Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 30 October 2014

What does the decade of Guido tell us about online political writing?

I started writing about politics online in 2008. At the time the "blogosphere" (as we decreasingly refer to it these days) was in the ascendency. There were serious pieces written and debates had about whether "blogs" would ultimately supplant the mainstream media*.

The ecology of the blogosphere at the time was already starting to take on the sort of "long tail" shape that has since become much more pronounced. There were a number of blogs that were highly prominent. Iain Dale was arguably the most famous of these. The erstwhile Tory parliamentary candidate and publisher had carved out a niche for himself with "Iain Dale's Diary" where he readably and prolifically held forth on his political views and sometimes other more frivolous topics such as his favourite music. Because Iain was (and is) so well connected, having been involved in Tory politics and more widely for years he was often able to get stories and information about breaking news before us mere mortals and hence was genuinely able to compete with major media outlets as well as set the agenda himself. Of course Iain has since gone on to bigger and better things hosting the drive time show on the now national LBC radio. He does still occasionally blog but nothing like he used to.

There were various prominent "self starter" online writers around this time that I used to enjoy reading such as Recess Monkey, Dizzy Thinks, Letters From A Tory, A Blog from the Backroom and others many of whom have either fallen by the wayside or update their blogs much less frequently than they used to.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the lot though back in 2008 was the website "Order Order" run by the at that point enigmatic Paul Staines. The site itself dealt in scandal and attacks which seemed largely indiscriminate. If you were a politician (or even an apologist for them in Guido's eyes) you were a target. Stylistically the pieces on the site were similar to opinion pieces in a tabloid newspaper. Think "The Sun Says" but slightly longer form and with red writing to add emphasis where necessary.

Guido was intriguing though because unlike most of his contemporaries he seemed able to regularly break stories. "Conspirators" were sometimes the source of these (continuing the Gunpowder Plot linked theme) but like Dale, Staines seemed to be very well connected.

I first came across Order Order following Staines' somewhat disastrous Newsnight appearance in March 2007 where Michael White got the better of him. It wasn't helped by the fact that Staines had insisted on being in shadow and not be referred to by his real name in order to protect his anonymity. Of course White revealed his real name almost immediately during the interview rendering the shadowing pointless.

But despite the car crash nature of this I wanted to know more and became a regular reader of Order Order.

I'll be honest, it's not my style. In fact it's almost as far away from my style as it's possible to be. There are smears, attacks, sarcasm (OK that is a bit like me), mocked up photos to illustrate points (very tabloid), nicknames for the most hated politicians and so on and so on.

In the end though it comes down to what you count most for online writing. Some favour well constructed arguments. Some value rigorous evidence. And while Order Order has its fair share of these, what Staines treasures above all else is viewing figures. And who is to say Staines is wrong in this? In 2008 his was right up there among the most read blogs in the country. In 2014 it is still right up there. He has been able to leverage these figures to ultimately get a column in a national newspaper (The Daily Star Sunday initially and now The Sun on Sunday). Very few bloggers can say that. He is also almost unique among political bloggers in the UK in that he has actually been able to earn a living from his online writing. In fact he has been able to employ several other writers and bring them into the Guido stable. Most notably former "Tory Bear" blogger Harry Cole who Staines once described in a comment on my own blog as "the unchallenged reigning playboy of the blogosphere".

I have met Paul Staines on a couple of occasions. We were on a British Computer Society panel in the run up to the 2010 election and together on a judging panel for some political awards following that same election and had a lunch together with a few others. I have also debated with him on the radio down the line a couple of times. He remains the only person to have turned me down to be a guest on my podcast by just saying he didn't think it was worth his time (which in some ways was commendably honest of him). All the other declines I have had have been much more polite than that. It made it clear to me that he can be very brusque and doesn't mind offending people. Indeed looking at the output of Order Order he obviously thrives on it.

He has a number of political scalps to his name. Most notably former Gordon Brown spinner Damian McBride following the whole "Red Rag" debacle in 2009. This episode demonstrated that Guido has real power and was not to be trifled with.

It would also be remiss of me not to point out that on many occasions Staines (and Cole) have very kindly linked to my work. There are some times when things I write about (usually civil liberties or drugs policy) accords with the libertarian Guido philosophy.

So that's a potted history from my perspective. Now Order Order is 10 years old. But where does that leave us with respect to the question posed in the title of this post? What does the decade of Guido tell us about online political writing?

Well I think one thing it tells us, as if we didn't need telling already is that tabloid newspapers do not exist by accident. When political writing began online the barriers to entry were (and still are) effectively zero. There was no need for the blogosphere to mirror what happened in the world of newspapers. And yet through many, many thousands of experiments in self-starter one-person-band blogs (at least in their initial form) we have seen the one that has risen to the top in terms of readers and income is the one that probably most closely resembles a tabloid**.

No matter how much people like me might argue that there is an audience out there for more nuanced and subtle forms of writing, it is clear that the most success and power has been bestowed on a blog that would probably be offended if either of those adjectives were widely applied to it. The truth is there is an audience out there for my sort of writing but it is nowhere near as big as the audience for a bit of good old fashioned attack journalism.

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Guido's success though is that you have to be prolific. Staines must have devoted a massive amount of his time to Order Order in the first few years. There were regular posts on most days (usually several). To be able to produce that much content that is interesting and attracts an audience is not easy. Iain Dale once referred to it as "feeding the beast" and he is right. Another way of putting it might be "you're only as good as your last piece and there needs to be another one along in a minute or you're dead".

See I'm not as snappy as these top bloggers am I?

As an addendum to this piece I wanted to point out one other thing. Every now and then, Paul Staines goes off piste and writes a longer form piece on Order Order which does go in depth in analysing issues. It is usually related to the financial markets or fiscal policy where he has particular expertise having worked in the City previously. They are often very readable and would not be out of place in The Economist or a similar publication. But I know from having discussed with him that they get many fewer viewings than his usual tabloid fayre hence he keeps them few and infrequent so as not to distort his brand too much.

* Of course as time has gone on the blogosphere has increasingly become subsumed into the mainstream with brands like The Guardian, The Telegraph and others hoovering up the best and the brightest bloggers.

**Indeed Staines has cited former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie as an important influence on him on more than one occasion.


Just this guy, you know? said...

What it tells us, is to vote UKIP.

Have a nice day.

Chris B said...

I tend to veer away from Perez Hilton style journalism. However, food for thought; Blogging... 'feeding the beast'... tends to lead towards reciprocated thought. Your audience expects a style, and you therefore stick to it to appease the readership. This tends to mean you get stuck into a way of thinking, with no room for growth. I look back at the 20-year-old me, and I shiver at the xenophobic wastrel I was back then, very much a product of the working-class Midlands before the explosion of Social Networking. There is no record of that person online, and I am so very, very glad.