"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
“Not another piece on blogs!” The reporter threw back her head in mock anguish.
“Well, sure, we covered it ages ago, but the phenomenon keeps getting more attention,” the editor replied.
“But there’s nothing new to say.”
“Well, we could do a ‘Blogs — pro and con’ point/counterpoint kind of thing.”
“That’s so tired. Anyway, who’d do the pro side?”
“Well, I would.”
The above discussion actually took place here at Salon. It represents a slight, informal example of something called “the editorial process” — something that happens at professional journalistic operations like Salon or your morning newspaper. It is not something that happens, at least not in this way, with the great majority of blogs.
Blogs, of course (or weblogs, the more formal name — I hate the abbreviation, with its jiggly blob, melted-dessert overtones, but it’s stuck), are personal Web sites, solo operations updated daily or more frequently with news and links and personal comments, piled up on a page in reverse chronological order. They have recently become the topic du jour among the media whose job it is to follow Web trends — a beat whose pickings have lately been lean.
Typically, the debate about blogs today is framed as a duel to the death between old and new journalism. Many bloggers see themselves as a Web-borne vanguard, striking blows for truth-telling authenticity against the media-monopoly empire. Many newsroom journalists see bloggers as wannabe amateurs badly in need of some skills and some editors.
This debate is stupidly reductive — an inevitable byproduct of (I’ll don my blogger-sympathizer hat here) the traditional media’s insistent habit of framing all change in terms of a “who wins and who loses?” calculus. The rise of blogs does not equal the death of professional journalism. The media world is not a zero-sum game. Increasingly, in fact, the Internet is turning it into a symbiotic ecosystem — in which the different parts feed off one another and the whole thing grows.
Weblogs — which often consist of annotated links to media Web sites as well as to other blogs — would barely be able to get by without the informational fodder provided by the mainstream media. Meanwhile, time-strapped reporters and editors in downsized, resource-hungry newsrooms are increasingly turning to blogs for story tips and pointers. No one has enough time to read everything on the Web; blogs offer a smart reader the chance to piggyback on someone else’s reading time. Good journalists would be fools not to feed off blogs.
Weblogs expand the media universe. They are a media life-form that is native to the Web, and they add something new to our mix, something valuable, something that couldn’t have existed before the Web.
It should be obvious that weblogs aren’t competing with the work of the professional journalism establishment, but rather complementing it. If the pros are criticized as being cautious, impersonal, corporate and herdlike, the bloggers are the opposite in, well, almost every respect: They’re reckless, confessional, funky — and herdlike.
Links that make it onto a blog tend to get injected into the blogflow, picked up by other bloggers if they press any of the buttons that some critical mass of bloggers seem to share. There are even automated lists ranking the most-blogged links to demonstrate this inevitable copycatting.
But what you think the bloggers’ obsessions are depends on whom you read: There’s more than one herd. The current flurry of mainstream blog coverage has tended to gather around a handful of high-profile political webloggers, led by the indefatigable Andrew Sullivan. Many in this generation of bloggers — including Sullivan, Salon contributor Joshua Micah Marshall, Slate contributor Mickey Kaus and others — are pros themselves, reveling in the free form and flow of the blogging life as an addition to, rather than a substitute for, their writing careers.
But I’ve been writing about blogs since before Sullivan had one, and well remember, as some of today’s commentators apparently don’t, that long ago there were blogs that had little or nothing to do with politics. Some weblogs were personal diaries; others were free-form catalogs of personal obsessions; others were focused on one or another arm of the technology industry or Internet culture.
So some of the generalizations you’ll read in the current spate of articles are slanted, or outright wrong, because the writer is assuming that all blogs follow the model of political blogs. Thus even as astute a writer as the New York Times Book Review’s Judith Shulevitz — who, as a former editor at Slate, knows the Web better than most of her colleagues — mistakenly characterized weblogs in a column last week: “Blogs don’t limit your news intake, break stories or promulgate rumor, at least not intentionally … Blogs express opinion. They’re one-person pundit shows, replete with the stridency and looniness usually edited off TV.”
