Manolo Quezon: Blogging is the salvation of print media


Manuel L. Quezon III is among the country’s top political bloggers. He describes himself as a “prototypical pajama blogger” working and blogging from home. During the House of Representatives’ vote on the committee reports dismissing the impeachment complaints against Arroyo, Manolo covered the proceedings from late afternoon until 4:00 a.m. when he collapsed in exhaustion. Below are transcripts of my email interview with Manolo for the “See it, hear it, blog it” article for Sun.Star Cebu during the Cebu Press Freedom Week.

Max: Professor Jay Rosen of the New York University said early this year that the question of bloggers vs. journalists is over. He says the “question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers “are” journalists. They apparently are, sometimes.” Do you agree with his statement? Do you see yourself as journalists in the mold of reporters producing original news content or more of opinion writers who comment on news items?

Manolo: In my particular case, I have always been an opinion writer (either as a columnist or editorial writer), or have delved into history. Whether history (examples would be my pieces on Edsa One or say, the American period) or reportage (reportage, to me, is a kind of literary form of the essay, I’ve been influenced in this view by Ryzsard Kapuzsinsky, by Tom Wolfe, Nick Joaquin, etc.), or opinion-writing, which includes both analysis and commentary (analysis is putting together events and circumstances to come up with an educated guess of future trends, or a prognosis on ongoing events; commentary is a synthesis of personal views and that of other people on a specific person or event).

Therefore, to me, blogging is merely a new, more direct, and more spontaneous venue for publishing the things I tend to publish anyway. The difference is that there is no editorial control in blogging except one’s own definitions of what is suitable content. To Rosen’s observations, I’d say, a journalist is a journalist is a journalist – so a journalist who blogs is merely embarking on a new medium; for those who weren’t trained in journalism, can a blogger be a journalist? Certainly – if the bogger consciously embarks on journalism, as the blogger defines it (if the blogger;s definition of journalism matches or merges with conventional definitions, so much the better).

Max: Editor Scott Rosenberg of Salon says: “journalists need to move away from the notion that journalism is a mysterious craft practiced by only a select priesthooda black art inaccessible to the masses. We forget the derivation of the word journalist: someone who keeps an account of day-to-day events.” Do you agree with him? Do you think blogging has shattered that perception of a select priesthood that defines what is newsworthy?

Manolo: Scott Rosenberg describes the aspirations of many bloggers; but what I’ve noticed is that blogging has actually elevated once more, written journalism above all other kinds, at a time when TV journalism was set to conquer all.

What has happened is that professional journalists no longer have a monopoly on delivering the news and interpreting it; bloggers have amplified and widened the field for debate and interpretation. In some cases, they have overturned and subverted traditional media; but they remain firmly dependent upon traditional media for the basis of their discussions, either pro or against. What they have done is actually contributed to a dialogue between professionals and amateurs, and all media practitioners and their audiences.

This is a democratizing experience unmatched perhaps since the invention of the modern newspaper and the modern TV and radio network.

Max: In a blogging conference early this year at Harvard University, participants agreed that “The acts of “blogging” and “journalism” are different, although they do intersect. While some blogging is journalism, much of it isn’t and doesn’t aim to be. Both serve different and valuable functions within the new evolving media ecosystem.” Do you agree with this? Do you see this happening in the Philippines or will blogging still be in the fringes of that media ecosystem because of the low Internet penetration in the country?

Manolo: I agree that blogging may be journalism but not all blogging is journalism. In the Philippines, print media retains its authority as the definer, or arbiter, of what is news-worthy and deserving of comment. Radio and TV take off from the print media and widen the discussion. In truth, with circulations of 100,000 or so for the best-circulated newspapers, print media is miniscule in comparison to radio and TV. Even with a pass-on rate, a 100,000 circulation paper means half a million readers while radio and TV shows count their audiences in the millions.

And yet radio and TV lack what print has, which is the ability to endure and serve as a record, as well as a venue for interpretation and reflection. Blogs can at the very least already equal print media in terms of statistics (PCIJ’s unique hits have been impressive) and their ability to influence both media people, the professional political class, and then the public, may be indirect but will be felt. For example, my own blog is apparently read by media people, by the chiefs of staff and staffers of government officials, by diplomats, and then by students, teachers, and so on -this means an effect that is hard to quantify but which is there.

Max: Tom Curley of the Associated Press says there is a huge shift of balance of power in our world, “from the content providers to the content consumers.” He says “professional journalism is no longer sovereign over territory it once easily controlled” and that its influence in the public discourse is no longer singular. He says: “When 90 percent of the op-ed style writing was done on actual op-ed pages, editorial page editors had sovereignty over that region of public dialogue. With blogging and the online space generally, that rule is gone. Opinion in reaction to the news can come from anywhere, and the bloggers are frequently better at it than the sleepy op-ed page ever was.” Do you agree with him?

Manolo: Tom Curley is correct, in that institution distrust is so profound, that the more hard-hitting personal and personalistic style of the blog appeals to readers, rather than the careful, safe, and homogenized style of many editorials in many papers. Again, the biggesty impact of blogs, I think, has been to make an immediate link between a writer and his audience.

Max: While mainstream media can find good use for blogs to re-engage themselves in the community conversation, they should use it in a way to draw in more outside voices. Bob Cauthorn says mainstream media misunderstand blogs because they “simply further expose the staff members who are already well exposed to the public.” He says these efforts “scarcely register in the big picture because media company blogs adhere to the old top-down, we-talk-you-listen-punk publishing model.” Do you agree with this?

Manolo: In terms of newspapers, I actually see no room for blogging. The role of a newspaper is to have an online version of itself, since the traditional paper newspaper will be gone within our lifetime. But as for editors, writers, columnists, etc. Blogging should be left to them, and outside the institutional domain of the newspaper if they represent or work for one.

