I’m now in Edinburgh, where of course I’m seeing a ton of shows (some of which I’ll be reviewing for The Stage). But I’m also doing two other things here: I’m holding seminars at Fringe Central on the work I do for The Stage Events series). Tomorrow, I’m hosting a session on careers in theatre journalism (it could be very short: the best advice is probably ‘don’t’, but for the determined few, there are opportunities as well as rewards to be had, as I shall attempt to explain).
Yesterday, I hosted a session on blogging, which since you are reading this, you already know I do. And here’s some of what I said, plus a few tips on the art of blogging, for those that weren’t there.
At the Edinburgh Fringe, of course, anyone who wants to put on a show can do so. There’s no barrier to entry and no curator to stop you turning up and putting on a show, as long as you can book and pay for a venue, and get yourself into the fringe programme. And the same, of course, is true of the blogosphere; anyone who wants to publish nowadays can do so. No wonder it is said these days that everyone’s a critic, or fancies themselves as one.
There are plenty of opportunities for people to share their opinions, from bulletin boards to microblogging on Twitter and more extended ones on Tumblr and other platforms, so there are now a lot of people talking; but is anyone listening? How do you make yourself heard above the din? And in the midst of so much chatter, what is worth listening to?
I regard my blog as the most important journalism that I do now. It’s the most free place I can write in, and it’s possibly the most read. There are many theatre critics in the UK but there are only a few who also blog with any regularity, most notably Lyn Gardner for The Guardian and Michael Coveney who blogs for Whatsonstage, but no one blogs with the daily frequency that updates every weekday for most weeks of the year (though I’m currently on a twice-a-week schedule until the end of next week).
What my blog isn’t
By and large, I keep theatre criticism out of the blog unless I’m not going to review it at all in print. The blog is much more of a commentary on theatre-related issues than a reviewing outlet. But it is also far more personal than a review column could ever be, both in the choice of subjects I can write about, and in putting myself in the story (as I recently did, for example, with my wedding in New York a few weeks ago).
What I am not, however, is a PR tool — I’m often asked by PRs to mention a show or a client on my blog, which also frankly proves just how little they read it, because if they did, they would know it is not a bulletin board for passing comments and mentions, but each entry is themed around a particular subject.
What a blog allows you to do
The blog also gives me a lot of reach and freedom. When you write for a paper, you’re confined by word counts. But with blogs you can write as little or as much as you want.
There’s also an opportunity to stir up debate - to engage (and maybe occasionally enrage) readers. As a print critic, there is a tendency to write in a vacuum - you’re putting it out there, but you don’t know how it’s being received. In this respect, the dialogue that wraps around the blogosphere can be quite healthy, because it provides you with a meter with which to gauge how things are being heard. Of course, it’s much easier for people to post negatively than positively. But if we’re going to give it, we should be able to take it. When there are negative comments, you just have to accept it.
The importance of content and consistency
Content is all — you have to have something to say, in order to make readers feel that there’s something worth reading and returning to your blog regularly. That’s stating the obvious, I realise, but it’s not always easy to find something to say! As I am committed to publishing five days a week, except when I’m on holiday when I typically reduce the frequency of publication to twice a week (as I’m doing right now) that can be a big job.
Consistency is also important; I don’t just publish daily Monday to Friday; I also routinely, unless there are special circumstances, publish at the same time each day, namely 7am. Many readers have told me that its the first thing they do every day, sometimes before they even get out of bed!
I don’t actively court controversy — but when it happens, I embrace it. When someone totally disrupted a performance of Einstein on the Beach a few months ago at the Barbican Theatre by repeatedly taking flash photographs, I confronted them afterwards — then blogged about it. It was only after I shouted at the offender that I was told she was Bianca Jagger. And needless to say, that fact was enough for it to make news stories in The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard and others. It even led to a Guardian feature, trailed on the front page, about bad audience behaviour. This story started on my blog and went viral.
On a few other occasions, blogging has got me into hot water. It’s worth remembering that, as with any other written published words, you are subject to the law, and could face legal writs claiming defamation.
Building traffic to your blog is one of the big challenges. Of course, I’ve got a head start being part of a major industry website that already has a lot of traffic, so I’ll get readers who click through from a link on the front page. But you can never assume a readership; readers can be fickle creatures, and you need to keep them engaged, as well as constantly be attracting new readers.
A few tips: one is the importance of populating your keywords field. That will lead to google searches on those keywords pointing to your blog. Then there’s Twitter and Facebook: the moment I post my blog, I always tweet a link to it with a brief mention about what’s in it, and also post a Facebook update that links to as well. It’s also a good idea to share blogroll links with other blogs; get yourself listed on other people’s recommended blog lists, in return for listing them on yours.
It’s a good idea to have an open comments field to allow readers to interact with you. Of course, there’s always a danger that it’ll be abused — internet trolls are everywhere — but it’s a price worth paying. You can put persistent offenders on a programme that requires their comments to be authorised before you publish them (and don’t publish them if they’re genuinely offensive); but not just because they disagree with you! It’s good to be robust and show that you can accept criticism.
A more annoying challenge to deal with is being bombarded by spam comments, trying to hijack your threads to promote products. Keep an active spam filter going, and keep adding new offenders to it. But you’ll have to do quite a lot of housekeeping.