Are we pissing on the Commenterati’s chips?

To no one’s great surprise, the news that a survey commissioned by Julia Hobsbawn’s fledgling PR meets the professional commentarati project, Editorial Intelligence (oxymoron anyone?), has identified Polly Toynbee as the ‘columnist of choice for opinion leaders‘ (whatever the fuck one of those is when its at home) has foundered straight away on the blogosphere’s usual Scylla of derision and the Charybdis of apathy – check out what bloggers have to say on this, especially after Polly (and/or the Graun) kindly incorporated the following into her most recent missive on Comment Is Free…

Polly Toynbee has been named columnist of choice for opinion leaders in a survey commissioned for Editorial Intelligence

… and you’ll quickly find yourself with two choices of opinion: "what the fuck?" and "who gives a fuck anyway?"

Yes, its back to that hoary old chestnut of the bloggers -vs- the ‘professionals’ that seems to crop up every few weeks, most recently when Nick Robinson got a bit tetchy with Guido and Iain Dale over the Prezza’s third mistress story…

To be fair there is pretty solid difference between these two scenarios.

Despite the odd blogger having a bit of dabble in actually breaking the odd ‘news story’, the relationship between bloggers remains largely a complementary one – they (the journalists) serve up the news and we comment on it and throw in a few opinions and a bit of background research along the way. Particularly when its comes to the BBC and its efforts to remain a more of less neutral source of factual reportage, what bloggers tend to do is editorialise the Beeb’s news output; while with less neutral sources from amongst the dead tree media blogger tend to offer a different slant on stories – many different slants, in fact – in a way that tends to support or mediate against the editorial bias applied by a newspaper to the original source material.

With columnists and op-ed writers, such a La Toynbee, things are a bit different – not least because we’re both pretty much in the same line of business – opinions, the big difference being that most of us bloggers have no real expectation of being paid for out 2c worth…

…which, when you come to think about it, is all rather a problem for anyone who currently trying to make a tidy living out of being an ‘opinion former’.

If you think about it in economic terms (and at the risk of getting skinned by Tim if I get this wrong) your ‘market value’ as a so-called ‘opinion former’ rests pretty much on two things;

First, on having a big enough readership who broadly see the world the way you do, to make you opinions worth something as a reflection of the views of your readership – which, for preference, should coincide tidily with an identifiable market segment that’s of interest to whoever might be thinking of retaining your services – and…

Second, on your ability to demonstrate, or at least convey the appearance, that your opinions matter sufficiently to your readers that you can influence they way they see certain things; the whole ‘well I’d never given it much thought but Polly said ‘blah, blah, blah’ in her column the other day and I pretty much agree with her" kind of thing.

All of which, until fairly recently, should made life as an ‘opinion former’ altogether a pretty cushy number because, for the most part, it was actually pretty difficult to measure something like the ‘influence’ of a particular newspaper columnist in readily quantifiable terms. Okay, so stuff like the market segment a columnist appeals to and, broadly-speaking, their readership could be guessed at in a fairly substantive manner – things like the market profile of the readership of, say, the Guardian and ABC sales figures are pretty much known quantities. However getting usable data on how well a particular columnist goes over with their newspaper’s readership and, more to the point,. whether their have any particular impact on those of their readers is an altogether more difficult thing to assess, at least not without laying out a bit of cash for a reader’s survey.

By and large, any conclusions you might easily arrive at about the ‘value’ of a particular columnist would end up being based on what amounts to second-hand information. You might glean a few tidbits of information from the newspaper’s letter pages a day or two after a column had appears – remembering, of course, that what you see will already have been edited by the newspaper, but otherwise pretty much all you’d have to go on is a limited range of opinions, usually from people in the same industry as the ‘opinion former’ whose value you’re looking to assess…

…which is altogether a fairly cosy little set-up when one factors in what I suppose could be considered ‘professional decorum’ amongst columnists, which, with a few exceptions, tends to dictate an atmosphere in which playing the man and not the ball is very much frowned upon.

And then up pops blogging and, next thing you know teh interweb is fair groaning with opinions, many of about your self-styled opinion-forming newspaper columnists and there’s no one there to apply the blue pencil to those opinions, nor is there a widespread and cosy little sense of professional courtesy to protect them from the harsh reality of what people really think of them and their view of the world.

