Writing for your audience… or not

Writing for your audience… or not

: A commentor below raised a cosmic weblog issue when he (or is it she?) asked whether I know who my audience is.

That was said in exasperation at my daily Stern reports and so I’ll deal with that before I rise to the cosmic question. The commenter’s implication, of course, is that my audience doesn’t like Stern or what I’m saying about him — and issues of free speech — and is upset that I haven’t changed my mind to agree with them. And so I should just cease and desist. But I won’t. I’ve liked Stern for years. I am an absolutist in regards to free speech and the Constitution’s prohibition of government control of speech. And I am appalled and frightened by the orgy of Talibanism coming out of Congress and the government now. I believe this is a critically important issue. And, in fact, many of my readers agree (I’ve been getting a lot of supportive links and email). So, to answer your question: No, I’m not going to shut up about Stern. If you don’t like him, change the station. If you don’t like my posts about him, scroll. If you don’t like me, click away. I’m staying on the Stern story.

But the question this raises is really bigger than just Howard Stern and so and I’ll rephrase it:

Should webloggers adjust what they say based on what their audiences want?

Or: What is the proper relationship of webloggers to their publics?

Now if you are trying to cover a subject, that’s fairly obvious: Marketing Wonk covers marketing; LostRemote covers TV; Corante’s Many2Many covers social software. That is their compact with their publics: You know what you’re going to get when you click there.

But personal weblogs are different, no? My weblog is a representation of me and my thinking. It is my avatar. I am, therefore I blog; I blog, therefore I am.

In discussion about getting advertising on weblogs, the fear that is often raised (it was raised in my comments just the other day) is that bloggers will bend to the will of advertisers — or even just to the fear of what those advertisers would dislike — and that would rob them of their credibility, their honesty.

So if I change what I am saying to bend to the will of the public, my public, am I being false? If I see that something gets traffic and I do more of it to get more traffic, am I whoring myself for links? If I change my mind about an issue — say, Stern and free speech — to ingratiate myself to my public and not drive them away, am I living a lie?

It’s often said that a mark of art is that artists create art for themselves, not their publics.

Stop: Step away from that mouse. Don’t click on the “comment” link yet. I am not saying that blogs are art.

But I am saying that making this personal makes a difference. That defines the mission. If you go to PaidContent, you get paid content. If you go to Buzzmachine, you get Jarvis. Love him or leave him, you get Jarvis. That is my mission and the compact I make with my public: I am WYSIWYG.

In fact, that is one of the first lessons I learned doing a blog (see the post below for another): I had to be as open as I was honest. And that meant I started saying things publicly that violated my training as a journalist. I spent much of my life hiding my own opinions. But here, in this two-way medium, I learned that I had to be transparent (or, to really mess up this metaphor, my audience would be able to see through my attempt not to be). I had to give you some context for my perspective and my history. My personal experience on 9/11 had life-changing impact on my views of war and politics and so I had to be reveal that.

And the net result of all this is that I learned not to be frightened of transparency (see, again, that post below). In fact, I came to embrace transparency and believe that in this new media world of relationships transparency becomes necessary to build credibility and show trust and — most of all — show respect.

And so, in the end, if you like me and what I say and how I say it — or like arguing with me or like interacting with the public I attract — wonderful. If you don’t, well, there’s not much I can do about it. This is the only me I’ve got.

So, no, I can’t shift what I think and thus say for an audience anymore than I can for an advertiser (or the government). Bloggers have to be true to themselves or they live a lie — no, they blog a lie.

  • Like other kinds of artists, bloggers express what moves them and what they believe to be true, and damn the consequences.

  • Morty

    Your audience is just whoever reads your blog. Unless you want to submit your opinion — which no one is paying for by the way — to a kind of gang rule, you should just say what you think and let the chips fall.
    Dishonesty is the worst policy in any case — one certain to lose you an audience worth writing for. And besides, the New York Times already has the dishonesty market cornered.

  • Good stuff, Jeff. There’s a scene in the film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” wherein Michelangelo is being encouraged by the art community to complete his painting of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, as you’ll recall, had to swallow his pride and ask the Emperor if he could complete the job. The discussion in the scene involved the eternal struggle of artists to find funding for their work. These guys longed for the finances to be able to do what they wanted to do, and one man said, “We’re artists. We’ll always be a slave to another man’s nickel.”
    That hits close to home, and I’ve given up the idea of riches. :) I think it’s the price you pay for independence. Blogging may be a way to support oneself, but I doubt it’ll produce the wealth of today’s media elites.

  • michael

    Don’t forget that any opinion, any comment on the events of the day, constitutes a re-presentation of those events. Morty suggests that the Times is dishonest – I’m not sure what he means. If he means that they distort “facts,” we must all realize that any mediated statement is a distortion of “the real.” Newspaper articles, TV reports, blogs, interpersonal conversations all are mediations of “the real.” No one and nothing is immune from bias.

  • Amen, Jeff.

  • Charlie (Colorado)

    I am not saying that blogs are art.
    Why not?

