The problem with blogs

Last Thursday, we launched an official editorial blog on Yahoo.

I reckoned at the time that it was an experimental effort; that it would take time for my editorial colleagues to get the hang of the platform, and also for the audience to discover the blog and its contents — if we did 100,000 page views a month, I’d have reckoned we were off to a decent start.

The numbers we are now seeing are insane: on day one, the counter hit 98,480. On the 5th, the editorial bay here in the Yahoo office obsessed over the counter ticking over like crazy, till it stopped at 1,81,899 page views — a hard act, we all thought, to top. On the 8th, the celebration was for hitting the 2 lakh mark a day — 2,19,274 page views to be exact. Yesterday, the 9th, the counter topped out at 2,62,115.

Here’s the macro picture: in exactly one week [the blog was launched at noon last Thursday], the cumulative page views at the time of writing this is 1,145,370, and counting. To put that in perspective, this blog is now a year old — and the counter currently is at 862,040. That for me is the scary thought — that an official blog on a website did a few lakh more in its first week than this blog has done in a year.

More perspective, this time at a micro level: Though I don’t labor over the posts here for hours [a typical post takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes to write, including finding all the relevant links etc], I do invest some thought in them; I post only when I think I can add something to what exists out there in the public domain. And on a good day, a good post gets anywhere up to 25-30k page views.

Against that, on the 8th I put up a post called Dying, Daily. When I started writing it, I knew what I wanted it to be: against the backdrop of air crashes, I wanted to look at the thousand deaths we die each day without thinking about it; about the pathetic state of our roadways, and about how the daily deaths on our roads would, if they were included in medical stats, qualify as a pandemic.

Turned out, it was a particularly bad day at work — I literally logged out of one conference call so I could log into another; there were people here who I had to meet, a ton of stuff to be done… In between, I tossed off a couple of lines here, a link there, and finally published the damn thing not because I thought I was done, but because I reckoned I’d never really get it done the way I wanted it to be, and a post had to go up. In other words, if that post was on this blog, I never would have published it that day.

Guess what, though — that post alone has, at the time of writing this, logged 1,58,035 page views. Crazy? You don’t know the half of it. And the only reason for it is its placement, for the better part of the day, on our top carousel.

All of this makes you think: increasingly, the Indian blog ecosystem is being filled with high quality bloggers. Some four years back, even, there were maybe three, four Indian bloggers I routinely followed: Amit Varma, Jai Arjun Singh, Great Bong, Nilanjana Roy… Today, that number tops 30, and I keep finding more good blogs to follow almost every other month.

The bloggers on my reader are all talented writers — some of them outstandingly so. It’s a natural process of selection — the less time you have for such indulgences, the more rigorous you are about whom to follow, so over time, such lists get really refined. While I don’t have a sense of the kind of numbers the bloggers on my list are doing for individual posts, I’m fairly certain it is nowhere close to what ‘Dying, Daily‘ — a post any of them would condemn as hastily assembled, almost amateurish — has done in just over 24 hours of air time.

That is the problem with blogging, right there: on the one hand, bloggers need their own space, in order to break free of the constraints of conventional media — the reason they take to blogging in the first place. But then, it comes at a price — their content, though more often than not of a quality consistently higher than what the MSM offers, does not enjoy the high visibility writers of far less ability routinely enjoy in our newspapers and websites.

It’s a problem — and, from a purely selfish, Yahoo-centric point of view, an opportunity. I know that the organization has been, of late, doing some thinking along these lines; trying to find a way to guarantee high quality writers the independence they crave while simultaneously enabling their work to reach the far larger audience they deserve. Hence, for instance, the recent acquisition of Associated Content, in the wake of which I noticed a post on TechCrunch that posed a question:

And that is the part that has people scratching their heads. Yahoo is clearly out of the search business through its approved deal with Microsoft. What is left are its owned-and-operated Yahoo sites and its ad network. So far, Yahoo has skewed towards the quality end of the spectrum in terms of online content. It is a brand other brands can trust. But Associated Content operated in another realm, that of non-premium content and related display advertising. It is closer to the performance-marketing end of the scale. More content on its site means more ads, but Yahoo does best on its home page and main portal pages where quality content is expected by consumers and advertisers alike.

