Listen to this article
This story had a spin-off blog created. You can read all the comments here.
On a winter-cold morning last autumn, before the leaves could summon up the energy to burn and fall, the barbarians entered the gate. A group of feisty young writers, known only to millions of readers by their blog names - Gawker, Gizmodo, Wonkette and Defamer - were in a soigne studio in New York’s Chelsea district to be photographed for the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
They represented the cream of Gawker Media - a mini-empire of clever, gossip-driven blogs launched in 2003 by Nick Denton, a former reporter for the Financial Times. But they were also emissaries from the blogging hordes, a raffish army of citizen journalists bent on overthrowing the old guard of the US media.
The irony was sweet: Gawker was supposed to make fun of this kind of inside-the-establishment posing. But the victory was sweeter: it was a signal moment, a benediction from a magazine that, more than any other, has become the plush chronicler of the celebrity establishment. As Vanity Fair put it in the story that accompanied the photo-spread, “With a combination of smart-ass writing and low subject matter folded into crisply designed sites, the Gawker gang is bringing some wit and nasty fun to a dour decade.” The upstart press of the 21st century seemed to have truly arrived.
Gawker made itself known early in its life when its first editor, Elizabeth Spiers, a former equity analyst, scored a frank interview with a young woman working on Wall Street, about the poor customer service ethics of cocaine dealers - an acute problem, apparently, for high-finance slaves pulling all-nighters during tax season.
“The perfect coke dealer would be like a dad,” she said: an immigrant putting his six kids through college, someone who wouldn’t muck you around. This was not the sort of information you were likely to get in The New York Times.
Gawker’s Washington DC outpost “Wonkette” scored a bigger coup when its editor, Ana Marie Cox, wrote about “Washingtonienne”, a 26-year-old Republican staffer pseudonymously blogging about her multiple sexual liaisons, including one with a married Bush administration official who gave her an envelope filled with cash in gratitude. Readers quickly worked out who the staffer, Jessica Cutler, was sleeping with, helped by the fact that Cutler - who has often spoken to the media of her 140-plus IQ - referred to her paramours using their real initials.
Buttoned-down Washington was horrified. Cutler was fired for misusing her office computer, but promptly got a six-figure book deal and an invitation to pose for Playboy in time for the 2004 election, which she accepted. As she memorably told The Washington Post, “Everyone should have a blog. It’s the most democratic thing ever.” And, indeed, having a blog seemed to be the quickest way to fame in a country obsessed with fortune.
With Gawker Media, the US seemed to be getting the tabloid values it deserved. It wasn’t for nothing that the irrepressible socialite and political chameleon Arianna Huffington called Nick Denton “the Rupert Murdoch of the blogosphere”, and then promptly created her own salon of bloggers last year - “The Huffington Post” - so that such dispossessed citizen journalists as Tina Brown, Deepak Chopra and Gwyneth Paltrow could ride the blogging wave and speak directly to the masses.
Now, at this point you might be wondering, what the hell is a blog? It turns out that even in the US, the blogosphere’s superpower, most internet users - 62 per cent according to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project - aren’t exactly sure what a blog is.
So if you happen to fall into the majority, a blog is conventionally and somewhat confusingly defined as an online diary, or weblog; a more apt description is to say that it is the simplest and cheapest way to publish a type of website whose structure encourages frequent diary-like postings. The idea took off in 1996 with the Open Pages “webring”, or linked websites; but it wasn’t until sites such as blogger.com, created by Pyra Labs in San Francisco in 1999, gave people free server space and tools to create their own websites that the much more widespread blogging phenomenon began.
Chances are you have come across a blog when searching the web for a particular topic, but if you want to find ones covering a specific issue, the blogosphere has its own version of Google in www.technorati.com, a search engine that tracks blogs. Or you could go to www.truthlaidbear.com, which tracks visits to the most popular blogs. Alternatively, clicking on one blogger - say instapundit.com if you are conservative leaning, or the dailykos.com if you are liberal - will lead you to a “blogroll” of links to likeminded souls.
