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A theory of bloggers and the MSM

Greg Sargent was hired by the Washington Post/Newsweek International company to produce and write for a new Web venture called Who Runs Gov. The idea was Wikipedia-for-politics, but to keep people coming to the site, Sargent was brought on board to provide daily content.

I was hired because the Post's business section wanted an economic policy blog in order to sell advertising off of a Web site devoted to the financial crisis, and when they asked Steve Pearlstein if he could think of anyone, he thought of me.

David Weigel was hired because he has spent years following the Ron Paul campaign and the "tea parties" and has proved himself the best beat reporter on the populist wing of the Republican Party, and hiring the best beat reporter on the most important movement in American politics seemed like the sort of thing the Post should do.

And there were a lot of other people hired over this period: Jeff Stein, who writes a blog on intelligence affairs. Karen Tumulty, who covers national politics. Jia Lynn Yang, to cover business policy. Nia-Malika Henderson, to cover the first family. Greg Miller, to cover national security.

But the bloggers get the Politico article. In part, this is because bloggers are good at getting attention from other members of the media. You're not going to get very far as a solo blogger if you can't get people to notice your work. But it's also because a media that's used to a very sharp separation between reportage and opinions is a bit tripped out by people who tend to operate at the intersection of both, because they wonder if they'll soon have to operate at the intersection of both.

They won't. What you're seeing here is the product of magazines moving into the blogging arena first, and so training the first wave of bloggers who do a lot of reporting.

The quote from me in Ben Smith's article is from a longer argument I made in our interview: Analytical reportage has traditionally been the province of magazines. It's the stock-in-trade of the Atlantic, the New Republic, the Economist, the American Prospect, the Washington Monthly, and Reason, just to name a few. And if you want to play six degrees, I interned at the Washington Monthly and worked at the American Prospect; Greg worked at New York magazine and moved to Talking Points Memo, which was started by a former American Prospect editor; and Dave got his start at Reason and The Economist, both of which are right-of-center magazines.

All of those magazines write reported, analytical (and opinionated) articles for a sophisticated audience. But because their publishing cycles are slow, they've not traditionally been major players in the day-to-day conversation. But now you've got people who trained at those magazines and adopted their sensibilities writing at internet speed, which is to say, faster than the daily cycle. And that's working, I think. At the very least, it's working with elite audiences.

But it's not, as Smith suggests, a story of ideology (though Tucker Carlson and David Frum might tell you that conservative publications place less emphasis on reporting and that accounts for why liberals and libertarians have gotten the first of these jobs), or even corporate strategy. Small magazines adopted blogs early because they were desperate for an entryway into daily reporting. Newspapers, for obvious reasons, were less concerned. But as newspapers got more concerned, they've hired the bloggers trained at small magazines because those bloggers report and write in a way that traditional media organizations recognize.

The media isn't so much changing as repackaging, and my guess is that five or 10 years from now, there will be a lot of bloggers doing analytical reporting and everyone will agree that that was just a natural process of adaptation to a faster medium with a more elite readership and no space constraints. Those who're inclined to more structuralist explanations will says that as the flow of information sped up and opinions multiplied there was more demand for reported, analytical content that helped people make sense of it all.

The first wave of these folks came from small magazines that have a more opinionated bent, but the second wave will come from inside newspapers and online publications that play it a bit straighter. But it won't be, and isn't now, a story of ideology. It's a story of technological change, and the way in which new markets first get served by marginal players and then get swallowed up by established institutions.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 5, 2010; 10:35 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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i was kind of surprised at first at the almost negativity of the Politico article but then again they seem to be leaning right nowadays anyway which explains their whining about the WaPo leaning left.

Sadly anymore it doesn't pay to stay neutral. Just ask Fox and CNN executives.

The Swiss are a dying breed!

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 5, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

is this a long way of calling us an, "elite audience"?

awww shucks. Thanks man.

