A while back I was asked to speak at One Book One Community Stillwater Salutes Will Rogers event which took earlier this month. The request was to put into context how Will was America’s first blogger. I said sure. After all, now difficult could it be to pull information. Surely this has been covered before and the research wouldn’t be difficult. After all, we can learn blogging lessons from the most absurd headline making individuals (go ahead, I dare you to google “blogging lessons from” and insert any absurdity) surely lesson from the master of life-streaming had been articulated.
I was wrong. With the help of my wife and business partner we started our quest. Below is the final outcome. I’ve posted my presentation notes in their entirety and left the slide markers in place should you wish to follow along.
During the next few weeks I plan to break it down into bite size morsels. There are a lot of words below and some nuggets are worthy of highlight. For example, Will Rogers nails Chris Brogen’s blogging tips only he did it more than 75 years ago.
One final thought. While I was there I met two people who had met Will Rogers. Their stories were amazing. I also met Peter Collins who made these films. Note the second one. I had the pleasure of talking with him during the presentation (that’s the way we roll) and afterward. His insight and commentary was awesome. Unfortunately my time was limited and had to leave shortly after the presentation but I hope to catch up with him soon. More on him later.
I hope you enjoy and would love your feedback. You can see my slides by clicking the image to the right.
I want to thank everyone for being here today. I want to clarify that I am not an expert on Will Rogers and I would argue that even Social Media expert might be an overstatement.I’ve always said, I’m just a PR guy who got to be a professor. I guess that makes me one of the luckiest PR guys in the world.I’m sure if Will Rogers were alive today he would cover for me and say, “not being an expert on something never stopped a man from talking about it as an expert.” so I guess I’m good to go.
2 I am here to talk about Will Rogers and in particular, his time as a writer, from 1926 – 1935. During this time he wrote a daily, brief commentary of his personal opinion and, the happenings of the day and his surroundings.
Today we might call him a blogger depending on how you look at it and the platforms used.
I’m sure his shortest commentary; those of 140 characters or less might even be called a tweet had something like that existed back in the day.
For example, Feb 4, 1927 he tweet.. I mean wrote, “We will stop those Chinese from fighting among themselves if we have to kill them to do it.” 92 characters of pure retweetable bliss, I assure you, even if posted today.
Let’s take a moment and talk about Mr. Rogers.
To provide some background on the man we need only look to the most amazing resource of information known to man – Wikipedia.
Will Rogers was born in 1879 and died in a plane crash in 1935. If we wanted to add a dramatic spin to his death we could say it was his passion for blogging which lead to his untimely death. But I won’t. At least not yet. More on that later.
3 I’m calling him America’s Blogger.
Of course no one grows up wanting to be a blogger. At least I don’t think they do.
Will Rogers didn’t. And for all that he grew up to be, as a young man all he wanted to be was a Gaucho. A South American Cowboy. Why he didn’t simply head West is a presentation for another day.
Like a lot of bloggers Will Rogers had a diverse and interesting background.
During his life he was an American cowboy doing wild west shows abroad, vaudeville performer, humorist, social commentator and motion picture actor.
Unlike most bloggers he was successful at all and ultimately became one of the world’s best-known celebrities in the 1920s and 1930s.
I’ve used the term blogger a few times and as the title of this presentation suggests some have added the job description “American blogger” although I might argue he wasn’t just an American Blogger, he was America’s blogger.
Perhaps it was this full and diverse life that made him such a great blogger. Perhaps it was just the times and the need for one. They were tumultuous. An economic depression, war, civil unrest around the world. When you think about it, much like today.
So why don’t we have other bloggers to fill his shoes? We have bloggers, perhaps too many. But we don’t have a Will Rogers.
Let’s look at the path to posthumous title.
5 He was born into a well-to-do ranching family and had a prosperous life. When he failed as a Gaucho he moved on to entertainment, being part of a wild west show and several vaudeville acts.
These efforts did not follow the same path as his effort to be a Gaucho (if you can’t tell, I like that word). He was a successful entertainer, and in life, to say the least.
As an entertainer he twirled his lariat and always had a pretty girl to lasso. Most of all he was a comedian of sorts as he spoofed the news.
His shtick relied on the changing news stories which kept his act fresh. Will Rogers was a wise man and John Stewart wasn’t the first.
From vaudeville he moved on to find a national audience. His simple ways and homespun commentary made him one of America’s most celebrated stars. But this prosperity wasn’t a new life – it was a continuance.
The irony of course, was his distrust of the wealthy, the politicians, and even the Hollywood elite ultimately endeared him to millions of Americans who went to all of his films and checked daily for his updates to the nation.
6 It would be inappropriate not to mention he made is Broadway debut in 1916 and performed in several movies during the 1930s.
Here he is in “They Had to See Paris”.