At the close of 2002, there were some 15,000 blogs. By 2005, 56 new blogs were starting every minute. As I type this sentence, there are, according to technorati.com, 27.2 million blogs. By the time you read this sentence, there surely will be many more.
Still, blogging would have been little more than a recipe for even more internet tedium if it had not been seized upon in the US as a direct threat to the mainstream media and the conventions by which they control news. And one of the conventions that happened to work in blogging’s favour was the way the media take a new trend and describes it as a revolution. The surge of hype about blogging was helped by the fact that many of the most prominent bloggers were high-fliers within the media establishment - such as Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of The New Republic, or Mickey Kaus of Slate, the online magazine Microsoft sold to The Washington Post Company just over a year ago.
That such established journalists were blogging gave the revolution a dose of credibility that it might not have had if it were in the hands of true outsiders. And then, just before the presidential election in 2004, blogging had its Battleship Potemkin moment, when swarms of partisan bloggers rose up to sink CBS’s iron-jawed leviathan Dan Rather for peddling supposedly fake memos about Bush’s national guard service.
This seemed to prove one of blogging’s biggest selling points - that the collective intelligence of the media’s audience was greater than the collective intelligence of any news programme or newspaper.
It also showed that blogging was irrepressible - that power was shifting from the gatekeepers of the traditional media to a more open, fluid information society that would have gladdened the heart of the philosopher Karl Popper. And it solidified the belief among conservatives that blogging was a way to take down their longstanding enemies in the once impregnable fortress of the liberal press.
As syndicated radio host and law professor Hugh Hewitt wrote in the conservative Weekly Standard last August, “It is hard to overstate the speed with which the information reformation is advancing - or to overestimate its impact on politics and culture. The mainstream media is a hollowed-out shell of its former self when it comes to influence, and when advertisers figure out who is reading the blogs, the old media is going to see their advertising base drain away, and not slowly.”
We are witnessing “the dawn of a blogosphere dominant media”, announced Michael S. Malone, who has been described as “the Boswell of Silicon Valley”. “Five years from now, the blogosphere will have developed into a powerful economic engine that has all but driven newspapers into oblivion, has morphed (thanks to cell phone cameras) into a video medium that challenges television news and has created a whole new group of major media companies and media superstars. Billions of dollars will be made by those prescient enough to either get on board or invest in these companies.”
Even the ne plus ultra of American public intellectuals, Richard Posner, senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago, former chief judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, declared blogging to be “the latest and perhaps gravest challenge to the journalistic establishment” (although it is worth noting that Judge Posner decided to publish his meditation in The New York Times Book Review rather than on his own blog).
But as with any revolution, we must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor. Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion? Or is it just another crock of virtual gold - a meretricious equivalent of all those noisy internet start-ups that were going to build a brave “new economy” a few years ago?
Shouldn’t we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one - especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn’t the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?
I suspect so, not least because the “dinosaur” businesses of the old economy have a canny ability to absorb, adapt and evolve. We are already starting to see blogs taking root in well established newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, though few have yet gone as far as the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, where, last year, editor John Robinson told his reporters to turn themselves into bloggers. He also invited readers to act as reporters, filing their own stories, and writes a regular blog himself.
Some experiments have gone awry. When the Los Angeles Times decided to try letting readers insert their own ideas into its editorials online last year, the trial ended within days after obscene pictures were posted on its site.
But as the old media wrestle with the significance of blogging, it is sobering to hear some of the heroes of the “revolution” now speak of its insignificance. Late last year, I went to the ramshackle East Village apartment of Choire (pronounced “Corey”) Sicha, a former gallery owner and now a senior editor at The New York Observer, a vibrant weekly newspaper that covers the rich and powerful of Manhattan.
Dressed in a pink shirt and blue jeans, and unshaven to the point of looking like a young Bee Gee gone preppy, Sicha is less than starry-eyed about blogging - even though it helped put him and Gawker on the media map.
