Alberta is a pretty neat place to be a blogger at the moment. The government doesn't arrest you for anything you write online, it doesn't try to shut down Twitter or ban Facebook and, in fact, you're probably on the verge of collapsing the mainstream media as you know it with your very presence.
Okay, well maybe not -- at least not in Alberta, contrary to many predictions.
Glenn Reynolds, whom Wired magazine refers to as The Blogfather, started his blog Instapundit in August 2001. With 50,000 hits per day, it soon became one of the first blogs to attract a daily readership the same size of a small town. Fast forward to 2006 when Reynolds published a book combining his two favourite subjects, technology and libertarianism, entitled An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths.
His libertarian perspective had the individual trumping anything and "big" and replacing it with smaller, more efficient private operations.
"I'm interested in everything," Reynolds states on his Instapundit profile, "but my chief interest is in the intersection between advanced technologies and individual liberty. The vast majority of my writing touches on this in one way or another."
Whether or not you agree with his libertarian bent, technology has provided a whole new venue for individualism and yes, independent journalism.
"Most media coverage is wide but shallow," he speculates in An Army of Davids. "Individuals can actually outperform big news organizations when it comes to reporting on a single topic, and as it becomes easier for individuals to develop and market niche expertise, we'll see more of that."
Cats, Civics, Controversy
Nearly five years later we know this prediction to be true. Yet while Reynolds' premise of ordinary people vs. big media and government, David vs. Goliath, may ring true in certain parts of the world, perhaps a different relationship between these two entities exists in Alberta. A bit less like butting heads and a bit more like iron sharpening iron.
Jeremy Zhao, a recent University of Calgary graduate, developed that niche expertise Reynolds described. After running for mayor in the 2007 Calgary municipal election, graduating with a minor in political science, being involved with CivicCamp, making friends with local politicians and consistently writing about what he observes, Zhao probably has more connections and experience upon graduation than your average journalism major-- at least when it comes to civic politics.
"I mean I certainly respect the mainstream media and the work they put in," Zhao insists, "but I think what bloggers are doing, they're kind of filling in all these other niches and that's kind of where their strong point is, all these fringe niches they're able to cover."
Besides politics, Zhao's other pastime is shaking things up. In May he created a webpage impersonating the City of Calgary's website where he named himself alderman of Ward 15. There are only 14 wards in Calgary, but the City still took his impersonation seriously and sent him a cease and desist notice.
Zhao says he hoped to use his Ward 15 campaign to raise awareness about municipal issues and discuss what an ideal ward in Calgary would look like.
"Controversy is probably the best tool," he says. "People think it's an opportunistic way to get readers, but I don't know, I think it's pretty cool. Like daveberta.ca [Dave Cournoyer] when he registered edstelmach.ca, that caused a fury of angry people. When I decided to make my fake alderman website, that caused people to go, 'Oh, what is this Jeremy up to with his shenanigans?' "
While some bloggers may not always embrace Zhao's love of "shenanigans," it is impossible to deny blogs are a hotbed for humour and satire, leading some people to question whether blogs really are a reliable source of information and analysis as opposed to random ranting and narcissism.
Another necessary but less discussed question is whether bloggers should start being treated like media. When Barb Higgins held a press conference at the Marriot Hotel to announce her run for mayor, Zhao walked in, said he was a blogger and was granted media access. Was Zhao recognizable enough that they let him in? What if he wanted to try a new beat where people didn't recognize his name, like sports? If Zhao wanted to attend a Calgary Flames press conference would it be as easy to get in?
Joey Oberhoffner, an Albertan who blogs under the name Enlightened Savage, recognizes that organizations like political parties and sports teams have a dilemma when it comes to giving bloggers the same privileges as media.
One of the main concerns is that bloggers can't be held to the same standard as journalists because they write mainly on a volunteer basis.There are no rules or editors to ensure the blogger reports honestly or accurately.
In a post on July 10, 2010 entitled "Re-Post: A Blogging Code of Ethics," Oberhoffner argues if bloggers want to be taken seriously they must hold themselves to a standard.
"[U]ltimately, the way to keep a blogger in line is to threaten the thing that bloggers value most: their reputation," he writes.
He posted a proposed Blogging Code of Ethics from CyberJournalist.net which includes points like never plagiarize, identifying and linking to sources whenever possible, never posting altered photos without disclosing what has been altered and admitting and correcting mistakes as soon as possible.
This attitude of blogging with integrity has proven effective as Calgary mainstream media takes notice of more and more independent, reliable writers. Oberhoffner started his blog in 2006 and a year later was invited to be an in-studio comentator for the 2007 Municipal Election Night on CBC Radio One and in 2008 for Provincial Election Night on CityTV.
Most successful bloggers are quick to point out that you can't just start a blog and expect it to take off immediately, but at the same time you can't put out quality, consistent writing and not expect anyone to notice.
"Write what's on your mind and don't get discouraged," says Edmontonian Dave Cournoyer of Daveberta.ca. "You're not gonna get a ton of readers right off the bat, likely. You're likely not going to get a ton of commenters right off the bat. So you know, don't get discouraged. Write it and build it and they will come."
Cournoyer says that it is challenging to keep content informative and accurate because of all the time it takes to do research. Since Cournoyer writes outside of his regular job, Daveberta.ca can be quite a time consuming endeavor.