I donno — who said a crowd-sourcing platform cannot have quality control? That the content served up through such a platform cannot be as compelling as anything in the mainstream space?

It’s going to take a while before all the pieces are in place, and the AC platform rolls onto Yahoo India — but frankly, I can’t wait. Meanwhile, my mind keeps nibbling at the enormous disconnect between quality and visibility in the blog space, and trying to figure out ways to bridge that gap to the mutual benefit of both. Hopefully, ideas will come — meanwhile, I’d be really interested in any thoughts you have on the subject, models I can learn from etc. Share.

Oh and — at a personal level, swamped with stuff, hence the radio silence on here. Regular service resumes Monday, unless something happens in between that merits immediate attention.

Pawar play

A couple of days ago,this newspaper unearthed fresh evidence to show the involvement of a powerful minister and his family members : together,they held 16.5 per cent share in a company that had bid for one of the teams from Pune.Unlike their claims,let us be clear that it is not an insignificant portion;but that is another story.

The fact is all this would have remained buried but for some sharp investigative reporting; after all, theirs was an indirect investment in the form of two companies : Lap Finance and Namrata Film Enterprises. Who would have guessed the powers behind these two obscure companies.

Who would have guessed, indeed! [The above is a clip from ToI Sports Editor Bobilli Vijay Kumar’s opinion piece in Sunday’s paper].

Not for the first time [and speaking as a mediaperson myself], I’m hugely amused by how well trained we journalists have become. Someone, for his or her own personal interest, throws us a nicely colored ball. And off we go en masse, barking happily, to ‘fetch’.

ToI, for instance, has front-paged the story of Sharad Pawar’s links to the IPL most days over the previous week. The pattern was set early: a revelation and reactions from Pawar/Supriya Sule one day. Next day, a fresh revelation that refuges Pawar/Sule, and the father-daughter combine’s reactions to that revelation. And so on — with the paper making self-congratulatory asides about its intrepid reportage. [Tangential note: I’m talking of ToI here merely as the most obvious example].

The fact is all this would have remained buried but for some sharp investigative reporting.

Umm. The fact is, all this would have remained buried but for (a) Lalit Modi’s misjudging a strategic play and tweeting publicly about Sunanda Pushkar’s sweat equity and (b) the resultant no-holds-barred war within the BCCI, that has led to some inspired leaking by both sides. For instance, ToI’s “sharp investigative reporting” claim is belied by the fact that every media outlet has copies of the same documents in its possession. Consider:

DNA has in its possession a copy of a City Corp board resolution —submitted by Deshpande to the BCCI along with his bid — expressly authorising him to bid on behalf of City Corp.

That’s DNA on the front page, yesterday. Here’s Cricinfo:

But the minutes of the January 31 meeting, a copy of which is available with Cricinfo, states that Deshpande was asked to go ahead with the bid in the company’s name.

I could go on — that theme, of having the document in possession, is a constant in pretty much every media house that covered the story. If you didn’t know better, you’d end up conjuring visions of a whole pack of journalistic Sherlocks following the blood trail and, in concert, fetching up at the spot where the body was buried.

More prosaically, what you are actually seeing is the outward manifestation of an internecine conflict for control of the BCCI. Modi, who needed to please his backers, attempted to torpedo the Kochi franchise by roping in Pushkar’s equity, and linking her to Tharoor. That got the whole show-cause snowball rolling. Pawar, who is intricately linked with the IPL, backed Modi to the hilt [though Modi has other backers within the BCCI’s higher echelons, Pawar’s is the most powerful voice; without him, the rest fall apart].

