Blogged to death

Suddenly, Bloggers aren't just writing the news, they are the news. Are we expected to believe that the pressures of the job are enough to cause premature death and disease amongst professional bloggers? Is it now time to feel sorry for the high-profile personalities of the blogosphere? Once again, we send our own journalist, Richard Morris, out into the rain in his trenchcoat to find out.

Singer’s song

They are easy to spot at a party; shoulders hunched, pale skin, eyes darting narrowly, the smell of despair. The news custodians of the web, the blog-fathers, are a glum and somber crew. If they’re not fretting over their falling readership figures, it’s the stress of preventing a drop in ad revenue that’s making their hair fall out.

Peter Singer, a 43-year-old who used to work for a New York daily, says his life as an associate editor was one of occasional excitement, great periods of boredom and much heavy drinking. Blogging looked like an escape.

“It’s the best
and worst job
I’ve had”

‘When the internet arrived I thought it was like the non-stick pan or the self-lighting match, a sort of novelty of uncertain necessity or future but then bought into the whole idea. I saw the blog’s future, resigned from my job and set-up several sites. ‘It’s the best and worst job I’ve had. There is only one person with the skill, the guile and the understanding of his customers that can turn out the perfect blog each day. And that’s me.

‘But being a ‘blog-father’ is worse than I ever imagined; much worse. The sites I’ve owned have made millions of dollars but it has been at the expense of my health.

“At some point
I’m going to collapse
and die in harness”

‘The strain of keeping things successful can be a killer. Over the years, I’ve developed ulcers, had a mild stroke, continual headaches, put on nearly 40 pounds in weight, have asthma and now have RSI. At some point I’m going to collapse and die in harness.’

Singer employs only hardened professionals, those who are no longer seized by the compulsion to record their dull, sedentary lives. They do it only for money, and while a few bloggers are famous in their industries, most are not.

Shaw’s fate

Russell Shaw was different. He was a well known contributor on tech news to Zdnet and the Huffington Post. Shaw, like Singer, became an ardent advocate of the fast-moving blogosphere ever since bloggers started leaking juicy IT industry stories that wouldn’t be touched by the chummy conventional US-based IT media.

But in March, Shaw, died from a heart attack. The shock of his death came a few months after Marc Orchant, another US tech blogger, died following a massive coronary. A third, Adam Wishart, was a tech blogger in his early twenties. He survived a heart attack earlier this year. Josh Aly, the fourth high-profile professional blogger, is in hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown.

Death by blogging

Last weekend the US press published a heaped wheelbarrow of bad news, with increasing speculation that the deaths may be connected in some way. Ironically, the bloggers had suddenly been their own news.

Citing common-place stories of stress, sleep disturbance and exhaustion among members of the IT blogging community, they posed the question: did blogging kill these people?

Of course there’s no official diagnosis of ‘death by blogging’ (a new industrial hazard, it seems, like the less extreme housemaid’s knee, tailor’s bum or tennis elbow) and premature deaths of two people, a third who suffered a nervous breakdown and a fourth who survived a coronary does not exactly qualify as an outbreak of a digital plague; but colleagues of those who died have been thinking about the dangers of their lifestyle and the possibility that they too may be in danger.

Successful bloggers must work long hours, ‘at least 18 hours a day, truly compulsively’, according to Roderick Bailey, a Californian based blogging psycho-analyst (yes they exist).

‘Why keep up a punishing schedule? Paradoxically, in these days of instant communication and 24- hour news channels, it’s actually easier to miss information. That’s why professional blogging sites set out to commission contributors to cover, re-cover and cover stories again, with each person adding something to the last person’s coverage.

The pathology of excessive blogging

‘Almost every blogger works alone, but it’s their collective grunt work that makes them so effective. They share their work freely. Blogs are ongoing and hourly. Bloggers will often start with a small story, or a piece of one; possibly a contradictory quote, an unearthed document, or a detail that doesn’t add up.’

It has made the blogosphere the most vital news source in the US, says Bailey. He adds that he knew the last victim Marc Orchant well.

“…bloggers were
dropping dead
at an alarming rate”

‘I remember seeing a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle some time ago which said that bloggers were dropping dead at an alarming rate because they mostly work in their apartments or houses all day and never get out. I made a study of excessive blogging and what the Chronicle published rings true. The symptoms of over-blogging can include sleep disorders, mental and physical exhaustion and dramatic weight gain or loss. It can even cause death, because blogging is fast-paced but sedentary at the time. Blogging could be responsible for tens of deaths across the world. We just don’t have the figures yet.’

