Good Luck to Harold Pollack, and Welcome to Larry Kudlow

Big changes are coming with RBC’s bligging lineup

The New Harold Pollack
The New Harold Pollack
I should have seen this coming, but still it makes me sad. Harold Pollack’s 4 x 6 index card of financial advice was perhaps the most read, cited and tweeted RBC post in history. It drew coverage from Washington Post, Money Magazine, Vanguard and Motley Fool among many, many others. It is now a book that is getting tremendous press everywhere.

I thus understand Harold’s decision to move on from RBC to take up a regular investment advice column at Wall Street Journal and a “Pollack’s Mad Money” television show on CNBC, which fired Jim Cramer today to make room for Harold. Congratulations my friend, you will be missed.

However, with every ending comes a new beginning, so it is therefore time to welcome Larry Kudlow to RBC. Larry will have big shoes to fill, but is strongly committed to writing here about poverty, inequality and the need to expand the social welfare net and raise taxes on the wealthy. The only thing holding him back so far has been that he doesn’t know any poor people, but Harold, gracious in transition, has agreed to introduce to him to one very soon.

Debating the Value of Blog Comment Sections

Austin Frakt of The Incidental Economist group blog recently discussed TIE’s decision to close off comments with Anna Maria Tremonti of CBC Radio One (full program here). One of the good points made in the discussion is that the costs and benefits of comment sections vary by blog. If you are running a big news website in the world’s most polite country and have staff hired to moderate your blog, even thousands of comments are manageable and valuable. In contrast, if you are operating an academically-oriented blog that has no paid staff like TIE, the comment section may feel like more work than its aggregate value justifies.

I miss reading the insightful commenters who used to be able to respond to my blog posts, but on balance am very happy with my decision to close off comments on most of my posts. The result has been that I have more time to engage on Twitter with knowledgeable people. I also have time to look at emailed comments from readers, and thus far at least have been able to respond to every one that was civil and substantive. Last but not least, I like knowing that in blogging I am no longer providing a platform for the subset of people who comment out of hatred, ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. That’s a lot of upside for one click on the WordPress template.

My suspicion is that in the long run, Twitter and whatever technologies succeeds it will supplant most blog comment sections as fora for interactions between bloggers and readers. In the meantime I can understand and respect why some bloggers choose to maintain them, and others do not: The variables in the cost-benefit analysis are qualitatively different from site to site and from person to person.

On Shutting Off Blog Comment Sections

A few months ago, the editors of Popular Science’s blog announced the following change in policy:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.

It wasn’t a decision we made lightly…we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

More recently, the bloggers at The Incidental Economist (TIE) largely followed suit:

All TIE admins are in agreement that we need a break from comment moderation. It’s a lot of work and the benefits relative to costs have dwindled. We’d rather use our time in other ways.

Andrew Sullivan makes his own case against comment sections here. Although I failed to find it when I googled just now, I am pretty sure that some of the bloggers at Outside The Beltway have publicly questioned the value of comment sections, though their site still has one.

I have been ambivalent about this issue for some time. At RBC, we have some absolutely terrific commenters (I saluted some of them here) who add tremendous value to the site for commenters and bloggers alike. At the same time, we also have accrued, it pains me to say, a bad reputation for our comments section being vitriolic and fact-challenged on some topics, most particularly drug policy but also some others (anything about guns usually gets ugly fast).

Can’t bloggers just closely monitor comment sections and separate wheat from chaff? Given unlimited time, yes. But even for the few people who make their living by blogging, time to do this is not unlimited. And for those of us who have demanding day jobs, it’s an awful lot to ask.

Last week, I had a twitter exchange with Austin Frakt about what TIE had done, in which he defined destructive comments as a collective action problem that he was tired of trying to solve. This resonated with me. I was also struck that when I emailed a group of our very best commenters and asked whether we should close off comments on drug policy posts, the modal response was that they didn’t care because they had been driven away from reading those comment sections.

I was sad to hear that and recognized that a negative feedback loop had developed: As a few commenters were abusive or intellectually dishonest or both, those initially more numerous commenters who were civil and substantive began dropping out of the conversation. These two trends reinforced each other until being abusive and non-substantive became more the norm (though some heroes and heroines soldier on, God bless you all).

I do not speak for RBC as a whole on this, but I have come to the conclusion personally that the TIE approach of making a lack of comment sections my default on future posts is the best one for me. There are significant costs to this decision because some excellent comments that would have been made will no longer grace our site. I hope those of you who have for so long contributed reasoned, respectful and data-based reactions, critiques and counter-arguments to my posts will continue to do so on those that remain open for comment.

What Do You Hope to Accomplish, Policy Bloggers?