This shields both the paper and the writer. However, if an institution that is not a newspaper, wants to undertake a blog, there I think the time and opportunity are perfect, as demonstrated by the PCIJ blog. They aren’t a newspaper; they’re an investigative outfit with clearly defined goals and a desire to uphold the public’s interest. Newspapers as commercial entitites have legal considerations that to my mind, deter proper blogging.

Max: Mark Glaser, in a 2003 Article in Nieman Reports, says that “because of Weblogs, journalists are being brought down from their ivory towers.” He says that blogs provide an even bigger voice for non-journalist readers. He did say, however, that “the attention of bloggers can’t help but make journalists do a better job in their reporting.” Do you agree with him. Has this happened in the country? If not, do you see this happening soon? Did the “community conversation” in Philippine blogs on the Gloriagate scandal affect mainstream media’s coverage of the issue?

Manolo: Blogs in the Philippine setting flourished under Gloriagate because of two things: timeliness, and a certain amount of legal impregnability. Blogs can both report and analyze, comment and expose, faster than even online mainstream media (because of not going through an extended editorial process); they can deliver news faster than TV and infinitely faster than the papers. The only thing as fast as a blog is the radio, and the radio sometimes beats the blogs. Also, analysis and synthesis aren’t contrained by the expenses of paper and ink, or air time.

The American experience with blogging is different from ours. In the Philippines, what exists is a gigantic gulf in terms of exposure between the old generation of journalists and writers, and two generations below them. Written media, in particular, suffers from an oversupply of geriatrics on top, and no successor generation even to occupy the bottom. Fifty years or so separates me, at 35, from Max Soliven or Armando Doronila. I am one of the very few opinion writers of my age with any exposure. Everyone else seems to be around 50 at their youngest, so certainly, if and when they all pass from the scene, very few will take their place. Blogging will hopefully help fill this pressing need.

Max: Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University, sees the difference between traditional media and Weblog communities this way: “The order of things in broadcast is ‘filter, then publish.’ The order in communities is ‘publish, then filter.’ The filtering is done through a Darwinian system of good blogs flourishing because readers keep returning to it. Do you agree with this statement?

Manolo: Clay Shirkey is absolutely correct; the reader is the final judge, and the success or failure of a blog is a referendum on the integrity and ability of a blogger.

Max: Where do you think Philippine blogs are heading? Do you see it becoming a major part of the reading diet of Filipinos or do you think that the low Internet penetration rate will hinder it from becoming that? Do you see Pinoy blogs becoming as influential to society as their counterparts in the US are?

Manolo: I am skeptical about just how low the internet penetration rate is, particularly in comparison to what? TV? Radio? Maybe. But as for print, and blogging is primarily the latest form of print media, it is the salvation of print media. It’s reach and impact can only increase.

Max: Your blog post on the House vote on the committee report started at 4:00 in the afternoon and the last entry was at past 4:00 in the morning, when the post was abruptly cut off after you passed out. How long were you up? Where were you blogging from? People were commenting on your posts while you were updating it – did it affect the tone of your posts? How many cups of coffee did you drink? How were you able to sustain the effort?

Manolo: I am in many ways the prototypical pajama blogger, blogging from home, with the TV turned on, the AM radio discreetly playing on my desktop, cellphone with reach for SMS alerts, and obsessively checking email every 15 minutes. I generally blog and work from home; during particularly active blogging times, I eat in front of the computer. On that particular day, I had other work to do, and my morning was spent, if I recall correctly, cramming work knowing the afternoon would have to be free. I general blog events I consider historic both for readers who appreciate it (they can’t listen to the radio or watch TV at work, or they are overseas), as history-in-the-making and eventually, for whatever purposes it might serve for my writing. I was up, then from about 6 a.m. Of Sep. 5 to 4 a.m. Of Sep. 6.

When doing coverage, I generally pass up replying to comments unless there’s a lull. The worst thing one can do is pander to commentators in terms of content; you can clarify or counter, explain or comment on a comment, but unless a very good reason is given, I don’t change ongoing coverage based on comments. In fact in times of exhausting coverage, I tend to deliberately set aside comments for reading and reflection during a less tense time.

Max: Tech columnist Dan Gilmor once said that that the feedback loop in blogging helps improves his columns, he even said that the readers, as a collective, know more than he does. Do you share this sentiment?

Manolo: Dan Gilmor is right. Every columnist assumes a target audience, and I’d suggest, a sort of idealized individual for whom they write their columns.

To see people respond is to see how close or far one is from that idealized or imagined audience. I also think columnists and opinion writers get a malicious satisfaction from annoying or angering the sectors and people they have set about to combat, anyway, and one can see whether that group gets riled up or not. Then in fragile ego moments, the care and concern, the genuine empathy shown by commenters, becomes important to the columnist.

Feedback loop though, is a good term. An interaction, in real time, with one’s audience has been virtually impossible before; it exists now; it helps create a community of like-minded people or even people who disagree, but are drawn together by the writer.

Max: Do you earn from blogging? Do your ad earnings help pay for the costs of maintaining the site?

Manolo: Blogging is very expensive not only in terms of equipment (connection to the internet, wear and tear on the computer) but time. It must be viewed as an investment in one’s self -career, exposure, credibility, influence and reach- but there will be times when blogging must take the back seat. I have earned a tiny amount from advertising ($100 in one year from google ads!) and have received no donations on Paypal or a single gift book from my Amazon wishlist. However, there is an ongoing project among bloggers to create a new kind of blog income, but I can’t reveal it yet (I signed one of those non-disclosure agreements).

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