Saturday, July 21, 2012

DeSmogBlog : "the blog as a think tank or the think tank as a blog ?", worries CATO from KANSAS

Packaging Passion can take a dozen forms

Look, way up, up in the ether: is it a bird, a plane, a blog, a virtual think tank , a dog ?

A dog ?

How would you ever know who is or isn't a dog on the Internet?

Who is or isn't a blog or a virtual think tank on the Internet?

Enough virtual reality - let's get concrete - or better still, let's get solar.

You want passionately, as a single individual - to promote solar energy - NOW !!!!

But how ?

At first, there often appears to be many different ways to promote a vision.

But if you've done about all of them as I have, the differences between all the various choices can end up appearing more apparent than real.

So here is what you will do, for sure - in all of the different approaches :

you produce a mission statement, recruit supporters, seek out advisers and donations, co-sponsor conferences, publish a periodical, occasionally publish reports or even a 'book' , make submissions to public bodies in the world of politics, lobby politicians and the media directly and via press releases.

 you do some original field research, publish some review articles. Speak at some others' conferences, occasionally getting interviewed as an expert by Radio and TV.

And now for the real difficult issue :

picking a name.

 Because, right away, your name defines you and limits how you will be perceived, for ever and ever ---- despite the fact that your main purpose and most of your operating procedures will NOT fundamentally change regardless of which name you happen to pick.

You could call yourself  The Society for the Study of Solar Power Initiatives (SSSPI) and appear to be (quasi-) academic society in nature.

A bit more aggressive , you call yourself Solar Energy Now !  (SEN !) , an NGO cum environmental protest/action movement.

More aggressively still, you could form a single issue political party , the Solar Energy Now Party (SENP) .

Or maybe back off a good bit - become, or appear to become, an industry lobby group, Solar Energy Advancement Canada (SEAC).

Why not a think tank ? The Solar Energy Initiative Institute (SEII).

Or claim to be a business consultant ( that is what all the other middle class unemployed do - or sell real estate or insurance.)

Solar Energy Initiative Consulting (SEIC)  makes almost no money but it allows you to approach and appeal to business interests turned off by environmentally oriented movements and parties , as well as anything reeking of 'academia' .

Let's go back to the think tank idea and flesh it out - but the others' histories are not that dissimilar.

There are documented, fully credible, think tanks with the founder as executive director and only full time employee, with their friend cum lawyer advisor and friend cum accountant advisor filling the other two directors chairs to meet minimal legal requirements.

The Board meets briefly once a year, again to fulfill minimum legal requirements.

 No members with ownership & voting rights (and legal liabilities).

Instead only paid-up supporters who are glad to get the publications and  attend conferences at sharp discounts for a very minimal membership fee.

Supporters who are glad not have to bear legal and financial responsibilities for law suits against the controversial organization that being a member-owner would entail.

Two major donors and much of the director's joint family income fund the organization's annual $100,000 cost.

 All monies received from other donations and from publication and conference income is far less than the cost incurred.

 (because while think tanks typically espouse "user-payer" for others , none has ever been observed actually applying it to themselves -- no one would read their policy papers, if sold at their true cost !)

But here is the rub : the new digital rules greatly lower the cost of becoming a think tanks (or lobby group et al) and this as destroyed their major advantage for the forces of wealth and greed : high entry costs made them the domain of the rich.

True, successful think tanks of all political stripes usually set up in the major government , university and conference centres :  big metropolitan cities .

This applies equally to rich think tanks of the greedy 1% as to the poor think tanks trying to help the 99%.

The overall costs are rarely much higher than locating in a smaller big city.

The cost of being in Washington DC or New York  (or Canberra or Sydney) is rarely much higher than doing it all out of St Louis or Adelaide.

But the rent, the rent !

Yes, but consider that many prominent think tank directors can humbly walk from their office to their conference's meeting hall or to the legislature or to the opposition leaders' press conference - saving much time, airfares and hotel bills.

For the rich think tanks, the main consideration is the extra time they can have mingling with the powerful in informal settings , by living in the powerfuls' home town.

But think tanks used to require incomes of millions a year to be even minimally successful.

Everything they said or did involved printing and mailing out thousands of pieces of  impressive-looking, heavy, colorful paper : most of their costs were here - not in office space or salaries.

(Many of the think tank Fellows merely need a credible hitching post between real jobs, more than they needed a real big income right now : a Fellowship at a big think tank acted like a highly visible CV and Resume .)

But free email,  free YouTube access and tiny costs for video cameras and video editing software, free or nearly free static-free long distance phone calls, free blogs and websites has made for a totally virtual global presence at virtually no cost.

But you still need to be in the centre of the action in big capitol cities.

But I have personally seen recently, ( in cities like New York, London, Toronto and Ottawa)  some truly, ahem, modest accommodations, within walking distance of the powerful, and carrying relatively modest monthly rents .

Bachelor apartments, lofts and the like over shops --- probably occupied by student types and ethnic immigrants.

Now think tanks - even today in these digital times - still require impressive offices to appear and be impressive.

Receptionist in a visually attractive outer office with plenty of flashy, expensive, paper publications for take away, a nicely wood panelled executive director's sanctum ; you know the total look, even at its bare minimum.

True, other than the director and office manager-cum-receptionist , the fellows of the think tank can be mere 'adjunct scholars' , all  employed-for-money elsewhere, but glad to hang their intellectual hat at a credible institution to spread their individual take on the world and modestly self-promote themselves at the same time.

They stay in touch by phone and email and a few (free) video conferences.

This still keeps the very minimal costs for a credible think tanks to about $200,000 a year - and among the 99% there are not enough well to do to offer up cost-free large donations on that scale on an annual basis.

