2010 Canadian Weblog Awards Exclusive Nominee Interview with Curtis Brown of Endless Spin Cycle

Curtis Brown authors Endless Spin Cycle, which is nominated in the Political category of the 2010 Canadian Weblog Awards.

Why blogging?

Why painting? Why bird-watching, or stamp-collecting? That’s a good question, and honestly, like any pursuit, it’s something you dabble at a little bit and then find out before long you’re hooked on it.

In my case, I came to blogging a little bit differently than most people probably do. I started out as a journalist who wrote about politics quite a bit. Right around the time my newspaper started asking me to write a regular column, which my editor James O’Connor suggested we call “Spin Cycle,” I was starting to read blogs about politics. A few things struck me about them. First, they were not subject to things like word counts or deadlines, so you could write something long or short, or publish something at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday night, and not be constrained to having a column in the can on Friday afternoon by 6 so it could be published in the next day’s paper. As a writer, I thought this was really liberating and interesting. Second, the form of blogs – and the instant feedback from people leaving comments – allowed you to speak to your audience in a much more personal way, and I really enjoy that. Five years after I started Endless Spin Cycle, I’m still coming across people I’ve never met who will introduce themselves by saying “Hey, I know you – I read your blog” and it still astonishes me because you don’t realize how many people actually do read it, and feel they know something about you. Third – and this goes against the idea that blogs are these great tools for giving every citizen a voice and blah blah blah – it was also started as a shameless vehicle for self-promotion. I can admit it. And to a certain extent, it’s worked.

What have been your greatest achievements/setbacks so far in your blog quest?

I don’t know that I could point to any single thing I wrote and say it was some great triumph or terrible setback. I think the coverage on my blog of the NDP leadership race last fall does stand out a bit, though. In a lot of ways, I think the blog became a real go-to source of information and dialogue as the campaign unfolded. The real coup, I guess, was that both of the final two candidates, Greg Selinger and Steve Ashton, agreed to be interviewed for the blog, which I found rather remarkable since I would expect the vast majority of people who visit the blog – and we’re talking in the dozens or hundreds of people a day, not the thousands or tens of thousands who read the paper or watch the TV news – were either not members of the NDP or already knew who they were voting for in the leadership race. To me, that said that blogs have achieved a certain level of importance in the overall communications landscape if candidates for premier are granting as much time to a small website with a relatively small and incredibly politically engaged audience as they are to a broader media platform with a higher number of “persuadables” reading or tuning in.

What keeps you blogging, and how do you fight writer's block?

The audience is really what keeps me blogging. It is their comments, their support and their encouragement that kept me from shelving this thing for good not that long ago. There have been many nights when I’ve thought to myself “Why am I spending so much of my time doing this?” and I remember that it’s the dialogue with the people who enjoy it and derive some sort of intrinsic value from it that keeps me motivated. At the same time, it’s also a personal outlet and I am sure that if I didn’t blog, I would be frustrated every time I read about something interesting or heard something that makes me want to vent about how stupid or infuriating it is. For the sake of my fiancée and the rest of my family, I guess it’s good that I quietly type away on my blog rather than rant at them for hours on end!

As for writer’s block, it happens, and you have to work through it, I think. Part of the problem for me – and I think this is true for others – is when you go back to the same sources looking for something to write about and you come up empty. For people who blog about politics, the real danger is you go to the CBC or Globe and Mail website, or to another blog, and you don’t see something that really inspires you to write, so you gin up some outrage over what you find because you feel you have to post something. Fortunately, your readers are usually pretty good about telling you when you’ve made a stupid, half-baked argument just for the sake of making it, and you learn to be a little more selective in what you post about.

If you were to impart some knowledge to an aspiring blogger, what would you tell them?

Notwithstanding what I just said, write as much as you can. You can always save the draft if it’s not worth sharing with the rest of the world, and at least you get into the rhythm of working through your thoughts, building arguments and coming up with good material. I’d also highly recommend you read as many blogs as you can to see what works and what doesn’t. Also, try to establish a bit of a niche – there are a million people who blog about “politics,” or even Canadian politics, and it’s pretty hard to stand out in that crowd. Focus on bringing a perspective from your neighbourhood, or the town you live in, and build that out to the other levels of government from that lens of your local community. Also, if you’re just starting out, share what you write with your family, friends, co-workers and contacts, as that’s the best way to establish an audience and build a network of people who will engage with what you have to say.

Which blogs are your must-reads? Are there other political blogs that inspire you?

It depends, really, on what I’m looking at. Obviously I read what other bloggers in Manitoba are writing all the time, so I would point to some excellent Winnipeg and Manitoba-based blogs like Policy Frog, West End Dumplings, Anybody Want a Peanut? and The View from Seven. As an pseudo-alumnus of the Winnipeg Free Press, I read their staff blogs all the time, as well as the blogs written by Winnipeg Sun columnists Tom Brodbeck and Kevin Engstrom.

When it comes to blogs about federal politics, there are thousands of blogs that I hardly ever get a chance to look at. The three biggies, for me, are Warren Kinsella, Paul Wells from Maclean’s, and Calgary Grit. These were the blogs that I started reading five or six years ago that got me hooked on the whole political blog genre, and I keep going back to them because after all this time, they still do what they do incredibly well. I also turn to the blogs being offered now by the CBC and The Globe and Mail, though I am a bit selective about some of the items I read, with a bias towards the thoughtful analysis over inside-baseball stuff.. And of course I read American stuff all the time too, ranging from the stuff on the right, like National Review’s The Corner and David Frum, to more left-of-centre writers like The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait. I also read a lot of sports and gossip blogs, mostly for their irreverence as well as because it gives me ideas for how to do good writing without the inherent seriousness and partisan argumentation that comes when you engage with people who look at things with a very critical and often very partisan perspective.

And of course I can’t forget my friend, fellow nominee and former co-worker from Brandon, Grant Hamilton, who writes Absurd Intellectual with Amy Breen and T. Keith Edmunds.

As one of Manitoba's most-recognized political writers and commentators, Curtis Brown demonstrates how new media have taken a prominent place in the province's social and political landscape. A former newspaper reporter and columnist with the Brandon Sun and later the Winnipeg Free Press, Curtis is also the author of the blog Endless Spin Cycle, which comments on local, provincial and national politics (as well as a whole bunch of other things) from a Manitoba perspective. Curtis, who currently serves as a research associate with Winnipeg's Probe Research, also examines blogging from an academic perspective and has recently completed his M.A. Thesis in Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, which focused on the extent to which partisan blogs affect the media's coverage of the federal government.

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Elan Morgan

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