Is there anything more tedious than the editorial page of the New York Times? Yes. There’s Paul Krugman’s column on the op-ed page of the New York Times. And there’s Frank Rich’s column every other Saturday on the op-ed page of the New York Times. And there’s … well, it’s a long list, and you get the idea.
Boring pundits are not exclusive to the Times. They are everywhere. Part of what makes them boring is occupational determinism. Consider E.J. Dionne Jr., political columnist for the Washington Post. Dionne’s job is to provide twice-weekly commentary on what’s happening in the nation’s capital. Let’s say he takes four weeks of vacation. That means that he must write 96 columns every year. Here’s the problem: No human being can produce more than 40 really original, interesting columns about Washington per year. It just can’t be done — even in wartime. Every year, Dionne is doomed before he begins.
Major metropolitan newspapers (and magazines) employ scads of talented people (like Dionne) who are chained to an idea of analysis, commentary, and opinion that is as stale as it is technologically archaic. That idea — that the great all-knowing center broadcasts out to a sea of fools to shape their thoughts and opinions — is as dead as smelt.
The market for analysis, commentary, and opinion has shifted because the underlying technology has changed. The emergent technology — the one that we use every day when we email and instant-message one another and the one that gathers ever-greater force with each new increment of connectivity — is peer to peer.
Peer groups organize themselves in hundreds of different ways. But what they all have in common is a shared sense of mission: what the military calls “unit cohesion.” That cohesion — a kind of network effect — is what makes the peer group, or team, much stronger than the simple sum of its parts.
Am I overstating the adoption and impact of peer-to-peer architecture on everyday life? The number of emails (no, not a pure P2P application, but close enough) sent back and forth across the Web since the introduction of the Netscape browser is now estimated at 3.5 trillion per year. The number of instant messages (again, a nearly pure P2P application) will soon exceed the number of emails (instant messaging really took off in 2000). We are a long, long way beyond a centralized broadcast structure. This shift in the architecture of our communications — from broadcast and client server to P2P — has profound implications for serious news media.
The purpose of journalism is to inform — first about basic facts (news gathering) and then about the meaning of those facts (news analysis, commentary, and opinion). Much of the business of news gathering has been commoditized by the Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Reuters. You don’t really need the New York Times or the Washington Post to tell you what’s going on at the White House. They don’t know anything that the AP hasn’t already published. And many business-section stories about financial markets are rewrites off of Dow Jones or Reuters news wires.
As a result, major newspapers and magazines (along with radio- and television-news programs) have concentrated their resources on analysis, commentary, and opinion as the “value added” proposition for their readers, listeners, and viewers. This is why the New York Sunday Times has little news in it, except for some late-breaking Saturday-afternoon story or a brief blurb about the president’s radio address (and even that story is usually prewritten off of an advanced text). The major newspapers and magazines assume that you already know the news. What they’ve got to offer is what it means: the big picture.
But while the newspapers and magazines attempt to add value with perspective, their value-added proposition only applies within their own architecture. In the case of the New York Times, that means within the pages of the paper itself or on its Web site. It never wants you to wander off the reservation.
The architecture of their creation, however, is not our architecture. Our architecture is P2P. And so it is not surprising that in the business of analysis, commentary, and opinion, a new breed of cats has emerged. They even have a name. They call themselves “Webloggers” — or “bloggers,” for short — and they’re providing the most energetic, lively, and passionate analysis, commentary, and opinion around.
The system that enables their work can be found at www.blogger.com You can go there, sign up, get yourself a “blogspot,” and start publishing on the Web today. The technology does the rest. And there’s no fee. The only thing they ask is that your Weblog carry the Bloggers.com logo. Hook up with Amazon to solicit contributions for your site, and you’re off to the races.
Who’s doing this? Andrew Sullivan, for one. A columnist for the New Republic and the Sunday Times of London, Sullivan started andrewsullivan.com in the fall of 2000 and now routinely gets 25,000 to 30,000 site visits per day. When big news breaks out, visits to his site spike well above that. Sullivan’s influence before he started blogging was measurable; since he started blogging, it has grown exponentially. New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum recently compared his work to that of George Orwell during the early days of World War II.
Another blogger is Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the Web site Tech Central Station. Reynolds (whose own site is called InstaPundit.Com) is known as the “all-powerful hit king” because he posts so often and, as a result, gets a ton of repeat visits. Yet another blogger is Mickey Kaus, author and Slate columnist, whose wry observations, savvy insights, and offbeat sidebars make kausfiles.com one of the best reads out there.
And there are many, many others. (For a good list, go to www.dynamist.com, where author, columnist, and blogger Virginia Postrel has links to the best of blog world.) What distinguishes bloggers in general is that they fit the new architecture. They link to anything and everything that they consider worth reading. A good story in the New York Times? Just click, and you’re there. A good article in some godforsaken journal? Click, and you’re there. Bloggers are not devoted to keeping you on their page. Their purpose is to take you to other places. They figure that if they do that well enough, you’ll return to the peer group that they host.
What further distinguishes bloggers is their understanding of the peer communities that they serve. For one thing, bloggers assume that their readers are as smart as they are, if not smarter. What a refreshing notion! When they’re not focused on themselves, mainstream journalists spend most of their time sucking up to sources and writing with a keen eye toward source protection. Bloggers spend most of their time engaged in constant communication with their readers. In so doing, they create a network of sources who are always on the lookout for interesting articles, columns, stories, and items. Reynolds, in particular, makes use of this jury-rigged stringer system to alert his readers to articles that would otherwise go unnoticed.
What amazes the mainstream media community about the bloggers is how quickly they’ve established themselves. Sullivan is without question the most influential print journalist in Washington today. Reynolds is fast becoming the table setter for what gets talked about on talk radio and TV chat shows. The list of bloggers worth reading gets longer by the month.
Most blogs don’t make money, although kausfiles.com and InstaPundit.Com are (barely) profitable. But bloggers don’t seem to care. They’re not in it for the money, at least not directly. They’re in it for the juice — the rush of energy they get when one of their blog items moves the needle of public awareness.
Major news organizations breathed a huge sigh of relief when dotcom mania came crashing down. That meant that the barriers to entry in their markets were reerected and that their (mostly) monopoly positions were resecured. Now the bloggers are at the gates, eating into the media’s value-added proposition. It’s no small threat, because the peer-to-peer technology that underlies it is what the military calls a “force multiplier.”