Mea culpa, the blogosophere.
How do you apologize to the blogosphere? Okay, how do I explain myself just to all those taking the trouble to respond to my post "The limits of cyberspace, and the triumph of the MSM"?
This is my fourth blog. I've done three election blogs, starting in 2003, and launched this long-term one in March. So I love blogging. And I think cyberspace is the future for the MSM. Also, thanks to cyberspace, the power of the MSM has been greatly diminished, its monoculture challenged. As Martha would say, a good thing.
But there is a monoculture among right- and left-wing political blogs, too. At this early stage, most are pretty wedded to one side of the argument, much more even than the supposedly liberal NYT or conservative WSJ. What I'm waiting for, know will happen, and am starting to see mostly from newspaper- and magazine-affiliated blogs, is more centrist analysis. That's what I meant about the blogsophere too often being "a conversation among the converted."
Like-minded people have been seeking each other out for millennia. So there's an inevitability about the above, and a utility. Which is why I also lauded the blogosphere for its "intimacy, candour and immediacy."
It's why I'm compelled to blog.
I was dead wrong in my reference to what I chose to call the "stumble upon" factor. In the newspaper and magazine world in which I've toiled some 30 years, they use a "pass-along" rate to distinguish between circulation (how many copies we print) and readership (the total number of people exposed to all those dead-tree copies).
I had that personal history so fixed in my mind as I hastily elaborated on that point that I neglected my own surfing habits.
Yes, emphatically, there is a huge "stumble upon" factor in cyberspace. How else would my hero Eric Alterman have come across my annoying post? The stumble-upon factor is so pronounced in cyberspace that I have discovered future bookmarked favourites through image searches, of all things. After going to the site to which Bing or Google has directed me for a specific chart, photo or illustration, I find the image isn't suitable, but I linger at the site itself, which is everything you want to know about vintage Ford pick-ups or failed humanitarian efforts in South West Africa.
So I agree that I got the "stumble upon" factor exactly backward.
On your specific points, Kralizec pointed out the success of Hot Air, which so far as I know can claim to have coined the term "Obamagedden," as an example of how blogs do not, as I asserted, reach their audience-saturation point quickly. Commentor Darwin O'Connor said that as an MSM guy, I tend to be dismissive if there isn't money in it. I hope that's not the case. But I'll confess the folks who put bread on my table need to earn a return on the capital they invest in the Star business, and that thought does cross my mind. And it should also occur to bloggers, I think. They provide enormous value for which, in the main, they receive a mere pat on the back. Which is why we've seen the nascent efforts, so far largely unsuccessful, to develop a revenue stream for independent blogs.
From their inception, blogs have been subsidizing the MSM and the wider public. Once the MSM got into blogs, they've started looking for a way to "monetize" them. Big surprise! And Hot Air's volatile audience figures illustrate the dilemma for the full-blown collaboration between bloggers and the MSM I anticipate. (Not all bloggers, I hasten to say, will become Murdoch's wage slaves.)
In the space of a year, Hot Air has peaked at 21.8 million visits last September, dropped to a low of 11.1 million just two months later, then bounced back to 20.2 million last month. So far, at least, conventional advertisers won't go near media outlets whose audience sizes are so unpredictable from month to month. Ad buyers generally purchase according to a year-long plan with Time or Better Homes & Gardens, paying upfront for four or five "insertions" to appear in February, March, June, September and November. The pricing for the ads is determined by a minimum audience guaranteed by the publisher. The publisher is contract-bound to return a portion of the ad revenues if the publication's audience suddenly dives.
Say this for the MSM, its products, while in gradual decline in audience, measure that decline in the annual 3%-8% drops for most major newspapers and network TV operators in the past decade. Hot Air lost almost half its audience last fall. (Talking Points Memo lost much more than half its audience post-election.) Then Hot Air suddenly built up its audience this spring and summer, though not yet returning to its all-time peak. Advertisers just can't cope with that kind of volatility. They tie their ads to new-product launches, and their ads on Hot Air, for all they know, might coincide with a sharp drop in its visits.
I won't apologize for my concern about money. Many commenters pointed out that bloggers work out of passion. God bless them. And that helps account for the typical blog's short lifespan. For every Mickey Kaus or Mark Steyn (who is a pioneer blogger, contrary to some commenters' assertions) there are thousands of bloggers who've given up. Bloggers need to eat too. That's why so many of the more prominent ones have taken shelter in the "houses" provided by the MSM. Nothing new about that, either; the pace has simply accelerated of late. Alterman started out with MSNBC in 2002, Mickey Kaus with the Microsoft-backed Slate in 1999.
That points to a mutually beneficial solution, of the MSM incorporating free-spirited bloggers to broaden its offerings and tone to audiences; and paid bloggers no longer subsidizing their audiences. Or rather, the bloggers' teaching gigs, books and other non-blogging activities having to subsidize their blogging, which has made bloggers among the hardest working journalists in the field.
I did mention there's a downside to this marriage for bloggers, a loss of some autonomy as they are required to conform, to some degree, with the standards and practices of their new MSM hosts. Then again - and we've been through this at the Star, with internal debates about how far a blogger can stray from our Code of Ethics and other conventions - dyed-in-the-wool MSM editors are coming to realize that if a blog is not provocative and dealing in controversy, it often has no reason for being. If a paper like the Star or the U.K. Financial Times muzzles its bloggers, it has defeated the purpose of having them.
Commenter John West noted that nearly all the personalities I cited are right wingers. I take Mr. West's point that conservative bloggers outnumbered progressives at the outset, earlier this decade. I neglected to mention some of the progressive bloggers who are compulsory reading for me just as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan are. (Although I suppose that lately those two commentators in their way have become Arlen Spector-like turncoats). These include Barbara Ehrenreich, Robert Reich, Brad DeLong, Ezra Klein, Dean Baker, Warren Kinsella and bloggers at the Progressive Economic Forum and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. I think Mr. West might agree that progressive commentators have found new life in cyberspace, after lying dormant since Reagan first took the oath in January 1981.
