20 Apr 2009

The Statusphere for Writers and Journalists

When Walt Mossberg was asked, "are newspapers worth saving?" the WSJ journalist replied,"It’s the wrong question to ask. The real question we should ask is if whether or not we can save good journalism.” He continued, “Think about it. Of the hundreds, thousands, of newspapers around the country, there are really only a few that matter. Good journalism and journalists, on the other hand, are worth saving.”

Seems like yet another traditional profession is going through a tech-tonic shift caused by the internet. When distribution costs are minimal and income streams at the mercy of advertising revenues, what does the future hold for journalists? To be fair, there have always been freelance journalists and perhaps their numbers will just increase. What the successful ones are embracing - and what their publishers should also be concentrating upon - is the growth in social media.

This all sounds like more hype for social networking, blogging and community building, but these movements are not going to go away any time soon. As publishers experiment with social media tools they are at the same time locked into their traditional way of thinking as they also test out micro-charging systems and other payment methods. After all, consumers are there to consume, not to just interact then flutter away to the next social buzz.

But journalists and their publishers are now up against bloggers and blogging networks that have had to survive and thrive under the new rules. Marketing people love to talk about brands, but in the case of written content I'd rather call it a voice. Columnists who have personality, insights and engage with their public across the social media networks are creating their own voice. If they were to move to a different site I'd bet many users would follow them. The dedication is to another human voice, not to the corporate brand they may be flying under.

However, all of this means extra work for the writer who wants to succeed. Your personal voice, or brand, has to be created through your own energies and dedication. As in so many other areas, the freedom to freelance comes with an obligation to do all those other tasks that were the responsibility of the publishers, such as marketing, advertising and distribution.

The Statusphere is another of these ugly hybrid words designed to conjure up this new world of fast-moving social interactions. In contrast to the blogosphere, the statusphere is the sum of interactions and contacts that can form across multiple social media websites. However, in all the hype it is easy to forget that this statusphere has no memory - the interactions are ephemeral and what remains are the connections formed. For this reason alone I very much doubt the death of blogs or websites as repositories of histories.

However, one thing that the statusphere is changing is the direction of information flow. Once it was quite simply from publishers to readers, with a trickle of feedback. Now, any article that has the good fortune to spread virally has also spread out of control of the original author. This is good for voice recognition but has already become unwieldy keeping track of one's own influence as so much discussion can happen off-site, or off-blog. It is common to see discussion on a social bookmarking site being far more active than at the site of the original article. People read what they read where they read it and comment where they are - there is no protocol to go back and comment on the source.

Keeping track of all this is surely the task of automated scripts - that do not yet exist and are sorely needed. If all of this gives you a sense of statusfear then just concentrate on your most successful social arenas and let the rest of the network take the strain and bring to you those well-deserved new readers. As this blog is for general writers rather than specifically for journalists, how does all this affect you?

If you are earning from freelance contract work, then perhaps very little. If, however, you are writing for third party websites such as revenue sharing networks then you already have some help in distribution and marketing. But to really spread your own voice you will need to manage this statusphere in the best way you can. The bookmarking and interactions are all your responsibility. The bookmarking is rarely done automatically, although some have added semi-automatic scripts to speed up the process for you. Experiment with spreading your wings and just clip those websites that are not pulling in new readers. At the same time don't forget to engage with those that do show genuine interest or the network will flow elsewhere. Decide where "home" is, set the wheels in motion and let the network do the work.

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