True — but only of some blogs. Then there are those, like the venerable MacInTouch site, that express little or no opinion, but rather compile news and links on some specific subject — and that, yes, sometimes break stories of interest to devotees of that subject. There are those, like the one run by San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor, that are experiments in opening up the process of professional journalism to a more informal give-and-take. There are those, like Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews or Lawrence Lee’s Tomalak’s Realm, that provide links with no opinion at all.
Over the last couple of years weblog publishing software has evolved to simplify and streamline the process of self-publishing, enabling blogs to extend their sway beyond the geeky realm of software developers and to flourish in almost any field imaginable. Journalistic traditionalists might turn up their noses and say, “Sure, but who wants to read them?” The answer is, “It doesn’t matter.” A blogger with 100 dedicated and passionate readers may consider the endeavor a success even if it’s not a road to media mogul-hood.
I think too many of us in the media profession have labored so long in the trenches that we’ve internalized the numbers game of our business and measure the worth of a publication by the size of its audience. Pros get paychecks, and that gives them the chance to devote themselves full time to writing and editing — but it also means that they have to write about things that can attract a big enough crowd to fund those checks. Amateur status can free a blogger to focus on material that fascinates the blogger and a few others, material that no media with any “mass” is going to touch.
The current weblog debate has featured a lot of partisan hot air as ideologues try to claim blogging for their own. Norah Vincent (who used to write for Salon) argued in the Los Angeles Times that blogs are all about conservatives heroically lobbing dissent at the suffocating liberal mainstream media; this evoked a chorus of derision from the ranks of liberal-left bloggers, who see themselves as heroically lobbing dissent at the suffocating conservative mainstream media. About all that exchange proved is that each side reads only its own blogs. Webloggers, like everyone else, prefer to read and link to stuff they agree with; “blogrolling,” as it’s called, tends to follow party lines.
I think the fire-in-the-belly of the blogging movement is less a matter of left or right than of a more free-floating anger at the professional media’s penchant for making mistakes and not owning up to them. You hear it when weblog pioneer Dave Winer complains about the sloppiness and inaccuracy of newspaper coverage of the software industry. Or when Amsterdam-based blogger Adam Curry (the former MTV host) rails at the media for mischaracterizing the assassinated politican Pim Fortuyn as a Dutch le Pen.
It’s a righteous, frustrated tone that says, I know this subject better than the reporters — and they’re wrong! And I can say so on my Web site and no one can stop me!
Bloggers goof all the time, too, of course, but they’re generally not sanctimonious about their own accuracy to begin with, and they typically admit mistakes and move on. But to lazy reporters, the world of blogs represents their worst nightmare: It’s an endless parade of experts in every conceivable subject they might write about, all equipped with Internet-style megaphones ready to pounce on errors. Careful and thoughtful journalists will nevertheless welcome the advent of blogging: At worst, it should keep them on their toes and give them an incentive not to slip up, and at best, it should give them a chance to do their job better.
The professional journalist can still accomplish things that, so far at least, no blogger has managed. Long-form investigative journalism is not conducive to being dribbled out in bits and pieces on a weblog; some kinds of stories call for extended research and then extended presentation. At the other end of the spectrum, the coverage of massive breaking news stories demands the reflexes and resources of a great newsroom: That’s why Sept. 11 brought out New York journalism’s best.
But blogs can do some things the pros can’t. For better and worse, they air hunches and speculations without the filter of an editorial bureaucracy (or the legal vulnerabilities of a corporate parent). They trade links and argue nuances, fling insults and shower acclaim. The editorial process of the blogs takes place between and among bloggers, in public, in real time, with fully annotated cross-links. This carries pluses and minuses: At worst, it creates a lot of excess verbiage that only the most fanatically interested reader would want to wade through. At best, it creates a dramatic and dynamic exchange of information and ideas.
Is there any doubt that, on balance, we come out ahead? After all, the Internet has an infinite capacity to tuck excess verbiage away where no one need be bothered by it. But we all benefit from a more efficient means for seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)