Sunday, 14 December 2008

Left Blogging and the Left Press

One blog post that caught my eye last week was Dave Osler's piece on blogging and journalism. The argument will be one familiar to most bloggers and politicos. Most daily and Sunday titles are in long term decline, as this corner of the Guardian's site illustrates. This means less ad revenue, less resources available for "proper" journalism, more stories recycled from press agencies or the internet, compounding the decline in the press.

Commenting on a piece by
Andrew Sullivan, and tacitly accepting the argument that the explosion of political blogs is partially responsible for the decline in the mainstream press, Dave argues they cannot be substituted for it. Blogs do not have the connections or the resources to plug the gap. For example, the stories "broken" by the likes of Guido and Iain Dale on the right and Liberal Conspiracy on the left are small beer. The story might be different where localised blogs are concerned. Stoke-on-Trent's Pits 'n' Pots carries better political news and gossip than the local rag, for example.

But is it as grim as all that for the bourgeois press? It seems the more highbrow titles are doing all right, thank you very much.
The Economist is up 5.6 per cent to 183,539 in UK. The Week and Spectator are circulating at all-time highs (source).

Anyway, what I want to look at is the relationship (or should that be tension?) between left blogs and the left press. Does the plethora of leftist commentary online unduly impact on the fortunes of the likes of
The Socialist, Socialist Worker and the Weekly Worker? Beginning with last things first, many have commented on the WW's decline since left blogs have colonised its sect news niche. Why wait every Thursday for the latest SWP-related scoop when it's been on Socialist Unity and dozens of other left blogs for days? Its attempts to generate interest with interminable polemics with the AWL and their erstwhile ultra-leftist bedfellows in the ludicrous Campaign for a Marxist Party has probably driven more of its readers away than anything else. If Peter Manson's last article on John Rees's can-carrying is anything to go by, part of their solution is to go more in-depth and use more inside information.

The Socialist and Socialist Worker, most of their circulation comes from street sales. In that respect both titles are indifferent to the effects of blogs. But can the same be said of their online presence? Their content is split between activist-generated news and reports on struggles the parties are involved with. But when it comes to articles on bigger issues, the reportage is not qualitatively different from what many bloggers do. Except one kind of commentary is backed up by a party imprimatur and the other isn't. But does it mean people are less likely to swing by, say, the CWI website than a wide array of blogs who offer their own take on the issues of the day? Without the visits figures for the Socialist Party and SWP's websites to hand it's hard to say. I do suspect though that the figures are not as high as they could be.

When I was in the
cpgb we used to receive (and I assume comrades still do) a weekly email outlining the most popular articles from the previous issue. Without fail the letters were always a top destination. It remains a strength of the WW that it is always willing to use its post bag as an opportunity to critically engage with its readers and opponents, something that the letters in The Socialist and SW rarely do. Blogging as a general rule invites responses to what is offered, and plays a large part in developing the reputation and profile of a given blogger. As much as SWP-supporting trolls try to derail the comments at Socialist Unity, again generally the debates that take place there are sophisticated, involved and interesting.

I think my organisation and the rest of the left ought to try and learn from this. The AWL and
Permanent Revolution allow for comments on their material, so why can't we? Comments received could become the basis for letters. Replies and discussions could build up an audience who are regularly reading our material and might even encourage others to do so as well. So what's there to lose?


Phil said...

Maybe the SP website should carry comments, but they can get very abusive and silly.
I think that the paper would sell more if we had more debate and members were encouraged to question the party line through the letters page.

Charlie Marks said...

I think the SP should look at allowing comments on it's newspaper articles. (I wonder if this is something the Morning Star is planning, since it will be available free online?)

The temptation is obviously to avoid repetative sectarian sniping, but we shouldn't shy away from introducing comments features - a form of moderation or membership and a code of conduct (no sectarian attacks, constructive debate).

The period we are entering is too serious to either have a "drawbridge-up" or sectarian attitude.

The great thing about this blog is that its authors and posters are serious and polite.

It would be good to see it incorporated into the Socialist Party website along with other SP blogs, the better to have a centralised space for debate amongst comrades of the tendency and with those of other tendencies. A good idea?

Dave Riley said...

Green Left Weekly has been at times the most popular political web site in Australia. Thats' not for a journal but for a political website -- and its hit figures are very impressive. But that bears up a major conundrum relative to hard copy publishing and distribution.

GLW has a broad readership and covers a lot of issues so on many topics you are just as likely to find it listed high up on a Google search as not. So GLW has made great use of its web address these past 17 years.

GLW also sponsors a public discussion elist which is indeed very liberal its its posting policy as some dedicated trolls on the left use it exclusively to attack the DSP. It's like, in part, the SWP publishing Weekly Worker. But after almost 5 years it has a signiifcant niche -- not that it necessaily guarntees useful discussions as many blog comment threads on the left will attest.

