those who write and comment here are not media insiders, nor are we the mob. We are something altogether new.
We are the fifth estate, and we are forging a path through the miasma of technological change towards more a honest, democratic model of commentary - alongside a lot of porn and some pictures of amusing cats. The media revolution is ongoing. Whatever comes next, the bloggers' battle-cry must be the permanent technological revolution.
Cory Doctorow's new novel about gaming and digital organisation, For The Win, is published by Harper Voyager. You can register here for this Saturday's Blog Nation