Posted by: ThomasEN | May 5, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

@vb: Politico article but then again they seem to be leaning right nowadays

Politico is the stenographer of villager wisdom. As villager wisdom is conservative (in that it doesn't like change) and tends to lean right, regardless of who is in power in DC, Politico fits right in.

Posted by: srw3 | May 5, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, here are my thoughts:

1. Politico is right that as far as blog sphere goes indeed WaPo has moved Left; at least slightly. Not that I find it any wrong here, I enjoy that and appreciate the content. Except David Weigel, I do not find much dedicated Right blogging. (Parker, at times Will, Border etc. folks do bring sensible Right views; but not on blogs, more in less frequent columns.)

2. Your own argument that folks came from magazines and that is what changing the landscape - big yawn. Just a technical argument.

3. WaPo is doing reporting in times when Obama and his brand of 'big government' policy structure is in vogue. We had had more than 2 decades of 'let the Market rule' philosophy and that has not exactly developed in the direction we all wanted. Hence these few years are time of 'big policy debates with extensive government involvement' and that can explain the liberal bias too. In short, that is the territory where laws are done today (unlike deregulation of Telecom industry or earlier airline industry or late 90s push to break Galss-Stegal; so on) and hence the natural bias. Nothing abnormal in that.

4. Finally neither the Blogs/ Media on Right nor Politicians / Policy makers on Right want to take the 'responsibility' of at least the limits of their ideology and then move on to contribute substantially. David Brooks is the one who is defining level of honesty there. Look at RealClearPolitics website - one of the fist ones to get 'content aggregation' which became a force in the Bush Years. Their earlier Right inclination is still in place till today with no serious discussion about what has gone wrong with Right. In short, as you rightly pointed earlier, Right does appear to be in 'epistemic closed' state and that is why Right blog sphere is NOT that rich; naturally WaPo is less vested there.

Posted by: umesh409 | May 5, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

seriously speaking, I like Umesh's 3rd bullet and I think that's right on the money. If we would've had the web/blog infrastructure during anything from Clinton's health reform to LBJ we could've had a vastly more informed debate. There haven't been many big policy-oriented initiatives as of late (Part D sort of, I guess), and we're at a time when the fixing of broken policies can have real time, learned reporting.

Posted by: ThomasEN | May 5, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

"At the very least, it's working with elite audiences."

I'm not sure it's wise to insult your readership like this. Would hate to see you lose your swank gig here and be forced to go work for a hackneyed operation like Politico. We'll let it go this time, but try not to make a habit of it, please.

Posted by: slag | May 5, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Is there *anything* that Ezra Klein does not have a fully formed, well-considered, exceptionally articulate opinion about? The guy just blows me away every day.

Posted by: kevin_mcgilly | May 5, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Further Ezra, if we were to get a Conservative version of Paul Krugman of 2002-2003 vintage where he was one of the rare credible voices on Left to categorically oppose Iraq invasion, what that person would be arguing today:

a. either how Americans are dead wrong in 'following' Obama in this 'big government' project

b. or how Obama's current policy of 'big government' is a necessary evil for a while given our predicament.

Probably there are many who are arguing the first part, just that those are not with the Krugman class of gravitas and intellectual honesty. Taylor Cowen and Megan McArdlee attempt like that but my impression is they are not there. I can be wrong here or I might have missed such sustained critique at other shops (since I do not follow NRO). Peggy Noonan does columns, no blogging and there also intellectually she is not 'filling'. (Speech writing and policy are different things...)

On the other hand Andrew Sullivan is doing the 'b' part; but we all know how much they consider him Conservative any more.

David Frum at least started the debate 'what is ailing GOP' and we will see how far that goes. Now, tomorrow David Frum starts blogging at WaPo; that will be altogether a different matter and then Politico will have to calibrate their claims in that article.

Posted by: umesh409 | May 5, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Mr. K, you write:
“But it's also because a media that's used to a very sharp separation between reportage and opinions is a bit tripped out by people who tend to operate at the intersection of both, because they wonder if they'll soon have to operate at the intersection of both.”