The Bright-eyed blog-heads

So if the lifestyle is so bad, what is the attraction of the job?

There must be at least a handful of bright-eyed hopefuls who think the whole business a bit glamorous. This is a perception of journalism based largely on Sex and the City, Evelyn Waugh novels and The Daily Planet in Superman. They think the job will be one big free canapé, full of press passes and attractive people shouting “Scoop!” into phones.

It might be the pay, which can vary wildly. While Peter Singer pays his staff of writers (or ‘blog-heads’ as he calls them) $10 for each post, or by the number of hits their pieces generate, skilled hands can fetch in over $10,000 a week for a prominent spot on a big-name site.

But all-in-all, its only a matter of hundreds of bloggers who can get monthly cheques of between $100-$1,000. There is a much larger group for whom ‘it’s not really meant to be a business’ (largely those who believe that ordinary life can be spiced up by multiple exclamation marks). These bloggers receive an occasional paternal pat on the head or kick up the backside and a demand for yet more writing.

The numbers of bloggers are increasing all the time and while there are observers and chroniclers of sports, politics, show-business, cooking and business, it is the bloggers of Technology who are the best paid and most competitive.

The Vicious circle of the BlogFathers.

Laura McKean a writer for numerous sites including Pro-Blogger says lots of good tech stories get covered by newspapers and magazines but too often, there’s no follow-up.

‘Reporters for the big media outlets are always moving on to the next hot story. In America, having thousands of magazines and newspapers publishing technology news means very little. There’s little examination and investigation of worthy news stories. It means we get the same inch-deep, narrow conventional-wisdom wrap-ups repeated thousands of time. A blog site is much more direct – where some of the best tech writers can weigh in on topics great and small, important or just plain entertaining.’

But Laura warns that technology writing is not for the faint-hearted or those with a weak disposition.

“… the job is sometimes
vicious and nasty”

‘Everyone knows that the print media is in decline. That’s why you tend to see and hear of experienced print journalists trying to take over established patches, and they can be rough. Make no mistake; blogging is an incredibly skilful job because it has to reflect the concerns and aspirations of millions of readers. How amazing it is that one man or woman can successfully control such a wide church. I love this job even though the job is sometimes vicious and nasty.’

Vicious, she says, because speed is of the essence – news-gathering for blogs is even more competitive than old-style journalism, it seems.

Matt Buchanan, aged 22, works for Gizmodo, a tech site owned by Gawker Media which was set up in the U.S. a few years ago by ex-Financial Times journalist Nick Denton. He seldom sleeps more than 5 hours a night, does not have time to eat proper meals, and regularly falls asleep at his PC.

‘I know that a few thousand people read what I write and I love that. It can be exhausting and sometimes I just want to lay down.’

Every single story on a Gawker Media site is a work in progress; it’s not meant to be final. It’s like a reporter’s notebook. The contributors, which can number 10 to 20 a day on a single story, are paid bonuses based on the quantity of people who access them.

As long as page hits stay high, advertising rates stay high, which is all that matters to the company.

Staff work long hours, sometimes have difficult editors, and must serve a lengthy sentence of servitude before anyone pays any attention to what they can do. They are paid to get traffic and that dictates what stories get published – stories that can be churned out in the time it takes to locate the news in the supplement-and-leaflet mound of your average weekend paper.

‘If you can’t stand the heat…

So what about the stress of the job? It’s not clear what role the stress of constant blogging played in any of the tech journalists who died recently.

According to statistics published by the US Department of Labor, people who work in the ‘information industry’ such as journalists have a low level of death rate – just 1.9 per 100,000 workers which is lower than the fatality rate for government workers which is 2.3 per cent per 100,000 workers.

Few ‘dead tree’ journalists die from job-related factors; drink perhaps, a smack in the mouth possibly, but not stress. Nobody dies of frustration, even when days are spent ringing people back to leave messages for people to ring you back because they rang you back and you were in the pub.

Richard Francis, another print journalist who gave up his job on a UK national daily newspaper for a job editing a leading US blog site has returned to the ink-stained allure of Fleet Street.

‘Blogging is a manic world. The truth is that this generation, more so than any before it, thrives on communication. The media world – the big, official one where reporters wear sensible shoes – is becoming less of a distinct entity but there remains the idea that working in the media somehow equates to making something of yourself.

‘It’s a brilliant way of making yourself heard, but there’s a lot of exploitation going on from some people who own professional blogging sites. They exploit writers because today’s society has an addiction to the tell-all communication culture. I predict it will be the cause of death to many.’