Connecting The Dots: Writing, Art and Freedom…

Good writing is good writing … it sets you free, if you are an artist.
– Anonymous

by Glynn Wilson

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Nov. 11 – It is an almost surreal feeling to be standing in the cold fog within earshot of Bryant-Denny stadium during an Alabama football game and there’s not a person in sight. Not a soul yelling “Roll Tide.”

At this moment Alabama is hanging in there with LSU and only trailing by a touchdown in the first half. But there is not a sound around the campus in the dark.

Except for the voices coming from the TV.

Half of the inhabitants from here are on the road too, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Sipping on just enough Jamaican rum to keep the bones warm, I am watching the game and at the same time trying to think some more about what I might say to journalism students at the university about the state of writing for the Web.

While LSU punts, the first thing I want to tell them is why I call it “writing for the Web” and not “writing for the Net.”

It’s an easy slip to make. I’ve likely done it myself a few times.

But it is wrong, and being right matters.

So the first rule of any kind of writing – for a Weblog with 50 readers, an independent news Website like this one with 75,000 visitors a month or the Washington Post’s Website with 6 million – is to do the reporting so you know what you are talking about to get it right.

It is hard if you are by yourself and don’t have much of a budget. But as I said in a recent column, “you can’t fake it and make it.”

This is sometimes called accuracy in the textbooks and in the biz, although the temptation is great among the creative writing crowd, sometimes, to stretch it. It is true in journalism and in history.

If it is not somehow accurate, it should be referred to as fiction. Which is fine. And quite publishable on the Web.

There’s an old American writing saw that goes, “Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.”

Not anymore.

Not in the intense political and economic media climate that has heated up in the past few years with the rise of the Internet like the average global temperature is rising due to global warming.

Don’t believe me. Or the president.

But it is true.

Oh, wait. Bama just fumbled away a chance to tie the game at half time. Time out…

Oh, well. As I was saying, the Net is the almost endless series of computers connected all over the world by telephone lines and cables. There is no way to publish anything on the Net without the World Wide Web.

“Web browsers” are programmed to turn zeros and ones of computer code into words and pictures on your computer screen. That’s why I recently started calling it “the Web Press” – so people will know.

It deserves the same First Amendment rights as newspapers printed with ink on paper in our view.

The Net is different.

If you use an Internet e-mail program such as Microsoft Entourage, for example, rather than Web mail, you are simply passing along information on the Net. People cannot read it on the Web. So it is not “printed” or “published” in any sense of the term, unless it is being archived on the Web like posts to a listserv.

Think of the Net as a series of service roads and on-ramps to the Information Superhighway – another name for the Web. Web sites have addresses on that highway because even scientists and computer programmers are sometimes creative people too.

So are football players, given some of the trick plays attempted in the game.

So, you may ask, now fully understanding the Net and the Web: “What is a blog?”

Wait. The third quarter is grinding along with the Tide still trailing, but it’s time to sip on a Yuengling before tackling that question…

The best way to look at it is that a blog is simply newfangled software that makes it easy to publish on the Web.

I don’t much like the term blog, so I call it a journal. Hopefully that helps people understand it.

You know, a journal can be a diary, the name of a newspaper or a scholarly publication dedicated to research. Or it can be all three.

As educated writers hanging around journalism training programs, we know all about “new journalism.” But the tradition goes back further than that. In a journal such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or a book of essays like some of Ed Abbey’s work, including Desert Solitaire, the writer injects himself into the story line. Hunter Thompson did it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

This is different than what we think of as “objective journalism.” Although in a sense, I would argue that it can in some ways be more “scientifically objective” than “economically objective.”

I like to think of the Web as the printing press for the “new” new journalism.

Hey, it’s not unlike what happens over time in nature. It evolves. Language evolves. Writing evolves. The way we take and display photographs evolves. The game of football evolves.

So-called “bloggers” just happen to be on the current cutting edge of the writing and publishing evolution. The medium changes the message.

Some would rather sit on the sidelines and try to wait and see what the future looks like. Funny, they never seem to get there. But maybe they make money all along the way…

The special thing about the blog format is that it allows you build to an archive and a knowledge base that is linkable from other Web publishers in your community – or all over the world.

One problem. If those links only work for a couple of weeks or so, whatever publication you work for is not making an investment in the online library of the future.

Which brings us to the subject of the state of newspapers or even broadcast news outlets online.

Point one is that if they require you to pay for the “privilege” of using their Website as a news, information, entertainment and advertising source, or even require demographic information on you to login, they are limiting their potential audience and ultimately their revenue stream.

Traffic is the name of the game in making money online.

Making a few bucks off an online subscription will never make up for the lost revenue of dropping print circulation and advertising pages, so I argue they should abandon the subscription model and go open. Build the largest audience possible into the uncertain future.

But then I’m a charter member of the “free” free online club. Even Sen. John McCain is into it as one of the staunchest defenders of no taxes on the use of the Net – to get to the Web.

Whoa. It ain’t looking so great for the Crimson Tide on the bayou. And outside, it is getting even colder and I am yet to hear a “Roll Tide” or “yeehaw.”

It may hit a low of 36 tonight, and it is bone-aching wet. You feel it especially if you suffer from arthritis like I do sometimes in my knuckles and knees.

[ Note to self: Notice the new hyphenated term “bone-aching.” It’s more accurate than the cliche it replaces. Quiz question designed to provoke thought, not rote memory: Can you name the missing cliche? ].

Oh, to hell with the details.

Punt Bama punt.

It does not matter whether you are writing for a newspaper or a book or a television show – or a blog.

To build an audience, writing well is important. (Nice pictures help too).

Should you publish your own Website or a blog journal?

If you are an aspiring professional, think hard about it first. It is a great way to get your name out there and market yourself. I highly recommend it as a creative outlet and even a place to learn more about how to write; a place you can practice writing and build an audience too.

But don’t forget this. Be careful what you say. Once it’s out there in the ether, so to speak, it can help your reputation – or it can come back to bite you.

For myself, the decision to go independent involved an analysis of the state of the U.S. news business and American politics – an issue of freedom.

In producing your very on online newspaper and/or journal, you have in front of you an unlimited news hole (space to write) – and best of all, no corporate publishers or editors to limit your freedom.

That includes the freedom to screw up, but what the heck.

When it comes right down to it, I actually believe in freedom. And I happen to like a lot of it – maybe even more than a hardcore Tide fan likes a winning season.

The Tide lost tonight, but think about it. Freedom.

What is more important to you: Security or freedom?

Do you want to be a professional – or an artist?

Do you think it is possible today to be both?

And what does that have to do with the Democrats taking back control of Congress?

Ah, tricky question. Better left for another day. That would require an essay on objectivity.

I’m not in the mood, tonight. And it’s time to update the headlines for Sunday, time to light another smoke and crack another Yuengling.

Roll Tide anyway.