A few changes for 2017
Greetings from Texas. Getting the blog up and running again after a longer-than-anticipated Christmas and New Year break is somewhat harder than in previous years – or rather, I should say that it is proving difficult to spurn the joy of unstructured leisure time for the largely thankless task of ranting into WordPress.
Having taken a full fortnight away from the daily grind has been refreshing, and also revelatory. 2016 was the fifth year of Semi-Partisan Politics and by far the most successful, with a threefold increase in readership compared to 2015, helped along in large part by the EU referendum campaign and the American presidential election. But this positive trajectory has come at the cost of nearly every free moment in my all-too-undisciplined free time.
Writing a political blog (and trying to make it successful) is hard. In order to build and maintain an audience you have to publish nearly every day, often multiple times. Unless you have the benefit of establishment connections to furnish you with gossip or pimp out your work, you have to be demonically active on social media, tweeting effectively and trawling for pageviews on Facebook. And for a one-man outfit like this, time spent promoting the blog on social media is time taken away from writing and the all-important reading and research which adds value to the content, while too much time spent reading and writing at the expense of self-promotion means that one’s best work often goes largely unread.
Whatever value Facebook has as a medium for discussion and promoting this blog, it is also a black hole from which I now intend to escape. I could easily double or triple this blog’s readership in a short time by actively promoting articles on the various political Facebook groups – and indeed I did so for a time in the buildup to the EU referendum. But my time is limited, and I will no longer waste it affirming people’s current biases to a lazy applause of “likes” or posting in hostile groups only to receive endless comments telling me that I am Hitler. A well-placed Facebook intervention may draw in countless likes and re-shares resulting in a thousand additional pageviews, but too often this is low quality traffic with no loyalty or engagement. The readers I value most are the ones who stick around without Facebook nagging, and who both educate and argue with me through the Comments.
SEO is a cruel mistress. This blog’s most-read piece for 2016 was a short, throwaway piece about Tony Benn’s euroscepticism and likely stance on Brexit. Because of an inadvertently well-chosen headline and a dearth of similar articles it placed well on Google, and attracted many thousands more views than the polemics, fisking pieces or other articles of which I am far more proud and which contain much greater originality.
Meanwhile, the British media establishment continue their demented hostility toward the political blogosphere and dogged refusal to acknowledge some of the best and most original analysis out there (though fully aware that it exists) simply because it appears on a site with a .wordpress or .blogspot suffix and does not carry the imprimatur of the prestige titles which increasingly churn out so much unoriginal pseudo-analysis or breathless court gossip.
This blog has been linked several times in both the National Review and the New Republic, the premier conservative and liberal journals in America, despite the limited attention that I have given to US politics this year. Meanwhile, links from the incestuous British media are almost non-existent – though I am grateful to the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow for occasionally citing this blog in his own excellent and comprehensive political liveblogs. But the idea of sullying myself trying to attract the attention of SW1’s finest on Twitter in exchange for a mere “like” or (rarer still) a retweet no longer holds any appeal.
Then there is the constant feeling that one is only as good as one’s most recent blog post – which, if you are me, means long periods of self-doubt and wondering why I am bothering in the first place. As the email bulletins and Google alerts ping into the inbox every hour of every day there is the constant feeling of needing to go “on the record” about whatever new person or event is driving the 24-hour news cycle, of committing a hot take to public record while it is still relevant, to assimilate the latest information and latest developments, and then inevitable feelings of inadequacy when this high bar – impossible to achieve while working a full time job – is not met.
I have also been dwelling on the fact that the words published on any political blog do not hold their value for long. Sure, some articles will be blessed by the SEO gods and provide a constant stream of traffic, but generally speaking a reaction piece I write in response to a Guardian headline today will be lining the digital waste paper bin by tomorrow. I increasingly want to write words that hold their value for longer, and to some extent this means stepping back from the fray and going more in depth, which in turn requires more expertise (and a rebalancing away from writing toward reading and research).
The upshot of all this introspection is that the thought of returning to the fray – spending the bulk of my free time hunched over the laptop, only to be studiously ignored by those who drive the national conversation – has been less than appealing, especially while I am still enjoying the company of my American family and have easy access to some of the best tacos and Tex-Mex food that money can buy.
Fear not, though. Or don’t start celebrating, if you are a fire-breathing SJW who hates my guts. I’m not going away. This blog will continue. But I have taken a long, hard look at my priorities and there will be some changes afoot.
I am not yet at liberty to discuss the most significant change that I will be making from a personal perspective. Suffice it to say that I have decided that being taken seriously without some serious form of credential is almost impossible, and that it is time to bow to this inevitable fact. At present, I am neither a politician nor a lawyer, nor an accredited expert on the constitution, the European Union, healthcare reform or any of the other subjects on which this blog touches. Over time, this will now change. The focus of this blog may therefore shift and be refined slightly over time, though there will be no immediate change.