We all know - or should know - that it literally cost millions in set up work before seeking small donations becomes profitable - and this only applies to a few large organizations with a unique appeal to a large subset of the population.

Among the 99%, only a large collection of small foundations, bequests and labour unions can fund a credible think tank of the conventional sort - which is why they are so rare.

Some digital aggregators are well on their way to becoming highly effective quasi-think tanks cum lobby groups cum everything.

I am thinking of digital efforts like Canada's , potentially more effective than all of the other of Canada's Left-leaning organizations, baring only a few big unions, the NDP social democratic party itself, and one or two of the conventional (having an Ottawa office)  think tanks that are of the Left.

(I am here deliberately excluding the environmental type organizations from this description of the Canadian Left.)

It suggests another model for a successful modern day think tank : the personal blog.

Yes, the personal blog !

The personal blog suggests several highly attractive attributes that don't actually have to be true ---- to remain highly attractive.

If I tell you that I am typing this blog post on my bed in only my PJ bottoms because Halifax this July is unusually hot and muggy, you wouldn't likely be surprised.

Aren't all blogs - or most all blogs - done that way ?

No they are not . Take the example of James Hoggan, titular head of the blog deSmogBlog.

In the world, on the subject of climate change, this blog is very very powerful - far more listened to than anything else Canada can produce on the subject with the exception of the Fraser Institute think tank, the two national papers and a few Canadian climate change deniers' own blog efforts .

Yes I am saying that no one in the rest of the world listens to the current Canadian Government or the Official Opposition on this subject : their views are known around the world but seen as static.

In his book, Climate Cover-Up, Hoggan explains he had very humble intentions at first : merely to add a community service element to the website of his small Vancouver PR firm.

He stumbled upon climate change as the subject of that community service section: because it seemed so polarized, he thought he could offer the community an objective look at both sides.

As he researched he found no scientific controversy, only a scientific consensus combating a secretive PR  assault against it.

PR being his bread and butter, he was now hooked ; he's show how PR should be done and remain honest, versus how how bad , evil, PR was done.

He found his senior writer at his small PR firm had made a similar discovery when called upon to do just another freelance writing assignment - for David Suziki.

 A well to do friend had money and that rarity among the wealthy, a healthy conscience.

A blog was born, a blog with a difference.

Most blogs - most think tanks - most political parties - most newspapers spend most of their time reporting upon, reviewing, collating and assessing others' original date collecting.

DeSmogBlog would be different : Jim's senior writer/employee/friend Richard Littlemore would be mostly a researcher, collecting hard data the old fashioned hard way using elbow grease, contact lists and brains.

Soon other employees came on board, along with a raft of semi paid researchers and writers and a pile of pure volunteers, all driven by a passionate concern for the state of the planet.

"Greedy" think tanks, oriented to defending the right to be greedy and wealthy find far fewer staffers willing to take vows of poverty to write about becoming wealthy : these think tanks have large incomes because - frankly - they need large incomes to pay to hold credible "greed-oriented" staffers.

Now what, in fact, is a blog ?

Look at most blogs today and you will see a very cluttered Home Page, like any other active website's Home Page, (once beyond the dignified Splash Page that sometime still exists on some sites).

Yes, the centre will usually be a single column news story - so separating a blog right away from the internet newspaper or magazine's multi new column format.

But the sides are cluttered with other colums filled with gadgets or widgets : each acting as portals to dozens or hundreds of other web pages.

Join, donate, comment, read archival material, join a supporter forum, find out the purpose of this website and who is behind it, sign up for a conference, buy a paper-copy book, download a lengthy PDF ebook position paper. Find who else supports this website and who else the website itself supports.

On and on and on.

Almost anything a political party, think tank, academic society, lobby group or NGO does today (except hold face to face conferences) can be hung off a blog - in beautiful fonts and vivid color - free.

Yet because it is a blog (ie proverbially produced in a bedroom in PJs) it has no need for an expensive office and in fact I believe the large office suite HQ greatly harms the street cred of any blog that is stupid enough to show off them off.

When James Fallows and The Atlantic were permitted by GAWKER to do a long cover story on the inside operation of this blog empire in April 2011, I don't think GAWKER-the-blogger ever recovered.

Blogs that aim to be big, best look to the successful models of the past where a single individual became the public face and personality of the brand but the superstructure of editors and researchers and office managers who kept them afloat remained largely hidden.

Canada's Pierre Berton was a hard working, clever writer and researcher but he upped even his prodigious output once he added a lot of fact checkers, researchers and TV show producers etc.

Drew Pearson, an American muckraking syndicated columnist from the 1950s era, also had his back room helpers.

I am guessing that Drew Pearson-the-journalist had to have a formal office but Berton, once he more or less left regular journalism and became a writer did not.

We suspect and dislike writers with formal, public office suites and a public business plan of writing 3000 words a day without fail.

We call this sort of writer "genre" writers or "hacks".

This means we expect writers to be untutored geniuses of the sort the Romantic Era so admired - and I suspect blogger writers, to be fully successful, need to appear to be the same.

Bedroom offices, PJs, may be just the louche image required.

Yet off that tiny 'bedsit' , one can- and maybe should - hang an entire institutional empire.

Don't hire employees to write - ask fellow bloggers who bring a lot of expertise in areas you don't have, to write guest blog posts for free - because they need the visibility your blog has, that their blog does not, yet.

If you aren't making any money and don't plan to, they will not get paid either - in money - yet feel it is a fair exchange.

They could guest blog about the long research paper they just wrote and link to the entire PDF - who wants to work a year on something and watch it die virtually unread ?

Step by step, you could become a quasi-think tank - without needing millions in annual revenue - and finally we the 99% would be able to match the greedy 1%'s think tanks in quantity of  institutions and written output.

I welcome your comments and suggestions on these thoughts....

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