Public policy blogging has purposes other than moving mass opinion

Bill Gardner cites research showing that even people with big megaphones (e.g., U.S. Senators) have not apparently influenced public opinions regarding the Affordable Care Act. He reasons therefore that health policy bloggers, with their smaller audiences, haven’t a prayer of shifting public debate:

If you view yourself as a writer in service to a political movement, a soldier in the skirmishes over the daily meme, then give up. You are throwing pebbles, hoping to breach a castle wall.

Gardner’s comments were focused on health policy bloggers (e.g., Austin Frakt), but could be made more general. Why should Mark Kleiman bother to blog about drug policy? What does Harold Pollack think he is accomplishing by writing about criminal justice policy? Or to take it to a more personal level, who am I to delude myself that the hours I spend blogging about public policy affect public opinion one whit?

I will let my friends Austin, Mark and Harold answer Gardner’s challenge for themselves if they wish, but for me at least the response is simple: I have no expectations that my blog posts will sway mass opinion so it doesn’t bother me that they don’t. The main places at which I blog about public policy have a far larger audience than most…but since most blogs are read by hardly anyone, that’s just a nice way of saying that from the viewpoint of the mass public, I labor in obscurity.

A memory of a Roger Mudd story during his time on Macneil/Lehrer News Hour makes this okay in my mind. His segment examining who watched their show revealed that it had an extremely small audience, indeed laughably so by national network standards. But it was an unusually policy-connected, policy-saavy audience, and that’s what made the show important.

Years ago I got a telephone call from a journalist at the Economist who wanted to talk about drug policy. I asked how he found me, i.e., was it through some newspaper that quoted me or the medical school press office or what? To my surprise and delight, he said that he and his colleagues had long followed Mark Kleiman’s and my blog posts on drug policy.

I discovered over time that our readers also include other journalists, elected officials, Congressional and White House staffers, police officers, health care system managers, teachers, judges, economists, social workers, physicians, university administrators, business leaders, civil servants, policy analysts and many other people who regularly face up to the challenge of designing, analyzing and implementing public policy. We also have many readers — and this is reflected in the quality of our comments section — who are not public policy professionals but are public policy buffs: They have studied up on water conservation or solar power or Middle East politics and they take the trouble to share what they have learned with the rest of us.

Add up all the people who implement public policy, study it, or just know a lot about it, and you get a sadly small number, way too small to ever kid myself that my blogging could move mass opinion in a country of over 300 million people. But what it clearly can do is put good information and ideas into the hands of people who matter in and care about the public policy world. It can also provide me with an opportunity to learn from my readers and thereby come to a better understanding of the policy issues I care about. The public at large will likely never know (or care) about this ongoing exchange of wonky material within a small community. But I do, and that’s enough to keep me going.

Welcome a new RBC Blogger: Johann Koehler

The well-respected blog “The Phronetics” has merged with the Reality-Based Community

I have long been an admirer of Johann Koehler’s blog The Phronetics, which features thoughtful analysis of crime, economics and many other public policy and cultural issues. I am therefore happy to announce that Johann has agreed to come aboard here at RBC, bringing along his fine Cambridge-trained mind (now being further sharpened at UC Berkeley) and love of old movies to enrich our community.

Welcome to Johann!

The Mystery of Posts With a Long Tail

Each week, we get from Google Analytics a report of which individual posts resulted in the most visitors to RBC. Our archive holds over 12,000 posts, but the leaders are almost always posts from the current or prior week (note that post-based entries are a rarity, people usually enter by the main page or from links by other bloggers).

However, three old posts are there every week, and it is interesting to speculate why.

The most remarkable performance is The Elixir Broccoli of Life, which James wrote 10 months ago. Yet it has lead 100-200 people to RBC every week since.

The second most steady performer is Drinking Alone Does Not Necessarily Mean You Have a Drinking Problem, which funnily enough was posted only a week after the broccoli post. It’s been there almost every week since, and caused 103 people to come to RBC last week.

I have heard that seeking health advice is one of the most common reasons people first start using the Internet, and that may be why these pieces have such a long tail (They differ from most of our health posts in providing individual advice versus, say, analyzing a new health care law). Or maybe there is a website in China that links to these posts and we are just riding the wave along with whatever else they pick up as a gazillion people a day there get Internet access.

However, the health explanation breaks down for the post with the third longest tail. The 60 or so film recommendations I have written unsurprisingly almost never show up except in the week I wrote them. With one appropriately mysterious exception: My review four months ago of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has never been out of the top post list since it appeared. It’s not as if reviews of a 90 year old classic film are in short supply so this is hard to explain…maybe A.O. Scott gave it some love at some point but didn’t wire me to let me know, which would be just like him.

RBC Rex

Reality-Based Community readership has soared this year

RBC readership has grown by leaps and bounds this year with the addition of some new bloggers, more posts, and better web linking work thanks to Steve Davenport (i.e., Getting us into Google News).