“A media”? The word media is a plural noun, the singular of which is medium.

Secondly, many newspapers and reporters have blurred the line between reportage and opinions for decades. I’m not judging that as good or bad, but you do us a disservice by implying otherwise. Clearly, the op/ed pages have historically been more opinion and less reporting, but large newspapers’ reportage hasn’t been opinion-free since before I was pressing my Silly Putty to the comics.

Thirdly, newspapers are “a bit tripped up” by a lot more than the intersection of reportage and opinion. Their very existence is at stake. This type of reporting/opining/blogging is being tried as a survival tactic, nothing more, nothing less. Your attempt to paint a column-worthy theory sounds more like an attempt to increase your self-esteem than either an opinion or analytic reporting.

Posted by: MsJS | May 5, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

There is a real hunger for analytical reportage. The alternatives are all really shallow and therefore unsatisfying, whether bland "he said, she said" or ill-informed opinionating like George Will or Charles Krauthammer.

It's ironic that many media outlets went to opinionators because they were cheaper than reporters. But it is all just fluff, and now there is a big market for analytical reportage that advances the discussion.

Of course the Left or at least critics of the Right do it better. Right-wing journalism is really aganda driven and un(self)critical. Most of its practitioners are financed by megamillionaire right wingers whoi want ideologues. They never had to hone their skills or really compete, so they relly aren't very good writers and have low or atrophied critical thinking skills.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 5, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The barriers of entry with new media aren't quite as high as they were in the old print world, but my sense is that the first-movers in the industry will still reap the greatest benefits.

By the time they start teaching "analytical reporting" in journo classes, the field will probably have reached something near a critical mass.

It's still great to see that a bridge is being built between traditional daily newspapers and more in-depth monthly magazines. There's clearly a market niche for the product.

Posted by: JPRS | May 5, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

"the most important movement in American politics"

You call a rebranding effort by a bunch of astroturfers the most important political movement inAmerica?

Talk about drinking the MSM koolaid.

Posted by: jc263field | May 5, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

jc263field, you read my mind. I thought Ezra was hired as a slight counterweight to the awful so called 'conservatives' that this paper is dominated by.

Posted by: par4 | May 5, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse


looks like that bridge is being sold.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 5, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Clearly the root problem is that facts have a liberal bias.

This trend of publishing fact-based reporting in the WaPo is clearly concerning to Politico.

Posted by: allanbrauer | May 5, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

umesh409 above has some excellent comments, including that "WaPo is doing [restructuring] in times when Obama and his brand of 'big government' policy structure is in vogue."

It's interesting that a while back Klein titled a post "Party Like its 1964" or something to that effect, which has since found follow-up in a UVA Center for Politics message ( entitled "The ’66 Parallel". I agree with Klein's comment above that the WaPo strategy is currently "working with elite audiences" but also agree with the ideological parallels of the current times drawn both by Sabato and Klein: an attempt to attract an "elite" audience, rather than a paying marketplace audience, might be only of short-term value. Madame Thérèse Defarge and her contemporary counterparts typically find a way to deal with pseudo-elitists: "let them eat cake" -- or commingled news and opinion with a twist of ideological bias -- isn't always interpreted as a polite invitation to a celebration.

Interestingly, media in the UK is attempting to de-polarize itself while US media seems to be trying to polarize itself.

Posted by: rmgregory | May 5, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I think the stereotypes of "right" and "conservative" and "liberal" etc. are somewhat disabling. At the minimum, using such labels simply wastes the time of the writer and the reader.

Posted by: HalHorvath | May 5, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: jes7 | May 5, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Left. Right. New Media. Traditional Media. Where is the argument for clear, thoughtful, intelligent writing across the board? Clearly, Klein and Weigel were hired for this reason. The more right a paper wanders, the more difficult it is to find such writing.

Posted by: violetta | May 11, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

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