The fruits of this work may not be visible for some time, but I hope to be able to provide more detail in due course. In the meantime, here’s what you can expect:
- Slightly less frequent updates (I religiously posted nearly every day in 2016; this tempo is now likely to decrease)
- More short reaction pieces or flags (bringing other worthy articles or videos to your attention with only limited commentary from myself)
- Fewer “fisking” pieces (taking apart and critiquing articles and speeches line-by-line)
- Hopefully a few more longer-form, ruminative pieces on certain subjects close to this blog’s heart (Brexit, free speech, identity politics, healthcare reform and the NHS)
And one thing will not change. This blog will continue to be stridently independent, and I will at no time “sell out” to raise my profile through artificial means. If I happen to be published, linked or quoted elsewhere in the coming year, it will not be the result of modifying my positions or moderating my tone. Likewise if by some chance I end up back on the BBC as the token “anti-social justice” guy.
I will still be in Texas for the next couple of weeks, but activity on the blog will now slowly start to ramp up again. Please accept my apologies if I am slow to approve or respond to comments, emails or tweets – the backlog is long, and I am still very much in holiday mode.
I wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous 2017.
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How it is possible to write so much and include reading other material is beyond me. Takes me half a day just to wade through the three main blogs – and that’s just reading! You must be able to think, compose, and type at warp speed!
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Happy New Year Sam.
I have to tell you I have been rather astonished by the fact you have managed to post once a day in your spare time. I understand all your frustrations about gaining credibility and readership well enough. I continue to be of the opinion that we would do far better in a single collective blog with say 10-20 individual bloggers all contributing when they can. That way we could ensure there was always something new to read on any day. Breaking the MSM’s steely grip is not going to be easy as lone bloggers. Since Brexit they have been trying a new tactic – smearing the result as a new phenomenon called “post-truth” politics. We need to break that myth:
“A Post-Truth Era? Part 1 – Trump and Brexit”
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Happy New Year Sam, and welcome back.
“imply because it appears on a site with a .wordpress or .blogspot suffix and does not carry the imprimatur of the prestige titles which increasingly churn out so much unoriginal pseudo-analysis or breathless court gossip.”
This is without doubt very true. The amount of blatant guff that one reads in “Prestige Papers” is astonishing to the point of being quite worrying. I clearly remember from school that if one cast an opinion or quoted facts then one had to back that up with references. It would appear that “churnalists” don’t do this anymore. They just churn out any old rubbish without any kind of checking. Even I’ve managed to catch out a few Telegraph “journalists” in this way.
As for the output Sam, I think most of us would far rather have quality over quantity every time.
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It’s definitely good to be in “holiday mode” for a while. The people who never take any time off from politics end up as swivel-eyed zealots or as the kind of obsessive bores that people don’t avoid at parties because they never get invited to any. It just won’t be fun without Jeremy Corbyn, said nobody ever.
I’m not surprised that you’re cutting down on the blogging as it must have taken a huge effort to keep up the pace you’ve been maintaining in recent months. You’ve been Stakhanovite Sam!
I suggest that occasional appearances on the BBC are not a bad use of your time. Firstly, because many news programs will attract quite a significant audience, at least compared to the readership of most blogs. Secondly, it’s easier to convey a message – albeit a very short one – to that audience because written content on the internet has to be sufficiently compelling that people will make the effort to read through it while the TV audience just has to continue watching what they were already watching. No conscious effort is required. Thirdly, the appearance of a dissenting view amidst the BBC’s metro-left monotony may introduce those viewers to ideas that they hadn’t encountered before. Fourthly, having the profile of “semi-regular TV talking head” will make other people in the old media more willing to engage with you.
Finally, the hostility of the old media to blogs is a result of its sudden decline in status in the internet age. When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party the national media already dominated British politics. Blair’s focus on media coverage above all else only served to confirm their position as kingmakers, and the position of editorial writers and opinion columnists as the nation’s great arbiters of truth. They became part of the elite in a way that they hadn’t been before.
Then along came the internet and suddenly the media grandees who imagined that they controlled the dumb masses found that the masses didn’t like, believe or even respect them. Opinion columnists who were by necessity generalists found that everything they wrote could now be fact-checked by subject-matter experts with a global audience. Their hostility to bloggers is a natural reaction to this shock. Therefore, attitudes will only change with the passing of a generation, as the aristocracy of the media’s imperial age are replaced with younger writers who never experienced it.
Welcome back Sam – and a Happy New Year.
KBO – if you thought last year was interesting I think this one will blow your socks off.
The only predictable thing this year – Arsenal will crash out of the Champions League losing to Barca / Bayern and finish 3rd / 4th in the league.
I came across your blog this year and think it is of a very high standard.
‘I increasingly want to write words that hold their value for longer, and to some extent this means stepping back from the fray and going more in depth, which in turn requires more expertise (and a rebalancing away from writing toward reading and research).’
I think this is the right step. You need to write fairly regularly to keep regular readers returning and not losing interest, but this can be done by announcing an absence of a few days of posting, or by posting links to other good articles. But quality is what keeps us coming back, so reading and thinking time will only help.
Thank you for cutting through so much air that comes from the traditional media these days.
Sam, you are a breath of fresh air in the analysis you provide. You also have a life to live. However you decide to move forward, and whatever changes are required, I shall continue to look forward to reading your next piece. Be they daily, weekly, or monthly. Some insight is worth the wait, and yours is firmly within this category. I wish you and yours a very happy New Year.