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How long can volunteers sustain community blogs?

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Over the past nearly four years, nearly 2,600 posts have appeared on Scholars & Rogues, almost all researched and written by the 15 folks whose names appear on our writers’ bio page. S&R writers have devoted thousands of hours to the task of filling this space.

These are skilled people with diverse interests and even more diverse points of view. Three are college professors. Also writing for S&R have been or are an Hispanic activist from Texas; a foreign affairs writer who specializes in nuclear deproliferation issues and civilian casualties resulting from armed conflict; a gay staff cartoonist; a management consultant specializing in organizational behavior whose clients include 20 percent of the Fortune 500; an ex-pat South African economist; three experts in popular culture; a former director of the Berkeley Stage Company and statistical demographer for the U.S. Census Bureau; a professional stage actor; two stay-at-moms; a photographer; and occasional guest columnists.

However, we all share one trait: We are volunteers. We don’t get paid. We have other lives, other responsibilities, other people dependent on us to make a living. As business models go, ours sucks. Modest ad income and passing the hat means S&R remains a labor of love. But can love be a sustaining force for the online medium in the absence of profit?

In the Beginning of Blogging, it was all so exciting. Thrilling, even. Putting up a post, watching the stats, seeing who read your work, where they were — and how many read your stuff. Generate those hits. Yeah. That was heady stuff.

Is it still?

Most individual and group blogs are dependent on volunteers. It’s rare that a Huffington Post can raise $37 million to sustain the enterprise. (Of course, HuffPo has “volunteers” too, doesn’t it?)

The print newspaper industry continues to collapse in terms of revenue, profitability, and numbers of paid, professional journalists. So the dominant use of volunteers to inaugurate and maintain sites featuring commentary and/or advocacy journalism becomes an increasingly important public-interest issue.

Most S&R writers are ideologically progressive but rarely hew to party lines. As the S&R mission statement says:

Scholars & Rogues is a diverse band of thinkers, social analysts, activists, grousers, jesters, and troublemakers. We’re different in many ways, but we share a general belief in progress, a conviction that smarter is better, and a passionate distaste for convention.

That statement mirrors the intent of many capable bloggers. Many (but perhaps not most) bloggers seek to simply make things better. We have particular issues or problems that occupy our blogging attention. We are exceedingly dependent, though, on the research of others (those paid professional journalists whose stories we link to) to support points made in our posts.

But those posts, which leaven “objective” journalism with (usually lucid) commentary, add substance to debates of public interest. Yet the majority of bloggers are not paid for their work. What will become of community blogs such as S&R as the corps of volunteers 1) lose interest, 2) lose access to reliable, verifiable information produced by journalists, 3) lose equal access to the Web as politicians favor corporate control of the Internet or 4) just need to spend more time at the day job in a bad economy to make ends meet?

Note that newspapers, in the early days of online news Web sites, had links where volunteers could post community news. Now, that didn’t work out so well, did it? Let’s hope community blogs fare better.

Volunteerism is the principle means of support for community blogs such as S&R. Many such blogs, blogs populated by smart, capable people (see our blogroll), no doubt face the same pressure the volunteers at S&R do: Keep pumpin’ out the posts. Keep the conversation going. Keep the debate fresh and focused. But it’s difficult, as a volunteer, to pump out as many posts as I’d like. (I do like to get eight hours’ sleep each night.)

At some point, as B.B. King would sing, “The thrill is gone.” I hope most of us aren’t there yet, but it’s increasingly a problem faced by those bloggers who believe in candid, civil, and common-sense conversations in the public sphere — yet have family and job responsibilities elsewhere.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 3, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I wonder: are bloggers killing the very industry on which we rely as our sources? Much of the general public has stopped reading newspapers in favor of blogs. If newspapers and magazines and traditional media lose readers and are no longer able to generate their product, bloggers can no longer link to their stories or glean information from the research they’ve already done. Since most bloggers, as you pointed out, are volunteers with other jobs, lives, and demands on their time, they don’t often have the time or willingness to do that research for themselves. In that case, lacking the articles we link and reference for credibility and background’s sake, blogs will lose one of two things: credibility or content. Perhaps both. I’m afraid blogs are, by their very existence, killing the traditional news industry. But what many people don’t take into consideration is our dependence on that industry. It’s too bad more people haven’t taken that step back to consider the paradox you’ve pointed out.


    June 3, 2009 at 11:35 pm

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