Suddenly its become much easier to assess the ‘market value’ of ‘opinion formers’ because you can see first-hand just exactly what people really think of them and their opinions – just pop over to somewhere like Technorati, throw a name in to the search and eh voila, there you have it, reams of information and opinion, all generated by real people and a fair bit of it rather less than gentle in its regard for reputation and professional standing.

Little wonder, then, that you get comments popping up from time to time, like this from dear old Polly Pot

As for those who hate particular writers, why on earth do you bother to read us? Isn’t life too short and blood pressure too high? God knows how many columnists there are out there: stick to the ones you enjoy. I could spend my life sending furious counter-arguments to Melanie Phillips or Richard Littlejohn – but why bother? It’s May, there’s another week to go of the Brighton festival. Get out a bit.

After all, nothing fucks with your reputation as an opinion former so much as the discovery that a shed load of people loathe your opinions – unless you dealing with someone plays it cute and figures out that they can learns as much from the way piss people off as they can from when people agree with you.

Okay, so its by no means a perfect fit scenario just yet, although there are certainly companies beginning to spring up around and about teh interweb who’ve started to figure out that there may be money to be made out of cutting out the middleman and going straight for the blogs to see what people are really saying – there’s at least one bunch of cheeky bastards from the US who tried spidering my old blog at Talk Poltics on a couple of occasions so they could trade my opinions to their clients (but then that’s where IP address blocking comes in handy) – and matching up opinions to market segments and demographics can be a bit of a Herculean task when you come up bloggers who prize their anonymity very highly…

…but you’ still have to wonder, given the general undercurrent of niggling tensions that’s existed between some members of the professional commenterati and bloggers in recent time whether some of the pros are coming to realise that the ready access to real-wolrd opinions that bloggers have to offer is really starting to piss on their opinion-forming chips.

*At this point proceedings, Unity has decided to shut up and not follow this particular of argument any further, having just had an idea that requires a serious amount of thinking about before he says anything else…

Anyway, when it comes to the news that La Toynbee is (allegedly) the daddy amongst UK-based opinion formers, I find myself firmly in the ‘go on – you’re pulling my pud aren’t you" camp, especially when one takes a bit of a look at a sample copy of ‘Insight’, Editorial Intelligence’s house ‘journal (pdf), and find them putting out seriously cringeworthy, grovelling crap like this:

Together, we also commissioned two sets of photographs taken by Paul Hackett of Reuters. The first features political commentators who were asked to nominate a politician they find particularly admirable or challenging (we didn’t ask them to confirm which) (see pages 4-7).

The result is a unique photographic study that reveals a great deal about the complex intimacy between the politicians making the headlines and the journalists analysing their every move. And then a set of lovely portraits of Peers of the Realm who, during their photoshoots, were asked to declare who they find indispensable reading among the Commentariat (see pages 10 and 11).

And then a set of lovely portraits of Peers of Realm… oh, whoopie-fucking-doo, that’s just what I’ve always wanted – although I must say I am quite taken by the photo of Lord Victor Adebowale, who’s apparently a cross-bencher and CEO of the Turning Point charity, but only because I quite like the idea that we now have a natty dread in  the House of Lords.

What a grovelling pile of mendicant old toss – not so much "Who’s Who" but "Who’s Sucking Up To Who" – I did think about writing to Editorial Intelligence to pass comment on their sample journal but I’m really not sure whether how Postman Pat is when it comes to getting a bucket of puke through their letterbox…

And if you think that’s good, what until you see what they – via Steve Moore, the founding director of Policy Unplugged – have to say about blogging…

Blogs have taken off just about everywhere except for Britain.

You what? You just haven’t been looking have you, Steve?

Maybe it’s because we have such a big choice of commentary in the media, or because people trust the BBC.

Or maybe you just haven’t been fucking looking hard enough, Steve…

Blogs are massively popular in the US and Iran.

Huh? Any particular reason for choosing Iran as an example, or did you just come across a mention of an Iranian blogger over at Harry’s Place?

Blogs are fascinating because of the interaction between people and the way that ideas connect strangers. It’s a huge unedited conversation and that’s what I find interesting. Commentators in the press are more and more restrained by their paper’s need to be competitive or to keep to a certain stance about something and so the idea of people being able to speak freely becomes more and more appealing. It’s interesting too that some commentators who write for well known newspapers have also set up their own blogs. They say things that they would never be able to say in print.