Commenter Stan wonders if I've never heard of Smalldeadanimals and Instapundit. Uh, yes I have. Every time I've started a blog, SDA has come after me guns blazing. And we all respect Instapundit as among the earliest champions of the blogger mission, even those of us whose worldview runs counter to that of Glenn Reynolds.
I learned how to blog from Eric Alterman, circa 2001, his nemesis Andrew Sullivan, and the conservative Canadian political blogger Andrew Coyne. Learned about spontaniety, no-holds-barred analysis, how to "unpack" an argument advanced by someone holding a contrary view. Sullivan and Coyne have also been extraordinary in their attention to page design and interactive features. They've been blog Edisons of pushing the technology.
So obviously I'm disappointed with Mr. Alterman's reaction to my post, having sent him a few fan e-mails over the years, one to say I felt - and feel - his Sound and Fury is one of the most important books this decade. I apologize to Mr. Alterman in saying his Altercation blog has "degenerated." I was struggling for the right word and "transformed" would have been accurate. In any event, Altercation - compulsory reading for me each day for five or six years - is no longer a blog as I understand that term. Mr. Alterman continues to write up a storm, in his online and print columns and long-form writing in The Nation and elsewhere, along with his journalism-teaching load, fighting the good fight against the forces of willful ignorance, hypocrisy and demagoguery.
But he no longer does much of that at Altercation, where longtime colleague Charlie Pierce now does much of the writing. It's a rule of blogging that one should try to post every day - several times a day if you're Sullivan. Altercation has now twinned its Slacker Friday with a Slacker Monday (largely reader response, of which Alterman has always been especially respectful). In the past 37 weekdays there have been only 15 days in which Altercation offered a fresh post. That's an easing up to which Mr. Alterman alerted his audience last December. It might account for the erratic ping rate of Altercation, which ranks 79 today, up from 338 yesterday, itself a three-digit decline from the day before. When you develop a reliance on a blogger, as I had for Mr. Alterman in his brave fight against a looming Iraq war, you count on him or her being there every day. Or every other day.
To the extent the blogosphere still isn't taken sufficiently seriously, the rollercoaster audience of many blogs is to blame. It inspires confidence among neither readers nor donors and potential advertisers.
Commenters pointed out that Peggy Noonan is not a blogger. My apologies. I'm in her debt for posting her WSJ columns on her site to skirt Murdoch's firewall. Ezra Klein is indeed an example of a blogger going mainstream, as LeatherPenguin notes, and I should also have mentioned Reuters' Felix Salmon in that regard.
Commenter Steve Faguy infers I aimed to show "the MSM is better than the blogosphere." Eek. Not better, just different. And in many ways not up to the task of immediacy in news, analysis and commentary. Again, that's why I blog. Blogs talk, show moving pictures (YouTube postings), link to the Library of Congress and to Dead Sea Scrolls translations. And, a simple thing, computer and smartphone monitors literally light up a blog-posted photograph, making even the most prosaic images more compelling on a blog than in print.
I did state the obvious that the MSM, for all its decline, remains vastly better resourced than the blogosphere - in capital, news-gathering prowess, distribution, and brand-name awareness, among other things. But, as I said earlier in this note, and it's weaved through the argument in my earlier post, the MSM certainly is moving online after long resisting it - a difficult transformation with no equal since Gutenberg. And an increasing number of bloggers, notably the more prominent ones, are looking for the bigger audiences and greater resources and credibility/trust that only the MSM can provide, with in many cases their century-plus-old roots in the community.
Finally, and I do apologize for this long response, I fall back on Andrew Sullivan's seminal essay last year in the Atlantic, "Why I Blog," for an explanation of the gross imperfections of my post.
Urgency, Sullivan notes, is of paramount importance in blogging. The blogger is a real-time witness to history. But I agree with Sullivan that as bloggers we have to appreciate that most news consumers are not interested in the blow-by-blow of an event. They care about an issue or event in context, with all the most compelling facts accounted for. Many of these will not surface for days or months. They want the "last word" on a topic, not the first word. Which is why there can be a co-existence of the immediacy of blogging, which sates our appetite for breaking news, and the long-form exposition of traditional print media, TV and film documentaries, and books. (It's noteworthy the large number of dedicated bloggers who have written books, the least immediate of media.)
Jumping to some ill-formed conclusions, as I did in my essay on cyberspace, is a vocational hazard of blogging, as Sullivan pointed out in arguing for that co-existence:
"Blogging suffers from the same flaws as postmodernism: a failure to provide stable truth or a permanent perspective. A traditional writer is valued by readers precisely because they trust him to have thought long and hard about a subject, given it time to evolve in his head, and composed a piece of writing that is worth their time to read at length and to ponder. Bloggers don’t do this and cannot do this—and that limits them far more than it does traditional long-form writing.
"A blogger will air a variety of thoughts or facts on any subject in no particular order other than that dictated by the passing of time. A writer will instead use time, synthesizing these thoughts, ordering them, weighing which points count more than others, seeing how his views evolved in the writing process itself, and responding to an editor’s perusal of a draft or two. The result is almost always more measured, more satisfying, and more enduring than a blizzard of posts. The triumphalist notion that blogging should somehow replace traditional writing is as foolish as it is pernicious. In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding."
For the purposes of this blog, the inception of the Great Recession in the U.S., the epicentre of the crisis, is taken as the start date for the global slump. The U.S. has been in recession since December 2007.