Blogging is “Destroying the Business Model for Quality”?

Journalist Jonathan Rauch writes that the internet is Sturgeon squared:

This is the blogosphere. I’m not getting paid to be here. I’m here to get incredibly famous (in my case, even more incredibly famous) so that I can get paid somewhere else. . . .

The average quality of newspapers and (published) novels is far, far better than the average quality of blog posts (and–ugh!–comments). This is because people pay for newspapers and novels. What distinguishes newspapers and novels is how much does not get published in them, because people won’t pay for it. Payment is a filter, and a pretty good one. Imperfect, of course. But pointing out the defects of the old model is merely changing the subject if the new model is worse. . . .

Yes, the new model is bringing a lot of new content into being. But most of it is bad. And it’s displacing a lot of better content, by destroying the business model for quality. Even in the information economy, there’s no free lunch. . . .

Yes, there’s good stuff out there. But when you find a medium in which 99 percent, or whatever, of what’s produced is bad, there is a problem with the medium. . . .

I believe there are inherent problems with the blogosphere as a medium. Lack of a payment model militates against professionalism and rewards noisiness . . .

In terms of the environment and the incentives it creates, the blogosphere, I submit, is the single worst medium for sustained, and therefore grown-up, reading and writing and argumentation ever invented.

Regular (or irregular) readers won’t be surprised that I disagree. I do, however, understand Rauch’s frustration: after painstakingly establishing a reputation writing books and working for newspapers and magazines, he’s reduced to posting on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. He writes that his “mild, moderate, think-it-through-and-get-it-right style doesn’t mesh well with blogosphere culture.” I wonder if his problem is that he’s aiming for too big an audience. We have something like 5000 subscribers here. Maybe if Rauch were willing to settle for an audience of 5000 rather than millions, he could be mild, moderate, think things through, and get it right. To be all these things and have a huge audience? I think that takes a huge amount of luck. It happened with John Updike, and Francis Fukayama, and Tyler Cowen, and . . . not so many others. But if you’re willing to accept a niche audience, you can be as serious as you want.

But that’s me coming from my academic perspective. So few people read most academic articles that I’m thrilled to have 5000 readers for my musings. Rauch is coming from the opposite direction, writing for newspapers and magazines where hundreds of thousands of people are exposed to every word in print. To give up on those large audiences has got to feel like a step backward.

Feelings of frustration

Rauch writes that journalists like himself are “the kind of people who punched their tickets on newspaper police beats where they learned quaint notions of fairness and accuracy and keeping one’s opinions out of it and all that.” Given that Rauch is currently posting nothing but opinions and has stated that he will do no reporting on his blog, and given that I haven’t seen any police reporting from him lately, I think it’s safe to say that he doesn’t actually view fairness, accuracy, and the traditions of the police beat as valuable in themselves but rather as some sort of hazing that you had to do in the old days before you could get to the fun stage of opinionating. So I can feel his frustration that bloggers today feel free to express their opinions in public–just like Rauch, but they never had to do all that police-beat stuff first. Rauch had to eat his spinach but these dudes get to skip right to the dessert. Talk about violating “quaint notions of fairness”!

Life is like that. Just when you finally become an expert on something, your expertise becomes obsolete. You spend a couple decades getting good grades and becoming really good at taking tests, then suddenly you never need to take a test again. You master the skills of diaper-changing, then all of a sudden your kids are walking around wearing real underwear and you have no place to apply your talents. You’re Derek Jeter and you get to be really really good at hitting, throwing, and catching, and then before you know it, it’s time to retire. And so on.

Rauch is in a difficult position, I think, in that his particular journalistic niche includes a lot that people are happy do for free. His most recent book, “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America,” is the sort of thing you might very well see on a blog.

Academic publishing

Rauch writes that blogging, and the internet in general, is “displacing a lot of better content, by destroying the business model for quality.” What really struck me about this remark was how different things are in academic publishing. Nobody pays us to write journal articles: we do it for free and we always have. We get paid to teach and to do research. Publications can indirectly make us money–if I publish an important article, it can help me get a research grant–but no part of this system requires the readers of my work to pay for it. If every journal were to become free and online overnight, everything could proceed just as before. The argument that paid writing is better than free writing just doesn’t apply in my world.

