What is the Blogosphere? Mr. Kos–meet Mr. Greeley

In the wake of Yearly Kos, Blogistan is getting a lot of very sophomoric attention from the MSM. The overall winner, is TNR’s Lee Siegel, who has commented that the blogosphere is “hard fascism with a Microsoft face” (whatever that means). Siegel’s work has received the derision it deserves, and so too has David Brooks.

Ironically, though, there is a very good analogy to the current blogosphere, which as far as I can tell has been ignored by most of the pundits, both on- and off-line. I am speaking of pre-World War I American newspapers.

Throughout the first 150 years or so of American history, newspapers had little pretense of being high-culture, objective sources. There were Federalist papers and Jeffersonian papers, Jacksonian and Whig papers, Democratic and Republican papers, etc. They were harshly partisan and often insulting: Abraham Lincoln was a baboon, Andrew Jackson an adulterer, John Adams a monarchist, etc. etc. They also featured much of the best writing around.

This was true even of the New York Times. Henry Raymond, the Times’ publisher during the Civil War, simultaneously served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, and no one thought that this was something odd. Across town, Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, actively lobbied delegates at the 1860 Republican convention. As Richard Carwardine demonstrates in his superb new Lincoln biography, the administration relied heavily on the advice from newspaper editors to gauge public opinion.

In the fiercely partisan 1790’s, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson even hired Philippe Freneau as a State Department translator in order to tide Freneau over so that he could publish a rabidly anti-Hamiltonian newspaper. Hamilton responded in just as partisan a fashion in the pages of The National Gazette, a Federalist sheet. Newspapers were critical in building the Jeffersonian political infrastructure.

There were also lots of newspapers: many cities had 7 or 8 a day, and they came out with at least two editions a day. After the Union triumph at Atlanta, readers stormed the offices of the National Intelligencer to get the most recent reports.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but the blogosphere is similar: fiercely partisan and ideological, burgeoning in number, producing quick news cycles. Obviously, there are significant differences, but the pattern holds.

What does all of this mean? First, it suggests that the analogy to fascism or irresponsibility or antidemocratic character is just ridiculous.

Second, it points to how the MSM can establish a new market niche for itself: by doing its job. There’s nothing really new in this call, but the reason why “quality papers” and an “objective media” arose might have been because the market for information was saturated with opinion and at times bile. Newspapers were also the way that political parties could transmit their messages: they can do the same now through the web. No one needs NPR or the NYT to tell us what the President said: we can just access it through blogs or websites. How about doing some actual reporting, for a change?

Third–and this is very sketchy, because my knowledge is thin–changes in the economy and technology made the newspaper wars obsolete. Economies of scale and bigger costs of newsprint and paper put the small sheets out of business; electronic media made several editions less valuable. There’s no obvious equivalent on the web, unless Congres scuttles net neutrality and makes production of websites costly. But I’m wondering whether there won’t be some economic or technological change that profoundly alters the structure over the next few years.

No–I don’t know what that will be. If I did, I would be investing in it.

TPM Muckraker: The Blogosphere Gets a Boss—And About Time

TPM muckraker is a nonprofit, email-tip-based wonder, likely to become among the best the blogosphere has to offer. It’s also an old-fashioned organization with a boss—a sign that even in cyberspace, anarchy only takes one so far.

I’m keeping my head down this week writing a conference paper (this here counts as a study break) and therefore missed the long-anticipated rollout of TPM Muckraker, the blue-chip, fact-based clearinghouse for news on GOP scandals, spun off from Joshua Micah Marshall’s “Talking Points Memo.” It’s a terrific resource, and I recommend it. (Disclosure: I have not a conflict of interest but a conflict of affections: having given the site a small donation, I’m obligated by Franklin’s Law to like it.)

This new site is noteworthy for its structure as well as its contents. It’s a hybrid. (Details from Marshall, and links to past reflections by him, here.) First, it’s part nonprofit, as the above indicates. Predicted ad revenues weren’t enough to support it, so it’s “altruistically” funded, i.e. propaganda—not a criticism, and it shows every sign of being very high quality propaganda. Second, it’s largely based on reader tips, and in this way highly suited to the web format and in particular to readers with email. (The regular Talking Points Memo’s full court press against Republicans and Democrats who waffled on Social Security privatization would have been possible, though unlikely, in a daily print format, or even as a phone tree—but hardly possible before email.)

But most of all, this is a standard journalistic enterprise. Blogs are basically free-lance operations, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bloggers trade on the reputation of their commentary as Christopher Hitchens and Seymour Hirsch trade on the reputation of their bylines. But how does a solo blogger transfer a reputation for reliability (or the blog equivalent, willingness to run instant corrections), news nose, good judgment, and other journalistic virtues from him- or herself to a larger operation? Only one way: the blogger hires reporters and acts as their editor—and publisher, to be technical about it.

Marshall started blogging, it seems, because he preferred autonomy on a shoestring and endless hours to working at a magazine with a boss. That’s a fine preference, but it has its limits: now his operation is a magazine and he’s the boss—probably an informal and cool one, but still a boss. Microeconomists have a theory that explains why there are companies in the world and not just free-lancers; the ability to signal quality cheaply is a big part of it. Marshall has just shown that blogs are not immune from that theory.

Welcome to the iron cage, Josh. Like it or not, you’re the jailer. Use your keys wisely.

Talking to ourselves

Has the Reality-Based-Community joined the Right? Yes, if you judge by our links.

My previous post on Martin Luther King was picked up by a website (unpartisan.com) that specializes in going through the blogosphere and picking up posts on both sides of an issue so that readers can see a real debate. But unexpectedly, it was listed on the column Labeled “From the Right.” Why? The reason’s here:

Much like the way news stories and blog postings are chosen, blogs listed on this site are chosen by a number of criteria and are categorized by a computer algorithm. This algorithm takes into account the criteria described above in determining which blogs should be listed in order to ensure that only the most popular and relevant blogs are polled. The categorization of blogs is determined by which types of blogs link to you and who you link to. If the majority of sites that link to you are known to be conservative and the majority of the sites you link to are known to be conservative, you get lumped in with the conservative blogs. This tends to work close to 98% of the time, and saves me the time of analyzing every single blog that is listed here. If you were miscategorized, please let me know through the feedback form and I’ll be happy to fix it immediately.

Continue reading “Talking to ourselves”