At the end of September, I had a joke post to cause and to note our first month of breaking 150,000 visits. That was a milestone, as were the 242k page views for the month.

But by November, monthly pageviews had risen to 371k! Part of this no doubt was a surge in the week before the election, but to compare month-to-month, we have already had more page views this month than we did in all of December of last year.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this probably means that we get as many readers a year as the Daily Mail and HuffPo get every five minutes, but it is nonetheless gratifying that there is apparently a growing appetite for public policy analysis and civil debate by a team of bloggers and a cadre of intelligent commenters.

Onward!

Has Editors’ Abuse of Authors Fueled the Rise of Blogging?

Two years ago, a British newspaper editor emailed Mark Kleiman and me and asked us to write a short piece about crime and drugs. We dutifully did so and promptly sent it to him. But he didn’t respond. I rang him up a week later and asked if he had received it. He said “Oh Yes! I have it right here. I will read it right now and get back to you.”

Another week passed, during which Mark and I sent the editor a few emails to which he didn’t respond. I phoned him again and asked if he didn’t want the piece after all, because we could send it elsewhere if so. Oh no he very much wanted it, he indicated, why else would he have asked for it? He promised to get right back to us. We emailed him and left him voice mails a few more times in the coming weeks and then gave up, having never heard back from him. He never said our piece was good, he never said it was bad, he just solicited us to write it out of the blue and then blew us off.

Fast-forward to this week. I had helped a bright, friendly journalist from a national magazine on a story she was writing. Afterwards I got an email from the editor thanking me for helping the author and asking me to write a response to the article for the next issue. She gave me a word limit and a short time frame to produce the piece. It was a busy time, but my mother reads the magazine and I thought she would like seeing her son in print. I pulled the piece together with some help on drafts from friends and from my mother as well. The editor emailed me “thank you, very much, for this carefully considered response which we are delighted to have.”

Out came the magazine with a number of responses to the article, but mine was not among them. I had no note from the editor explaining why. I therefore emailed her and was informed that she didn’t have space for it. I told her this was most unkind, which beyond my mom and I cancelling our subscriptions is all I can do in response to such shabby treatment.

Mind you, I understand completely that editors receive an avalanche of unsolicited material. And when I send something unsolicited to a newspaper or magazine, I don’t expect any response at all if it isn’t what is wanted. But God, it galls me that editors contact strangers and ask them to write pieces on specific topics and then treat those authors like lepers for the sin of complying with the request.

Much has been written about why blogging has become popular, with decreasing technology costs, desire for self-expression, increasing individualism and the like being cited as plausible causes of the rise of medium. All of that seems reasonable to me, but I have to wonder if exasperation with editors isn’t also in the soup, at least for those bloggers who have experience publishing in print form. I have been edited by some real gems (Matt Seaton at The Guardian, Meredith White at San Francisco Chronicle), but when I see how some editors treat authors, it makes me more prone to cut out the abusive middleman and just go straight to on-line print.

Give It Up For Washington Monthly

Ezra Klein offers an extraordinarily perceptive analysis of how lobbyists influence Congress, Minjae Park cuts through the simplified rhetoric about how admitting international students necessarily promotes cultural interchange at U.S. universities, Kevin Drum worries about a coming inter-generational struggle among Americans, Kathleen Geier illuminates the work of film critic Andrew Saris and journalist Gitta Serenyi, Ed Kilgore and Steve Benen fight the good fight against voter suppression and Daniel Luzer eviscerates a sexist campaign that is allegedly intended to interest girls in science.

What do all these smart people have in common? All of them work at or started their careers at our sister outlet, Washington Monthly. I know from comments here and from looking at our traffic numbers that many of you read Washington Monthly and the many great journalists whose careers it has nurtured. Please consider showing your appreciation for people who have enriched your intellectual and political life by following this link and helping the magazine continue its 40 year tradition of investigative journalism and stimulating commentary.

At RBC, More Posts = More Readers. Roughly.

A dull and rainy Sunday afternoon led me to do some analysis of RBC’s pattern of visits. Particularly, I was curious whether more posts means more traffic. The data in the table are on a monthly basis, which is rather crude, and only go back for the past 12 months (April 2011 through March 2012), which is a rather short data series. Visits aren’t the same as unique readers either. Finally, there isn’t a huge amount of variation to explain. Nonetheless, the Pearson correlation is .46 between the two numbers.

The correlation would be even stronger if not for the anomaly of December 2011. Posts went up by 6% from November, but monthly visits dropped by about 15,000. So while everyone else was out doing holiday shopping, the RBC crew was hard at work (or alternatively, drinking too much eggnog, which lead to a quality of posts beneath the standards of our discerning readers).