7 In fact, if you visit his IMDb profile you can access one of his full length movies.
Well worth a moment to view although I felt his performance in Judge Priest was a bit stiff. Of course, everyone’s a critic.
8 So how or why in the world would we consider him to be America’s blogger? More to the point, if he were alive today would he consider or even call himself a blogger?
What would he think of blogging in general or the iterations of how we now communicate?
9 For those of you curious about the actual definition of what blogging is, according to Wikipedia, blogging, or web logging, is nothing more than a personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of individual entries.
I’ve said on many occasion, social media is not REVOLUTIONARY, it’s merely EVOLUTIONARY.
If you swapped World Wide Web with “any media” By definition alone Will was a blogger – more on that in a moment.
10 So what makes a blog and why was his blogging style so good?
When we consider the fundamentals of a blog, the best blogs, are simply short, daily columns. Often times a down to earth or humorous take on current events, everyday issues and life’s questions.
These can be political, business in nature or even about a woman’s life, someone who moved from the city to the country and is finding her way.
So yes, he was a blogger. But…
Would even want to be called a “blogger”?
My guess is yes. I suppose if he were alive he might say it like this, “for $1.6 million a year you can call me anything you like”
You see, at his height of popularity he was paid $2,500 per week or in 2010 dollars $1.6 million dollars per year to write a short, daily columns with down to earth or humorous takes on current events, everyday issues and life’s questions which were often times political or business in nature.
He wasn’t just a blogger. He was a well paid blogger.
But I’m getting a head of myself. How did Will Rogers become a blogger? To some extent, like so many bloggers, it was by chance.
11. Betty Rogers, his wife, tells the story about her husband’s path to bloggerdom better and with more authority than anyone else. After all, she was there.
Read Book – pg 193
12 Like many of today’s bloggers Will’s weapon of choice had a keyboard.
It wasn’t a laptop, it was a portable typewriter. And you can see it here.
He could be seen typing his articles wherever he might have a few moments: in trains,, aboard steamships, on the set of his latest motion picture or in theater dressing rooms and, of course, even on an airplane. Even the one he died in.
And his daily commentary was an early example of publishing daily thoughts – life streaming or blogging – only instead of the Internet, he used every media at his disposal, just like bloggers of today do.
He used radio, newspaper, movies and public speaking. Bloggers use online publishing platforms, video and, of course, public speaking when they are honored with such a request.
Will was a user of technology – electric technology, in fact, was also part of his writing arsenal and critical to his success.
13 You see, after an article was written, Rogers used the telegraph for delivery, wiring his copy directly to the New Your Times branch office of the Western Union located in the Times building.
More often than not cutting it close to the 4 pm deadline. Like bloggers of today we never seem to have enough time for this passion and deadlines are the bane of our existence.
From there, copies of the column were sent to the other newspapers around the country. Of course in blogger lingo today we might call that aggregation and curation.
In part due to the tight deadlines and in part due to Rogers’s insistence about his personal writing style, his copy went to press without edits. This “on the fly” style of writing about contemporary events truly mirrors the style of bloggers, life streamers and micro bloggers today.
I know I catch hell every time I leave out an apostrophe it’s with an apostrophe s vs its. I remind my few critics that I understand the difference of the possessive but space and time are not on my side and I can’t be bothered with such details.
How Will and I differ is I’m sloppy but Will was more likely using his errors to his advantage.
And like so many bloggers, he had a lot to say.
In a span of only sixteen years, from 1916 until 1935 he put almost two million words in print—six books, more than 3,600 newspaper columns, and hundreds of magazine articles—
Since I’m standing on hollowed ground in Stillwater, Oklahoma, It is worth noting that until the creation of an online version of his writings, a comprehensive, professionally edited and annotated collection of “The Writings of Will Rogers” was only available in the twenty-one-volume set published by Oklahoma State University Press.
I’m not sure who decided to take on that daunting task but I would like to thank them.
His use of the telegraph is a simple reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same. Like blogging in 2012, publishing Will Rogers’s Daily Telegram depended largely on capitalizing on modern technology.
And the debate of today – that bloggers fill an ever increasing demand of readers and is reflective of an over indulgent desire of our societies to consume more media at an every quicker pace s one of old.
Newspapers appreciated his use of and valued the speed of the telegraph because they didn’t want to wait either.
These daily telegraphs helped meet the demand of their readers consumption – From one article about Will Rogers, “so anxious were people to have information that many publishers found that regular editions did not always satisfy the publics desire to know and know now”
14 Our best bloggers of today should represent the fabric of our times within the topic of choice. They aren’t to write a novel but their ideas should be. Each article stands alone and stands the test of time.
Even as a collection of Will Roger’s posts, “daily telegrams” was published they weren’t necessarily meant to be read straight through.