  • I simply can’t leave a “me, too” here, though that’s my overall response, because of a couple of points. You said, “The commenter’s implication, of course, is that my audience doesn’t like Stern or what I’m saying about him — and issues of free speech — and is upset that I haven’t changed my mind to agree with them. And so I should just cease and desist.”
    Frankly, I think that is reading an awful lot into a short remark. What Belen said was, “This is getting embarassing. Your crusade for the martyr Stern is ALMOST as embarassing as Andrew Sullivan’s hysterical gay-marriage rants. Do you guys even know who your audience is?”
    Maybe I shouldn’t speak for Belen. So I’ll just speak for myself. Much of my response to The Daily Stern has been due to hyperbole such as this: “I am appalled and frightened by the orgy of Talibanism coming out of Congress and the government now.
    Has Congress sent a military force to San Francisco and killed thousands of random citizens due to the recent “moral insurrection” (i.e., 3,000 gay marriages), as the Taliban did with wayward districts? Have they seized Robin Quivers and taken her to RFK stadium to be publicly executed? Has Howard been beaten with rubber hoses by roving Vice Police? Has the Federal Commision of Radio Vice and Virtue dragged everyone involved off to a dark dank torture cell?
    When you compare “Talibanism” with the current government environment over broadcast indecency, you have reduced yourself to the level of those who compare Bush to Hitler. Such over the top quotes (along factual inaccuracies like “one company owns 80%” of radio, and “a few republicans are dictating what can be broadcast”) reduce the credibility of the rest of your argument.
    I’m staying on the Stern story.
    Having said all of the above, more power to you. In August of 2002, my weblog became “All McKinney, All The Time” as the primary in which she was evicted drew near. I briefly worried that such a One Note focus would drive people away. But it was what was happening in my life, and in my mind. As it turns out, that month was the second highest traffic month I’ve ever had.
    Bottom line: you can’t help but be yourself, and if you try to be someone else, that will really drive people away. They’ll sense it.
    It’s often said that a mark of art is that artists create art for themselves, not their publics.
    I’m not gonna bust your chops on the “art” aspect of it, because weblogs truly are a new medium for expression, creative or otherwise. And the only reason to maintain a weblog is for your own satisfaction. If others like it, read it, even link it, that’s great. But that’s not necessarily the reason you did it. If you’re not getting what you want out of it, why should you worry if everyone else is?

  • Ebb Tide

    “Love me, love my blog.” would have been shorter.

  • Charlie: Why not art? Well, for starters, my page design is butt-ugly.

  • I haven’t commented yet about your Daily Stern feature, and I don’t begrudge you for being upset about it, but you seem to be taking it farther than a lot of your audience would. You remind me a bit of Andrew Sullivan in your intensity on this Stern issue; I had read Sullivan going back to before his blogging and enjoyed his writing, but when the gay marriage court decisions and push for an amendment began, he got much too shrill and fixated on the issue for my tastes, and I find it hard to read him more than once every few days. You are getting shrill, I have to say. “Talibanism” coming from Congress? No, it’s not even close, Mr. Jarvis. Would you join those Democrats and liberal groups who refer to “the Taliban wing of the Republican party”? Does any member of Congress even come close to articulating any Talibanic view of religion and the state? Censorship is nothing new, and the modern push for censorship in entertainment started with Tipper Gore’s group. This is an old story and Stern getting booted off a few stations is not the end of free speech. He’s lasted a long time through circumstances just as perilous as these, and I think he’s just trying to make a bigger celebrity out of himself. I say all of this as a hawkish but domestic-libertarian-leaning moderate.

  • Dan Herzlich

    Terry: Not interested in making money? I just felt a chill run up my spine.
    Jeff, what’s the business model here?

  • DH: If you’re, say, a 17-year-old girl who happens to blog a lot about music, music companies will want to talk to you and your friends, for example. That’s different from PaidContent.org, which will run on ads and conferences and reports and such; that is a business. The 17-year-old may or may not care about making a few coins.

  • I didn’t read you before Stern. Now you’re #8 on my daily list. I don’t know what you were doing before but please don’t go back to it or you’ll be ignoring your new readership!
    Most blogs I read, I read for personal reasons and when they sway from what makes them personally interesting, I stop reading.
    Sometimes *I* sway, and the personal reasons go away and I stop reading. (Do I do a disservice to the blog author by stopping READING when I feel I’ve changed?)
    Without that personal voice, what do we have? Back to the Stern: without that personal voice we have Tesh. And most of those non-personal, subject-oriented blogs are Tesh.
    We hunger for the real. The real means if you piss me off I’m outta here and vice-versa. That’s just how it has to be.

  • DH: I want to make money, but blogging flies in the face of top/down economic models. I think there’s room in the media economy for us, but I just don’t see anybody getting rich.

  • I dunno. Changing one’s content to fit one;s audience better? Does that really work? And if so, is it really worth it?
    I certainly first with my blog that “the best way to get approval is not to need it”.

  • I think blogging can make money easily, Terry. Mine does so far, I don’t see a probem.

  • Adding myself as another person who found you via the Daily Stern commentary (via Dan G. blog).

  • Ruth H

    Okay, since you brought it up I will tell you what I think. I read your blog, get updates through blogline, and I like it. But… I don’t like Stern, have never heard his radio show. I can get his TV show over Dish Network should I want to watch it, I don’t. I respect that you like his show, like him, and want to write about the situation. I just skip that part, sort of like a commercial on a tv show.
    I like most of the rest. I do feel the Stern stuff could become a Johnny one note thing, but it hasn’t and the rest is still interesting to me, a 67 year old lady.

  • Trump

    Jeff, you gotta write about what you want. Blogs are for the writer after all, the audience is secondary.
    Even though I hate the daily Stern- not because of Stern but because you so slavishly report his every single word as if it’s gospel- but if I don’t like it enough, I’ll go elsewhere.
    Keep up the good work

  • Charlie (Colorado)

    Charlie: Why not art? Well, for starters, my page design is butt-ugly.
    It doesn’t have to be graphic art. (Although I rather like your design, too. What can I say, I shoulda been a monk.)
    But remember that Johann Bach was a hack writer, doing a cantata a week.

  • Jim C.

    Jeff, don’t you really think that calling the actions of the FCC and Congress an “orgy of Talibanism” is a bit of an exaggeration? Please calm down. Take a few deep breaths.