Friday, February 5, 2021

What Is Blogging? And Is it Dead?

I was first introduced to political blogging by Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004. By then, some of the liberal grandmothers and fathers of the medium were already well underway, including Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, Duncan Black (aka Atrios) at Eschaton, Ezra Klein at Pandagon, Jerome Armstrong at MyDD, and Heather Digby Parton at Hullabaloo

As you'll note from the links I provided (or the lack thereof), some of those blogs have thrived and some are gone. I'm not going to try to provide a history of how political blogging started or how it developed because it would take a book to do so. At this point, I only have rudimentary knowledge about all of the ins and outs anyway. But there are a few developments that I find fascinating that can, perhaps, help us explore exactly what "blogging" means, as well as whether or not it remains viable today.

The list of blogs up above demonstrates some of the diversity in blog formats. DailyKos has something called a "front page," where (mostly) paid staff post news updates and opinions. But community members can also post entries, which basically opens the process to almost anyone. Obviously, Talking Points Memo has evolved over time into something that more closely resembles a traditional online publication. But Marshall still maintains his "Editor's Blog." Eschaton and Hullabaloo remain pretty much what they've always been. 

But perhaps as much as anyone, Ezra Klein represents much of how blogging evolved. After starting at Pandagon, he was hired by the Washington Post in 2013 to write the "Wonkblog." By then, a lot of newspaper and print magazines had incorporated blogging as part of their online presence. The Atlantic is a perfect example. At one point, their bloggers included names like Andrew Sullivan, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Megan McArdle. That raises the question of how those blogs were different from the other articles at those publications. 

In 2015, J.J. Gould, who was the editor of TheAtlantic.com at the time, wrote about how that publication began to deemphasize blogging with posts by new writers that didn't come from their blog streams.

Along the way, our posts came more and more to resemble what we’d traditionally just call articles: They have headlines framed to draw you into the story (vs. to break up a rolling blog). They have lead sentences and paragraphs written to engage you in it (vs. abrupt pivots from blunt openers like, “Glenn has a great post up on his blog today ...”). They’re carefully edited. They’re carefully produced. In form, they’re magazine articles, just created in the cadences of new media.
Gould goes on to write that blogging "ended up out of phase with the ascendant dynamics of distribution and consumption on a bigger and bigger Internet." I have no idea what he means by that. But it is clear that Gould has a certain amount of disdain for a format he thinks lacks hard-hitting headlines and lead sentences, but perhaps even more importantly, aren't carefully edited and produced.

That was the distinction made by The Atlantic that led them to deemphasize blogging. It is pretty similar to what recently happened at the Washington Monthly, which had a history of embracing bloggers like Kevin Drum, Steve Benen, Ed Kilgore, Martin Longman, and myself. They too have made the decision to abandon blogging and go with posts that Gould refers to as "articles."

I would submit that the distinction Gould draws between "blogs" and "articles" has been blurred. While the Washington Post has discontinued publication of Wonkblog (whose very name defies the distinction), they have continued to publish the PlumLine, where Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman do some of the best news commentary that can be found online today. It's true that they no longer call it a "blog," but refer to it as "opinion." But that change in label didn't alter the content of what those two have always produced. Similarly, Rachel Maddow continues to publish the MaddowBlog, where Steve Benen provides some of the best news and analysis you'll find anywhere.

There are some differences between blogging and traditional journalism that are worth noting. Most bloggers rely on investigative journalism by major media outlets. They typically don't "report" the news, but provide commentary—usually from a partisan perspective. From there, the field is wide open, including everything from Duncan Black's cryptic one-sentence posts to musings on the topic of the day from Josh Marshall to Kevin Drum's charts and graphs to a detailed description of the budget reconciliation process by Martin Longman.

In other words, blogging clearly isn't completely dead. But at this point, I have more questions than answers about what the term means. As I was thinking about this recently, an analogy occurred to me. If you're old enough, you might remember the distinction between local and long distance telephone calls. Local calls were free, but you had to pay extra for long distance calls. Area codes drew the boundaries. The farther away an area code was from the origin of the call, the more expensive it was. The advent of cell phones eventually did away with the distinction. I suspect that the "bigger and bigger internet" Gould referred to is similarly scrambling the distinction between blogs and articles.

Since finding myself without a job at the Washington Monthly, I've been trying to sort out what attracted me to blogging in the first place. Back in 2004, I found solace in reading the opinions of like-minded folks when it felt like liberals had been betrayed by the mainstream media and the resulting re-election of Bush/Cheney. But I started this blog a few years later as a place to get away from the noise and explore questions I didn't think other media outlets or blogs were pursuing about race in America and the election of Barack Obama. 

Now I find myself back at this place to explore what I want to write about, free from the expectations of others. I'll do so in the format of blogging as a way to continue to construct my "big picture look at life and politics." That might not fit with the "ascendant dynamics of distribution and consumption on a bigger and bigger Internet." But since I don't know what that means, it won't stop me from going on this journey. You are more than welcome to join me for the ride.

