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Screen shot of Gawker.com
Screen shot of Gawker.com

Simon Houpt: Media

Lament for a national blogosphere Add to ...

Have you heard the latest gossip from the mole at the Sun News Network?

Okay, there is no Sun News Mole. But a guy can dream, right? Last month, the media and political sub-classes of the East Coast spent a few delicious days distracted by the news that the gossip blog Gawker had put an anonymous Fox News staffer on its payroll who would leak the channel's inner secrets. There were, alas, evidently no secrets worth telling – unless you consider it scandalous that the enormously profitable broadcaster's staff bathrooms are in need of renovation. In short order, the mole was identified by his employers, dismissed, sued – and, in the way of such things, contracted by a publishing company to write a memoir.

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If the spying stunt blew up in Gawker's face, its P.T. Barnum spirit underlined the impressive inventiveness of the American blogosphere, which has reinvented itself over the past decade from a cottage industry practised by passionate hobbyists into a powerful political and social force that attracts tens of millions of readers and hundreds of millions of advertising dollars. It is a gravitational force that has tilted the field so much in its favour that straight-faced legacy outlets have been forced to ape.

And up here?

By comparison, our blogosphere is tame and ignorable. For it is the very rare Canadian politics or news blog that manages to grab a critical mass of eyeballs and break out of its tiny community of like-minded people; and almost none that sets the agenda.

(I'm referring, of course, to independent blogs that aren't affiliated with large legacy news organizations. The CBC's Kady O'Malley may help set the pace of coverage on Parliament Hill, but it's hard to imagine she'd be as influential without the Corp's backing.)

What's wrong with us? Why have we been content to keep blogging as a primarily amateur undertaking?

Part of the reason stems from the same forces that keep Canada's political dialogue at a duller pitch than the U.S.: far fewer partisan funding bodies to feed the beast.

The primary suspect, though, is the same one we blame for our lack of success in many other industries: namely scale – or, rather, lack thereof. At least, that's what my blogging friends suggested. Canada simply doesn't have the critical mass required to enable even a few hundred to make their living exclusively by cranking out online ephemera.

But it isn't that simple. There's no good reason Canadians couldn't have created some of the most popular blogs, which rarely depend on original reporting that would require someone to have boots on the ground in a particular place. It's not difficult to imagine a sharp blog on North American politics that gets the bulk of its traffic from the U.S. while also mixing in a hefty dose of Canadian issues.

“Sassy, smart writing can happy from anywhere,” noted Rachel Sklar, a New York-based Canadian who helped create a number of successful U.S. blogs, including the Huffington Post's media section.

U.S. blogs have given homes to hungry young writers who have spawned brand-named blogs for themselves. So it was that Daily Kos, which began as a one-man operation in 2002 and quickly became a destination for American progressives who were hungry for voices that countered the war-drum mentality of that era, became a natural platform for the gifted statistician Nate Silver. In early 2008, Silver left to create his own FiveThirtyEight.com, where his uncanny interpretation of electoral polls made him an in-demand pundit on cable news shows; FiveThirtyEight.com is now a part of the New York Times's growing stable of blogs.

Meanwhile, there is dismayingly little movement up here, unless you count Scott Feschuk, who was a Liberal political operative before landing at Macleans.

Sklar wonders if the relative irrelevance of Canadian blogs reflects a media climate that's inhospitable to newcomers. “Is it an entrenched media culture that only rewards the voices that everyone has gotten used to, for years and years? That's my experience.”

Whatever the causes, we're all poorer for it. Even now, as so much of the online dialogue has shifted to Twitter and other social media platforms, standalone blogs remain a vital part of a vigorous media ecosystem in other countries. They magnify important stories (and, yes, trivial ones as well), helping to transform sometimes abstract issues into talking points.

These days, if a tree falls in a forest and it's not blogged about, then nobody hears.

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