Although I would argue reading them in their entirety would give you an “on the ground” perspective of life in the United States from 1926 – 1935.
And when you read the last article, whether you read it first, last or somewhere in the middle you might wish, like I have, that other’s could emulate the distinct writing style of Will Rogers.
15 It is the desire of every blogger to start a conversation. Many hold the number of comments at the base of any blog post as a badge of honor.
While technology during his time did not allow for the same level of immediate feedback enjoyed by the today’s bloggers, Rogers clearly ignited conversation which took place across our country. In living rooms, coffee shops, barber shops etc., arguably a better form of social networking than Twitter or Facebook could ever provide.
We could argue his ”antiquated” methods were actually more efficient than what bloggers enjoy today. You see, when he spoke, he had a captive audience undistracted by mobile phones, email and all the other technological gadgets we rely on today to keep us efficient and organized. Unlike our bloggers today, he could be reasonably certain his message was heard, in its entirety.
Rather than a comment section, he received immediate feedback in the form of laughter from a live audiences or in the discussions between others surrounding one of his famed commentaries on society.
As I think about that, isn’t that more valuable, wonderful and dynamic than simply having someone post a message back to you – to generate a conversation, hundreds or even thousands of conversations all from your written or spoken word.
Maybe most important of all and the greatest differentiator between his efforts and today’s bloggers – He never said “LOL” or end a sentence with an emoticon.
16 His work molded public opinion but this is where he differs from many bloggers today – he was a blogger of the best kind. He never abused his power and always seemed to use his powers for good.
For example, even though he didn’t always agree with President Hoover he reminded readers that the depression wasn’t Hoover’s fault and that no one man could cause a national economic catastrophe.
Perhaps bloggers and all commentators should learn from the master.
Not to say he didn’t have his critics. Even today.
Like many bloggers today he was also a center of influence that others sought to reinforce messages they were trying to convey.
During the depression the White House called on Will to help share and encourage support of the New Deal.
Some have argued he was truly a political insider.
A New York Times review of “Will Rogers, a Political Life” had this to say, “proving one unelected man’s influence isn’t easy, but White (the author) makes a convincing case that Rogers had plenty. He helped build support for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, sometimes performing on the radio just before a fireside chat, and making points so similar to the president’s that a reporter once asked if one of them was writing the other’s material. (Nope, Rogers insisted.)
When the Supreme Court struck down New Deal legislation, Rogers criticized the justices as “the nine old gentlemen in the kimonos.”
He stumped for government investment in aviation and ridiculed Prohibition relentlessly. In the late 1920s, he warned that Americans were living beyond their means and in the early 1930s that Germany would re-emerge as a military threat.
Regardless, he reflected iconic American values but when critical most often focused on the establishment and not the person.
17 Like the most eloquent of bloggers he suffers the same fate – misquotes and paraphrasing.
I never met a man I didn’t like is normally taken out of context –
It was about Leon Trotsky and in its entirety read “I bet you if I had met him and had a chat with him, I would have found him a very interesting and human fellow, for I never yet met a man that I dident like. When you meet people, no matter what opinion you might have formed about them beforehand, why, after you meet them and see their angle and their personality, why, you can see a lot of good in all of them.”
Like all bloggers, I am sure he also took it as a compliment.
18 In his blogging, He sheds light on the truth, through his eyes. He reminds us through his observations of what is really important.
“One sure certainty about our Memorial Days is that as fast as the ranks from one war thin out, the ranks from another take their place. Prominent men may run out of Decoration Day speeches, but the world never runs out of wars. People talk peace, but men give up their life’s work to war.”
I want to take a moment and break this down.
19 Followed a bloggers tip – write about yourself. Where most bloggers fail is they aren’t active enough to generate enough content.
Stayed active and traveled all over the world. He connected with everyone and used that to his advantage when he wrote.
20 Personal experiences are a staple of blogs today and best practices have been hammered out. I think if he were to provide tips to today’s bloggers these might be some.
- Write to be helpful.
- Be brief.
- Tell a story.
- Connect others, if appropriate.
- Share. Often.
- Don’t overthink it. (It’s a blog, not a dissertation.)
- But be thoughtful.
- Don’t be mean.
- Publish often enough to build a relationship.
- But be mindful of your audience’s time.
It is important to note, these are actually tips provided by prominent blogger Chris Brogan.
Will Rogers nails them all. He just did it more than 80 years ago.
21 So, if we could ask the master blogger the two most pressing questions in blogging today what would he say?
22 Are bloggers journalists?
At times Will played the role of journalist and interviewed a variety of famous people. But I believe his daily articles were never meant to carry this same weight although I would argue sometimes he might have hoped they carried more.
I believe he understood the difference between writing a column and being a journalist. This isn’t to say he held either position in high regard. Click
This is what Will had to say
“All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.”