13 comments:

  1. I like your writing, whatever you want to call it. You are informed, you back up what you say, you don't try to sneak in points that you know don't hold up. Indeed, your posts are almost always impervious to objection, or close to, because you've already factored any reasonable objections in to what you said.

    If there is anywhere that I anticipate your skills will do some good in the coming years, I think it's going to be countering the inevitable accusations that Biden is "too nice" to Republicans if and when he needs their votes to pass legislation. Our side has this inexplicable need to assume the Democrats are naive or corrupt, when 99% of unfortunate events in Washington are exactly because Republicans are being Republicans. If we want to avoid a shellacking in 2022, we'll need all hands on deck to keep the Democrats' perpetual critics from winning the day.

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    1. Thanks KB. I spent 8 years of the Obama administration doing as you suggested. I suspect we'll have to ramp it up once again.

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  2. Well, King, good to find you here, having 'found' Nancy's blog (as it should be) now available. It's interesting to me to find this article articulating an important difference between 'hard news' and the informed opinion of a capable writer. I have long read the bloggers featured at WaMo, and have grown to like each one's insightful honesty. For that, I'm always indebted, but especially to a writer such as Nancy LeTourneau whose insights seldom lack the human touch so missing in the 'hard news' writing of the day. Keep it up, Nancy. More readers are soon to follow.

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    1. Good to see you here too! Looks like this may be the happenin' place for refugees of Political Animal. Between you and me, WM was getting far too troll-infested, between Hyena Hayride style trolls and regulars whose posting habits made them (IMHO) trolls with tenure.

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    2. MontyTheClipArtMongooseFebruary 6, 2021 at 4:29 PM

      Hey, now!

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    3. Oh, you're no troll. Mysterious and baffling on a regular basis, but no troll.

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  3. To me, the essence of blogging is a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos: bloggers tend to work solo, with little or no staff. A traditional magazine provides its writers with resources such as a staff of fact-checkers and editors. Blogging is more immediate while a traditional magazine article is more deliberate and polished.

    Blogging is much harder than it looks. Over the years, I've come across bloggers that caught my eye with an insightful post, but when I started to follow them, they often turn out to be one-trick ponies that simply repeat the same theme over and over, or they quickly veer off on some weird tangent and lose me. There are only a handful of bloggers who can come up with two or three interesting topics a day, day after day. I doubt if I could do it. Nancy and Martin Longman are a couple of bloggers who do it well.

    I'm looking forward to following this blog and as well as Progress Pond.

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  4. Nancy, I just might have said some nice things about you over yonder ...

    https://washingtonmonthly.com/2021/02/05/martin-and-nancy-light-out-for-the-territory/

    True story: ages ago, I discovered this here blog when Googling for something or other, and then bounced over to WM when I discovered that Political Animal seemed to be your focus. Now it's 2021 and I guess I'm back where I started.

    Also, I was kind of relieved that your absence at WM wasn't because of COVID. These days, you never can tell. (It's a pet obsession of mine bordering on a running joke, but: there is serious medical evidence that Vitamin D mitigates COVID damage, so make sure you've got healthy levels of Vitamin D. I can provide links.)

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  5. Blogs also serve as news aggregators, and I thank you for that, as well as serving to put stories in context, historical and otherwise. News feeds don't provide the latter, and ultimately do a poor job at the former as their algorithms feed only what you want to hear. Old school, the weekly or monthly news magazines were the ones to provide context--but that's now an eternity in the current news cycle. Today, it's mainly talking heads talking about other talking heads driven by the outrage du jour. That's why it's good to have blogs such as yours.

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  6. I'm glad to be reading your blog again.

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  7. I found you at Washington Monthly, and frankly, will visit there less without your pieces to draw me. But very glad to find this blog.

    I've thought a lot about why people blog, and about its spectrum, ranging from TMI diary posts to full on articles. I like the spectrum, like the accessibility, find (as with so many words) we need more nuanced (categorical?) terms to delineate all the different things going on in the blogging world.

    I keep a sporadic blog. I find it useful for sorting out my thoughts, and occasionally other people seem to read it (weird!). But because of that possibility, I write differently; I can't assume a reader works from my same assumptions, so have to spell out my thinking more explicitly. I even wrote a blog post long ago about that very thing.

    I'm glad you're writing. Blogs can be hard to find, but when I find a writer I appreciate (or a collection of them; love my wonkette.com) it's nice seeing them in a forum they, and not their editors control. Yes, there's an opinion, a bias, a vantage point, represented in the writing. It's not traditional journalism.
    But when well done, it's a launching point for further reading, further thinking. I need that in my life. Neutral writing is useful, but it's good to hear from someone with an opinion - lots of people with opinions, and different viewpoints - to help sort out what I think.

    Anyway, thanks.

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