American Culture

How long can volunteers sustain community blogs?

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.

8 replies »

  1. I worry about this (as you know) for a variety of reasons. The one that should be of the greatest concern (that is, America’s problem, not just Sam’s) is this: what happens when democracy and journalism become hobbies? What happens when the foundations of our system become things that may or may not get done in somebody’s spare time?

    I’m beyond worried.

  2. It’s a huge problem, to be sure. Governments at all levels and corporations putting stuff up on the web makes some kinds of research much easier (like the kind of stuff that I do with climate/energy, for example, and IRS/SEC information) for volunteers to do investigative pieces. But ultimately, the vast majority of volunteers simply don’t have the time to devote days or weeks to chasing a story, no matter how compelling it may be.

    I keep hoping that groups like ProPublica will take off, and maybe they will – ProPublica is so new that it’s hard to predict how it’ll do over the long run. But while that helps, we’d need a hundred or a thousand ProPublicas to replace what’s being lost as newspapers go under.

    The Web and blogging is an equaling force, but sometimes I worry that it’s equalizing by turning everything into chaff instead of helping the wheat rise to the surface. Signal is much, much less than noise, and there’s just not that many good filters.

  3. I would like the opportunity to make partial pay for a local journalist, via subscription, to research local stories that are selected in participation with other subscribers (but not totally at the subscribers’ whim). I would hope that such a journalist would have the foresight and time to devote to larger community news groups like S&R.

    I’m considering making some outreach efforts to the local Democratic Party members and some smaller parties in the hopes of getting a significant number of “I’ll pay $50 a month for good news” kinds of people.

    What’s holding me back is simply inertia. The local paper, “Mail Tribune”, is falling apart quickly…smaller, lots of fluff pieces, they don’t want to disturb the few advertisers they have now.

  4. I’ve been blogging locally for about three and a half years. Sure it takes up my time, it’s an unpaid second job. But I also know that my posts are being read and re-read, used as a collective memory for reference.

    What’s in it for me personally, why would I continue to blog? First, it gives me a chance to write and be published. Second, it relieves my intense frustration at not being able to express myself and be heard.

    Third, without any effort or desire on my part I find myself being taken seriously by political and activist circles in my community. This third item snuck up on me and came as a surprise. Believe me, I’m delighted that important people now care about my personal opinion.

    When I get tired of servicing these three desires I’ll quit blogging. Until then, I’ll keep digging up local issues and causing the authorities consternation… which is also gratifying.

  5. 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?

    You’ve pinpointed exactly the effects of a failing newspaper industry, and, by extension, the weak economy on the Internet. I hadn’t seen the issue expressed this way before. Post needs to be widely disseminated.