Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Courses for Bloggers - Frustration and heartache is what you've got

What is a blog? What sort of person writes it? Do they have anything interesting to say for themselves or do they just spout the brown stuff?

I saw an advert for a course on how to be a blogger today, advertised in the Guardian for £400. I can't for the life of me think why anyone would ever want to become a blogger. I most certainly didn't. I still don't. I rather think that none of the famous five Barnet bloggers ever wanted to be bloggers. In fact when I started blogging, I didn't even know what a blogger or a blog was.

I am an accidental blogger. The whole blogging thing started because I felt the Hendon Times was not covering the local music scene. I emailed the then editor, Phil Crowther and suggested that if he gave me half a page of the paper, I could write a column on the local music scene. I also used to regularly leave comments on stories on the papers website (I still do). Phil Crowther said no, but suggested I might like to contribute a blog on the Hendon Times Website. If you search hard enough, you can still find these lurking in the outer reaches of their website (here's an early example - ).

I also used the blog to criticise Barnet Council. Barnet Council bit back and persuaded the editor of the Hendon Times to sack me as a blogger. One of my readers, David Miller, emailed me and suggested I start my own blog on this site as he felt it was a complete travesty that the Times had sacked me. I duly did this. For the first six months of the blog, I sort of assumed about five people were reading it. I didn't install a stats monitoring package or even really care. I felt that if I started trying to chase blog hits, it would sully the purity of my writing and thought process. People kept asking me "how many people read your blog?" I would proudly tell them I hadn't got a clue. I then decided to make my blog look more like a real blog. I added Google Adsense advertising. Not because I wanted the cash, but because I felt it would make my blog look like a proper blog. This had rudimentary stats and I was shocked to find that a couple of hundred people looked at the blog every day. At this point, I installed a stats package.

The next thing that happened was a reader who designed websites emailed me. I didn't know them, but they felt I was not making full use of the blog and some things I was doing were preventing people from reading the blog. They explained how to embed videos, link to other blogs and why the colour scheme was important. If the screen is "too loud", people can't slyly read it at work, because it is obvious they are skiving. After two years, I finally met my trusty advisor and bought him a beer. I also acquired a free legal team. Again someone I didn't know, emailed me and said they really admired me and if ever I had any legal issues, get in touch and they would give me some advice. I have thoroughly abused this generous offer. Again after a year or so, I thought I should buy them a beer. When I tried to offer they said "no, I should buy you one, you are the one who takes all the risks, we need people like you". I got a free slap up meal for my efforts.

Then there are the people who have tried to intimidate me, trolls as we call them. In the early days of the blog, they would leave anonymous comments. I couldn't really be bothered with all that, so I changed the blog settings so they had to be a registered user of Blogspot. For some reason the trolling virtually stopped.

The next big innovation was the concept of "guest blogs". I guess millions of other bloggers probably do this, but I'd not seen it. I got an email from someone who wanted  me to write a blog for them. I said "nope, just write it and I'll post it as a guest blog". This concept has taken off in a big way. Some of the most popular blogs on this site have been guest blogs. We've had hundreds of them now.

The next thing to happen was the explosion of Barnet bloggers. When I started at the Hendon Times, my blog was the only thing of it's kind in the London Borough of Barnet. It would be hugely arrogant to say that without my blog the others would not have come into existance, but I think that it certainly gave a few people a few pointers. I also think that maybe my style of blogging has in a small way inspired some of the other local bloggers (although I too have learned from them over the course of time). As the other blogs developed, we started to communicate and work together. We exchange all manner of info. We also compete in a friendly way. It is a Barnet bloggers tradition that when we cover council meetings, we adjourn to the pub after for a pint and a chat. This has allowed us to hugely magnify the power of our blogs.

Another big development was thanks to Dave Hill at the Guardian, who has been a champion of the London blogging scene. He soon picked up that Barnet was a blogging hotspot and five of his "Guardian London Blogs" are based in Barnet.  This gave us Barnet bloggers credibility - -  the fact that a National newspaper website linked to us.

As the Barnet bloggers developed, we became more effective. This blog gets over 1,000 hits on average every day. We have had just under 600,000 hits to date. I've written articles for the Guardian, done podcasts for the Londonist and been interviewed on the One Show on BBC as a direct result of the blog.

You may ask what my "secret of success" is? I don't really know. I originally thought that it was simply because no one else was doing anything like it. Now there is a team of bloggers, it can't just be that. I believe it is because it is patently clear that the Barnet bloggers are trying to do the right thing, that people respect us.

Strangers regularly say "I read your blog" these days. After big demonstrations such as the recent march through Finchley, dozens of people came up to me and said "I really appreciate what you are trying to do".

For me personally though, most of the time blogging is sheer frustration and heartache. All of the things I blog about are to me quite basic and simple cases of right and wrong. I don't need to be clever to write my blogs, most of it is just stating the bleeding obvious. Most of the scandals we've uncovered are not tiny little things on the margins, but huge cases of incompetence. Many of the things us bloggers report on are just unfathomable, such as why councillors are letting such a hugely risky project as One Barnet proceed without proper scrutiny.

I hope the day will come when the Barnet Eye becomes obsolete, the issues we raise cease to exist and no one reads it. I don't hunt for stories to cover, the leap out. I hope that any vaguely decent, sane and intelligent person who reads the blog realises that it is motivated only by the desire to improve the place I live.

What is interesting is how often I've written really harsh and nasty things about certain people in Barnet. Many times, months down the line, people have come up to me and said "when I read that I thought you were completely out of order, but now I know the facts, I have realised you were actually too nice".

I once read a blog on how to write blogs. I realised I broke most of the rules. Being a dyslexic punk rock guitarist, this comes naturally. Here's one of the sites - - I am pretty sure I completely screw up on rules 1 & 5. I hope I pass on rule 2 and 3. Rule 4, I try to, but I'm pretty lazy so don't always. Then again I do far more than the local papers  regularly nick my stories without so much as a by your leave.

So there you go. Everything you need to know about how to be a famous Barnet blogger. It hasn't cost you £400. It hasn't cost you a penny. If however you value this blog and want to help us there is one thing you can do. CLICK THIS LINK and email me with your details. I am trying to raise the funds to make a follow up film to A Tale of Two Barnets - To do the job properly, we need £3,000 and we've got £750. Every little bit will help. I hope you can in some small way assist us and keep the Barnet spring alive. The money is being used to purchase some specialist microphones for interviews, to pay for our travel costs and to cover the cost of other technical issues we have to address. In making A Tale of Two Barnets, we intwerviewed 43 people. Each interview used up approx half a day of Charles Hondericks time. The editing took Charles 119 hours. We got no financial benefit from the film at all, in fact we were out of pocket by the end of it. We're not complaining, because we are proud of the film we made. We are only making the follow up because people have asked us to, having seen the first film. There are many things we couldn't cover and people we couldn't interview. These stories need to be told.

1 comment:

Cneifiwr said...

I started my own blog just over a year ago, and our stories are uncannily similar, except that I have yet to get a slap-up meal from admirers.

Sometimes you wonder why the hell you do it - have you really become a sad old nutter ranting to a world that doesn't care? - but every once and a while you realise that you have made a small difference.

So here's to lots more blogs which poke and pry into the strange world of local government across Britain. Just remember that it belongs to all of us, and is not a private club.