"I enjoy writing, so it's something I make the time for, but I know sometimes I don't always have the time to do all the research I'd like to do for certain blog posts," he admits. "When you know that people are coming and reading your blog, you want to be able to do quality research and the quality writing that people expect, it keeps them coming back."
"And I know for me," he continues, "the odd time I publish a post that isn't quite up to snuff of what I'd like, I feel a little disappointed myself."
This willingness to embrace a set of standards is perhaps the reason why there is more cooperation than antagonism between "new" and "old" media in Alberta. Cournoyer has experienced some of the benefits.
"It's been a good interaction. I know there are a number of reporters that I stay in contact with, with the mainstream papers, the Calgary Sun, the Edmonton Journal, a lot of smaller local newspapers and television stations.... I find it kind of funny, people like to talk about how there's a conflict between the mainstream media and this new media and I don't see it. I don't really [subscribe] to that theory."
It certainly appears to be a good time to be a blogger in Alberta, but it's still fairly difficult to bring in any income doing so. Success for these bloggers equals a steady readership, respect from the mainstream media, open discussion of policy and ideas, but not much money. That is not to say that it cannot be done, however.
Mike's Bloggity Beat
That's the road Calgarian Mike Morrison is on right now. Morrison's website, Mike's Bloggity Blog, provides independent coverage of Canadian entertainment. Through his blogging he has been able to turn himself into a freelance writer, contributing wherever his content is appreciated.
"The blog's not full time, the stuff that comes with it maybe can be qualified as a job I guess," he says. "It kind of spread into other mediums. I do stuff with Metro newspaper, CBC radio, stuff with Breakfast Television as well as freelance opportunities. So I kind of consider the blog as my hub, a living resume, I guess, and then I use that to write for other outlets."
His writing work still doesn't bring in a full-time income, but Morrison is content to wait. Considering he started his blog four years ago while working at an oil and gas firm after getting a degree from New Brunswick in Spanish and Education, one might not expect to find him making any money at all writing about Canadian entertainment.
"The Calgary media world-- blogger, offline, online, anything-- is very, very supportive. Everyone kind of helps each other out," he postulates. "It's not very competitive, which I think really distinguishes us from Vancouver and Toronto where it's kind of dog-eat-dog. Here we're kind of a smaller city so we're very supportive of everyone working together and helping each other out."
That is not to say it's been a breeze for Morrison to break into the mainstream media. He says that over the past couple years he's made his blog as much priority as any other job he may have at the time. If that means he has to write on evenings, weekends or into the late hours of the night, then that's what it takes.
"I wish it paid more, but the perks are certainly starting to be there and the calls are getting easier to make and the e-mails are getting easier to get and things like that. Doors are slowly opening and that's after four years of making it a priority."
One of the common arguments against blogging is that it doesn't produce any original content, but instead gathers content from the mainstream and simply opines.
But what is happening in Calgary is that these writers are slowly realizing they want to be in the middle of the action too, and that the tools are available for them to create their own content.
Hot off the Wordpress
Cue DJ Kelly, another Calgarian blogger who found his way into the Metro and CBC Radio. After watching fellow blogger Joey Oberhoffner provide independent coverage during the 2007 civic election on The Enlightened Savage, Kelly realized that while his coverage was impressive, the election was still too much for any single person to cover.
"Leading up to 2010, I had gotten to know Joey and quite a few of the other political bloggers in Calgary and I kind of put the call out to them and said, 'Hey, do you guys want to get together? Let's go have a beer and talk about how we might actually be able to work together during the 2010 election.' "
"We got together at the Auburn Saloon and a couple hours later the concept of CalgaryPolitics.com was born."
The idea is that each blogger covers the election on their own blogs, but aggregate all their different posts onto one website. Different areas of the election are divided up as well. For example, each blogger is responsible for coverage of different wards.
The guidelines are not very strict, however, and DJ is quick to point out that they are not journalists, nor are they trying to be.
Each blogger is responsible to maintain his or her own reputation by producing quality writing.
"We're not journalists, we're not unbiased, we know that we're not unbiased, but when the first five of us came together-- we're up to eight now-- but when the first five of us came together we believed that we sort of represented a pretty wide swath of the political spectrum. One of us is incredibly left wing, one of us is quite right wing, and the others, we could plot ourselves pretty evenly spaced on that political spectrum."
"We understand that we come with our own biases, but rather than traditional journalists where we try to put that bias aside and be as unbiased as possible, we rely on each other to keep the others in line. So if somebody says something that I vehemently disagree with, [I] can actually jump in and say 'This is something I disagree with...' "
These bloggers now create their own content by covering events such as mayoral panel discussions, interviewing candidates, following candidates on Twitter and even arranging a charity bowling event for aldermanic candidates, bloggers and journalists to have fun and mingle.
CalgaryisAwesome.com employs the same idea, although the content is far from political. The website provides coverage on the arts and culture scene in Calgary and other things that make Calgary 'awesome.' Each community in Calgary is assigned a blogger to report on awesome things happening there, whether it is local businesses, restaurants, public spaces, fashion, film and music.
The site also provides interviews with local figures and creates music videos for local artists.
When bloggers showed up on the scene, they were like the dorky new kid in school, unsure of whether or not they'd be pummeled and belittled by the established mainstream media jocks.
It turns out, at least in Alberta, journalists and bloggers have formed a pretty decent friendship-- occasionally sharing notes, correcting each other's spelling mistakes and starting study groups for exams.
They may not always be best friends, but both parties have set a positive precedent of cooperaton that will be hard to break.