That said, and given that the political blogosphere isn't very large here, GLW sucks up such a broad niche that I prefer not to compete against it in way of everyday blogging. Why report on something when its going to be covered much better in GLW? Similarly the GLW elist always carries a lot of clipped articles and what the web doesn't need is duplication.

But a space remains, and in one sense that is being addressed by LINKS which is doing a very useful job in a new format, aggregating a lot of extremely useful material. GLW also uses LINKS to publish longer versions of articles it printed in edited format. So in one sense LINKS functions as a blog as it is updated almost daily, has comments threads and offers a feed.

So this organised sector of the Australian left has been very active harnessing the web in a way that is only now being matched by the US ISO's web presence.. As a socialist and party person I think it is better to proceed formally that way than via the ab hocery of individual blogging enterprises.

But really there isn't a counterposition worth getting angsty about as it is a question simply of using tools that you may have within reach. In the Socialist Alliance we are trying to encourage individual branch blog sites and the SA uses the blogging platform to help distribute its discussion journal and newsletter, Alliance Voices.

We've tried to encourage more blogs on the left here -- and deploy many means to sponsor DIY the activity, but for now blogging isn't a major activity for the Australian far left. Even an all in blog -- LeftWrites -- is massively under utilized I think as its members (including the local CWI franchise)seldom post to it.

However, the key question I think is that you have to cover all publishing bases and while GLW has a very popular web presence it still is distributed aggressively on the streets. What you do get of course are potential buyers saying,"no thanks I read it on the web" (where once the excuse was "I subscribe.")

So long as they read it, I suppose.

In the Socialist Alliance we are trying to exploit a lot of web platforms as a means to relate to the network and membership. We run national elists (which comrades prefer to be internal), sponsor wikis for file sharing and collectively drafting and editing, and we may soon deploy shared calendar and data entry facilities on the web. I think there is a big future for a web presence across a lot of platforms as a means to reach out, organise and save money in a country the size of Australia. We also uses internet phone systems to have national campaign and leadership hookups. We also run SA and other campaigns groups on Facebook.

Personally , while I think written blogs are very useful they aren't as powerful as the Democrat bloggers in the US make them out to be.

Despite that proviso, I think the challenge that warrants a lot of attention is web multimedia -- and that's where I'm at, I guess. YouTubing for socialism can be a powerful reach out tool and the SA is slowly exploring its options and getting used to the hardware. Here's a present aggregation , we're experimenting with: Socialist Alliance TV because in a sense, the left is very good and very experienced in editorialising by writing -- but the 'new media' is much broader than text.

But there's one aspect that warrants noting: you have to be open and accessible otherwise you won't develop a comfortable fit. In one sense I guess in my activities I've taken a leaf out of AVPS's book and try to turn the focus on comrades and comrades doing stuff rather than on the politics being done. The far left can be so sterile and unwelcoming in the way that its wallows in ideology. I think there's so much to be said for making that experience very much first person --as this blog does.

Dave Riley said...

Postscript: If I can add one further comment (and please excuse my wordiness), I think comments threads aren't as useful as comrades may presume.

While you are surely going to get the good and the bad I've seldom found blog commentary very useful or very productive. There's this assumption that allowing and fostering comments is akin to deferring to democracy and accountability as though anonymous or pseudonymous posters have more weight than real time gatherings with real people.

That's a mistaken view as I've always found that only one layer of lefties actually indulge in the activity and only a sector(of varying size) of that population will do so with serious political engagement in mind.

It is also overwhelmingly a male proclivity so more and more it becomes narrowly proscribed and not as representative of an audience as you'd expect.

I'm not against it. I just point out its limitations as comments don't always deliver as they are presumed to.

When you get into wikifying and collective editing you get an idea of how complex the process of web exchange and debate can be. It's fascinating stuff of course -- but nothing is straightforward and rather than relying on one platform you in effect have to utilise several.

But as we know from our experience on the left of meetings -- to get work done, or topics addressed, your best resource is a good chairperson or facilitator.

Inasmuch as you can replicate that on the web -- then there's a great potential to advance a political discussion. But the web is engineered for pontification and editorialising -- esp the blogging platform -- and it can so easily become a pissing competition with the loudest and most aggressive shouting down the timid.

So comments and commenting aren't the bee all and end all of an open web presence. Inevitably too, everytime you open a comment option ( eg: blogs or elists) you'll need a moderator to moderate it.

Whether you monitor before or after posts are published is not the main issue. But on the left -- with so much sectaranism in play -- you need to foster moderation. So you have to engineer that into any comments policy.

Furthermore, what Lenin wrote about an "all Russia newspaper" still applies and regardless of the WSWS 'solution', hard copy material will still have to function as the main reach out vehicle for our cause.

We can debate the form, content and frequency of that but Lenin was right to argue that the paper -- the hard copy -- was a key tool that formatted the organisation as collective production and distribution of it encouraged its own dialectic.If you want to really know whether your politics suck or not, stand on a street corner and sell newspapers.