That was stage one. Once it became clear that the disciplinary hearing would end in Modi’s ouster, the ‘IPL commissioner [suspended]’ attempted to up the ante by first pointing fingers at Shashank Manohar and more pertinently, to N Srinivasan. The idea was to undercut his opposition by taking out the two top members of the BCCI hierarchy.

Now comes the BCCI push-back: some inspired leaking by the board’s bigwigs [how do you suppose the documents “came into the possession” of various media entities?] is clearly aimed to turn the heat right back on Pawar, to reduce him to a spent force, and thus to weaken Modi’s position within the board [in a case of unintended irony, the documents the board is now busily leaking are from the very same boxes Lalit Modi had delivered, with considerable fanfare, to the BCCI — thus earning brownie points for giving up what was actually BCCI property in the first place]. Significantly, Modi took time off from responding to his own slew of notices to mount a spirited — if not persuasive — defense of Pawar.

The amusing part is how the media is playing facilitator in what is really an internal war. Each fresh revelation triggers a concerted baying for blood: first Tharoor; then, when the government of India got into the act through its investigative arms, Modi; then, through Modi’s various tweets and media statements and letters, the likes of Srinivasan; now, Pawar…

Interested parties want one or the other personality brought down; some inspired whispering in the media’s receptive ears is all it takes these days to get the job done.

Which is not to suggest that the various officials are lily-white. The board is one vast web of conflicting interests [It always has been — from what seems an endless lifetime of chronicling the board’s shenanigans, here’s a link to a series dating back to when the CBI, after concluding its match-fixing investigations, went after the BCCI — oh, and by way of bonus, the man in charge then was AC Muthaiah, who is now playing the role of crusader]. The current scenario is no different: Modi has his fingers in the IPL pie; N Srinivasan has a stake in it; so does Sharad Pawar; IS Bindra and other officials get their slice of the action; star cricketers Ravi Shastri and Sunny Gavaskar get to suckle at the BCCI’s teat in return for lending the board the legitimacy, such as it is, of their presence…

The defenses trotted out by those under attack are equally hilarious. N Srinivasan, responding to the charge of conflict of interest, argued that he had Pawar’s permission [which is nice — one conflicted official gave another official permission to be similarly conflicted]. Pawar’s argument is that he may have stakes in entities ranging from City Corporation to, more recently, Vijay Mallya’s United Spirits, argues that owning stake in a company that bids for IPL franchises is not equal to owning a stake in an IPL franchise. And Manohar produced this gem while defending Chirayu Amin from a recent Modi salvo:

Shashank Manohar, the BCCI President, has challenged Lalit Modi’s contention that Chirayu Amin, the interim IPL chairman, was part of a consortium that bid unsuccessfully for the Pune franchise. While clarifying that Amin’s intention had been to only invest in City Corporation Ltd – the concerned group – in the event of a successful bid, Manohar alleged it was Modi who urged the franchise to contact Amin to become a part of that consortium.

Eh? The ‘clarification’ is that a senior board official wanted to wait and see if a particular entity won its bid — and then he would invest in that entity? That is a ‘defense’?

And that is why why I’m not particular impressed by all this “investigative journalism” that’s going on. What, after all, has all this muck-raking unearthed? That various officials have hidden stakes in the IPL? No shit, Sherlock? What, you thought Modi was running the IPL without taking a salary because he was interested in the uplift of cricket in this country? Or that sundry officials push and shove and elbow each other to get prime positions in local associations and through that, in the BCCI hierarchy, motivated by nothing more than undiluted altruism?

Here’s what I wish the media would do. In its next expose, could it incorporate a line that reads: ‘Documents leaked to us by Shashank Manohar Lalit Modi N Srinivasan  [insert appropriate name here] indicate that…’? At least that way, we’d know who is playing the latest hand in this endless soap opera — and that would help us understand better the nature of the latest set of charges being levelled.

It’s [still] about voices

A little over a month ago, in a post introducing Yahoo! Opinions, I’d written about the need for Yahoo to find its voice. And in the immediate aftermath, the newly launched initiative found some favorable coverage — like, so.

