David Freedlander’s report is a fairly accurate reminder of once was was — organized online political power by a group of individual bloggers that is now in decline — and what the state of things is now as changes in the economic, political and media landscape have resulted in natural, if not desired, evolution.
I’m glad that one of the interviewees for the piece is Susie Madrak of Suburban Guerilla. She’s been part of the political blogosphere since 2001, and was one of the hubs of interest in the heydays of Netroots political power. But she’s also an independent blogger who didn’t land a windfall media job, or whose blog was folded into a media outlet. She has been out of work for four years, yet still furiously blogs as a labor of love.
That heyday I referred to above would be a bookmark saved prior to the 2008 presidential campaign, when much of the Netroots split into camps based on the candidates — were you for Hillary, Obama, Edwards, etc. (BTW, I was for John Edwards — for some reason people not familiar with my blogging at the time seem to assume I was for Barack Obama. I wonder why?) It caused a lot of fracturing in readership and support — as Susie notes in the Daily Beast piece:
“I supported John Edwards,” Madrak said. “And the Obama people were very vehement about what they thought about it. And they up and left the site if they thought you were being irrational about Obama. I still don’t know where they went. They just up and disappeared.” Although the Obama campaign raised a record amount of money online, they never quite made common cause with online activists.
And the fractures on the Left continue to exist, as we see so clearly here at FDL, there are Obama supporters (those who think he can do no wrong to pragmatic ones who see the alternative as disastrous) and a good-sized contingent of readers who see the failures and the positions of the current administration as proof he’s no better, or perhaps even worse than what we would have faced under McCain/Palin or a potential Romney/Ryan administration. I don’t see those wounds healing any time soon.
I’m less interested in that aspect of the article than the nuts and bolts reality of why this decline of political blogs is occurring from a media and economic perspective. One caveat — political blogs in this context refers to ones that were at the top of the political heap. Blogging and social media activism on a smaller scale — state level campaigns and niche topics (LGBT rights, organized labor, corruption in government) — seem to be doing OK to a degree, but still under a great deal of pressure to stay afloat, since they are driven not by personality or perspective/influence of a blogger than pushing information out to core believers, activists and supporters. But if you look at the blogtopia players at Netroots Nation several years ago, many have moved on.
“The blogosphere that we knew of in 2004 and 2008 is not what it was,” says Raven Brooks, executive director a Netroots Nation, an IRL annual meet-up. “It is still a tight community; it is just older, more established. The economy isn’t what it was then. A lot were students, and they have graduated and gone looking for jobs.”
A number of the major players in the early days of the movement have gone on to trade their skills into something more steady. Daou and Armstrong became political consultants specializing in digital outreach. Scher blogs for the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group. Others, like Greg Sargent and Glenn Greenwald, ended up getting hired by establishment media outlets. And a few of the savvier, more entrepreneurial bloggers turned their own sites into more robust media outlets.
…The typing hordes have moved in another direction too. The pace of blogging was always punishing, and nearly impossible for those who did it to keep another job. But being marginally employed loses its charm after a while, even if you are able to elect the Congress of your dreams.
And what about the rest of us? I’ve been at this since 2004, and for me blogging has never paid enough to quit my demanding day job (PHB generates much less revenue since the move to FDL due to many reasons, including how the ad market [dys]functions). The fact is that long-form writing takes time and energy that my health currently doesn’t agree with a lot of the time.
With the recognition of my work on the blog over the last several years came even more time-sucks — endless emails asking me to promote one event/news item or another, requests to contribute writing to larger outlets (almost always for zero compensation, the presumption is that I should be grateful for exposure), asks to serve on panels (at my expense more often than not) — you get the idea. It was fun for a time when there was ad revenue to cover the expenses and my health held up, but you eventually hit the wall. And I did and have been paying the price for burning the candle at both ends. Not every blogger will land a media gig or get picked up and hired by an establishment organization (read: it has the money to pay you to quit your day job), so the rest of us have to sink or swim or get out of the game.
The political conversation, like the rest of the online conversation, has moved to Facebook and Twitter, and the bloggers steeped in an earlier Internet culture have not been able to keep up.
“Some bloggers have learned how to play well with a very dynamic Facebook community, with a very dynamic Twitter community, but a lot just don’t have the mental bandwidth,” said Henry Copeland, CEO of Blogads, which sells advertising on the Internet. “You need a density of folks who are excited about doing it. All of this stuff requires a community and as a blogger you want to be responding to other bloggers and be in the thick of it, and if the thick of things has just moved in another direction.”
What that translates into for me — I spend more time on social media (primarily Facebook, Twitter and G+) and it’s been a successful and more gratifying shift. It’s just how it is. There is certainly more direct feedback — look at the dearth of comments here most of the time. Maybe if there were Facebook comments in place it would boost more interaction; I think many readers aren’t interested in registering at various blogs just to dash off a quick comment.
Anyway, I just can’t keep up that pace of blog writing and offline activism up and hold down a FT job over a long period. As David Freedlander said, many of the high-profile bloggers moved into professional consultant roles, or were hired away by online or offline publications to boost their web political cred; much of the rest are withering away with a few managing to stake a claim for the ad market that is there.
What Freedlander didn’t mention is the decline and fall of newspapers and other traditional media over the same time period. Just this week Newsweek (part of the Daily Beast network…hmmm.) announced it’s going digital only. That’s a huge if not unexpected shift — it’s another bookmark on the media timeline. Publishers have been rocked by the success of e-books; Amazon sells more books for its Kindle than hard copies. The landscape is shifting for everyone. Is it good or bad, or just “change.” It’s obviously causing pain, as the scramble to adapt means jobs lost and people who need to re-tool themselves for jobs that require a different skill set. What’s happening to independent blogs is not occurring in a vacuum.
A logical question, going back to blogs, is does activism of the kind that flourished in the Netroots back in the day suffer? Yep. But things have morphed. The bottom line is people love free content, and at least in my case I don’t have the time to “sell” what I do; I barely have time to do it. The fact that the advertising world on blogs is dominated by Google makes it easier for those wishing to advertise to do so “economically” and more easily in their minds — at the expense of those independent blogs and their networks. So essentially there’s little incentive to do long-form writing except for personal reasons when I want to do it. And so I’m in full circle — back to why I did it in 2004, when no one was reading PHB and I had few ads. And that has to be OK? Who knows.
It’s not that independent political blogging is toast — after all the longevity of a blog post in the historical record far outweighs a short message on social media. A blog essay has more lasting influence; the problem is independent blogs don’t have sufficient value in today’s commercial space to sustain their existence — save for the lucky few people who have been able to monetize (or fundraise) for theirs to continue to exist.