“The word blogosphere has no meaning,” he said from across a folding table vast enough to support the battle of Waterloo in miniature (the apartment owes much to eBay, the Ikea of bohemia). “There is no sphere; these people aren’t connected; they don’t have anything to do with each other.” The democratic promise of blogs, he explained, has just produced more fragmentation and segregation at a time when seeing the totality of things - the purview of old media - is arguably much more important.
“As for blogs taking over big media in the next five years? Fine, sure,” he added. “But where are the beginnings of that? Where is the reporting? Where is the reliability? The rah-rah blogosphere crowd are apparently ready to live in a world without war reporting, without investigative reporting, without nearly any of the things we depend on newspapers for. The world of blogs is like an entire newspaper composed of op-eds and letters and wire service feeds. And they’re all excited about the global reach of blogs? Right, tell it to China.”
If the hype surrounding blogging sounds familiar, its only because you really have heard it all before. In Washington DC, the fiery-haired woman behind the Wonkette blog, Ana Marie Cox found the idea of blogging’s grave threats and grand promises rife with deja vu. “People said this about [fan] zines too,” she said. “People said this about the web in general as well - oh God, they probably said this about CD-roms.”
Cox (who - in the interests of disclosure - I hired to write some articles on polling for the website STATS.org) has been burnt by the promise of revolution before. She once worked for Suck and Feed - two inventive alternative publications that flourished briefly when, to borrow a phrase from the Boswell of Silicon Valley, people “were prescient enough to invest billions” in the internet.
Cox was then hired to add “voice” to a number of publications concerned that they were too dull to attract younger readers and was promptly fired for having too much youthful pitch. Her journalism career was almost at an end when Nick Denton saw her blog, the Antic Muse, and hired her to write Wonkette.
If anyone ought to be a true believer in the blogging revolution, it’s Cox; but she isn’t. “I just don’t see the ‘lumbering dinosaurs of mainstream media’ - there’s no asteroid coming,” she said. “They may have - to push the metaphor wildly - to learn to live in an ecosphere where there is a more limited amount of. whatever it is.”
“Food?” I ventured.
“Food,” she agreed. “But there’s always going to be a New York Times. As a culture, we like to have a narrative that we kind of agree on. You and your cohorts may believe that it’s liberal elitist propaganda - or you may think it’s corporate, conservative hegemony. But there’s a sense in which it’s good to have The New York Times because we need to know that this is the dominant storyline right now. Cable news has the same function. I guess the idea is that in Jakarta somebody at their computer is going to type up a news story about what’s going on in Jakarta. But you know, I think I do want a professional reporter doing that as well.”
Cox also stands as a prime example of another under-acknowledged weakness of the blogger uprising: to make it in blogging seems to mean making it out of blogging. By the time the Vanity Fair photo spread on Gawker Media hit the store shelves in January, Cox had left Wonkette to focus on promoting her novel Dog Days, a satire on Washington DC for which she was paid $250,000. Elizabeth Spiers, too, defected from Gawker after about a year on the job, and her satirical novel will be published next year. Its title is curiously apropos: And They All Die in the End.
And if Gawker was a kind of guilty pleasure people enjoyed after the horror of 9/11 had lingered just a little too long, it is a pleasure that has begun testing readers’ limits. A posting in August noted that a woman had been knocked down and killed crossing the street in front of an Urban Outfitters store: “You know we’re completely in favor of anything that suggests NYC is edgy,” wrote Gawker. “But we’d argue things have gone too far when shopping for ironic T-shirts becomes a potentially fatal extreme sport.”
The woman turned out to be an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, which lead The New York Times to accuse Gawker of turning “everyday heartbreak” and “heinous” crimes into “inflection points for irony”.
Much as the outpouring of humour in New York in the 1920s that gave rise to the Algonquin Round Table was a temporary post-traumatic cultural reaction to the shock of the Great War, the Gawker spirit is wearing a little thin in light of a seemingly endless bloody insurgency in Iraq, a mesmerising failure of government to deal with the massive catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, and revelations of corruption on Capitol Hill. “Satire,” said Choire Sicha, “is the most useless cultural effluvia one could possibly produce out of the cultural situation in America right now.”