The web can't match that for "testing the line."

Leftwing Criminologist said...

There is a general 'leave your comments' facility on the Socialist Party wesbite.

There are comments bits on some articles on the ISR website too.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

well, there was a leave your comments feature on the website - i think it's been replaced by a send your letters and articles facility.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

no, i've found it

(not been used for a while)

Mick Hall said...

"But the web is engineered for pontification and editorialising"

And the party press is not? I rarely look at the party/group sites as nothing appears on them which has not been through ten committees, OK I exaggerate, but only a tad.

Im looking forward to the star opening up its site and hope they use the opportunity well. The left press which at one time I used to devour is caught in a time warp, todays SW is very little different to an edition 20 years ago, they still go on endlessly about the German revolution;) having said this it is the best of a bad bunch of weeklies.

As to the WW, it must be the most reactionary paper in the UK, who is it aimed at, the tiny minority who have the same mind set as those who write it. It reaches out to no body.

It is as divorced from working class people as much as the members of the cpgb are, and it makes no attempt to make contact with them, it is like one of those dreadful theoretic journals published by some miniscule sect in the 1970s.

It could be so much more, especially when you take into account the total commitment of those who produce it week in week out. But for this to happen it would have to throw its pages open to more than members of the cpgb and those they have a gripe against.

The trouble is no one but us few are interested in the ins and outs of the far left and rightly so. I realise a lot of work goes into producing these papers, but I wonder if they have had there day, Green left weekly is a fine site and I hope the star will follow that line.

The problem with the UK left is much of its leadership are control freaks, and once a web site allows comments etc they lose part of their control and thus power too. Perhaps we are doomed to have a poor left press whilst DC remains with us.

Phil said...

Just to test the water, particularly to other SP members. Do you think it would be positive if the party encouraged more comrades to raise questions and disagreements in the letters pages of the party paper.

When i say the party encouraging it I mean just that.

i.e get branch secretaries to get comrades to write in with disagreements that have turned up at branches, not to create argument for its own sake but to allow make the paper more of an educational tool for members.

For example in just the last couple of weeks our branch has had disagreement over environmental and anti-BNP positions, all very educational but these discussions should as a matter of course be shared as much as possible.

Phil BC said...

Phil, I would say yes, I think the letters page is under used as a tool for engaging with our readers, so I would like to see that. But I know other comrades might not be so keen as traditionally the party has tended not to have its debates "in public" and, they may point out, that's what the internal bulletin is for. But it's been a fair few months since I last saw one! It would be more instructive (and cheaper!) and reach a wider audience if it were carried in the paper or journal, and I'm sure we'd all benefit from the discussion. Just my opinion!

Dave, many thanks for your very, very comprehensive replies - how do you find the time comrade? I am in agreement with you, there is no substitute for hard copy, which is why I don't think blogs will crowd out 'traditional' left wing journals like GLW and The Socialist. Where there is possibly a difference is leftist activists, particularly indies, are more likely to hang out in leftyblogland these days then around the websites of our organisations - though that, of course, is a Brit-centric POV - I know the situation is different in your part of the world.

ModernityBlog said...


Dave Riley made some excellent points on the political use of technology, the sooner the British Left stops being conservative (small c) with new media and takes up these ideas the better.

Whatever way you decide, encouraging people to debate and think about issues, rather than parrot a line, surely must be useful and ultimately productive?

bickering and arguments for arguments sake, a common habit on the Left are going to happen, no way of avoiding it, but hopefully will be a minority pastime IF a smart and systematic way of galvanizing thoughtful discussion is found.

The British Left needs to revive itself and damn quick, the Far Right are not going to stand still and once they reach a critical mass (like Le Pen's NF) they are going to be a REAL problem, more so than today.

whatever you decide I'd recommend a VERY light touch with moderation or it stifles debate, let those debating police themselves, the imposition of a strict moderation policy is not a good idea, IMO

Dave Riley said...

I should have mentioned that we have a comment option on the Socialist Alliance website without a moments problem and for our wiki work, we've often left editing open to anyone and only once have I had to clean up some obnoxious graffiti.

Also web trolls don't recognise that any indulgent abuse is a one second wonder and the whole edifice isn't going to fall apart because they got abusive for a few inches of web space.Ignore it and they're yesterday's news.

Trolling habits may undermine useful discussions and limit the utility of the web -- but that's all that is at stake.

I'm a great believer in "soft security". An open environment encourages participation and a strong sense of common purpose, so the proportion of fixers to breakers will tend to be high.

Matt Wardman said...

>Blogs do not have the connections or the resources to plug the gap.

Sticking a belated oar in, there are some things - notably some long term and complex stories where there is not the possibility of a big splash - where the big media does not have the time or the resources to do the legwork because of the lack of instant results.

I've been working on a campaign for the last 4 or 5 months, where both BBC Radio 4 and the national press have steered clear for "lack of time to dig" reasons.

The website is here: