Is (Beer) Blogging Killing (Beer) Writing?

Over the weekend, Stan Hieronymus meditated on the state of writing in the era of blogs, inspired by the demise of yet another print publication, Britain's Beers of the World. I know most readers care about beer, not beer writing, but perhaps you'll indulge me and allow this one meta-post. (And indulge me further by reading it.)

The issue has been around for decades, as the audiences for print newspapers and magazines steadily shrink. Reasons abound, and only lately have blogs been added to the mix (inconveniently, the decline started long before blogging). As this is an issue dear to the heart of every editor, it has been one of the most well-documented phenomena in American media.

Stan locates a typical blog-bashing quote from wine writer Alice Feiring, the kind bloggers find irresistible:

Oh, to once again be paid to fret and angst over the specific word and nuance. To work with an editor, to banter back and forth and develop and like a dancer stretch for that point on the stage with utter conviction.

I long for the days when there was craft, there was grammar and there was poetry...

And so bloggers who have jobs that pay the bills other than writing, please take no offense. No offense is meant. But this is a lament, from those of us who have bet our lives on the written word, for those of us who have no fall back plan (actually, journalism is my fall back for fiction) whether the subject is art, music, politics, literature or wine, our lives are changing. No one goes into writing to make pots of dough.

For bittersweet irony, follow the link: it comes from Feiring's blog.


This narrative is almost always told from the publisher's viewpoint. Nothing wrong with that; if your business is slowly dying, using the bully pulpit your magazine offers is obvious recourse. But for the writer, the lament's tune is different. When I started getting paid to write, the money involved was so low--ten cents a word was standard--that I joked it barely paid for the beer. That lovely writer-editor relationship Feiring describes is not offered to freelancers. If you're lucky, a copy editor will call you back to clarify the changes she's making. If you're unlucky (which is to say, if things are humming along normally), the piece is treated like a rough draft and what emerges afterward ay not be recognizeable.

Writing for Willamette Week was useful for a green writer--it taught me how to do actual reportage, keep my facts straight, spell people's names correctly (rule #1). But I braced every time I opened the paper. It would have been retrofitted into that WW "voice" (the one mocked by the Mercury), subjected to other nips and tucks and verbal photoshopping. In one memorable instance, an editor changed a quote from Art larrance, subverting the meaning, and justifiably enraging Art. I sent him my original copy, apologized, and WW ran a correction, but it was still terrible for my credibility.

(Tom Dalldorf, the editor and publisher of Celebrator Beer News never changed a word when I wrote "Oregon Trail" for him, bless his heart.)

The upshot is this: however bad publishers have it, writers have it worse. Newspapers still make a healthy profit. That profits are down reflects only the obscene profitability of earlier decades. Yet beat reporters get the ax, along with benefits and job security. Freelancers, paid a pittance, increasingly take up more and more of the writing responsibility. Pick up an Oregonian sometime and look at the bylines. If you see this tag underneath the byline: "Special to the Oregonian" you know the writer was a freelancer. She may have developed an article over days or weeks, done lots of legwork and put in hours and hours of time, but she was only paid for the final copy, by the word.

In the period I've been writing, the main payment has been seeing my name on the page. Editors and publishers know writers are hungry and will do nearly anything to find an outlet for their work. Throw a few shekels our way and call it good. After three or four years writing about beer for the print pubs, the effort didn't seem quite commensurate with this lavish compensation, though, and that's why I bagged it.

The reason writers blog isn't because we love not getting paid. It's because we like to write and, thanks to the dismal state of our opportunities, the deal isn't comparatively bad. We sacrifice our few shekels and a lot of readers (say what you like about Willamette Week--vastly more people read it than will ever read this blog). In exchange we get a chance to write what we wish. Fringe benefits include sharing discussions--and sometimes even a beer--with our readers.

I don't know why the print publishers are dying off, and I don't like it any better than they do. But the wreckage of this collapse tends to fall more heavily on writers, forcing them ever more quickly into blogging--which I guess is what fuels speculation that the blogs are killing magazines. But eventually we'll hit an equalibrium where the number of print publications matches the number of readers that can support them. Magazines and papers won't go away; there will just be fewer of them and they'll have smaller readerships.

When publishers look at this future, they get depressed because they imagine the people will be cheated out of the rich writing and reportage they provide. Yet this is why the publishers' lament sounds off-key to my ear: it's not true. The content will still be there, provided by the remaining print publications and augmented by a host of niche blogs. (Does anyone really feel less informed about the beer scene in Oregon in 2009 than they did in 1999?) The golden age of newspapers isn't gone, but the golden age in which a substantial corps of writers earned living wages is. We know what the future looks like-writing for free-- because we've been living in it for years.

And that's my lament.