What does the future hold for British political blogging?

Predictions that the next general election will be the one in which the internet will make a huge impact have regularly come and gone. Post-Obama ready yourself for another such clutch of predictions, but underneath this punditry froth the internet has got on with quietly shifting the way politics works. It’s been more at the unglamorous organisational end (imagine trying to organise a campaign without email) than at the eye-catching systems-shattering dramatic end beloved of pundits, but it’s been a major change nonetheless.

Following in the footsteps of email, blogging has also established a firm place in the logistics of politics, even if its impact on the overall style and conduct of politics is less clear and less dramatic. Blogs have become a key news medium for people involved in or significantly interested in politics, they have become a key part of the flow of news to and from journalists and for some MPs and candidates they reach local audiences large enough to be a significant factor in their election efforts.

For those running blogs, the run up and immediate aftermath of polling day is likely to provide the opportunity to establish themselves with new, larger audiences – and for one or more newcomers to blaze onto the scene. How, then, is the blogging landscape likely to look in the future?

At present, the political blogging landscape seems relatively clear. There are a small number of high traffic sites (Political Betting, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes in particular), a range of sites for individual parties which are the centre of news and gossip online for those parties (particularly ConservativeHome, Lib Dem Voice and – in its much improved post-Derek Draper form – LabourList), expert sites for particular niches (most notably UK Polling Report but also
geographic or issue based ones such as London Reconnections), some high profile journalists (e.g. Nick Robinson and Paul Waugh) and a smattering of individual blogging politicians. Beyond that are a large number of low traffic personal blogs, from which issues and personalities sometimes bubble up. There has also been the mini-wave of Labour veterans returning to party political fray as bloggers, with Alastair Campbell, John Prescott and Matthew Taylor all taking to the medium.

Although blogging in its early days was primarily about individuals expressing themselves and having the sorts of chances to reach wider audiences that were normally only available to a select few, in practice the political blogging scene has ended up dominated at the high traffic end either by blogs from traditional sources of power (MPs, journalists) or from groups of people. Even Political Betting, although still very much Mike Smithson’s creation, has a regular team of contributors. Even at the local level, it is rare for a blog to reach the sorts of audiences that good MP or candidate blogs does, though the patchy coverage of the latter leaves many more gaps to be exploited.

The move into blogging by existing sources of power, the establishment of high profile team sites and the establishment of ‘brand names’ like ConservativeHome means that we may see blogging actually become a rather less flexible field, with it being harder for new people to break in. Moreover, whilst journalists do sometimes pick up stories from bloggers, that is as nothing compared to the scale on which bloggers pick up stories from journalists. It is the rare political blog that regularly produces original stories.

A possible picture of the future comes from the current top 10 politics websites in the US. Taking the Hitwise data (and their definition of politics website) for June 2009 we have:

Although there is a very strong showing for blogs in that list, it also illustrates how a medium originally about individuals getting a new level playing field has congealed to be dominated by large enterprises. Daily Kos, for example, did originate with one person’s enthusiasm, but it is now a large team and in effect a small (or rather not so small) business. The Huffington Post has a budget many political parties would happily die for. And so on.

So my money is on possibly one or two new names grabbing significant new attention, but the upshot essentially being that those at the top more firmly establish themselves. There’ll be an A list of political bloggers more deeply entrenched. It will be a different elite from pre-blogging days, featuring people who wouldn’t previously have got a chance to be in the elite, and a more open elite, but an elite nonetheless.

Where new individuals in general will have more scope to shine, I expect, will be in providing on the ground commentary on particular campaigns or specialist commentary on how particular issues are played out through the election. Nich Starling (the Norfolk Blogger) has shown the possibilities during the Norwich North by-election. Although clearly partisan – being a former organiser for Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb and even talked about in the early stages of the campaign as a possible by-election candidate – his blog provided a detailed account of the progress of all the candidates’ campaigns that was of interest to Lib Dems and non-Lib Dems alike. In his case, by providing a detailed account of events, including posting up copies of all literature received and keeping a running tally, he provided information and content of interest to a wide range of readers.

Nich Starling’s success came from reporting – and making – the news, rather than simply being yet another blog that gives political comment on stories that are already been widely talked about by other blogs and the traditional media anyway.

The opportunity for such grassroots reporting of constituency campaigns, in a form that makes it easy for national journalists to spot stories, is also likely to result in far more of the ‘gotcha’ moments where a campaign or candidate is embarrassed by a false step that in the past would have not got any notice outside the constituency.

So whilst the overall blogging landscape may stay much the same, for many individuals it will be a rollercoaster ride.

Reproduced from the Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2009.

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5 Comments

  • The only obvious point I can think of is that Guido Fawkes will fall by the wayside after a while if Cameron wins a secure majority. ConHome will survive because its audience is right-wing Tories and Iain Dale is good enough to survive as a government-side blogger. In turn, you will see Labour blogs get better. New media seem to favour the official opposition in most places. I also have other, more complex opinions, but I think they are more likely to be wrong.

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