The end of an era thing is happening all over, with the news that Tim Dunlop is closing, or putting into hiatus, Road To Surfdom, one of the original ideas and opinion blogs that emerged in the second wave of blogging — after the fascination with putting “Jan 12: walked the dog, ate cheese” on the intertubes first began to wane.

Like Catallaxy, Club Troppo and Larvatus Prodeo, Surfdom — it became so much a part of the furniture that I now mis-spell the title of Hayek’s book — evolved a new hybrid style, which one might call “magablogging” — pieces which had the shape of articles, but were slightly looser in form, links to other bits and pieces, occasional video and graphic embeds etc.

Troppo has emerged as the best of these, despite a few recent gatekeeping issues, while Catallaxy has suffered from the departure of most of its thoughtful contributors and become something of a faltering spite slum. Surfdom could have progressed to the next level, but Dunlop made the decision to take up a News Limited blog, and posted barely and then not at all on his original site.

I criticised the decision at the time, and got some pretty heavy flak for it, but I think the criticism stands in light of Dunlop’s rather disheartened remarks on the state of the Australian media in his final post. News buried Dunlop’s blog as soon as they got it, and Surfdom was somewhere that I and, I think, a lot of others, stopped visiting, as new contributors were less interesting.

There’s nothing wrong with working for the mainstream media, nor is it hypocritical to work for it and criticise its biases and agendas — but Dunlop had been one of the most forceful advocates of the idea that blogging could turn into something more. It could, but it meant not folding the all-consuming process of running a blog into a larger title at the first opportunity.

In that respect it’s worth considering Dunlop’s parting note:

…the need, especially in Australia, for wise independent voices to discuss and dissect the great issues of the day is as great as it has ever been and so that’s what I want to go out with: a plea for people to support — genuinely support — independent media in this country. The fact is, Australia’s mainstream media is moribund.

Well there is and collective blogs could be a big part of that, but it’s worth asking why so few of them are being taken to the next level. They have after all, what some of the great newspapers had — social capital, which could be turned over into a fully commercial operation.

The (Manchester) Guardian emerged as a voice of the liberal movement in 19th century England, Liberation was the postwar version of the French Resistance Combat newspaper and so on. Even Pravda is still going strong, a century after it began as an illegal one sheet publication in St Petersburg basements.

Yet building the collective will and social capital that grounds such publications prior to their take-off is not nothing. It takes exhaustive commitment, and the attenuated and somewhat atomised form of association characteristic of much collective blogging is thin soil for getting there.

Which is a shame, because the whole media sphere is changing faster than could have been imagined ten years — manifested above all, in the wasting death of the newspaper.

Let’s face it — it kind of feels weird to buy a newspaper now. The reflex habit of a lifetime — grab the paper, grab a coffee, jump on a train etc — feels very archaic, as retro as swing dancing.

Here in the US, most regional papers are dead but still twitching — subjected years ago to what happened to Fairfax months ago, the reduction to a thin wraparound of buy-in and wire services. Now regional owners are talking about a moving to a three-or-four day model — i.e. Thursday to Sunday publication — which they present as emergency surgery, but which is not much more than palliative care.

The crisis is part of the wider crisis of cultural production and intellectual property — if the cost of material circulation approaches zero per unit, how can critical mass be achieved that makes investment possible? The sort of investment for example that allows a newspaper/site to run expensive investigative journalism, or allow a columnist to spend a week on a single piece?

If titles like Murdoch’s tabloids can still turn a profit in Oz and the UK, it’s because those place have not yet been fully drawn into an image culture. In the US, literacy levels have collapsed so precipitously that the tabloid markets — outside huge areas such as New York — have disappeared. Readers read online, and old tabloid buyers don’t read.

But that merely suggests that tabloids here and in the UK may be heading off for a pretty sudden drop off a cliff. What may kill them is the whole iPhone/Google phone, post-phone device — for the simple reason that it means people working without a desk (one of the original reasons for the tabloid’s size) can access online content instantly.

Today, a lot of news and opinion circulating is done at a perpetual loss offset by sales elsewhere (News Ltd) or an investment trust (The Guardian) or deep pockets (The Huffington Post etc etc). I have no idea what if any free sites make a profit off advertising — other than a modest small business “Joe the Blogger” sort of income for a couple of people in their bedrooms — but the problem surely is that of near-zero distribution costs, and the fact that any market, left-handed Hayekian cross-dressers e.g. — can be divided and subdivided again.

All of which suggests that time becomes a crucial element in value — i.e. the earlier you get something up and running, the more you have the cyberspace equivalent of prime location in, well, space. Which would suggest to collective bloggers eager to establish an independent media sphere that now might be the time to build the collective social capital necessary to a take — off in what will become web 3.0, the post-print version.

And suggests Tim made a mistake in taking Rupert’s shilling.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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