The Hill, July 2, 2014
A decade ago, everyone was talking about blogs. Bloggers claimed they were going to make the mainstream media obsolete. The mainstream media dismissed bloggers as losers writing in their mom’s basement in their pajamas — while simultaneously starting their own blogs and hiring some of the best bloggers. Now, the distinction between “blogs” and everything else on the Web has all but disappeared.
The New York Times is phasing out or consolidating “almost half” of its blogs. Times assistant managing editor Ian Fisher tells Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, “We’re going to continue to provide bloggy content with a more conversational tone. We’re just not going to do them as much in standard reverse-chronological blogs.”
While the decision partly had to do with technical issues, Fisher explains that, “It was very hard to understand the difference between some of the general sections and the blogs themselves.” Moreover, even the small blogs “required an enormous amount of resources, because a blog is an animal that is always famished.”
Having blogged almost daily since January 2003, I can attest to that. There’s simultaneously always something else to write about and yet often nothing one feels inspired to write about. Yet the pressure to crank out the content to keep the page fresh and the traffic coming never lets up.
Fisher hopes the “quality of our items will go up now, now that readers don’t expect us to be filling the artificial container of a blog.”
More importantly, most readers just think they’re at the Times — or don’t care and can’t tell whether the individual article also appears in the dead-tree edition or just a blog post. Fisher says that, “Very few people went to the blog landing pages,” instead coming in from another page on the site, a direct link on another site, search engines or social media. That’s less true of a stand-alone blog like Outside the Beltway. Still, between half and two-thirds of our traffic on any given day comes from somewhere other than the homepage.
Because the Web has matured, Fisher believes branded blogs within the masthead are no longer necessary. “I’m actually a believer for the most part that we don’t need to be naming things.” This is true even of its flagship blog, The Lede, which is going away now that its longtime editor, Robert Mackey, has moved to the foreign desk: “[I]t didn’t make sense for The Lede to be this everything-but-foreign kind of thing.”
Again, that comports with my own experience. When I relaunched the Atlantic Council’s website in 2008, I also launched its flagship blog, New Atlanticist, to be the think tank’s daily commentary hub. In the beginning, it was mostly in my voice, since I wrote more than half of the pieces and tightly edited the rest. As the Atlantic Council’s mission grew, it became something of a hodgepodge. Over time, a series of niche blogs devoted to topical areas sprung up, pulling much of the internal analytical talent away from New Atlanticist. Now, some of those blogs are destinations all their own, while the flagship blog is a shell of its former self and exists mostly through inertia.
Around the same time I was rebuilding the Atlantic Council’s web presence, Foreign Policy went all in on their website. Previously primarily a vehicle for its namesake magazine, they launched a large number of blogs and brought in some of the best foreign affairs bloggers in the business, most notably Dan Drezner, as well as having established writers like Stephen Walt and Thomas Ricks start blogs. It was a smashing success, becoming arguably the hub for U.S. foreign policy analysis on the web.
Yet, late last year, they quietly shuttered most of the blogs and those that remain are virtually hidden from the navigation menu. Most of the writers simply became weekly columnists. They never explained their reasoning as best I can tell, but I’m guessing it was similar to that at the Times. Readers were still interested in what Walt and Drezner (who has since moved on to The Washington Post) had to say; they just didn’t care that they were saying it on a blog. And, as Drezner alluded to in his farewell post, writing a longish piece once a week rather than several smallish pieces a day would increase the pressure to write something meaningful rather than just something.
The same process is playing out across the media landscape, including this site. Publications like The Hill came to realize that sharply reported pieces by their reporters on their in-house blogs were no less “real news” than other articles appearing on the site.
Over the years, my own blogging production has dwindled, from an average of 13 pieces a day to fewer than that a week. Partly, I’ve tired of feeding the famished animal and of much of the domestic political debate. Partly, I’m doing more of my writing for an outside audience. Mostly, though, blogging has evolved from being a game with traffic and links as the way to keep score to a conversation with a core readership.
Indeed, what I fear being lost in the merger of blogging with other forms of news and analysis on the Web is that loss of conversation. Even blogs without comments sections, such as Andrew Sullivan’s, are a dialogue with the readership. While I enjoy the validation that comes from having my writing accepted by venues like this one, there are advantages to being able to publish anything I want, whenever I want. It allows me to bypass the vagaries of editors and editorial calendars, getting my ideas out there immediately.
Moreover, blogging often amounts to what my one-time teaching colleague and current co-blogger Steven Taylor long ago dubbed “the first rough draft of my thoughts.” Oftentimes, my initial reaction to an event in the news evolves considerably after it’s subjected to reader feedback. Less publishing content simply to feed the beast and more thoughtful content are good things. But one advantage of the blogging format is that it can be an excellent path toward the latter.