In many respects, the American media in all their stuffy isolation brought the bloggers upon themselves. When I first arrived in Washington in 1993, Martin Walker, then bureau chief of The Guardian, made the acid and insightful comment that you had to be old to be allowed to have an opinion in print in the US press. In contrast to the British and European media, which had their origins in the Enlightenment and the belief that journalism was a forum for debate and argument - even philosophy, according to David Hume - the American press is a 19th century creation animated by the pursuit of fact.
Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet.
The historical lesson here is one of cyclical rebellion at the US media for being staid, dull and closed off to change. Indeed, the underground press of the 1960s was described in almost identical terms as blogging is today. “The loudest voice heard in America these days,” said the radical journalist Andrew Kopkind in 1967, is the sound of insurgents chiselling away at establishments.”
The present round of chiselling may feel exciting and radically new - but blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift’s fleas sucking upon other fleas “ad infinitum”: somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism.
This is patently not the case in other parts of the world. “In a market like the US, blogs are superabundant and often irrelevant because we suffer from a glut of data and have lost our norms for creating information hierarchies,” said Anne Nelson, a media consultant and adjunct professor at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. “In authoritarian societies like Syria or China, it’s the reverse - people lack independent information and may question the imposed hierarchy. In fact, as Nasrin Alavi notes in her recent book, We are Iran, blogging is creating an information revolution where the Iranian regime has been stunningly successful at shutting down newspapers (41 over the past decade). “Thanks to the anonymity and freedom of weblogs, Iranians are at last speaking up and discussing issues that have never been publicly aired in the national media before,” Alavi wrote in the FT magazine last November. “The head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Shahroudi, recently described the internet as a ‘Trojan horse carrying enemy soldiers in its belly’. He’s right. The Iranian blogosphere pulses with opposition to the Islamic revolution.”
Blogging will no doubt always have a place as an underground medium in closed societies; but for those in the west trying to blog their way into viable businesses, the economics are daunting.
The inherent problem with blogging is that your brand resides in individuals. If they are fabulous writers, someone is likely to lure them away to a better salary and the opportunity for more meaningful work; if the writer tires and burns out, the brand may go down in flames with them.
To deal with the punishing treadmill of endless posting, Gawker and Wonkette each now has two editors. But the economies of scale are such that a second writer is not going to change output to the point where readership or ad revenue will double. What a second writer will do is provide security for the brand - and the means to fact-check gossip that could otherwise turn into a blog-destroying lawsuit.
As for advertising revenue, no one appears to be getting rich from blogging. According to Advertising Age, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos, one of the most popular blogs in the world, was making around $20,000 a month just before the last presidential election. When I e-mailed Moulitsas to ask what he was making now, he refused to say: “Really, it’s no one else’s business. I’m not a public company.”
Similarly, Gawker Media and Pajamas Media (a blog news service that includes law professor Glenn Reynolds’ heavily trafficked site Instapundit) either refused to or did not respond with any figures.
“Let’s just say it’s more than a case of beer, but not enough for us to quit our jobs,” said Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, the writers behind gofugyourself.com, a wickedly inventive take-down of celebrities wearing “frighteningly ugly” clothes, which consistently draws 100,000 plus visitors a day, making it one of the most frequently visited blogs on the internet.
One blogger who would open his books suggests that fortunes are not being made by even the above-average site. Andrew Lienhard earned $1,100 last year by using Google’s ad service on his blog, jazzhouston.com, which has been running since 1996 and gets some 12,000 page visits a day.
After talking to various people in the new media world, it’s possible to estimate an income of $1,000 to $2,000 a month in ad revenue from a typical blog getting 10,000 visitors a day and playing to a national audience with a popular topic such as politics.
The problem is that few blogs do even that much traffic. According to the monitoring done by thetruthlaidbear.com, only two blogs get more than 1 million visitors a day and the numbers drop quickly after that: the 10th ranked blog for traffic gets around 120,000 visits; the 50th around 28,000; the 100th around 9,700; the 500th only 1,400 and the 1000th under 600. By contrast, the online edition of The New York Times had an average of 1.7 million visitors per weekday last November, according to the Nielsen ratings, and the physical paper a reach of 5 million people per weekday, according to Scarborough research.
