Just over a month ago, we celebrated our first year with Little M in the family, and two days later, The Trout Underground blew right through the 2,500 post barrier.
Today we find ourselves standing squarely atop the Trout Underground’s Five Year Anniversary (to the day).
Which is why – when I stumbled across a WordPress word-counting utility – I foolishly used it.
The number of words published on the Trout Underground? 690,000+ (and still counting).
That’s about 4.15 million keystrokes – not counting my comments, the stuff I never finished, didn’t publish, or backspaced into the aether.
Suddenly, it’s not just my butt that hurts.
For those who still read books, that’s between five and ten full-length novels. (I was tempted to put “five and ten full-length novels” in italics, but realized them emphasis wasn’t really necessary).
With all the above churning in my head – and with today being the Trout Underground’s Five Year Anniversary – this is as good a time as any to invest fifteen minutes leaning back in a chair, sucking on a beer and pondering the following:
What The Hell Do I Think I’m Doing?
While the Underground has changed its hair color a few times, the constant over the last five years has been a desire to write about the odd bits of the fly fishing life you won’t find in a magazine.
The personal moments, the beautiful moments, the frustrating moments, the new dad moments (like standing over a stinky changing table instead of a small stream) – you get the picture.
In that sense, I’m still batting a thousand.
I keep writing about my tiny, unglamorous corner of the fly fishing world (and my trips to other tiny, unglamorous corners of the fly fishing world), and a surprising number of you keep coming along for the ride.
Which astonishes me.
The Upper Sacramento River – and the small streams and alpine lakes I photograph and write about – lie far from the exotic destinations currently occupying the center of fly fishing’s media universe.
It’s rare to find an issue of anything lacking a story about Patagonia or a distant part of the former Soviet Union, and if you don’t have a hero shot or confrontation with some marginally frightening foreign bandit, you don’t really have a story.
Whether this represents the ongoing “extremification” of the sport depends on your perspective, though it’s pretty clearly the result of (to steal from Vonnegut) certain economic realities.
In simple terms, if you want to make money, you go where money’s being spent.
In fly fishing, the trail of dollar bills leads squarely to How-to/Where-to articles (which appeal to new anglers, who are buying gear); gear reviews (which sell more gear than ads); and “adventure destination” articles (which sell trips for travel agents and lodges, who buy ads).
And while it’s easy to read the above as condemnation, I’m just recognizing reality.
Fly fishing’s a hobby for most, but for a few it’s a business, and it’s clear fly fishing’s online world is increasingly occupied with the business of business.
It’s normal and expected, though I still get fired up after some fool pitches me an “opportunity” that mostly allows them to profit from my work (for the last time, “exposure” doesn’t feed my kid).
Despite steadfastly ignoring every major fly fishing trend (at least as it relates to gear, travel and fermented beverages), the Underground continues to draw approximately 22,000 unique visitors every month – the equivalent of a small magazine.
That suggests one of two things. Either fly fishermen are still plenty interested in essays about everyday fly fishing, or Wally the Wonderdog is way more popular than I guessed.
Frankly, I’m willing to go either way on that one.
When I launched the Underground, fly fishing’s online universe was a shiny new place; a big experiment run by people wearing waders instead of lab coats, and for a while, most of us were happy enough dabbling in the science instead of focusing on the results.
Like any movement, it couldn’t last forever.
Almost overnight, bloggers seemingly stopped linking to other blogs, cliques formed, commercial interests crept into the equation, and one day, someone suggested an advertiser wouldn’t receive coverage on their site as long as the advertiser was paying for space on mine.
Which is when I realized things had fundamentally changed.
Today, blogs aren’t the hot media channel they used to be, and the herds are leaving “long form” content behind for “hot” technologies like Facebook and Twitter (you don’t need a Mensa card to know 140 character-long tweets are a lot easier to create than 1000-word posts).
Flipbook-based ezines are also hot properties, yet I can’t help but think they’re something of a throwback; no conversations take place between their virtual covers, and in fact, they exist largely apart from the “social” web.
Given the low rates paid for online advertising (which reflects its often abysmal clickthrough rates), it’s hard to see more than one or two ezines achieving profitability (needed to pay those providing the content).
In other words, I believe we’re just at the start of the new media revolution. There’s plenty more to come.
What is clear is this: given the public’s reluctance to pay for anything appearing in a web browser (that’s why traditional media outlets are embracing the iPad and its easy-to-monetize apps), blogs only make commercial sense when you’ve got something to sell.
You’ll want to keep that in mind for the future.
Five Years Later
Today, I’m a fly fishing dad of a two year-old daughter who fishes less than he used to, and while I miss yesterday’s largely obligation-free existence, I’m unable to stop staring into the light generated by my bright, shiny little girl.
Sadly, it turns out that money still matters, and lacking a trust fund (wealthy couples looking to adopt an older child should contact me immediately), I’m transforming my 25 year copywriting business into a marketing consultancy – a time-consuming affair.
I still fish more than some, though even when I do, I don’t always find the time to write about it. The last year has been wildly hectic, and the last three months have been off the charts.
At times, the Underground’s felt like a bit of burden, and when I’m feeling that pressure, the trolls, nasty emails, alpha-dog wannabees and wholly clueless commenters seem a little bigger than they are.
It’s hard to imagine life without the Underground, but it’s equally hard to ignore the imminent signing of a time-consuming-but-very-interesting new client and the half-dozen (sizable) online projects featuring February deadlines.
In other words, the last three months are about to repeat themselves, and while I’m not making any decisions on the Trout Underground’s Fifth Anniversary, I’m also not ruling out changes.
They might include everything from turning TU into a multi-author blog (this lightens the load) to simply burning it down and walking away.
Wherever the journey leads, it’s safe to say the last five years wouldn’t have been half as much fun if the Undergrounders hadn’t shared the ride. For the most part, you played along when I was having fun, but Threw Down Big when our fishing access was threatened, my father died, Little M arrived, and the dozens of other times it was needed.
See you on the river, Tom Chandler.