23 Which is more important, quality or context?
Will was clear on this and I mentioned it before. He wrote fast and with errors. And that was okay with him.
He said of critics, “That’s the way I write it and that’s the way I want it to lay”
While they might remove entire sentences for fear of reprisals they left his actual words as is. And there was value to that. It spoke to the common person. Will spoke to the common person.
24 On that topic, I have to share this. When I was conducting research for this presentation I came across this from the Will Rogers Memorial Museum:
When searching “The Writings of Will Rogers,” remember that Rogers took liberties with spelling and grammar. Here are some tips that might make your search more successful:
- “Avoid searches that involve contractions. Rogers did not always use apostrophes; sometimes he spelled out a contraction (e.g., “dident” for “didn’t”). For example, if searching for the quote “I never met a man I didn’t like,” insert in the search window only a part of the quote and avoid the contraction (e.g., I never met a man).”
- “Try different possible spellings of a proper name or a concept.”
In fact, when quoting him in this presentation I left each quote as is and might have even tossed in a few typos our of respect – really, I wasn’t being sloppy or quick.
25 What can today’s bloggers learn?
The power of an amplified voice creates a moral responsibility to get the facts straight and to not spread hate.
Will Rogers humor and folksy style coupled with his celebrity gave him the latitude to question and criticize government and American politics/lifestyle that few others had ever enjoyed or have enjoyed since.
Perhaps it was that while he might have made jokes at the expense of others, he still seemed to maintain a level of respect for the individual, directing his jabs at the institutions they had created rather than making personal attacks.
A famous quote from Rogers: “When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read: ‘I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.” I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.’”
26 What can today’s bloggers learn
“Define the word value and then consider whether you have something valuable to say.”
After the initial telegrams published by the New York Times, Will Rogers had no intention of continuing his telegrams once he returned to the US.
However, public interest and encouragement from then New York Times Publisher, Rogers agreed to continue the daily piece. Readers from the approximate 600 outlets which would ultimately carry the column were known to read first Will’s Daily Telegram each morning, then the rest of the newspaper.
Perhaps today’s bloggers and micro bloggers should consider what value their work adds to the millions of bytes of information created each year or whether they have an audience at all.
While Will Rogers’s musings about American politics were sure to spark a healthy debate or at least elicit a chuckle from a reader, it is arguable the same could be said for the funny thing your 4 year old just said or detailed description of what you had for dinner last night.
27 I want to take a moment and talk a bit about his writings – specifically some of his quotes. You see, the ore things change the more they stay the same.
28 “Everything is changing. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
29 On the GOP Convention in 1928
The whole show has degenerated into nothing but a dog fight for vice president. All we have done today is listen to Senator Fess explain what he forgot to say yesterday, and it took him all day today to alibi for it. I don’t know who he forgot today that he will have to bring up tomorrow.
30 And of the Democratic National Convention of 1928
Well boys, she blowed up about noon today in a blaze of harmony.
Joe Robinson of Arkansas got the nomination with more democratic agreeing than had ever agreed on anything in the history of the party. They got a great fellow in Joe.
He is a real two-fisted he candidate. He comes from the wilds of Arkansaw where they are hard to tame.
This is my favorite part
Everybody was in a hurry and sweating and all the states were voting on the Smith nomination when it got to them. Course Oklahoma didn’t agree, and the whole 15,000 people had to stop for half an hour while they called all their names and instead of sending 20 there was 40 come with half a vote each.
32 Spoke for everyone but “everyone” doesn’t exist anymore. It is what make America great and presents some of the greatest challenges.
We are more segmented than ever before.
So much static not possible to break through with the same force – Every year we will generate more than 520,000 libraries of congress worth of content. In a world where everyone has a voice, where everyone is talking, who will listen?
33 Perhaps most important. We will never again have an airport, college, county, library or school named after a blogger.
We don’t immortalize bloggers – at least not any more.
34 In 1935 Will Rogers died in an airplane crash with his friend Wiley post.
In typical journalistic fashion, if it bleeds it leads, the photos made the front page. I wonder what Rogers would have to say about that and the headline.
I suppose you could say Will Rogers died in pursuit of something he loved.
You see, he asked friend and pilot, Wiley Post to fly him through Alaska in search of new material for his newspaper column.
While Post piloted the aircraft, Rogers wrote his columns on his typewriter.
On August 15 as they were taking off the engine failed at low altitude.
35 Will Rogers’ words live on. Not only through historical books by through blogs and tweets of thousands.
Through my own non-scientific research it seems Will Rogers is mentioned or quoted online just about every minute of every day. Of course, today, in the blogging circles we call that curation.
But while everyone is talking I think I will take a moment and listen and let Will have the last say.