Both before the launch of our Opinions section under Amit Varma’s aegis, and in the subsequent weeks, I’ve been fielding questions from journalist and lay friends on the ‘So what?’ and ‘What next?’ lines.

The ‘So what?’ group argued on these lines: Dude, it is not as if you and Amit Varma invented columns — every damn newspaper/website worth its audience has columns, often far more ‘renowned’ names. So what’s the big deal about what you are doing here?

True. We didn’t invent the concept of opinions — they’ve been around almost as long as print journalism. And Yahoo! Opinions is not, in and of itself, a ‘big deal’ [though I must add that the early traffic numbers are well above what I had projected prior to launch]. Park that thought for a moment.

The other group wanted to know what was next.

This — the official Yahoo editorial blog.

We switched on the lights, with no fuss and fanfare, at noon yesterday. My colleague Suma Nagraj, who is point person for the initiative and who has been following the numbers obsessively since launch, is over the moon: 98,890 page views at midnight — that is, 12 hours post launch; 146,541 page views in toto as I write this, 24 hours after launch. That is, a few thousand more page views in a day than I get on this blog in a good month.

And no — we didn’t invent blogging either.

What we are attempting to do, with Opinions first and now the blog, is two-fold. The first, clearly, is to experiment with, and find, an editorial voice — an absolute essential for a site that is otherwise known as a content aggregator. Ergo, the blog: It allows my colleagues in Yahoo, who thus far have been voiceless entities spending their days and nights curating content that comes from a multiplicity of sources, to spread their wings; to write and, through writing, to move beyond their daily brief and explore their own limits. [The blog, incidentally, might appear a bit diffuse, lacking in a clear focus, just now — but that is exactly how we want it. The idea has to be for everyone, across editorial functions, to start writing; fine-tuning of the content et cetera will happen organically over time].

That’s a first step. Starting next week, we’ll gradually introduce a series of regular features on the blog, that will cumulatively help shape content and define the platform. And once their voices gain in assurance, the logical next step is to move into the realm of ‘original content’; to get a team that thus far has been desk-bound to step outside office, to find and tell compelling stories.

The second reason is a touch more complicated. A priority, when I joined Yahoo in January this year, was for us as an organization to decide on a long term strategy for the site. That exercise, which cuts across departments and hierarchies, took us the best part of four months — but we now know where we want to be a year, two years from now. And each of these initiatives — Opinions, now the blog — are calculated steps towards that destination. The coming months will see more micro-launches; hopefully, if we’ve done our thinking right, by the end of the year you’ll see exactly where we are going with all of this.

Meantime, do me a favor: check out the blog, and if you have feedback on the lines of what you would like to see and such, let me know. Here.

PS: Anticipating a question: Yes, I’ll be posting on that blog. Actually, during the seeding process I’d already put up three posts: on rock as escape in Nagaland; on Rahul Mehta’s debut with a collection of gay-themed short-stories; and on the 50th anniversary of Psycho besides a promo post to two columns on Yahoo that examine the arguments for and against homeopathy.

I’ve been kind of swamped, and haven’t had the time to figure out what I’ll post there and what kind of content I’ll save for this blog. Hopefully, next week will bring more clarity. In the meantime, will be off the air from now through the weekend — got a heck of a lot of pencil-and-paper planning to do. Regular service, on cricket and all else, resumes Monday [in any case, what the heck can you say about India’s ‘hopefuls’ in Zimbabwe that cannot be summed up in the one word, ‘hopeless’?]

Steve Coll on blogging

Was wondering whether to allow my silence to speak for itself, or speak about the silence, when I chanced on this piece by Steve Coll in the New Yorker.

Unlike Coll, I am not currently engaged in writing anything. But like him, I’m finding the need to stack boulders before the metaphorical front door — some stuff I am working on demands absolute focus; mind space to write posts has been at a premium as a result.

All that said, be back here Friday. Meanwhile, treat this as an open thread, folks — anything goes.