It was just an innocent remark over a cup of coffee. “Erik, I always thought you were some kind of rebel.” I threw back my head and laughed in a compulsively rude fit of the moment. If I’m what passes for a “rebel,” this world is really in trouble (to put it the polite way).
Barataria has always been a big experiment – an attempt to prove that a few of the hard-written rules about blogging were simply wrong. Longer pieces with some substance have an audience, even when presented in stark black and white. Pictures and multi-media aren’t necessary to sell them. It is not essential to be narrowly focused on one subject or area of expertise. Thank you all for proving that there is an audience for my humble work.
As innovations go this hasn’t been much of a revelation. After all, weekly news magazines have been with us for well over a hundred years in a similar kind of format. The blog world’s assumptions that new ways of presenting information required new standards was not an innovation of the last decade; it was actually very conservative and confining. The counter-argument, that readers haven’t changed regardless of the sparkly newness of the media, can hardly be called the work of a “rebel.” The simple fact that major online news sources have grown is proof enough of this.
But like any good experiment, this has taught me a few things that I didn’t expect. One thing I have learned is that while a fully thunk-out piece on a topic can get a lot of readers, the partially baked idea usually creates a richer stream of comments that is ultimately much more interesting – the interaction and connection is what’s new and worthy of encouragement.
The most successful thing about Barataria is probably not that the original idea was proven. It isn’t even the fine-tuning that encourages interaction and a collaborative approach. What I think has proven the most important development is that, like any good experiment, it’s pointed me to the next research that needs to be done. As much as I appreciate all of you reading and adding to my musings with your comments, this and nearly every good blog online doesn’t generate a sustainable income.
This doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people, but it should. If we are looking at the future of news and art and the sharing of ideas, there is clearly a decent role for hobbyists to contribute. But it is hard to imagine how any of it will really advance without some core of people who are able to devote all of their heart and arm and brain to the effort. That means they’ll need an income, something that they can survive off of. We’re nowhere near that.
I realize that there are a few growing and important news outlets that are internet only, but I do not believe there is a single one turning a profit. All of them appear to rely on grants. If there is one thing that I learned while writing grants for nonprofits, it’s that this is not a sustainable model in any way whatsoever – sooner or later, any permanent institution will need money from either personal contributions, the government, or sales to take over when the seed money from foundations feels an itch to move on.
I’m going to try a few innovations on different sites in the coming weeks to try the next level of experiments. The focus will be on making a living online, and as usual I will try to apply the lessons of history under the assumption that people haven’t changed all that much despite the new-car smell of the medium. News and commentary will stay here on Barataria. The lessons I learned while researching the nature of serial works may be gelling into a kind of fiction that might answer the questions I raised as “Waiting for Steinbeck.” I’m also going to focus on teaching, much the way musicians have been surviving for centuries as they create art in their spare time.
It’s hardly a rebellion. But I hope it contributes to the development of this new medium in a way that lives up to the great potential to genuinely connect people and ideas. What say you?