The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this week is on political bloggers (it features Wonkette’s Ana Marie Cox looking Jodie Foster creamy and dreamy in front of a keyboard while R.W. Apple and and Jack Germond look clueless and old behind her), and now having read it, I have a few comments:
1. While I suppose it’s just the nature of an election year, I still find it remarkable that when the mainstream media thinks of “bloggers,” it’s almost exclusively political bloggers. I can’t help think of sites like, say, Penny Arcade, whose daily visitorship is higher than all but four or five of the top political sites, and which I would argue is at least as influential in the video game industry as Kos is in politics (if not more so; both sites have raised hundreds of thousands for their respective causes — Kos for political candidates, and Penny Arcade for its Child’s Play charity, but PA was able to create its own successful gaming conference (PAX) to boot, with an attendance, I think, of over 1,500 (Update: A couple of people (including at least one attendee) tell me the actual number was closer to 3,000. Which just makes the point more relevant)). It’s not that political bloggers aren’t important or interesting, but they’re definitely not the only blogging game in town. If the mainstream media is going to cover blogging, I wish the coverage was more varied and included sites that aren’t all about getting the White House for their side.
2. This was the first article I’ve seen that actually discussed how much some of the paid bloggers were making — it notes that Wonkette’s base salary is $18,000 (although apparently she gets performance bonuses based on visits), and that Josh Marshall’s advertising income can be as much $10K a month. Speaking as a paid blogger, I find this sort of thing very interesting — now I know where my own blogging income fits into the grand scheme of things (higher than some, apparently lower than others). I think it would be interesting to have someone do a survey to find out what paid bloggers actually make — the number of bloggers who are supporting themselves and/or have a sizable percentage of their income from blogging is still small enough that it’s doable. I would suspect that that overall, it’s still not something that you’ll be doing to get, you know, rich, or (for the most part) even comfortably middle class.
3. By and large, I think the relationship between political bloggers and legitimate media is pretty much the relationship between a taxi driver in the Middle East and the United States: They’ll bitch and moan about it and go on about how evil it is, but when push comes to shove, they’d probably give a testicle to get in. The Times story shows the higher-end bloggers clearly conflicted as to what their relationship is with the more established forms of media — and the New York Times writer who put the story together seems more than happy to note that even the high-end bloggers have mid-level profiles at best in terms of the traditional media. For whatever gains bloggers have made in the last few years, there’s still definitely a major league-minor league dichotomy between it and and traditional media.
Which is ironic, because many newspaper writers I know look longingly at the “freedom” of blogging, in which one is not confined by piddling annoyances like newshole or editors. The grass is always greener, and so on.
I’m ambivalent about either side. On the issue of the personal economics and fulfillment, at this point in the game, I don’t see much advantage at looking longingly at the grass on either side of the fence since the fence isn’t really there; i.e., there’s no reason writing in on medium excludes you from the other. I make more money as a blogger than I do as a novelist or a magazine columnist; I make more money writing Books of the Dumb than I do as a blogger. A little here, a little there, and eventually you’re talking real money. Sometimes I make more from online writing, sometimes I make more from traditional publication. It all depends on what day you get me. Print offers some advantages to me as a writer, online writing offers others. Ultimately, I don’t feel allegiance either to bloggers or to the ink-stained wretches; I feel allegiance to my mortgage and to my own sense of curiosity as a writer.
Having said that, traditional media does have a distinct institutional advantage — it’s got a lot more money and influence. This is why blogging to this day largely triangulates off traditional media; traditional media has the resources to set the news agenda. And this is probably why most of the most ambitious bloggers still wouldn’t mind “graduating” to traditional media — they want a chance to set the agenda too, not just react to it, or (in the recent case of the CBS screw-up) throw a well-deserved spanner into the works. And this is why traditional journalists can still feel safe feeling smug toward bloggers; by and large they’re still back benchers — it still takes hundreds of them to bring down a single Dan Rather. The fact bloggers glory in “fact-checking” the media in itself describes who is dominant in that relationship.
I think it’s doubtful that overall this relationship is going to change much over time, unless the economics of blogging somehow get a heck of a lot better, or the economics of traditional media somehow get a lot worse — or the open-source distributed model of journalism the blogosphere can provide (lots of people, each contributing one small bit of the puzzle) can somehow be made to be as consistent efficient as the proprietary, exclusive model of investigation the media can provide (one or a few experienced people doing most of the work). I suppose either is possible, but I’m not betting on either as likely.