Frank Rich, hybrid blogger.
Rich has been a hybrid for years, loading up the online version of his weekly, 1,560-word print column for the NYT with as many as three dozen links. And those links have mostly been to outside, non-Times sources, everything from HuffPost to YouTube to NYT archrival WaPo.
Rich's explanation, in 2008:
Why not give the reader, if he or she wants to, the opportunity to see the sources, or a source, when it's available? It helps bulletproof the column, because if they say, "He must be making this up," they can look and see - here's the source, take a look and judge for yourself. If I'm citing a figure, at the most banal level, from the Labor Department or a poll or an economic report, [why not] link to the whole document it comes from?"
Why not, indeed? That model is, after all, "the very foundation of blogging," Edward Delaney of the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard wrote in his 2008 inteview with Rich on "Why I Link." But even now, few newspaper columnists subsequently upgrade the online versions of their work in this way. It could be too time consuming. Or a bureaucratic nightmare. (Rich alludes to this, saying if there had been any internal aggro he wouldn't have bothered.)
It's also a time-honored practice not to "help" the enemy by directing readers to a rival media outlet's work. That has certainly applied at the Star, the Globe and the National Post in my work at each. Delaney adds that a columnist "might see 30 links as 30 opportunities to be sidetracked. Larding on opinion piece with links potentially pushes the balance of the effort from persuasion to proof."
But like you, I expect, that's not how I read the link-laden work of Ezra Klein or Anne Applebaum (each of WaPo; Applebaum also writes for WaPo sister Slate). I read through the argument carefully, then go back to the links as necessary - grateful, always, that the columnist has provided them. "Bulletproof" is a not bad term. No argument is unassailable. But your credibility jumps several notches when you link to views opposed to your own, making it easy to see the other side of the argument, and determine if the columnist has been knocking down a straw man, or taken his sparring partner out of context.
I got some pushback about a year ago, noting that some of the best bloggers were coming in from the cold, Andrew Sullivan signing up with the Atlantic (and now Daily Beast), Felix Salmon with Reuters and so on. I call Rich a hybrid because he appears - to those like Slate press critic Jack Shafer who doubt the wisdom of Rich's move to New York magazine - to stepping out into the cold, trading a coveted perch at the English-language's most influential publication for a city magazine. (Yes, yes, not just any city magazine, but the current New York is not Clay Felker's trailblazer in either reporting or graphic design.)
As I suspected at the time of Rich's announcement, the looming advent of the NYT's second attempt at a paywall, after the failure of its TimesSelect concept, may have much to do with Rich's decision. In that three-year-old Neiman interview, Rich made linking seem a bit incidental to his work, even if he was leagues ahead of his colleagues in doing it. Mind you, the disaffection felt by Rich and Maureen Dowd over TimesSelect helped push it into an early grave. I imagine that Rich has since come to feel more strongly about this hybrid model, and for compelling reasons.
Here's Felix Salmon on Rich's rationale:
Not all writers are equally affected by paywalls. The more you want to take part in the conversation, the more allergic to paywalls you're likely to be. And Frank Rich is omnivorous in that respect; he loves grabbing ideas from all over the web, linking to them generously, connecting them together, and remixing them in very smart ways. By its nature, that kind of activity is much harder to do effectively when you're behind a paywall, since it's reliant on the people you're linking to being able to respond to you in turn, and continue the conversation.
I'm less certain Salmon is breaking new ground here:
While it's true that writers care how many people read their stuff, they care even more about who reads their stuff. To take an extreme example, most opinion writers would surely happily sacrifice a million pageviews for the sake of being read by Barack Obama. Rich aspires to a broader audience than that of NYT subscribers: outside the NYT paywall he can reach anybody in the world, and build a web-based franchise where his readers don't ever need to worry about using up their precious pageview quota.
That quota, of course, is the new NYT paywall's model, so far as we've heard from the Times so far, by which non-subscribers can read say, five, NYT articles a month before being denied access. This is the current FT model.
By trifling difference with Salmon here is that a great many writers, certainly myself, have always cared about the "quality" of the readers we're trying to reach. For decades, my shorthand description of my ideal readers is decision-makers - the librarians who decide what new books to order and which to reject, the social workers across all fields of that realm looking for examples of new best practices, the high-school and college administrators who'd rather not carve so much money out of their limited budgets for security cameras and classroom doors that automatically lock, in the aftermath of Virginia Tech, and would appreciate some examples of cheaper and more effective ways of protecting students and staff or, indeed, whether we're over-reacting on public safety. The readers who suspect gold and Apple shares are over-priced, or aren't. So actually both numbers and the intellect and responsibilities of who those numbers represent are - and long have been - of great importance.
In her own take on the Rich move - and I wouldn't be spending this many pixels on it unless I thought it was a turning point - Megan Garber notes that, "Paywalls, after all, represent a potential cost not just to the consumers of news, but to the producers of it."
I expect Bill Keller (left) has just begun to pay that price. There are many fair-sized papers whose circulation falls short of the number of times each of Paul Krugman's columns is linked to, driving non-NYT readers to the Gray Lady. Just as bad, maybe worse, is that the "franchise players" like Rich, Krugman, Gail Collins, Dowd and so on, watching their readership drop in the new NYT paywall era, will similarly defect.
Salmon, for one, believes "it's entirely possible Rich's total online readership at nymag.com will exceed the post-paywall readership he'd have if he kept going with his weekly column at nytimes.com."
The sophisticated readers who frequent blogs have a low tolerance for having analysis, data and opinion doled out to them in measured portions, as if they weren't adult enough to avoid being distracted by "too many links" (is there such a thing?) or to decide which of those places to visit, knowing the blogger's gone to the trouble of inserting those links as a service to readers he or she highly values.
I do find it interesting, watching Keller's career as NYT editor to date, that through various crises he has generally settled on the traditional business strategist's solution, a businessperson of the previous century. Though I ascribe that to his father's having been CEO of Chevron Corp., in fairness this orthodoxy, much of it obsolete or rapidly becoming so, still rules in the MSM.
I believe Garber is right - there is a bigger downside to paywalls than the number-crunchers alone are capable of calculating. Take away the Times' franchise players - or the Star's or Le Monde's - and what you're left with is reporting which in these days of shrinking "newsholes" is less than more likely to be of a truly investigative sort, the only way besides must-read columnists a newspaper can distinguish itself and become a must-read vehicle.
If I had to guess, mainline journos will separate into two camps. Opinion-shapers will cluster, as they begun to do, in stables like the Atlantic, Slate, Daily Beast, HuffPost, and so on. (Notice that those stables are coming under the ownership of larger entities - Slate/WaPo, Daily Beast/Newsweek, and HuffPost/AOL News.) And writers and editors of generic news will toil in news factories whose work is largely indistinguishable from the output of other factories. Of financial necessity, there will be few factories for that reason, because their output will be generic content - pretty much the same facts, shaped in pretty much the same way and accompanied by the same static or moving images, as the other factories.