And in the next issue of ‘Insight’ – and I think EI are being just as ironic with the title of their journal as they are with the name of their business… good old British humour, eh – Steve will be giving us a Janet and John guide to porn to teh interweb which he’ll be describing as ‘a huge unedited masturbation’.

Steve also helpfully provides a list of the ‘top ten’ political blogs which goes this…

hurryupharry.bloghouse.net
adamsmith.org/blog
sluggerotoole.com
rightforscotland.blogspot.com
epolitix.com/EN/Blog
mostsincerelyfolks.blogspot.com
demosgreenhouse.co.uk
time.blogs.com/daily_dish
samizdata.net/blog
blogs.bbc.co.uk/nickrobinson

…so that’s three think-tanks and two pro journalists in his top ten, plus the Samizdata crowd, who I think most people would consider as being kind of semi-pro… and no mention for Guido, as well… Oh dear, someone’s on Guido’s shitlist if he spots this…

…not that I mind that in the slightest as, for what I can make out from the Policy Unplugged website, Steve’s main claim to fame would appear to be that he holds a tenth Dan black belt in corporate bullshit – just check this out from his company’s website.

Policy Unplugged exists to cultivate new ways of generating social and policy innovations.  

We explore topics of contemporary resonance in a unique way; through facilitated conversation.

Facilitated conversation? I think he’s talking about focus groups…

Our events are dynamic, interactive but resolutely conversation. There is no formal agenda or platform speeches (unless participants want them!), instead the content and format is agreed by the participants themselves in the weeks leading up to the meeting. 

It is all about the right people having the right conversation at the right time. When this happens, people cooperate, ideas blossom, and innovations emerge.

Yep, that’s focus groups alright and I do like that line about – the content and format is agreed by the participants themselves in the weeks leading up to the meeting – which looks a lot like ‘adn the best bit of this is that we get you do all the work".

Better still there’s their philosophy…

Policy Unplugged emerged in the course of hundreds of conversations that took place in 2004/5.

We felt that there was a compelling need to find fresh ways of discussing and formulating responses to the most important challenges of our times. Ways that were in kilter with the epoch we are living in.

Our starting point is that in facing up to challenges we should reflect on how life organises itself. Life is not driving us towards one solution.

In our view most issues facing contemporary society are so manifestly complex it is just impossible to know what the right thing to do is.

The best strategy, we argue, is to try a range of different approaches and learn from and imitate what works and abandon what doesn’t.

This is what markets do so well.

What the fuck is all this about – The best strategy, we argue, is to try a range of different approaches and learn from and imitate what works and abandon what doesn’t. – Is it just me or does that sentence look suspiciously like it says, ‘we haven’t got a fucking clue what we’re doing here but we hopw we’ll hit on something eventually’ a perception nicely reinforced by this comment on their own blog…

This week I decided that at, least for now, that social conference is the best way to describe what we do. It seems to me to be preferable to the unconference term which is being much discussed on blogs. I feel more confident than ever that a blend of new events formats and web based social tools like the one you are now reading have the potential to reanimate moribund policy making approaches.

Yeah sure, whatever you say, Steve… bit of marketing tip here before I sign off…

…try writing in English sometime, you might find it makes communicating a bit easier…

4 thoughts on “Are we pissing on the Commenterati’s chips?

  1. One quick thought – doesn’t Toynbee realise that some newspapers will have columnists (whether op-ed or ‘lifestyle’) who are there precisely because of the mail/debate/rows they generate? Julie Burchill is one past example from the Guardian, Simon Jenkins is a current one. (I suppose Julie Bindel at Comment is Free is a third) Oh, and given her turf war over the soul of our country with the Daily Mail, it’s a bit odd (or rich) for Toynbee to complain about dissenting readers in a left/liberal newspaper.

  2. rightforscotland.blogspot.com is one of the top ten political blogs? How? I mean, I like the guy and I read his every day but he gets, for instance, neither the readers nor the links that I do. OK, my market’s somewhat different, but… what?!

    Yon gentleman Steve has just done a search for a blog with Scotland in the title so that he can look like he ain’t London-centric, eh. Got to please the Celtic clients…

    DK

  3. If there ever is a glorious white English backlash, Ms Toynbee really is top of my list for hanging, drawing and quartering, followed by putting her head on a spike on the Tower of London.

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