Rauch makes an offhand remark that he uses the internet to “do Wikipedia research.” I’m assuming here that he doesn’t mean that he does research to post on Wikipedia but rather that, to him, going on Wikipedia is a way to do research. And that’s fine, there’s no shame in using secondary sources, but somebody has to actually write those Wikipedia articles? And they’re doing it for free! It’s not so coherent to describe Wikipedia-reading as “research” and then turn around and disparage the quality of free writing on the internet.

Blogging as a style: the words come out in time order rather than in an order dictated by the logic of the piece, as would occur in a well-edited magazine article

Rauch states that in his blogging there will be “no second drafts.” That describes the blogging here. I almost never redraft a blog entry. But sometimes I do spend a couple hours thinking through what I’m trying to say, while I’m writing it. Rauch may very well be correct that this is not the best way to write.

My blog entries typically have a linear, story-like flavor, starting with “So-and-so sent me a question one day…” or “I was websurfing one day and came across an article on…” or even a bald “So-and-so writes that…”, then flowing through my immediate reactions, through my more considered thoughts, on to my conclusions.

A finished magazine article is a palimpsest (I hope I’m using the term correctly) of thoughts, rearranged to form a logical order. In contrast, my blog entries follow the internal logic of my thoughts. In many ways I like the result, but I agree with Rauch’s (implicit) statement that a blog is not so friendly to the reader who is used to reading magazine articles that are structured, Gladwell-style, around personal anecdotes. (And I mean “Gladwell-style” in a good way.)

To put it another way, blogging is the ideal medium for someone such as myself whose writing is too fluid for academic journals but is not quite up to the standard of professional magazine writing. Conversely, if like Rauch you’ve trained yourself to write in that professional style, it must be frustrating to suddenly enter a world in which people can get wide internet readership without ever having developed that skill. I have no idea if that Instapundit dude knows the difference between a subject and a predicate or whether he can string together more than two sentences without an embedded url–but he has more readers than Rauch and I will ever get.

Finally, there is the question of value. I’m lucky enough to have a well-paying job that gives me a lot of time to work on whatever I want. This isn’t always such a good thing for a writer (consider the later careers of J. D. Salinger and Joseph Mitchell, both of whom I suspect would’ve benefited from some deadline pressure), but it works for me. Rauch keeps mentioning how he isn’t being paid. I like writing for free but he doesn’t. This doesn’t make me a better person than Rauch, just luckier. I’m blogging cos I want to, Rauch is blogging even though he’d rather be doing something else. (Or maybe I’m the more pitiful creature because I actually want to blog, but that’s a call for someone else to make.)

Still, much as I like to blog, I do feel a bit of frustration when I write a long and thoughtful piece that appears only here (and maybe on one or two of my sister blogs). Even this entry here–the product of a couple of quick thoughts in response to something I noticed on the Daily Dish–I have to admit I like it enough that I’d like to see it (or a revised version, maybe combined with other related thoughts) in a more widely-read publication. It doesn’t feel quite real if it only appears on a blog.

Summary

Take away the rhetoric and the personal stories, and we’re left with Rauch’s central claim, which is that blogging is “destroying the business model for quality.” If readers will read blogs that are written by amateurs for free, then professional journalists will disappear.

About Andrew Gelman 26 Articles

Affiliation: Columbia University

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. He has received the Outstanding Statistical Application award from the American Statistical Association, the award for best article published in the American Political Science Review, and the Council of Presidents of Statistical Societies award for outstanding contributions by a person under the age of 40.

His books include Bayesian Data Analysis (with John Carlin, Hal Stern, and Don Rubin), Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks (with Deb Nolan), Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models (with Jennifer Hill), and, most recently, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do (with David Park, Boris Shor, Joe Bafumi, and Jeronimo Cortina).

Andrew has done research on a wide range of topics, including: why it is rational to vote; why campaign polls are so variable when elections are so predictable; why redistricting is good for democracy; reversals of death sentences; police stops in New York City, the statistical challenges of estimating small effects; the probability that your vote will be decisive; seats and votes in Congress; social network structure; arsenic in Bangladesh; radon in your basement; toxicology; medical imaging; and methods in surveys, experimental design, statistical inference, computation, and graphics.

Visit: Andrew Gelman's Website

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