That is one reason why advertisers are still sticking with the mainstream media. The other has to do with the very basic selling point of blogging. “There is a certain loss of control when it comes to advertising on blogs,” said Mark Wnek, chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe New York. “The connection the most popular citizen journalists cultivate with their devotees is through an honest, uncensored, raw freedom of expression, and that can be quite uncomfortable territory for a traditional marketer.”
The dismal traffic numbers also point to another little trade secret of the blogosphere, and one missed by Judge Posner and all the other blog-evangelists when they extol the idea that blogging allows thousands of Tom Paines to bloom. As Ana Marie Cox says: “When people talk about the liberation of the armchair pajamas media, they tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that the voices with the loudest volume in the blogosphere definitely belong to people who have experience writing. They don’t have to be experienced journalists necessarily, but they write - part of their professional life is to communicate clearly in written words.”
And not every blogger can be a Tom Paine. “People may want a democratic media,” says Cox, “but they don’t want to be bored. They also want to be entertained and they want to feel like they’ve learned something. They want ideas expressed with some measure of clarity.”
Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere - tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn’t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium.
To illustrate the point, I asked a number of bloggers whether they thought Karl Marx or George Orwell, two enormously potent political writers who were also journalists, would have blogged if the medium had been available to them. And almost always, the answer was, why of course, it would have given them the widest possible audience and the greatest possible impact.
“We’re sure Marx and Orwell would have blogged,” said Heather and Jessica of gofugyourself.com. “When it comes right down to it, blogs reach the greatest amount of people in the least amount of time, and they reach the very people Marx and Orwell wanted to speak to most.”
“Orwell, definitely,” said Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds. “Marx would have had to acquire a bit more ‘snap’, I’m afraid, to have made it as a blogger.”
“Orwell maybe,” said Cox. “Orwell was pathologically productive. He never doubted himself, that’s for sure. And maybe he shares that trait with many bloggers.”
The question was, of course, rigged. The great critic and editor Cyril Connolly fell into despair over the prolixity of Orwell’s wartime writing: “Being Orwell, nothing he wrote is quite without value and unexpected gems keep popping up. But O the boredom of argument without action, politics without power.”
Connolly was the constitutional opposite of Orwell - a spry wit given to sloth, a portly bon vivant who masticated away his genius. But he recognised, in effect, how awful Orwell would have been as a blogger, and how he would fall into the kind of dross exemplified by the author’s “In Defence of English Cooking”: “Here are some of the things that I myself have sought for in foreign countries and failed to find. First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets. Then a list of puddings that would be interminable if I gave it in full: I will pick out for special mention Christmas pudding, treacle tart and apple dumplings. Then an almost equally long list of cakes: for instance, dark plum cake.”
The point is, any writer of talent needs the time and peace to produce work that has a chance of enduring. Connolly provided that to Orwell with the influential literary magazine he co-edited, Horizon, a publication that gave Orwell the chance to write some of his most memorable essays.
As for Marx, journalism was an act of economic necessity that, initially, necessitated Engels doing all the writing. But Marx was a quick learner with a deft wit, and in his brisk biography, Francis Wheen posits that “had he but world enough and time Marx could have. made his name as the sharpest polemical journalist of the 19th century. But at his back he could always hear the nagging voice of conscience whispering, ‘c’est magnifique, mais c’est ne pas la guerre.” For Marx and Engels, journalism was trivial - an impediment to serious, memorable and above all influential work. “Mere potboiling,” wrote Engels of the more than 500 articles he and Marx wrote for The New York Daily Tribune, “It doesn’t matter if they are never read again.”
And that, in the end, is the dismal fate of blogging: it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence. No Modern Library edition of the great polemicists of the blogosphere to yellow on the shelf; nothing but a virtual tomb for a billion posts - a choric song of the word-weary bloggers, forlorn mariners forever posting on the slumberless seas of news.
Trevor Butterworth is a writer based in Washington DC.
Be alerted on Life & Arts