At the beginning of September, a website known as The Obscure Store and Reading Room closed up shop. Run by Jim Romenesko, the store collected bizarre news stories from pretty much around the world.
If firefighters were called to help a man who had tried to cast his genitals in fast-acting cement and gotten trapped, it would almost certainly pop up on the Obscure Store. Day by day, those sorts of stories would march onto the page, living proof that truth is stranger than fiction.
“Leprechaun robs laundry of $322 on St. Patrick’s Day eve” — yep.
“Man is tired of woman sneaking into his yard to take care of his dog” — it was there.
“Man, 80, drives to funeral home and dies in parking lot” — trademark Obscure Store material,
along with Romenesko’s personal favourite, the endless legion of stories about drivers who stepped on the gas instead of the brake, and piled into everything from churches to banking machines to store mascots.
It was a high-traffic site, one that garnered thousands of hits and hundreds of comments — but 13 years in, “it's time for me to hit the refresh button and try something new. … So, that’s that — the end of a long and memorable run. Thanks, readers, for being with me for the ride!”
And that was that.
It’s just one site going dark, but it raises an interesting question about what was once the claim that putting the means of publication into everyone’s hands would lead to a huge network of valued voices speaking out on a huge variety of issues.
It hasn’t worked that way.
First of all, the voices often fall into niches: you can only go to a site that says “the mainstream media is always wrong and lazy and I’m always right” so many times before you decide that you have better things to do with your time. It is wonderful to have thousands of singular voices — but singular voices can become tiresome. Columnists know this too — in the personal echo chamber of “in here all by myself.” Your own words can sound brilliant to your own ears, but it helps to be edited by skilled editors and to hear reasoned comments from readers about whether or not you’re flogging a dead horse.
But when it comes to blogs, there must be something close to an atomic half-life.
Because many are simply giving up the ghost.
If you go onto the Blogger site, an online system that allows users to quickly and easily build their own blogs, you can sample your way through random blogs — and one of the first things you notice is that fully a third, and maybe as many as a half, have “last messages” as their latest entry, often months or years old, announcing that the bloggers are giving it up, taking a break or moving to other options.
Now, clearly, some of those blogs have fallen victim to vastly more successful social media sites: why bother to post the latest pictures of your kids or your cats to your blog, when you can instantly telegraph them to all your Facebook “friends” instead?
But as sources for news and commentary, blogs are showing a critical weakness.
Here’s a sample of five active blogs from a daily media site, listing the last times they were updated: Nov. 15, 2011, Oct. 27, 2011, June 29, 2011, Feb. 18, 2011 and Nov. 28, 2010.
That’s a heck of a lot of inactivity from what was supposed to be a brave new wave of thought and commentary.
Don’t get me wrong: there are hugely successful blogs — some in this province — with long track records.
Venture capital funds have a measure for the projects they fund: seven or so out of every 10 will fail, two should break even, and one — hopefully — will be wildly successful. For blogs, that ratio would be wildly hopeful. Hundreds upon hundreds fail and very, very few succeed. Bloggers have their full-time jobs, their families, their lives, and blogging into the deep dark Internet echo chamber can be a thankless thing.
But think about this: I write editorials and columns. When I stop, the newspaper will track down someone to fill my spot, knowing what they are looking for and what skills they’d like to see someone bring to the job.
Blogs don’t have that luxury.
What they don’t have is anything like succession planning.
Like Twitter feeds, they are one-man or one-woman bands.
There might be thousands of bright blogging lights out there, but when someone like Jim Romenesko hangs it up, an Internet candle set in its niche simply goes out.
And it’s hard to imagine any way to change that.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached
by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.